Yosemite National Park may look small on a map, but don't be fooled! Its area encompasses a variety of winding roads and elevations, creating a hiker's paradise. With so many sightseeing and trekking possibilities, it is worth setting up a base camp for at least two nights, if not more, to explore as much as possible. Below is a list of our favorite things to do and see in Yosemite National Park.
Wondering where to stay? Check out this list (coming soon) of places to camp in or near Yosemite. Don't forget to browse our inventory of camping gear rentals for Yosemite.
Reservations required to enter Yosemite National Park in 2024
Between April 13-October 27, YOU MUST MAKE RESERVATIONS IN ADVANCE TO ENTER YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK. I recommend reserving your entry at least a week prior. Here's the link to reserve your entrance to Yosemite National Park.
You do not need a reservation if you arrive at the entrance booth after 4pm during the required period.
Between 5am-4pm during the required period, DO NOT TRY TO ENTER THE PARK WITHOUT A RESERVATION! You will be forced to turn around and wait until 4pm. Worse, you cannot stay and wait at the entrance station. You will have to drive back the way you came until you find legal parking and something to do until 4pm.
You do not need a park entry reservation if you already have a room or campsite reserved in the park.
But if your accommodation is outside of the park gates, and you have to cross the park to get there, then you would need to reserve your park entry.
For further information, check out the park website.
Five entrances and five sections of Yosemite National park
Five roads lead into Yosemite National Park, each one leading to a different section of the park. These sections all interconnect via long-distance hiking trails, and pretty much converge at Yosemite Valley.
Hetch Hetchy is the least famous access to the park. It's a short road in the northwest corner of the park. The road DOES NOT connect to the rest of the park, but hiking trails do. The Hetch Hetchy road is open year-round, but may close periodically in winter due to snow.
Wawona (Rt 41) is the southern entrance, usually most convenient if you're driving in from Fresno, Oakhurst, or Sequoia National Park. Close to the south entry station is Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia. If you haven't seen a Giant sequoia yet, you should make a quick stop here. Wawona is also the fastest access to Glacier Point Rd, from which you can ski in winter and hike in summer. Hiking trails from Glacier Point access the south rim of Yosemite Valley. Rt 41 is open year-round, but parts of it may close periodically in winter due to snow. Glacier Point Rd closes in winter beyond the ski area.
Tioga (Rt 120 east) is the most popular and famous entrance to Yosemite National Park. It is the only access point from the east, making it the best way to approach in summer from Las Vegas. Hiking trails from Tuolumne Meadows, near the east entrance, access the north rim of Yosemite Valley. Unfortunately, Tioga entry station and Tuolumne are only open 3-5 months each year, usually mid-June to mid-October, because Tioga Pass is at 10,000 ft (3,000 m) elevation. It simply gets too much snow to handle in winter.
Big Oak Flat (Rt 120 west) is the northern of two entrance stations on the west side of the park. It is the most scenic and direct route to Yosemite Valley from Sacramento.
Arch Rock (Rt 140) is the southern entrance station on the west side of Yosemite National Park. It's the faster route to access Yosemite Valley from San Francisco. Yosemite Valley is of course the main attraction in Yosemite National Park!
Other practical information about visiting Yosemite National Park:
Check seasonal road conditions and closures. Summer is the best time to go to Yosemite because you can usually access the park from all entry stations. In winter, however, roads in high elevations close due to snow and your options become much more limited. That said, Yosemite Valley remains open in winter, and the park offers many opportunities for winter sports such as ice skating, snowshoeing, crosscountry skiing, downhill skilling, and much more. At any season, check road conditions before going. Winter can happen as early as September and last as long as July.
This park is popular! More than 3 million people per year visit Yosemite National Park, most of them in summer. This creates traffic jams and overloads the park facilities. June-September, expect long lines at the entrance stations and prepare to circle around for parking spaces.
This park is bigger than you think. In good weather without traffic and without stopping to admire the views, it takes about two hours to drive from the south or west entrances to the east entrance at Tioga Pass. But its rare to have both weather and traffic on your side. Not to mention you'll want to take detours and stop for pictures.
Stock up on gas and groceries before entering the park. Though there are gas stations and a grocery store at Yosemite Valley, prices are outrageous. Even outside park boudaries, prices are inflated, but not as much as within the park.
Plan for spotty cell phone service. You might have very good reception at Yosemite Valley, depending on your cell phone provider. But do not expect it anywhere else, not even on the access roads before you reach the park.
Invest in bear spray if you're hiking far. No list of things to know about Yosemite is complete without mentioning bears. They exist and they could become dangerous if provoked. Here are best practices to avoid bear encounters.
Yosemite Valley Shuttle Information
Due to increasing visitation, the park added a free valley-wide shuttle bus to help with parking congestion. The shuttle runs daily every few minutes 7am-10pm and services popular trailheads and tourist services in Yosemite Valley. It's a great way to get to Yosemite Falls, Mist Trail, or Four-Mile Trailheads.
This park-operated shuttle bus is free to use and very convenient, so you should definitely take advantage of it! You do not need a reservation to ride this bus.
Please note that this is a different shuttle from YARTS, the privately-owned tour bus company that goes to Glacier Point. You need to make a reservation and pay for your ride to Glacier Point. Do not hike to or from Glacier Point expecting to take a bus back to your car unless you have a reservation.
Best viewpoints and day hikes in Yosemite National Park
The central attraction in Yosemite National Park is Yosemite Valley, which is also the objective of most hikes and viewpoints in the park. The Valley is huge and varied, so it never gets old looking at it from the north (Tuolumne Meadows), the south (Glacier Point Rd), or from the inside. Of course we'll also mention a few other areas of the park that are worth a visit.
Best viewpoints and day hikes from Tuolumne Road
Entering the park from the east is a real treat! Climbing up to Tioga Pass from Lee Vining, you'll be awarded with amazing views of Mono Lake behind you and alpine lakes ahead of you. And that's before you reach the park boundary! Once you pass into the park, the road plateaus and provides great places to stop and stretch your legs, like Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows. As the road begins to descend eastward, you'll want to stop at Oldstead Point, your first view of Yosemite Valley from the north.
Lembert Dome Loop Trail
Most people start this 5-mile loop at Lembert Dome Picnic Area, however I like to start it at Lyell Canyon Trailhead. From there, you simply cross the road and it's a very short distance to the dome. If you'd had enough, then turn around and go back to the car. Otherwise, complete the loop with a short excursion to Dog Lake. Note that the only difficult part of this hike is climbing and then descending from the dome. It is very steep and exposed, unfit for those afraid of heights!
North Dome Trail
North Dome is like a scale model of Half Dome for those who want to experience dome hiking without all the extra mileage and exposure. The 10.4-mile round-trip hike begins as Porcupine Creek Trailhead. Follow signs to North Dome through a forest and then a small meadow before descending to the base of the dome. Climb the dome’s rounded summit to take in a magnificent view of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley. On the return trip take the short detour to Indian Rock, an unusual natural arch for makes for good photographs.
Yosemite Creek Trail
Yosemite Creek Trail is a nice 16-mile roundtrip hike that follows Yosemite Creek to the rim of Yosemite Valley and the top of Yosemite Falls. It's best in early summer, when the creek is still flowing, but not as powerful as it would be in the spring. I don't recommend it when the creek is dry because then the trail becomes pretty boring. At the top of the falls, follow signs to the overlook at Yosemite Point, a short distance to the east, for a glimpse of the breathtaking drop into Yosemite Valley and across the High Sierra. Use caution, wet rocks can be slippery.
Best viewpoints and day hikes from Yosemite Valley
No matter who you are or which direction you come from, Yosemite Valley is your ultimate destination. There's a one-way loop road inside the Valley. On your drive in, stop for a short walk at Bridalveil Falls. Next, continue driving until the valley opens up around a large meadow. Stop anywhere and simply follow the sidewalk through the field until you're satisfied. Soon after, you reach Yosemite Village, where you can visit the visitor center and museums, as well as stock up on provisions for the next few days. On your drive out of the Valley, you can stop at parking spaces along the road to admire the views and go on a short walk to Lower Yosemite Falls. Of course if it's too busy or if it isn't allowed to park along the road, continue to the visitor center parking area and board the free park shuttle to your desired trailhead.
Mist Trail to Vernal/Nevada Falls and John Muir Trail Loop
The first mile of Mist Trail may be the most popular hiking trail in the park. It's not an easy climb uphill, but in a short distance you get to a wonderful view of a grand waterfall. Most poeple snap pictures here and turn back. But the trail continues uphill along the waterfall, at times literally getting sprayed by it (hence, Mist Trail), to an even more spectacular waterfall. A footbridge at the top of Nevada Falls connects to the John Muir Trail, which descends back to the valley floor. The entire loop is a difficult 7 miles with a lot of elevation gain and sometimes slippery sections.
Mist Trail to Half Dome (permit required)
Half Dome may be the most famous feature of Yosemite and therefore the most sought-after hike. It is a strenuous 18-mile roundtrip hike with a significant elevation gain. The uphill battle only gets worse near the top of the dome, where the climb is so steep the park put up cables to help you along. You can attempt this hike in one day or you can combine it with an overnight backpacking trip to Little Yosemite Valley. Whatever you choose, you need a permit for this hike. If you're backpacking, you can rent a bear canister from the park.
Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
Yosemite Falls is North America’s tallest waterfall, at 2,425 feet (739 m) above the Valley floor. A very steep and strenuous climb leads to the top of the falls for stunning views of the valley below. The waterfall is at its peak when snow melts in the spring. This makes parts of the trail muddy and slippery, but it also promises a stunning experience at the top of the falls. When the waterfall dries out in summer, this 7-mile roundtrip trail is no longer interesting, but the view of Yosemite Valley is still spectacular.
Best viewpoints and day hikes from Glacier Point Road
There's a large viewpoint at the end of Glacier Point Rd, open only in summer, that overlooks Yosemite Valley from the south. You have to go there. If you're into long and strenuous downhill day hikes, you can park at Yosemite Valley and buy a one-way shuttle ticket to drop you off at the trailhead of your choice, then hike back down to your car.
Sentinel Dome and Taft Point Loop Trail
Admittedly, the moderate Sentinel Dome to Taft Point loop is only about 2.5 miles, but it's one of the best hikes in the park! Start by following signs to Sentinel Dome and ascend the short climb to the top for nice views. Return to the connector trail and enter the forest. Follow signs to Taft Point. Nearing the point, the trail abruptly exits the forest to reveal a rocky outcropping with amazing views of Yosemite Valley.
Panorama Trail to Mist/John Muir Trail (one-way hike)
If you can only dedicate one day to hiking out of your entire Yosemite visit, Panorama Trail is the one to choose. This 8.5-mile one-way hike begins with amazing views from Glacier Point, then gradually descends to the valley via Nevada and Vernal Falls. You have to reserve your one-way shuttle ticket to Glacier Point in advance.
Four-Mile Trail to Yosemite Valley (one-way hike)
A bit of a false promise, the very strenuous Four-Mile Trail is actually closer to 5 miles one-way. This is the most direct hiking trail between Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point. I recommend that you purchase a one-way shuttle ticket to Glacier Point on the earliest available shuttle, then hike downhill to the valley. From there, you can take the free park shuttle back to your car. Of course you could turn this into a 10-mile roundtrip hike or combine it with the Panorama Trail for a very tiring 14-mile loop. That way you don't need to deal with shuttle reservations.
Other viewpoints and day hikes in Yosemite National Park
Here's a list of viewpoints compiled by the National Park Service. Traveling north on Rt 41 between Glacier Point Rd and Yosemite Valley, you'll undoubtedly have to stop at Tunnel View. Not much of a name, but you'll see what that means when you get there! If you make it to Hetch Hetchy, you'll visit O'Shaugnessy Dam from which you can see more waterfalls and rock formations. If you enter Yosemite National Park from one of the west entrances, you'll be awed by periodic glimpses of the Valley on your drive toward it. At the south entrance is Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees. If you don't plan on visiting Sequioa National Park, then you should visit Mariposa Grove. If you haven't had enough of Giant Sequoia, Merced and Tuolumne Groves are more great walks to admire the trees! Though the 3-mile roundtrip trails are both paved and easy to follow, there is a significant elevation difference between the trailheads and the groves.
Other bucketlist destinations along the Eastern Sierras
If you start your trip in Las Vegas and drive to Yosemite in summer, we recommend taking a few days to explore the Eastern Sierras. Start in Lone Pine with Mobius Arch in Alabama Hills, then Mt Whitney Portal. The following day, hike along the North Fork of Big Pine Creek, then move on to relax at Hilltop Hot Springs. Take one more day to visit Mammoth Lakes and Mono Lake. Oh, and while there, check out Bodie, the best preserved ghost town in all of the west, and take a dip in the Travertine Hot Springs! Pheeeeww - this section deserves its own blog (coming soon).
West of Yosemite National Park is California's Central Valley. You'll find vineyards and orchards galore.
Yosemite National Park is a year-round destination with breathtaking geology and panoramic views. We recommend starting your trip in Las Vegas in summer and combining your Yosemite adventure with a tour of the Eastern Sierras. Though summer is best for camping in Yosemite National Park, you can stay in heated cabins in Yosemite Valley year-round. If you'd like more information on any of the destinations mentioned above, please don’t hesitate to contact us.