Yosemite National Park in California: Everything You Need to Plan Your Trip from Must-Sees and Camping to Wildlife and Trails

by Jon D. B.
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Plan the ultimate trip to Yosemite National Park with Outsider’s guide to the third national park, including everything form must-see landmarks and must-hike trails to the wildlife you’ll encounter, how to stay safe, and how to camp or lodge within the park.

Founded in 1890, Yosemite National Park is the crown jewel of California and sits atop the bucket lists of many an Outsider. Careening valleys, canyons, rivers and waterfalls carve through magnificent mountains and cliffs; each housing some of the most fantastic views, trails, landmarks, camping, and wildlife in North America.

To tackle one – or all – of these marvels can be a lot, however. We’re here to help with our full guide to Yosemite National Park. And if you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for here, be sure to check the extensive guides we offer after each section below.

Outsider’s Pick of Yosemite National Park Must-See Trails, Easiest to Hardest

  • Lower Yosemite Falls Trail (easy)
  • Pothole Dome Trail (easy)
  • Wawona Meadow Trail (easy)
  • Tuolumne Grove Trail (moderate)
  • Wapama Falls Trail (moderate)
  • Mount Watkins Trail (moderate)
  • Vernal Falls Trail (strenuous)
  • Stanford Point Trail (strenuous)
  • Yosemite Grand Tour (strenuous)

Some of the biggest risks that Yosemite hikers face are slippery trails, dehydration and loose rocks. Make sure you have proper footwear and plenty of water. Take your time on harder routes and don’t be afraid to double back if a trail is too difficult. With 282 trails, there’s always an alternative trek. – Amy Myers

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Lower Yosemite Falls Trail

  • Length: 1.2-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation: 59 feet
  • Duration: less than 30 minutes

Wapama Fall Trail

Vernal Fall Trail

  • Length: 4-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation: 1,279 feet
  • Duration: more than 2 hours

Yosemite National Park’s Lesser-Known Must-Sees

Pothole Dome Trail

Mount Watkins Trail

Stanford Point Trail

Botanical Beauties in Yosemite National Park

Home to mature sequoias, towering alpines, brilliant florals and thriving shrubs, Yosemite National Park boasts an array of flora within its meadows and woodlands. While you can find beauty in the park year-round, the best time of year to visit for the sake of seeing vegetation is early to mid-spring. By summertime, blooms have already come and gone, so you may not see nearly as many colors as a visit in April or May would boast. Additionally, the meadows often attract more wildlife. Visit these routes near dusk or dawn and travel quietly to spot a grazing deer or two during your journey. – Amy Myers 

Wawona Meadow Trail

  • Length: 3.6-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation: 246 feet
  • Duration: 1.5 hours

Tuolumne Grove Trail

Yosemite Grand Tour

  • Length: 16-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation: 4,350 feet
  • Duration: more than 8 hours

The Remarkable Wildlife of Yosemite National Park

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Photo credit: Getty Images, Outsider

Yosemite National Park is teeming with remarkable California wildlife, some of which is found nowhere else on Earth. Learn which species you’ll spot, how to identify them, and crucial wildlife safety from the park and be prepared for your Yosemite adventure.

  • Approximately 300 to 500 black bears roam Yosemite
  • Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are back after a 100 year absence
  • Mule deer are abundant throughout the park
  • 262 species of birds have been documented in Yosemite, including 165 resident and migratory species
  • Mountain lions also call Yosemite home, so be sure to prepare with crucial safety information below
  • Yosemite has an abundance of reptiles, including the harmless kingsnake and venomous Northern Pacific rattlesnake
  • Keep your eyes peeled for the elusive Pacific fisher, one of North America’s most unique mammals

Black Bear Safety in Yosemite

No fatalities have taken place in Yosemite National Park and attacks are rare, but it is always best to be prepared and BearWise, as all black bears are large, potentially dangerous predators. When dealing with black bears, park safety information is crucial:

  • Visitors who encounter a bear should keep their distance for safety and respect for themselves and the animal
  • If visitors see a black bear in undeveloped areas, they should remain at least 50 yards from it
  • If they encounter a bear in developed areas, they should stand their ground and scare the bear away by raising their arms and making very loud noises
  • Black bears may show dominance by bluff charging, especially when guarding food or cubs

Mountain Lion Safety

Whether you call them cougars, pumas, panthers, or mountain lions, these apex predators call all of Yosemite’s mountains and valleys home. The mountain lion is not a common site, but visitors should always be aware that they are within this big cat’s territory.

If you see a mountain lion, take these additional precautions:

  • Do not run
  • Shout in a low voice and wave your arms or hold open your coat to look large and threatening
  • Maintain eye contact and do not crouch down
  • Throw sticks or rocks
  • If an attack occurs, fight back

Mule Deer Note:

Although they may seem aloof, mule deer should be treated with the same amount of caution as any other large mammal. In fact, according to the park, more injuries are inflicted by deer, with one documented death, than those caused by black bear or any other Yosemite National Park wildlife.

*For much more on what species you’ll encounter, alongside further wildlife safety, venomous snakes in Yosemite, and more, please see our Yosemite National Park Wildlife: From Black Bears to Mountain Lions, Which Animals You’ll See and ‘How-To’ Wildlife Safety next.

Camping at Yosemite National Park

Vintage caravan parked in Yosemite National Park, Western Sierra Nevada of Central California, United States. (Photo by: Nano Calvo/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

There are a total of 13 campgrounds within Yosemite National Park to accommodate the 3.29 million visitors that it saw just last year. Of course, not everyone pulled out a tent or hitched their trailer to the grounds, but there were enough traditional campers to temporarily shut down seven of the campgrounds this year for rehabilitation purposes. Because of this, we’ve omitted Bridalveil, Tuolumne Meadows, Tamarack Flat, Crane Flat, Yosemite Creek, White Wolf and Porcupine Flat from the list of Yosemite campgrounds.

With more than half of its campgrounds temporarily unavailable, it’s likely that reservations for open sites will fill up faster than usual, so be sure to book your stay as soon as you can and try to have a backup option if your first pick for a campground is already full.

For those that prefer camping in primitive areas, Yosemite National Park also has backcountry campsites in Little Yosemite Valley as well as near the High Sierra Camps. – Amy Myers

Yosemite Valley Campgrounds

Upper Pines

Lower Pines

North Pines

Camp 4

  • Location: Camp 4, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389
  • Price: $10 per person per night
  • Number of sites: 61
  • Months open: year-round, not pet-friendly
  • Nearby attractions: Yosemite Falls Trailhead, Midnight Lightning climbing site, Swan Slab, Yosemite Falls, Columbia Rock, Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, Four Mile Trailhead
  • Reserve a Camp 4 site here

Campgrounds South of Yosemite Valley

Wawona Campground

Campgrounds North of Yosemite Valley

Hodgdon Meadow Campground

Glamping, Cabin, and Lodging Rentals at Yosemite

Sometimes, you need a middle ground between traditional camping and lodging – a venue that gives you some creature comforts without separating you too far from the natural elements of Yosemite. At the national park, you can find this middle ground with the national park’s glamping and cabin rentals. Or, you can book yourself a stay in a nice old fashioned NPS lodge.

  • High Sierra Camps
  • Housekeeping Camp
  • Yosemite Valley Lodge
  • The Ahwahnee

Whichever you’ll choose, check out our full camping & lodging guide to Yosemite National Park coming soon.

Yosemite National Park Safety

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Photo credit: Getty Images archives, Outsider

In a place as wild and diverse as Yosemite National Park, knowing these safety tips and guidelines can make the difference between life and death.

As the National Park Service reminds us, “You are responsible for your own safety” in any national park. Around four million people visit Yosemite’s incredible geology, plants, animals, historic, and archeological sites, every single year. And each year, hundreds more search & rescue operations are needed.

The ultimate goal is, of course, to never become an NPS search & rescue statistic. And the best way to avoid this fate is to enter Yosemite National Park as well-versed on all safety guidelines and tips as possible.

Hiking Safety: How To ‘HIKE SAFE’

The following tips will help significantly boost your safety while hiking in Yosemite National Park:

  • Carry a headlamp on every hike, even short day hikes
  • Carry and drink plenty of water (a minimum of 1 quart every 2 hours)
  • Sturdy footwear with good traction might save an ankle
  • Minor/moderate health or medical issues can be easily exacerbated by hiking up the steep Valley trails—know your limits and pay attention to how you’re feeling
  • Stay on the established trail
  • When hiking in a group, each member of the group should carry some water and food in case the party becomes separated, and the group should make a plan for where to meet up (at the vehicle, at the trailhead, etc.) if the members become separated.

Use Yosemite’s HIKE SAFE Method

In addition, Yosemite National Park’s HIKE SAFE system provides invaluable advice in an easy-to-remember acronym:

Have a plan
Inform someone of where you’re going and
when you plan to return
Keep a flashlight and whistle with you
Eat well, stay hydrated: carry plenty of water

Stay on the trail
Ask for HELP!
Familiarize yourself with the area, use a map
Expect changes in the weather

Climbing Guidelines for Yosemite National Park

If you plan on climbing, however, viewing the park’s climbing guidelines and regulations is a must.

Environmental Hazards: Rockfalls, Hazardous Trees, Lightning

  • Rockfalls are the most powerful geologic force shaping Yosemite Valley today. Although rockfalls are relatively uncommon, several rockfalls occur in Yosemite Valley each year; they are dangerous and can cause injury or death. In Yosemite, and in any natural area, it is up to you to be aware of your surroundings. Use caution when entering any area where rockfall activity may occur, such as on or immediately below cliffs.
  • Hazardous Trees are caused by diseases, insects, soil moisture, wind, fire, snow and human activities in Yosemite. These are any tree, which, due to visible defects, could fall down and strike a person or property within a developed area. Several catastrophic tree failures have left visitors seriously or fatally injured in Yosemite, in addition to property damage totaling nearly $1,000,000. Be aware of your surroundings, especially away from developed areas, and keep in mind that some trees may fail at any time.
  • Lightning is a common occurrence in Yosemite, particularly on summer afternoons. Be aware of changing conditions and have a plan in case a thunderstorm approaches.
  • Wood smoke and emissions from campfires can degrade air quality in and near campgrounds. This is especially true at night and in early morning, when inversions trap and concentrate fine particles from those campfires near the ground, creating local conditions that are potentially unhealthy for sensitive individuals. Conditions may be smoky anytime from spring through fall due to both planned and unplanned fires in or near Yosemite.

Water Safety in Yosemite National Park

The following water guidelines from the park are crucial to a safe Yosemite visit:

  • Swimming
    • Always supervise children closely.
    • Choose swimming areas carefully and swim only during low water conditions.
    • Avoid areas of “whitewater” where streams flow over rocky obstructions.
    • Never swim or wade upstream from the brink of a waterfall, even if the water appears shallow and calm. Each year unsuspecting visitors are swept over waterfalls to their deaths when swimming in these areas.
  • River crossings
    • In summer, rivers and creeks swollen by runoff from snowmelt are dangerous. Powerful current, icy water, and river obstructions can trap or kill the unwary.
    • Stay away from river and creek banks during high water conditions and avoid rock hopping. Stream polished rocks along the water’s edge may be slippery when wet or dry.
    • If you choose to cross a stream without a bridge, avoid deep and/or swift water. If crossing on a natural bridge of rocks or logs, consider where you will land if you fall. Never cross above rapids or falls. To prevent being pulled under by its weight, unbuckle your pack’s waist strap so you can shed it if you fall in. Do not tie yourself into safety ropes–they can drown you.
  • Rafting
    • Rafting is allowed on lakes (except Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Mirror Lake) and some stretches of river. More information is available on our water activities page.
  • Fishing
    • Special fishing regulations apply in Yosemite. More information is available on our fishing page.

Remember: Keep Wildlife Wild in Yosemite National Park!

Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program in Yosemite National Park. (Photo by Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

When in Yosemite or any other national park, please remember to respect animals and view all wildlife from a safe distance. Never, ever feed or approach any animal. This can save your life, but it also saves the lives of wildlife. Habituating wildlife to humans and their food often results in the animal having to be euthanized (killed).

So remember:

  • Keep your distance from animals, even if they approach you
  • Dispose of trash in animal-proof trash cans or dumpsters
  • Keep your food and trash from wildlife by storing it properly, day and night. More information about proper food storage is available on the NPS site
  • Failure to obey regulations may result in a fine of up to $5,000 and/or impoundment of your property

Domestic animals – our pets – are also subject to their own set of Yosemite National Park safety regulations. If you plan to visit the park with pets, make sure to view Yosemite’s Pet Rules first.

*For more on safety specific to the park, visit our Yosemite National Park Safety: How To ‘HIKE SAFE’, Avoid Environmental Hazards, and More next.

And always be sure to follow the path of Leave No Trace whenever in any U.S. National Park. Never disturb ecosystems: don’t pick plants, stack or take home rocks, stay on designated roads and trails, and never, ever start a fire outside of a designated fire ring.

Happy trails through the world’s third national park, Outsiders!

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