A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike,” wrote John Muir in his beloved 1912 book The Yosemite. More than a century later, the giant California park still reaches those lofty goals via its dramatic landscapes, diverse outdoor pursuits, and the possibility of soul-searching reflection.
Stretching nearly 8 miles (12.8 km) from east to west and with granite walls more than twice the height of the Empire State Building, Yosemite Valley is one of the wonders of the natural world. Carved by glacial dynamics and weathering and erosion spanning 30 million years, few other places reflect in such remarkable fashion the geological forces that have shaped our planet.
There is nothing quite as striking as viewing the valley for the first time while exiting the Wawona Tunnel, a view that stretches all the way to Half Dome and that impressed even the great Ansel Adams. For an even better view (and far fewer people to share it with), hike the 1.2-mile (1.9-km) trail to Inspiration Point from the tunnel’s upper parking lot.
A circular one-way road system cruises past all of the valley’s major landmarks. The first of the many astonishing sights is the aptly named Bridalveil Fall, 620 feet (188.9 m) of delicate white water tumbling down a granite face beneath Cathedral Rocks. Southside Drive soon runs along the Merced River, a slow-flowing scene for swimming, tubing, rafting, and fishing during the valley’s hot summer months. Cathedral Beach is a great place to get your feet wet or stare up at 3,593-foot (1,095.15-m) El Capitan looming high above the valley. One of the holy grails of extreme adventure, the imposing cliff is on the bucket list of every serious rock climber. Bring binoculars to watch their slow but steady progression up El Cap.
The road eventually leads into Yosemite Village, the valley’s human hub and home to the park’s main visitor center. In addition to a grocery store, gas station, post office, medical clinic, and other facilities, the village offers the Yosemite Museum of Native American culture, the Ansel Adams Gallery of photographic art, and the Yosemite Wilderness Center, where backpackers can obtain wilderness permits, bear canisters, and other backcountry essentials.
Many of the landmarks scattered around the valley’s eastern end are best reached on foot or shuttle from Yosemite Village. Tumbling down an enormous rock face just west of the village, Yosemite Falls is impressive not so much in water volume but the sheer height from which it falls. Split into three sections, the cascade plunges 2,425 feet (739.1 m); it is the highest waterfall in North America and fifth on the planet. A super-easy trail leads to the falls’ rock-strewn base. Those with more time (and a lot more energy) can hike a 7.2-mile (11.59-km) trail to the summit of Upper Yosemite Falls and its spectacular views across the valley.
Other trails lead from the village to Ahwahnee Meadow, the best place on the valley floor to look at or photograph Half Dome no matter what the season. Soaring 4,788 feet (1,459.4 m) above the valley, the distinctive granite dome has been literally sheared in half by weathering, erosion, and earthquakes. Secreted in a stand of trees beyond the meadow is the old Ahwahnee Hotel (now the Majestic), opened in 1927 and now a national historic monument. Continuing eastward, the trails curve up Tenaya Canyon to legendary Mirror Lake, which reflects Half Dome and other monoliths.
Perched along the south side of the Merced River are the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center (interpretive programs, natural history exhibits, library) and Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village) with its myriad food, beverage, and accommodation options. During the winter, the village ice rink hosts skating under the stars. The Nature Center at Happy Isles offers family-oriented, interactive nature displays and exhibits.
Happy Isles is also a jumping off spot for a branch of the John Muir Trail that leads up to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall before leveling in Little Yosemite Valley and the high country beyond. A spur trail leads up the back side of Half Dome via a vertiginous cable walkway. Placing your chin on the outer lip of the dome and peering down almost a mile (.06 km) to the valley floor is an iconic Yosemite experience.
Tioga Road and the High Country
The bulk of Yosemite National Park lies above the valley, a vast expanse of high-country meadows, mountains, and forest that includes the headwaters of several mighty rivers and more than 1,100 square miles (2,848.9 sq km) of designated wilderness. Most of this region is accessible only by foot or horse. But two long, winding roads open up much of the Yosemite back country to motorists and casual hikers too.
Tioga Road, one of the nation’s most scenic highways, literally splits the park in half between Crane Flat near the park’s western border to Tioga Pass at the crest of the High Sierra. Often closed until early or even midsummer due to snowpack, the road is the only drivable route between Yosemite Valley and the eastern side of the Sierra. Flanking Crane Flat (gas station, store) are two of the park’s lesser-known wonders—the Tuolumne Grove and Merced Grove of giant sequoias, the only spots in Yosemite where you can occasionally have the redwoods to yourself, especially during the snowy winter months. Another “secret” spot is the forest and flower-filled alpine wonderland around little Lukens Lake, 20 miles (32.19 km) up the road from Crane Flat. Other turnoffs along Tioga Road provide parking for a few hiking trails leading to the north side of Yosemite Valley and vertigo-inducing viewpoints like North Dome, Eagle Peak, Indian Arch, and El Capitan that perch 3,000 to 4,000 feet (914.41, 219.2 m) above the valley floor.
Olmstead Point tenders one of the high country’s best views, a sweeping vista of Tenaya Lake and the flank of Half Dome in the hazy distance. Look out for marmots frolicking on the rocky slope beside the parking lot. Largest of the park’s water bodies, Tenaya Lake is a great place to picnic or paddle—and perhaps even swim if you can stand the chilly water temperatures, even at the height of summer. A 2.5-mile (4-km) trail leads around the lake.
With its visitor center, camp ground, tented lodge, and other services, Tuolumne Meadows is the “Times Square” of the high country. Trails meander across the giant meadow to Sunset Lakes, Soda Springs, Lembert Dome, and other natural landmarks. Both the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail transit the meadow. The wild and scenic Tuolumne River runs slow and gentle so close to its source in the High Sierra. Sunset is especially moody here, the soft pinks, purples, and golds of alpenglow coloring Mount Dana (13,057 feet/3,979.7 m) and other Sierra crest peaks. A free hiker’s shuttle connects Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley. Beyond the meadows, the road cuts through 9,945foot (3,031.24 m) Tioga Pass and down the eastern slope of the Sierra to Mono Lake and the town of Lee Vining.
The river eventually tumbles through the remote Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne (accessible only by hiking) down into deep Hetch Hetchy Canyon—an almost identical twin of Yosemite Valley until it was dammed and transformed into a lake in 1923 to provide water for San Francisco. Visitors can walk across the 430-foot-high (131.1-m) O’Shaughnessy Dam and gaze up the flooded canyon via Evergreen Road, which starts just outside the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station. Below the dam (and outside the park), the increasingly rugged river provides a venue for adventurous multi-day rafting trips through companies like OARS.
Glacier Point and Wawona
Above the tunnel, Wawona Road climbs the valley wall into the park’s low-key southwest corner. Roughly 7.6 miles (12.23 km) beyond the tunnel is the turnoff to Glacier Point Road, which follows the southern edge of Yosemite Valley to “Wow!”-inspiring Glacier Point. From the point parking lot, the 8.7-mile (14-km) Pohono Trail leads across the top of the valley’s lofty wall to Sentinel Dome, Taft Point, and Dewey Point above Bridalveil Fall. Directly opposite El Capitan, Taft Point is a great place to watch climbers scaling the famed vertical face.
About halfway along Glacier Point Road is the Badger Pass winter sports area, originally developed for Yosemite’s failed bid to host the 1932 Winter Olympics. In addition to family-oriented skiing and snowboarding, Badger Pass also facilitates ranger-led snowshoe tours and cross-country skiing along the road (closed to vehicles in winter) to the Glacier Point Ski Hut (open December to March).
Yosemite’s frontier side is on display in Wawona Village, where the Pioneer Yosemite History Center offers horse-drawn carriage rides, a working blacksmith shop, covered wooden bridge, and other relics of the era before National Park status. Big Trees Lodge (the old Wawona Hotel) opened in 1876 to host early visitors to Yosemite. The lodge’s nine-hole golf course (created in 1918) is one of the few found in the National Park System. The 3.5-mile (5.6-km) Wawona Meadow Trail loops through the mosaic of meadows and woods around the golf course.
Among other Wawona activities are horseback trips through the surrounding woods and wandering the Mariposa Grove, the park’s largest stand of giant sequoias (more than 500 trees). The grove’s most celebrated tree is the Grizzly Giant, standing at 209 feet (63.7 m) tall and more than 1,800 years old (plus or minus a few centuries). A free shuttle runs between the grove and Wawona Visitor Center in the village. From the village, a 5-mile (8-km) trail leads to Chilnualna Falls, a beautiful series of five cascades that tumble 690 feet (210.3 m) down a granite slope. The trail continues deep into the park’s southern back country and hardcore (read: expert-only) hiking to secluded spots like Chain of Lakes, the fin-shaped Clark Range, and the Fernandez Pass route into the Ansel Adams Wilderness.