Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park

Nestled in the High Sierra of Northern California, Yosemite National Park is known for sweeping mountain vistas (like the famous El Capitan and Half Dome) and endless waterfall views. Located just 3.5 hours outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s easily accessible by car or bus tour. Yosemite is a must-see for anyone who wants to experience and appreciate nature at the highest and most elevated levels.

Here’s what you need to know for your first visit.


In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, officially protecting the land of the Yosemite Valley as a national park. The indigenous people refer to the area as “Ahwahnee”, meaning “place of the gaping mouth”. Most visitors spend the majority of their time in Yosemite Valley, but the park has much more to offer than just these seven square miles.

Here’s a breakdown of the main things to see.

The main sights

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley is undoubtedly the most popular part of the park. Most of the iconic and “Instagrammable” sights can be found here. So if you only have time for a short visit, this is the place you’ll want to make sure you hit.

  • Mist Trail — This three-mile hike is one of the most popular in the Valley. You’ll hike through the mists created by the Merced river as it plunges to the Valley floor. It’s a strenuous (and dangerous) hike, though, so make sure you do your research and are prepared for the terrain.
  • Tunnel View — Pause at the car pull-off on Highway 41 for a picturesque view of El Capitan with Half Dome visible in the background.
  • Catch the reflection of Half Dome in Mirror Lake for a moment of serenity. It’s a short walk along a nature path to one of the most photographed locations in the park.
  • Horsetail Fall — This waterfall is the famous “firefall”. In mid- to late February, if the sunset hits the water just right, it loks like a stream of fire. Note that due to being popular with the tourists, there are restrictions around the waterfall from noon to 7 p.m.
  • Bridalveil Fall — Take a short jaunt to view this famous waterfall. The path is paved and only about a half mile.
  • Half Dome — Not for the faint of heart, this 14-16 mile hike takes you to the top of the famous Half Dome for an unparalleled view of the Valley. But you’ll need a permit and serious preparation — people have lost their lives on this hike. If the hike isn’t for you, you can catch views of Half Dome from various other trails and lookout points in the Valley.
  • El Capitan — The site of Alex Honnold’s famous free solo ascent, El Capitan dominates the Yosemite Valley with its towering, sheer rock face. If you’re interested in rock climbing, Yosemite Mountaineering School & Guide Service has experience guiding novice climbers since the 1960s. 
  • Glacier Point — Don’t be deceived by the short distance on the map — the drive from Yosemite Village to Glacier point can take up to an hour. There’s a short trail from the parking lot to several lookout points. If you’re up for hiking, the Four Mile Trail is a popular choice. Note that Glacier Point Road is closed for repairs for all of 2022.
  • Stroll among the giant sequoias at Mariposa Grove. Snap a photo with the Grizzly Giant and the California Tunnel Tree. Hikes abound in this area of the park as well. Take this opportunity to walk among giants and step back thousands of years in time in this ancient forest.

…but if they’re too crowded

If fighting for elbow space isn’t your thing, try these less-crowded options instead:

  • Tuolumne Meadows — The chance for solitude can be found here in backcountry Yosemite. It’s also a cool escape in the summer with lower temperatures than the rest of the park. This area also has a lot of campgrounds if you’re planning to spend the night in the park.
  • Hetch Hetchy Reservoir — Enjoy mountain and lake views — without the crowds.
  • Valley Loop Trail — This hike is a hidden gem, with almost 12 miles of near-empty trails.
  • Pohono Trail — This one-night backpacking trek is 13 miles one way — or just hike a portion of it. Note that permits are required for all backpacking trips in the park.

When to go

If waterfalls are your jam, then think spring. With the snow thawing, peak waterfall time is in May. If you go hiking or cross rivers, be aware that flooding is a real issue during this time of year. So proceed with caution.

Summer is the high season, so be prepared for the crowds. Plan to have the trip booked months in advance and arrive early in the day. If you do visit during the summer, head to the more remote and less busy areas of the park for a break from the crowds and a breath of fresh air (literally). 

Winter in Yosemite is beautiful, but be prepared for the weather. Think: chains on tires and clothing and equipment to handle the elements. Some passes and trails will be closed due to snow. For those who enjoy winter sports, Badger Pass Ski Area is great for skiing and tubing — and is less crowded (and less expensive) than other big resorts in California.

Visiting Yosemite in the fall means there will be less people, but you won’t see any waterfalls. You can still see all the other main highlights, though — without the crowds. And, permits for hikes and backpacking will be easier to come by.

Where to stay

If you want to stay inside the park, camping is a great (and classic) option. But it’s competitive, so be prepared. Some campsites you can reserve online ahead of time, but others are first come, first served. Be ready to arrive early and stake your claim. It’s also worth noting that you cannot sleep overnight in your vehicle anywhere within the park. 

Curry Village offers canvas tent cabin accommodations with communal bathrooms — a half-step above roughing it in a tent. Cabins and standard rooms are also available.

You can score a room at the Yosemite Valley Lodge from around $200 a night.

Wawona Hotel is a National Historic Landmark located 27 miles outside of Yosemite Valley near the Mariposa Grove. There are options for rooms with private or shared bathrooms.

Ample cabins and rentals abound outside of the park on VRBO and Airbnb, but they are just as competitive as places to stay inside the park. So if you plan to visit in the summer, make sure to book your accommodations well in advance. Typical roadside motels are available as well.

Where to eat and indulge

Curry Village will be your best bet for casual dining. The Pizza Deck and Meadow Grill are great options with amazing views of Glacier Point and the surrounding wilderness.

A must-try is the Woah Nellie Deli located inside a Mobil station. It sounds weird, but the reviews speak for themselves. Get their world famous Mahi Mahi fish tacos — you won’t be disappointed.

Degnan’s Kitchen is a fast grab-n-go option for when you want something quick before you hit the trail again. Tuolumne Meadows Grill is open seasonally (depending on when the Tioga Pass opens) and offers breakfast and lunch.

Ready to hit the trail?

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