In general a car is a great way to tour the park, although during the summer Yosemite Valley can be so crowded that a shuttle bus is a vastly better option. Be aware that the Tioga Pass Road and the road to Glacier Point are seasonal and close as soon as the first major snow falls. Other park roads may close during storms, but in general are always open. Note that the speed limit in all areas of the park is fairly slow, and is strictly enforced by rangers with radar guns; the speed limits are for your own safety on the twisting mountain roads, as well as for the safety of pedestrians and the many animals that use the area.
The loop road through Yosemite Valley is now one-way. For many years this was a two-lane road, but motorists travelling slowly to admire the scenery often created a long backup of annoyed drivers, so the Park Service converted most of the roads in the valley into one-way roads to allow passing. As a result, when driving in the valley be aware that a wrong turn can send you on a one-way five-mile detour.
The one-way routing affects those entering from Oakdale on Hwy 120 the most. You will have to cross over to Southside Drive at the Pohono Bridge. Likewise upon leaving the park, those taking the south exit on Hwy 41 to Fresno also cross the Pohono Bridge, backtrack one mile, before turning right onto Wawona Road.
To limit traffic congestion the park service runs several free shuttle buses throughout the park (note that these are not the YARTS system):
- Yosemite Valley. Shuttles operate from 7AM until 10PM in the eastern portion of Yosemite Valley year-round, stopping at or near all accommodations, shopping areas, and major sights.
- Wawona-Mariposa Grove. Between spring and fall a free shuttle operates between Wawona and the Mariposa Sequoia Grove. Parking is often full at the grove, so the shuttle then becomes the only option for visiting.
- Badger Pass Bus. During the ski season a free bus travels twice daily between Yosemite Valley and the ski area.
- Tuolumne Meadows Shuttle Bus. During the summer season this bus provides access to points in and around Tuolumne Meadows.
- Tuolumne Meadows Hikers’ Bus(fee charged). This bus travels in summer between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, dropping hikers off along the way. To guarantee seating tickets should be purchased one day in advance by calling (209) 372-1240.
- Glacier Point Hikers’ Bus(fee charged). This bus provides service between Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point, making stops along the way. To guarantee seating tickets should be purchased one day in advance by calling (209) 372-1240.
Yosemite Valley has a network of bicycle paths along its north and south sides. Bikes can be rented for the day at Curry Village & turn a thirty minute walk into a five minute ride.
Although the road network covers the most popular sights in Yosemite, the vast majority of the park’s area can only be accessed using the park’s network of trails. Trails including the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail lead to areas outside of the park’s north and south borders.
The park is extremely large with more than can be seen in just a one or two day visit. The peak seasons for Yosemite are generally Spring, when the waterfalls in the Valley are strongest, and Summer, when the Tioga Pass and Glacier Point roads are open, giving visitors access to the higher meadows and to views of the Valley from above.
Yosemite Valley is world famous for its impressive waterfalls, meadows, cliffs, and unusual rock formations. Yosemite Valley is accessible by car all year, but during the summer months traffic can feel like a city rush hour rather than a national park, making shuttle bus usage highly recommended.
Perhaps the most famous sight in the valley is the granite monolith of Half Dome, a mountain whose sheer face and rounded top looks like a giant stone dome that has been split in half. The imposing vertical face of El Capitan is legendary among climbers, and numerous lesser-known features line the valley.
Equally famous for its waterfalls, Yosemite Falls is one of the highest waterfalls in the world at 2425 feet (782 m), and is most impressive during the spring months. Bridalveil Fall is another easily accessible waterfall, while Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall can be reached by those willing to do some hiking.
Another popular viewpoint is the Tunnel View. The spot gives visitors a view of the Yosemite Valley with El Capitan on the left, Bridalveil Fall on the right and Half Dome in the center. The view point is on the 41 at the western end of the Wawona tunnel. There is a small parking lot near the lookout.
Wawona is the home to the historic Wawona Hotel, dating from the late nineteenth century. The Pioneer Yosemite History Center, a collection of historic buildings, is located just over the covered bridge from the hotel. Wawona is accessible by car year-round.
The Mariposa Grove is south of Wawona near the entrance station. The Mariposa Grove is the largest stand of giant sequoias (also known as Sierra redwoods or big trees) in Yosemite. The road to the Mariposa Grove is not plowed in winter and is often closed from sometime in November through March.
Glacier Point and Badger Pass
Glacier Point, an overlook with a commanding view of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and much of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, is located 30 miles (one hour) from Yosemite Valley. The road ends at Glacier Point and a quarter mile long paved walkway leads to one of the most spectacular viewpoints in the park. The road is closed from sometime in November through early May or late June. From mid-December through early April the road is plowed only as far as the Badger Pass ski area and Glacier Point can be reached via skis or snowshoes only. Both downhill and cross-country skiing are available at Badger Pass from mid-December through early April.
Washburn Point, another overlook on the same road, appears about half a mile before Glacier Point. This overlook gives a view of the southern side of the Yosemite Valley.
The Tioga Road (Highway 120 East), is generally open to vehicles from late May or early June through sometime in November. It offers a 39 mile scenic drive between Crane Flat and Tuolumne Meadows through forests and past meadows, lakes, and granite domes. Many turnouts offer broad and beautiful vistas.
Tuolumne Meadows is a large, open sub-alpine meadow graced by the winding Tuolumne River and surrounded by majestic peaks and domes. From sometime in November through late May or early June, this area is only accessible by cross-country skis or snowshoes. One of the easiest ways to explore the Meadows is to take the dirt road past the Dog Lake trailhead (along Tioga Rd.) for a quarter mile. There you’ll find a metal gate and a fire road behind it. The road you’re driving on curves sharply to the right here. Park and follow the road past the gate. The first mile of this road provides you with up-close views of the Meadow’s beauty, particularly toward the left (south).
Crane Flat is a pleasant forest and meadow area located 16 miles (30 minutes) from Yosemite Valley. Nearby are the Tuolumne and Merced Groves of Giant Sequoias, which are only accessible by foot. Crane Flat is accessible by car all year. Bears can be spotted in the meadows in this area regularly, so keep your eyes open and don’t block traffic if you see one!
Hetch Hetchy Valley
Hetch Hetchy, a lesser known twin to Yosemite Valley (perhaps because its river has been dammed), is home to spectacular scenery and is the starting point for many less-used wilderness trails. Although the road to Hetch Hetchy is open year-round, on a day to day basis it has restricted hours due to security for the reservoir. It may close periodically due to snow in winter and spring. During the spring and early summer, impressive water falls flow into the reservoir, making hiking in Hetch Hetchy even more spectacular.
Physically-fit travelers will enjoy hiking the Park’s many trails and footpaths. Check with rangers for trail conditions; snow and hazards from falling rock close many trails in winter, and the cables on the Half Dome trail are only up from late May through early October (ascending Half Dome when the cables are not erected is possible but is dangerous and strongly discouraged). No permits are required park-wide for day hikes, with the exception of the Half Dome Summit.
Many of the meadows have short trails, some of which are handicap accessible. For those staying in the valley, walking to get around is easy, scenic, and avoids the stresses of car travel in the valley.
- Lower Yosemite Fall(5 mi (0.8 km) round-trip), Starts at the Lower Yosemite Fall shuttle bus stop. This easy paved trail provides a good view of the falls with a close-up view of the lower fall. (Note: this waterfall is often dry from August through October.) Since the trailhead falls on the Northside Dr, it’s better to see the falls on your way out of the Yosemite Valley.
- Bridalveil Fall(5 mi (0.8 km) round-trip), Starts from the Bridalveil Fall parking area. Another easy paved trail that leads to the bottom of Bridalveil Fall. The trailhead to this fall falls on the Southside Dr. So, it’s best to visit it on your way to the Valley.
- Mirror Lake/Meadow(2 mi (3.2 km) to Mirror Lake, 5 mi (8 km) around the lake), Starts from the Mirror Lake trailhead shuttle bus stop. The trail leads along an old road to what is a large pond in spring and a meadow the rest of the year. The largely dry lake is mostly a meadow that is at the bottom of Half Dome and provides excellent views. Those who are interested can also hike around the lakebed.
- Valley Floor Loop(5 mi (10.5 km) round-trip with cutoff, 13 mi (21 km) without). The loop trail around Yosemite Valley can be hiked in pieces or in full. Following the road in places, the trail can be shortened by crossing the bridge just east of El Capitan Meadow.
- Vernal Fall (Mist Trail)(3 mi (4.8 km) round-trip), Starts from the Happy Isles shuttle bus stop. This strenuous hike leads to the top of Vernal Fall. From the Vernal Fall footbridge onwards the trail offers excellent views of the 317 foot (97 m) high Vernal Fall. Past the footbridge the trail becomes steep and may be slippery and the spray from the falls will get you quite wet as it traverses 600 granite steps to the top of the waterfall.
- Nevada Fall (Mist Trail)(7 mi (11.2 km) round-trip), Starts from the Happy Isles shuttle bus stop. Nevada Fall is located further along the Mist Trail, past Vernal Fall. This strenuous hike leads to the top of Vernal Fall, up more granite steps, and to the top of Nevada Fall.
- Panorama Trail(5 mi (13.7 km) one-way), Starts from Glacier Point. The Panorama Trail offers panoramic views of the valley and close-up views of three waterfalls (including lesser known Illilouette Fall) before continuing down the Mist Trail and ending at Happy Isles. From late May or early June through October, a fee-based hikers bus will take you up to Glacier Point.
- Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point(6 mi (15.5 km) round-trip), Starts from the Four Mile Trailhead just west of Swinging Bridge picnic area. This strenuous trail follows switchbacks up to Glacier Point. The trail offers spectacular views up and down Yosemite Valley. Visitors interested in a long day hike can return to Yosemite Valley via the Panorama Trail.
- Upper Yosemite Fall(2 mi (11.6 km) round-trip), Starts near the Camp 4 shuttle bus stop. This extremely strenuous trail switchbacks to the top of the 2,425 foot (739 meter) high Yosemite Falls. The trail provides great views of Half Dome and eastern Yosemite Valley. Those without the time (or energy) to make it to the top can hike about one mile to the railed-in Columbia Rock, which itself has great views. In summer, the trail is hot and dusty, so bring lots of water.
- Half Dome(17 mi (27.4 km) round-trip), Starts at the Happy Isles shuttle bus stop. One of the most spectacular trails in the world, the Half Dome trail travels past Vernal Falls, and Nevada Falls, and then continues rising through a pine forest before opening up near the summit of Half Dome. The final mile is a grueling trek up granite steps, followed by wire cables that lead up the steep ascent to the top of Half Dome. Hikers should bring leather work gloves to protect their hands from the cables; some gloves are often available in a pile at the bottom of the cables. While it is possible to ascend Half Dome while the cables are down (between approximately October 15 and May 15), hikers do so at their own risk. Views and scenery are unforgettable, but hikers should be aware that the final climb up the back side of Half Dome via the cables can be exhausting and, for those with even a mild fear of heights, frightening. Starting in 2011, permits are required for day hikes of the Half Dome summit seven days a week, and rangers stationed on the trail turn away hikers without permits.
- McGurk Meadow, Bridalveil Creek, & Dewey Point(7 mi (11.2 km) round-trip), Starts at the McGurk Meadow trailhead parking area (west of the Bridalveil Creek Campground turnoff). This trail leads downhill to an old cabin built by John McGurk and a large meadow. Continue east (right) at the trail junction to get to Bridalveil Creek (4 mi / 6.4 km) or continue west to a Dewey Point (7 mi / 11.2 km), which has a spectacular view of western Yosemite Valley.
- Ostrander Lake(7 mi (20.3 km) round-trip), Begins at the Ostrander Lake trailhead parking area (1.3 mi / 2.1 km east of Bridalveil Creek Campground). The first half of this hike gains little elevation; the second half gains about 1,500 ft (450 m). As the trail rises it offers views of the Clark Range before eventually arriving at Ostrander Lake.
- Mono Meadow(3 mi (4.8 km) round-trip), Starts from the Mono Meadow trailhead parking area (2.5 mi / 4 km east of Bridalveil Creek Campground). From its start this trail descends steeply to Mono Meadow, an area which is wet, particularly early to mid summer (be sure to stay on the trail, even if it is muddy). Shortly after leaving Mono Meadow, the trail passes through an unmarked clearing with views of the Clark Range, Mount Starr King, and Half Dome.
- Taft Point(2 mi (3.5 km) round-trip), The trailhead is located at the Sentinel Dome/Taft Point trailhead parking area (6 mi / 9.6 km east of Bridalveil Creek Campground). This relatively easy trail leads to the edge of Yosemite Valley. As the trail approaches Taft Point watch for fissures, which are deep cracks extending hundreds of feet downwards. The railed-in Taft Point offers a breathtaking view of Yosemite Valley, 2,000 feet (600 m) below.
- Sentinel Dome(2 mi (3.5 km) round-trip), Starts at the Sentinel Dome/Taft Point trailhead parking area, (6 mi / 9.6 km east of Bridalveil Creek Campground).The Sentinel Dome trail is an easy hike that leads to the base of Sentinel Dome, where you can scramble up the granite slope of the dome (it is not especially steep on its northeast side). From the top, you have a spectacular 360° view of Yosemite Valley (including Yosemite, Vernal, and Nevada Falls) and parts of the high country. A loop including Taft Point is a nice addition, but the climb from Taft Point to the top of the dome goes up several hundred feet.
- Soda Springs & Parson’s Lodge(5 mi (2.4 km) round-trip), Begins at the Lembert Dome parking area. The trail follows the gravel road northwest past a locked gate. The Soda Springs are protected within a log enclosure. Carbonated water bubbles up through the ground, but drinking the water is not recommended due to possible surface contamination. Further along the trail is the historic Parson’s Memorial Lodge, which offers exhibits.
- Dog Lake(8 mi (4.5 km) round-trip), Starts at the Dog Lake/John Muir Trail parking area. The trail goes up steeply and crosses the Tioga Road, then continues up for 0.75 mi (1.2 km) to a signed junction. Continue straight to Dog Lake. Enjoy fishing and picnicking from this high country lake.
- Lembert Dome(8 mi (4.5 km) round-trip), Begins at the Dog Lake/John Muir Trail parking area. A strenuous hike that goes up steeply for 0.75 mi (1.2 km) to a signed junction. The trail to the left goes to the top of Lembert Dome. Expect a spectacular panoramic view of Tuolumne Meadows, Cathedral Peak, and Unicorn Peak. The top of the dome can be windy and quite a bit cooler than down below.
- Dog Lake and Lembert Dome(0 (8 km) mi loop). These two hikes can be combined in a loop that delivers some of the best scenery from any five-mile hike in the park. Do the lake first, before you get tired from the dome climb.
- Glen Aulin(11 mi (17.7 km) round-trip), Starts from the road near Tuolumne Meadows Stables. A moderately difficult trail that follows the gravel road as it loops behind Soda Springs and drops to Glen Aulin. The route is noted for scenic cascades, particularly Tuolumne Falls, located 4 miles from the trailhead.
- Elizabeth Lake(8 mi (7.7 km) round-trip), Starts near the Tuolumne Meadows Group Campground. This moderately difficult hike climbs steadily to the glacier-carved lake at the base of Unicorn Peak. To reach the trailhead, drive past the group campsites to where the road ends. There are restrooms there.
- Cathedral Lakes(7 mi (11.3 km) round-trip). From the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead the trail climbs steadily (1,000 ft / 305 m) to Upper Cathedral Lake. Near the top, it passes a spur trail to Lower Cathedral Lake.
- John Muir Trail through Lyell Canyon(8 mi (12.9 km) one-way). From the Dog Lake/John Muir Trail parking area this relatively flat trail (only 200 ft / 61 m elevation gain over 8 mi / 12.9 km) wanders through Lyell Canyon, mostly alongside the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River.
- Mono Pass(8 mi (12.9 km)), Starts at the Mono Pass Trailhead (6 mi / 4.4 km east of Tuolumne Meadows). A moderately difficult trail that climbs gently at first (1,000 ft / 304 m elevation gain) to a junction with Spillway Lake. The left fork then steeply climbs to Mono Pass, at 10,500 ft / 3,200 m. From the pass, Upper Sardine Lake is another 0.75 / 1.2 km down the pass to the east.
- Gaylor Lakes(2 mi (3.2 km)), Starts from the Gaylor Lakes Trailhead (at the Tioga Pass Entrance Station).A strenuous trail that climbs steeply in the first 0.5 mi / 0.8 km (1,000 ft / 304 m elevation gain) to a ridge with views to both sides. At the ridge, the trail drops 200 ft / 61 m to a lake and meadows, which can be explored with side trails.
- Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, Lake, and Pass(8 mi (25.5 km)), Starts from the Dog Lake/John Muir Trail parking area. The trail’s first 2 mi / 3.2 km, along the John Muir Trail, are relatively level. The Rafferty Creek Trail then splits off and begins a 1,200 ft / 366 m ascent to Tuolumne Pass, followed by a 160 ft / 49 m climb to the High Sierra Camp. You can continue to Vogelsang Lake (0.5 mi / 0.8 km further) and spectacular Vogelsang Pass (1.5 mi / 2.4 km further).
Wawona & Mariposa Grove
- Wawona Meadow Loop(5 mi (5.6 km) round-trip), Starts at the golf course across the street from the hotel. The trail is a pleasant stroll on a fire road around the Wawona Meadow.
- Swinging Bridge Loop(5 mi (8 km) round-trip). A moderate hike leading from the Wawona Store to the swinging bridge, the trail follows the paved Forest Drive 2 mi (3.2 km) upstream from the history center and then continues on the dirt road for a short distance to the swinging bridge (which really does swing). Cross the bridge and bear left onto the dirt road, which soon becomes paved Chilnualna Falls Road. When you reach the Wawona Stable, walk into it towards the Covered Bridge, where you started this hike.
- Chilnualna Fall(2 mi (13.1 km) round-trip), Starts in the Chilnualna Fall trailhead parking area. This strenuous hike leads past the cascades of Chilnualna Fall and all the way to the top of the fall. For the hearty day-hiker, the trip can be extended 18 miles (round-trip) to reach Crescent Lake.
- Alder Creek(12 mi (18.7 km) round-trip), Begins at the Alder Creek trailhead parking area. This strenuous trail climbs through an open pine forest with abundant manzanita on the drier slopes.
- Wawona to Mariposa Grove(6 mi (9.6 km) one-way), Starts near the Moore Cottage at the Wawona Hotel. This generally viewless hike leads to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. From late April through September, you can take the free shuttle bus from the grove back to Wawona. Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (6 mi (9.6 km) round-trip). There are numerous trails leading through this grove of giant trees, all starting from the Mariposa Grove parking area. To reach the Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree, follow the trail that begins at the far end of the parking area. To reach Wawona Point, continue on the trail past the Grizzly Giant into the upper grove. The old road ascends to Wawona Point from near the Galen Clark Tree.
- Wapama Falls(5 mi (8 km) round-trip), Starts from the O’Shaugnessy Dam. This easy trail leads to the bottom Wapama Falls (and Tueeulala Falls in spring).
- Rancheria Falls(4 mi (21.4 km) round-trip), Starts from the O’Shaugnessy Dam. A moderately difficult hike that provides numerous views of the Hetch Hetch Valley.
- Poopenaut Valley(3 mi (4.8 km) round-trip). This oddly named trail begins four miles from the Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station and provides quick access to the Tuolumne River, descending 1,229 feet (735 m) to the river below O’Shaugnessy Dam.
- Smith Peak(5 mi (20 km) round-trip). A strenuous trail from the Hetch Hetchy Ranger Station to Smith Peak. Forests and meadows eventually give way to great views of the Hetch Hetchy area.
The Valley also offers some of the most challenging and spectacular rock climbing in North America, with vertical faces 3,000 and more feet tall. At the current time, wilderness permits are not required for nights spent on a wall, but it is illegal to camp at the base of any wall in Yosemite Valley. Additional regulations:
- Fight litter! Don’t toss anything off a wall, even if you intend to pick it up later. Don’t leave food or water at the top or on ledges “for future parties”. Set a good example by picking up any litter you see, including tape wads and cigarette butts.
- Don’t leave fixed ropes as permanent fixtures on approaches and descents. These are considered abandoned property and will be removed.
- Minimize erosion on your approach and descent. If an obvious main trail has been created, use it. Go slow on the way down to avoid pushing soil down the hill. Avoid walking on vegetation whenever possible.
- If you need to build a fire for survival during an unplanned bivouac on the summit, use an existing fire ring. Building a new fire ring or windbreak is prohibited. Make sure your fire is completely out before you leave.
- Clean extra, rotting slings off anchors when you descend. Bring earth-toned slings to leave on anchors.
- Check the Camp 4 Kiosk or the Mountain Shop for the current Peregrine Falcon closures.
- On first ascents: Please think about the impacts that will be caused by your new climb- Is the approach susceptible to erosion? Is there a lot of vegetation on the rock? “Gardening”, e.g. killing plants, is illegal in Yosemite. Can the climb be done with a minimum of bolts? Motorized drills are prohibited.
Commercial guided climbing trips are also available:
- Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service, (in Curry Village by the Mountain Shop),☎ +1-209-372-8344 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Offers guided hikes and backpacking trips in Yosemite of varying lengths and difficulty in addition to climbing outings ranging from beginner instruction to multi-day ascents of El Cap.
There are still commercial horseback-riding concessions in the Yosemite Valley, Wawona and Tuolumne Meadows areas.
- DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite,☎ +1-209-372-8427 (Tuolumne) or +1-209-375-6502 (Wawona). Offers two-hour ($59), half-day ($79) and full-day ($119) trail rides. Custom guided trips are also available.
- Wawona Golf Course,☎ +1 209-375-6572. A championship 18-hole golf course in Wawona Meadow in the South end of the Park, right next door to the Wawona Lodge and stables. $18.50 for 9 holes and $29.50 for 18 holes.
Badger Pass is the oldest ski area in California, and offers both downhill and cross-country trails. For cross-country skiers the park offers over 350 miles of trails, with 90 miles of marked trails and 25 miles of groomed trails originating at Badger Pass. Downhill skiing options include ten runs at Badger Pass, with lifts operating daily from 9AM-4PM during the ski season. Note that the majority of these runs are for beginners and moderate skiers, so thrill seekers may wish to ski elsewhere. Lift tickets cost $5 for a single run or $35 for a full-day ticket. Both downhill and cross-country lessons are available.
Due NPS regulations in place to ensure the area remains as natural as possible, the Badger area has no artificially-lighted skiing and cannot make its own snow.
Most years Badger Pass is open around Dec 15th and closes around April 1st.