Naturalist John Muir famously once said that “no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.” If you’ve ever ventured into the prized central-eastern California park for yourself, you probably understand the sentiment. From awe-inspiring monoliths and groves of ancient Sequoia trees, to high-elevation lakes, meandering rivers and wildflower-strewn meadows, the glacially-carved region is one that leaves quite a lasting impression.
Spanning nearly 760,000 acres of the western Sierra Nevada range, Yosemite National Park has been enticing outdoor enthusiasts for well over a century, ever since they first started arriving in the mid-19th century in search of gold and adventure. Once the venerated homelands of the Ahwahnechee people—part of the Miwok nationwho are believed to have thrived in the valley area for anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years—the lands started enticing European settlers and hopeful minersas soon as word of desirable minerals spread.
The decades that followed were not kind to the Ahwahnechee with violent clashes and resettlement. Relatively soon thereafter, Yosemite Valley was designated a protected area and subsequently a part of the National Park Service in 1890. Needless to say, tourism to the park skyrocketed, and, to this day, Yosemite National Park continues to draw in families on weekend nature getaways and adrenaline junkies looking to defy gravity by climbing its iconic rock faces.
Regardless of the type of adventure you’re searching for, we’re sure you’ll appreciate this roundup of quintessential ways to relish in the wonder of Yosemite National Park.
Cruise Yosemite Valley on Bicycle
Yosemite National Park’s valley floor teems with cyclists, from determined bikers on a cross-country park-to-park tour, to entire families on cruisers enjoying a casual midday pedal.
While the whole of Yosemite National Park would surely make for quite the exciting bike trip for more experienced road cyclists, Yosemite Valley in particular offers a no-frills opportunity for people of all skill levels to cover ground quickly on two wheels while soaking in top landmarks such as El Capitan.
There are over a dozen miles of paved paths and a motley array of spots to arrange bicycle rentals within Yosemite Valley that make cycling the village area a super-accessible option during the warmer months. Personally, it’s one of our favorite ways to get acquainted with the park. We recommend the Yosemite Valley Loop Trail, which is about 12 miles and takes two hours if you go non-stop. With so many picturesque places to pull off for a breather, a picnic in El Capitan Meadows, or a dip in the Merced River, believe us: you won’t want to rush it.
For those who are used to mountain biking and route-finding away from crowds, please note that riding off-trail on any dirt path except the Wawona Loop (which is near the southern Yosemite entrance) is not allowed, so save that type of cycling for trails outside of Yosemite National Park.
The Jewel of the High Country: Tenaya Lake, and Nearby Tuolumne Meadows
The first time you lay down to soak up some sun on Tenaya Lake’s sand beach is bound to have you thinking: Wait, this is Yosemite?! The high-elevation lake, which sits at 8,150 feet, is nothing short of an alpine dream, surrounded by picturesque lodgepole pine trees, glistening granite domes and a terrain that is quite unlike any other area of Yosemite National Park.
Created by the Tenaya Glacier during the last Ice Age, Tenaya Lake stretches a mile at its longest and holds over 100 feet of turquoise blue snowmelt waters in its arms—quite the reprieve after a long day of hiking during warmer months. Swimming is allowed in the entire lake, as are non-motorized water sports, so if you’re the kind that prefers a bit more activity on the water, rent or bring your own kayak, paddleboard, or even snorkel equipment, and take some time to discover hidden nooks of the lake’s sandy shores. Or indulge in a rest day, and beach-bum it while taking cool-water dunks every now and then!
Just a short drive from Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows is one of the most bucolic sub-alpine fields in the entirety of Yosemite National Park, and it makes for a pretty magical sunrise or sunset stroll while you’re in the greater Tenaya Lake/Tioga Pass area. Fun fact: it’s actually one of the most expansive high-elevation meadows in all of the Sierra Nevadas! A trip to Tuolumne Meadows doesn’t require too much time—even an hour or two meander on one of the shorter trails that branch off of the meadows is enough to get a sense of its ambiance. If it’s a more demanding day you’re after, though, rest assured that Tuolumne Meadows has a score of harder hikes deeper into the backcountry in its vicinity as well.
Walk Amongst Giants in the Mariposa Grove
Located in the southern area of Yosemite National Park, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias will delight and inspire curious souls young and old with its famed ancient perennials, some of which are believed to be nearly 3,000 years old. With over 500 mature sequoia trees to admire and several family-friendly trails that allow you to wind through and get a close look at some of the most impressive specimens, like the Fallen Monarch and California Tunnel Tree, it’s an area of Yosemite National Park not to be missed. The trails in The Mariposa Grove range from short two-mile jaunts, like the Grizzly Giant Loop, to more challenging walks like the Guardian Loop and Mariposa Grove Trail, which at 7 miles each, offer the most comprehensive sequoia-viewing experience.
While the Mariposa Grove may be the most prominent of Yosemite National Park’s sequoia clusters, the Merced Grove and the Tuolumne Grove are equally scenic areas worth exploring. Although noticeably smaller, the Merced Grove only contains twenty giant sequoias. They’re dazzling all the same and will offer a far more solitary experience.
“Climb On!” in one of the Granite Meccas of the World
Yosemite National Park is a land graced by granite as far as the eyes can see, and alpinists and rock climbers alike have been drawn to its iconic faces since the mid-19th century, when John Muir first summited a technical climb on Cathedral Peak—without any rope! In many ways, rock climbing has played a central role in Yosemite National Park’s history and evolution, and to this day, it’s one of the most prized destinations for those looking to scale rocks in whatever form fires them up, from giant boulders and hundred-foot crack systems, to big wall faces like those of Half Dome or the world-renowned El Capitan, which, at 3,300 feet, is the largest of its kind in the United States.
Even if you don’t have much or any experience rock climbing, something about ascending granite in a historic place like Yosemite National Park feels nothing short of extraordinary. A great choice for beginners and those looking to sharpen their skills is Yosemite Mountaineering School, which offers a range of daily climbing classes and personalized climbs led by guides who know the area like the back of their hands.
Another option is renting a crash pad at a climbing shop on your drive out to Yosemite National Park, and having a go at one of the many boulders around the valley floor. Or devote yourself to a day of Class 2 and Class 3 hikes which involve a bit of rock and boulder scrambling to get your heart racing, requiring no equipment. Some of our favorite trails for this are the hikes leading to the base of Upper Yosemite Falls; the Sierra Point Trail, where you can view four out of the five major waterfalls of Yosemite at its overlook; the Illilouette Gorge, which offers a stunning view of the Illilouette Waterfall; or the Indian Canyon Hike, considered one of the oldest traverses between Yosemite Valley and the high country of Yosemite National Park.
Covering Ground with the Best Hikes in Yosemite National Park
You could spend months in Yosemite National Park and not hike it all, so unless you’re there for an epic backcountry escapade, there’s no need to come into your trip expecting to cover a hundred miles in a few short days. Whether you want to hit the ground running with a long hike up towards Half Dome—be sure you’re in shape, if that’s the case—or start off exploring the waterfalls of Yosemite Valley with frequent dips in the Merced River, there’s a hike out there to suit whatever length and level of challenge you’re aiming for on a particular day.
Our tip for finding the best hike in Yosemite is pretty simple: ask a Park Ranger, or head to the Wilderness Center if you want to do an overnight hike! Rangers know the park in and out, and can probably recommend a lesser-known hike to appease all your senses (and your time constraints) if you’re straightforward about exactly what strikes your fancy.
In the meantime, though, here is a list of our tried and true picks for those who are looking to balance pleasure, exhilaration and a healthy dose of fitness on their Yosemite National Park vacation. If some seem longer than ideal, know that the 10+ mile hikes can often be split into an overnight trip if you have camping gear!
- Tenaya Lake Trail (3.5 miles)
- Wawona Meadow Loop (5 miles)
- Sunrise Lakes (6.7 miles)
- Mariposa Grove Trail (7 miles)
- Cathedral Lakes (8 miles)
- Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point (9.6 miles)
- Eagle Peak Trail via Yosemite Falls (11.5 miles)
- Ten Lakes (11.8 miles)
- Clouds Rest (14.2 miles)
- Half Dome via the Mist Trail (14.5 miles)