The Top Things to Do or See in Yosemite National Park

Any list of the top things to see in Yosemite will leave out something. I'm not a rock climber so the views available from the cliffs are not included. So, the list of what to see, or not to miss. Maybe there will be another list for longer hikes. Some of these are not available until snow melt. The order can change, but is not completely arbitrary.

Access to these locations varies. Park your car in the Valley (or take YARTS to get there) then walk or use the shuttle for 4 of them. Drive (or bike, or ski in the winter) Tioga Pass Road for 2. From Wawona you can take the shuttle or drive (sometimes only the shuttle is available) for one 1. The Glacier Point shuttle (summer only, ski in the winter) is not as frequent for 2. And the shuttle does not reach Tunnel view, the last (or is it the first) place to stop.

In the current version, there are several locations that are missing: Yosemite Falls (unless you count the Merced River meadows walks or the Sentinel Bridge stop), Bridalveil Falls (I like it better from a distance anyway), and Hetch Hetchy (so much has been lost to the lake) come to mind. The first 2 are hard to miss, even for those who stay in their car the entire time.

Perhaps more important than what to see is when to visit (or more importantly, which few days to avoid). There are good reasons to come to Yosemite on early summer weekends (i.e. during the peak snow melt), but these are some of the most frustrating days to visit. For a variety of reasons, traffic is very bad, though the shuttles are not full. Arrive early (before 10:00 it is usually quiet), park and you will be happier. If you are arriving late in the day (e.g. you have a reservation), it may be best to arrive after 7:00 rather than at 4:00. I have no idea where all the people arriving at 5:00 are going, the campgrounds and lodges were already full. In 2011, July 4th weekend was especially bad since it was just past the peak snow melt (with the falls stronger than the May peak in a normal year). Week days are much more relaxed (even though they can be difficult at the peak times). After years of visiting on days other than weekends, a 2011 trip over a weekend was a very different experience. Shuttles were not too crowded, trails weren't any more crowded, lodging was full as always, parking was tighat as always, but the summer weekend traffic was difficult and the cafeterias were overwhelmed.

The short version of the above, is visit anytime, but be prepared if you come on the few really bad days of an especially good year for the falls.

Yosemite Tunnel View, Inspiration Point

Tunnel View

More pictures and details: Tunnel View (Inspiration Point) Stop at the Valley end of the Tunnel when arriving from Fresno. Otherwise, detour up to the viewpoint. This is the perfect picture location. Everything is perfect, no matter the weather. Early mornings can be a problem -- you are looking toward the sun -- but other than that it is perfect.

Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley

Mirror Lake

More pictures and details: Mirror Lake, from the upper end of the valley it is an easy walk from the shuttle. It is a location that captures the quiet beauty of Yosemite. The trail (really a restricted traffic road) is bikeable until you get near the end (initially it is too steep for the rental bikes, then not paved for other bikes). The loop trail above the lake was closed by a rock slide, but has recently been reopened. The best views are on the main (paved) trail.

Vernal and Nevada Falls, Washburn Point, Yosemite

Wahsburn Point

More pictures and details: Washburn Point is located almost at the end of the Glacier Point road. It is less crowded than Glacier, but missing the views to Yosemite Falls. You also get the view immediately. It is one of the "Oh Wow" spots.

Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite

Glacier Point

More pictures and details: Glacier Point. There is more to see than at Washburn, you get the views both to the back country and into the valley and across to Yosemite Falls. Parking can be a problem. In the winter you can ski to Glacier Point (if there is enough snow and you are in condition for the long trip).

Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite

Grizzly Giant

More pictures and details: Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove, Not just the Grizzly Giant, but the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. You can walk or take the open-air tram. Parking can be scarce so consider the shuttle from Wawona (at peak summer times, you are required to take the shuttle because parking is full). Access may be limited by snow in the winter. Merced or Tuolumne Grove both give some sense of the size of Sequoias, but they are less extensive than Mariposa.

Pothole Dome, Tuolumne Meadow, Yosemite

Tuolumne Meadow

Tuolumne is the largest, and most accessible, alpine meadow in the Sierra. The best (easily reached) sweeping views are from the domes on either end, e.g. Pothole Dome on the west is the easiest to walk up. There are multiple trails along the river and across the meadow (stay on the trails to avoid damage to the meadow). For most, this is a summer-only trip, winter requires skis or snow shoes (and winter camping).

Mist Trail, Vernal Falls, Yosemite

Vernal Fall

More pictures and details: Vernal Fall, Mist Trail. Take the Mist Trail. The trail starts above the bridge where you get the first view of Vernal. It can be wet and is always steep (and closed due to ice in the winter and spring), but on a warm day is refreshing. You can continue on to the top of Nevada. An alternate route is to take the Panorama trail down from Glacier Point. Most people only get to the first bridge with the initial view of Vernal Fall. Don't forget to look for Illilouette Falls on the way up the trail.

Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite Valley

Merced River and Meadows

More pictures and details: Merced River view to Cathedral Rocks A short walk from the Lodge takes you to the quiet meadows along the river. Various trails and bike paths loop through these meadows. You can also take the walk around the lower valley -- it can be long, but if the lower valley shuttle is running you can walk half way and ride back. On the trial you see very few people and the animals are more skittish. The permanent deer around the lodges are too well adjusted to people.

Olmstead Point, Yosemite

Olmstead Point

More pictures and details: Olmstead Point is a major viewpoint, with plenty of parking, on the Tioga road. (And the center of a major avalanche zone.) It gives a good sense of the vastness of the Sierra, and, like many other remote locations, a view of Half Dome. It is located in a glaciated zone and at times can seem desolate, but look down for the flowers and up for the views. Walk out to the viewpoint. This is one area to see the glacial polish on the rocks.

Half Dome, Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite Valley

Sentinel Bridge

More pictures and details: Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge A favorite spot for photographers especially at sunset or for reflections of Half Dome on the river. Turn around and you have a view of Yosemite Falls. There is a shuttle stop in the small parking area, or take the short walk from the Lodge, Village or Housekeeping Camp (three different directions), or a make it a stop on the bike path.

How to visit Yosemite

As they say about voting, vote early, vote often. You can go for a day and have a great time, you can go for a week and not see everything. Some have gone for a visit and stayed (to climb, to work, etc.). Accomodations (not counting backcountry) range from a walk-in campground to an expensive hotel (Ahwahnee) so there is something for almost everyone.

DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc. is the official concessioner (for accomodations). Rooms are generally available 1 year (and 1 day) in advance, but tent cabins and housekeeping camp are often available on shorter notice, even in the usual high season (but less often on weekends). Places along the Tuolumne (or Tioga) Road (White Wolf, Toulumne Lodge) have expected opening and closing dates, but this is very approximate. So while early reservations are a must, they do not mean places will be open in time. Also in the (1 in 10) light snow years, they may open earlier than planned and one month advance reservations are possible. Something in the valley is open all year, but in the winter housekeeping and much of Curry is closed.

Their website has some odd tricks -- if you are unsure of the date a good calendar (currently 4 months) is available. It is easiest to reach from the original selection (i.e. just choose a date, then select a facilitiy) by clicking just to the left of the Step 2 label (Rooms & Rates) where Step 1 (Select a date) is hiding (in the white on white text).

Camping (13 campgrounds) is best reserved through The campground reservation site. Reservations are available in blocks of 1 month, starting 5 months in advance on the 15th of the month at 7:00AM (Pacific time). (I.e. on January 15, everything from May 15 to June 14 becomes available). Some days are filled faster than a rock concert sells out. There are some first-come, first-serve campgrounds, but they fill early in the day.

Where to stay: My personal first choice is Yosemite Lodge (at the Falls). Wawona (closed a few months in the winter) is nice, but a long way to the Valley. The tent cabins (Camp Curry) can be good for a cheaper alternative -- but tend to be noisy. Camp Curry also has some cabins and a few lodge rooms. Housekeeping Camp, is concrete walls, canvas roof, surrounded by the river (like campgrounds there can be a lot of wood smoke) and good if you are cooking. White Wolf is small and hard to get in, but worth it, and Tuolumne is more rustic than the Lodge (but nicer than Camp Curry) and available only in the summer (and generally booked early). If you stay outside the park for a multi-day visit, you spend a lot of time driving back and forth (or using YARTS) and you miss the early mornings and late evenings in the park. The near-by locations make a good first night stay (after a long drive) so you get a full day in the park you first (or last) day. (Warning for peak water weekends in June, be careful where you park your car, it can be difficult to get out of the parking lot it in the afternoon.)