A Complete Guide to Yosemite National Park [Everything To Do And See]
The first effort to protect the area that is now Yosemite National Park was actually done by President Abraham Lincoln (a pretty influential person in American history) who signed a bill to protect parts of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa grove of Sequoia trees.
John Muir, one of the best known American environmentalists, loved exploring the vast wilderness areas of northern California. The destruction of subalpine meadows around Yosemite Valley lead Muir into a prolonged struggle to protect the area which eventually lead to Yosemite becoming the nation´s second National Park (after Yellowstone) in 1890.
Even though the park was protected by the national government, the city of San Francisco, California had long been planning to dam the Tuolomne River as a source of drinking water and hydroelectric power for the city. Despite another long, political struggle (with Muir again at the forefront), the river was eventually damned. There are still efforts underway today to recover the natural state of the Tuolomne River which runs through the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
How Complete Is This Guide?
When it comes to any large place, it's hard to say the guide is "complete" - many of the places we write about can have a book (or even books) written about them.
We do our best to visit, write, research, about all the places on this site. But alas, there are only so many hours in one day.
That said, if you want to contribute, or feel something somethign is incorrect, feel free to contact us to help make this guide a better places on the interwebs.
Among other attractions, Yosemite has 1600 miles of streams, 350 miles of roads, and 800 miles of hiking trails
Geology, Biodiversity, and Landscape
Yosemite National Park is a land of extremely diverse topography and landscapes. The Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (https://pubs.usgs.gov/dds/dds-43/) was fundamental in mapping out the entire Sierra Nevada ecosystem where Yosemite is located and offers us an abundance of information regarding the natural wonders of Yosemite.
One of the best known features of Yosemite are the massive granite cliffs that rise throughout the park. “El Capitan” and Half Dome are two of the most easily recognizable (and most sought out by mountain climbers).
These granite cliffs began forming around ten million years ago when geological forces caused the Sierra Nevada to lift up and tilt to its side. This caused steep eastern slopes where much of Yosemite is located.
During one Ice Age, around one million years ago, glaciers dominated the high alpine meadows in the region. Scientists imagine that the ice around what is today Yosemite National Park might have been upwards of 4,000 feet thick, more than ¾ a mile thick. When that mass of ice began to slide downwards off the mountain, it carved out the U-shaped valley which is today called Yosemite Valley, the most famous part of the park.
Yosemite also has over 300 species of vertebrate animals in the park. Black bears, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and the grey wolf are some of the most sought after animals by tourists, though catching a glimpse of the grey wolf takes a considerable amount of patience and good luck.
Yosemite also has three separated and isolated groves of Sequoia Forest, which are home to some of the largest trees in the world. Outside the sequoia groves, the majority of the vegetation is made up of coniferous forest. Over 225,000 acres of old growth forest still remain standing and intact in Yosemite National Park, one of the few areas in the continental United States where old growth forest remains.
When to Visit Yosemite
If you don’t mind the crowds of picture taking tourists, visiting Yosemite Valley in the peak summer months is the way to go. You won’t get any sort of solitude and seclusion, but it can be fun to share the beauty of the valley with others. If, however, you want a more unique Yosemite experience, you will want to consider alternative times to visit the park.
How to Avoid the Crowds
To avoid the crowds in Yosemite Valley, you will have to avoid the summer peak period of June to August all together. However, if you want to explore the other 99% of the park outside the Valley, you can pretty much go any time during the year.
Spring time is by far one of the best times to visit the park. School hasn’t let out for the summer meaning that you’ll miss most of the family vacations. Furthermore, the relatively chilly nights will keep other tourists away.
The snowmelt is at its peak meaning that the waterfalls will be gushing and if you time your trip right, you will also be greeted by a mosaic of wildflowers throughout the park.
Yosemite with the Family
When most people think of Yosemite National Park, the first thing that comes to mind is the image of adrenaline seeking mountain climbers hanging off of the sheer granite face of Half Dome. While they certainly are fun to watch, that´s not exactly a family friendly activity. Taking on a 4,000 foot incline to make it to the top of Yosemite Falls with two toddlers also makes for quite a strenuous hike that isn´t exactly made for families.
If you have small children or a large family, there´s no reason to put off a vacation to Yosemite until the kids are grown and off to college. There are dozens of family friendly activities all throughout the park. From panning for gold in a pristine mountain river to enjoying easy nature hikes, we´ve got all the information you need to plan a quality family vacation to one of America´s most iconic national parks.
Visit the Giant Sequoias
What could be more unique than taking your tiny children to stare up into the canopy of the massive sequoias. One of the pleasures of being a parent is watching your children explore the natural world and express their awe and wonder and what they see around them.
Children love to explore the relatively easy trails throughout the two different groves of Sequoias in Yosemite National Park, and are encouraged to touch and explore the gigantic trees. At the very least, it will make for a great photo opportunity.
The Merced River is a great river for family fun. Unlike other mountain rivers with their quick currents and rapids, the Merced flows peacefully throughout Yosemite Valley. The relatively shallow areas with large sandy beaches make it a great place for a family picnic, some fun mini-tubing practice, and a chance to cool off from the warm summer temperatures.
You can also give your kids a history lesson on the California Gold Rush, as bits of gold can still be found in the Merced River. Read up on how to pan for gold, bring along some basic equipment, and see if your children can find some gold specks in the river sand.
Junior Ranger Program
An essential part of visiting the beautiful areas of our nation´s national parks is also teaching our children about the importance of protecting these pristine areas. Yosemite has a fantastic Junior Ranger program that is both educational and participative. Your kids will have to fill out a workbook on the park, learn about some of the park´s wildlife, and do a “service project” to help keep the park clean in order to earn their badge.
Drive up to Glacier Point
Just because your kids aren´t able or willing to endure a grueling 10 mile hike up to the top of Half Dome doesn´t mean that you can´t enjoy the stunning panoramic views that Yosemite offers. A short drive up to Glacier Point can be done with your kids which will offer you unbelievable views of the surrounding valley and most recognizable mountains.
For a real stunning experience, consider driving up around sunset during the full moon phase to watch the sun set and the moon rise. You can also enjoy a unique opportunity for star gazing at Glacier Point to get your kids interested in the heavens above.
Yosemite: So Much Family Fun
These are just a few of the activities that you and your family can enjoy while at Yosemite, but there are virtually unlimited amounts of activities that you can plan for the entire family. Ask the ranger station for other ideas for family centered activities at the park and you´ll soon find that your kids won´t ever want to leave.
Take Your Kids Camping
One of the best parts of visiting Yosemite is that there are so many fantastic, awe-inspiring camp grounds to choose from. From secluded campgrounds in the middle of the deep back-country, to family friendly campgrounds in the heart of Yosemite Valley, you and your family will be sure to find some place that you love. To get the best possible campground, make sure to plan ahead, make your reservations, and check off all the gear you and your family will need to enjoy the time in the Great Outdoors. Of all camping equipment, the tent is by far the most important and necessary, and it is wise to invest a little bit of time and money in finding a quality tent that will keep you and your family protected while travelling to Yosemite. With this guide you will be able to find the absolute best tent brands on the market so that you can find the option that is best for your trip.
What Each Season Offers
If you can’t make it to Yosemite in the spring, don’t fret. Each of the four seasons in Yosemite offers truly magical sights. The sunny, summer days are rightfully a crowd favorite, and if you don’t like cool temperatures, the warm, dry air is perfect for hiking and getting the best views.
Fall time in Yosemite also offers a way to avoid the crowds since most people stop visiting after Labor Day. The crisp night air often times drives out the summer haze leading to beautiful panoramic views. There is no better time of year to go stargazing at Yosemite than in September or October.
Though many of the parks roads close in winter time, the park service does regularly plow Glacier Point Road up to Badger Pass. Driving up to the pass after a night of snow fall will offer a magical glimpse of Yosemite´s winter wonders.
Furthermore, if you can make it to Yosemite in February, you will get to watch the Firefall, one of the most amazing natural phenomena in the world. The setting sun at that time of year is at such an angle that the sun illuminates Horsetail Falls in such a way that the falls glow orange and red while the sun sets.
What are the Best Hikes in Yosemite?
With 1,200 square miles, Yosemite is a backpacker and hikers dream. Since the majority of the crowds never leave Yosemite Valley which only makes up 1% of the park, you should be able to find plenty of solitude and untouched, natural beauty, whether that be on the cliffs of a high granite peak or in an unexplored valley.
Types of Hiking Gear You Should Bring
As you explore the beauty of park,you should always come prepared. A bunch of our staffers don't like to carry around a lot of gear and suggest you bring an ultralight backpack, we also have a pretty indepth guide about the best backpacks for hiking, make sure to give both a read before you set out on your adventure.
Below we offer our five best hikes for true nature lovers. Four of these hikes are day hikes while one can be done as an overnighter.
This 17 mile round trip hike isn’t for folks who are out of shape. If you think that you have the energy and the stamina to make it up one of the largest granite rocks in the world, however, you will be rewarded with a once in a lifetime experience.
To begin your hike you will go by past two gorgeous waterfalls, Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, before hiking through thick pine forest. As you approach the top of the granite dome, you will have to pull yourself up with the aid of granite steps (think stairway of hell) and wire cables.
Once you make it to the top, however, the views are otherworldly with sweeping panoramas of Yosemite Valley and the surrounding landscape. You do need a permit to do this day hike so plan in advance.
Upper Yosemite Falls
If you make it Yosemite, you have to at least to try to climb up to the top of North Americas highest waterfall. The upper Yosemite Falls hike is a 7.2 mile round trip hike, though be warned that the majority of the trail is made up of steep, gruesome switchbacks.
Once you make it to the top of the falls, however, you will have gorgeous views of Half Dome and parts of the Yosemite Valley. You will also be able to say that you were at the headwaters of the largest waterfall on the continent.
If you are looking for a less strenuous hike, Taft Point is a relatively easy 2.2 mile round trip hike that takes you to the edge of Yosemite Valley and offers breathtaking views of the park’s main attractions.
You will also get to travel by deep cracks or crevices in the rock that extend several hundred feet downwards, displaying the geological and seismological activity of the park.
Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
If you have never walked through a towering sequoia forest, it truly is a one of a kind experience that makes you see your life in perspective and consider your relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things.
There are a number of different trails leading through the forest, but you should definitely try and see the Grizzly Giant and the California Tunnel Tree, two of the most iconic giants.
Nothing is quite so pleasant as spending the night camping in the wilderness on the shores of a pristine mountain lake. The Ostrander Lake trail isn’t as popular as some of Yosemite’s other trails, but that is what makes it so desirable.
If you are looking for great wilderness solitude, this 12.7 mile round trip hike will take you through meadows and prairies before climbing steeply to the Lake. You will also be gifted with breathtaking views of the Clark Mountain Range.
Another fantastic overnighter to get away from the crowds is a hike through Sentinel Meadows. Besides offering fantastic views of pristine meadows and wildflowers, you also have your best bet of viewing grizzly bears along this trail.
The Sentinel Meadows Trail is managed by the Firehole Bear Management Area and is closed until Memorial Day Weekend every year. Once it opens, however, you have a pretty good chance of sighting a grizzly bear or two. Make sure to use precaution, but enjoy the adventure.
Best Mountain Climbing Adventures
For folks who are looking for more of an adrenaline rush than what hiking offers, there are a number of opportunities to mountain climb throughout the park. Yosemite is often considered to be a mountain climbers dream with numerous sheer granite cliffs and vertical faces over 3,000 feet high.
Below we offer some advice on two of the best climbs for adrenaline junkies. Make sure to check for any closures before planning your trip as the park often times unexpectedly closes a route for restoration. Also, if you are looking for guided mountain climbing trips, consider Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides (http://www.symg.com/trips/rockclimbing/)
This monster of a climb is one of the best crack climbs you can find. It is also a relatively easy climb for beginners since it is basically a manufactured climb with plenty of pin scars making it easy to find your way to the top.
Northwest Face of Half Dome
Climbing half dome is on every mountain climber´s bucket list. The granite face of Half Dome looks almost unclimbable from the base, but once you get started, you will find it impossible to turn around. During your ascent, there are a number of places where curious hikers will admire your insanity as you take the “short cut” to the top.
You will need a partner and lots of problem solving ability to be able to master this climb though most of the climbing in itself is actually moderate if you pick the right route.
Places To Stay
Originally we had a small section here of places to stay. To put nicely... We didn't do an amazing job of maintaining it.
If you are interested in checking out the original listing or would like to add your hotel or place to stay, check out the article here.
The incredibly varied landscape of Yosemite offers so many different, unique views and adventure activities that pretty much anyone find something they love. From meandering through groves of giant Sequoias to climbing up a sheer granite face, Yosemite National Park is one place that everyone should visit.
Near By Cities
- Although it's a bit of a drive, San Francisco is around a 3 hour drive away.
- Fresno is also pretty close and totally worth checking out!
- Sacramento is also pretty close and worth checking out!
Has this article got you thinking about Camping? Remember to keep your food fresh & drinks cool with our recommended camping coolers. Check our guide it before you plan your next trip. We think you'll enjoy it.