Yosemite National Park Must-Sees: Hikes, Views, and Landmarks, from Lower Yosemite Falls to Stanford Point

by Amy Myers
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While there’s no bad time to visit Yosemite National Park, nothing beats a hike to one of the park’s dozens of must-see waterfalls under a bright blue spring sky. With nearly 1,200 square miles of deep valleys, flourishing meadows and ancient giant sequoias to explore, Yosemite marries tranquility with excitement.

No matter which route you take, you’ll always have incredible views and attractions to marvel at. However, with a seven-mile-wide canyon surrounded by majestic granite cliffs and rushing falls, you want to pick the trails that give you the most variety and excitement out of your trip.

We’ve chosen a mix of some go-to, first-timer trails as well as a few hidden gems to give you the most well-rounded experience of Yosemite National Park.

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.

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)
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A view of Yosemite Falls on June 11, 2020, in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Yosemite is breathtaking no matter what time of year you visit, but if you plan on basing your trip around rushing waters, the best time of year to visit is spring to early summer, when the temperature is warm enough to melt the previous winter’s snowfall and fill the area’s waterways. By July or August, most of Yosemite’s must-see waterfalls are dry. That said, the water will still be chilly when the falls are active, and many waterfront trails get a lot of mist and spray from the falls, so layers and rain gear are a must.

Lower Yosemite Falls Trail

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

One of the most popular trails in the park, Lower Yosemite Falls Trail is a great introduction to Yosemite. Just a quick, level walk to the falls, hikers get instant gratification for their visit. Within just a half-hour, you’re at the viewing area, snapping photos. At 2,425 feet from the valley floor, Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in all of North America and the fifth tallest in the world. Because of the effortless nature of the trail and the incredible views, expect to see crowds most times of the day when the waterfall is active.

Wapama Fall Trail

Like the trail to the Lower Falls, Wapama Falls is incredibly popular. Following the shoreline of the Hetch Hetchy water system, hikers get the best views of multiple waterfalls and ridgelines without too strenuous of a climb. Especially in the spring, you can see wildflowers begin to bloom and add some color to the valley floor. But be warned, this trail does not have any shade, so on a sunny, summer day, you’ll need lots of water to complete this route. Waterproof footwear is also a good idea as the trail often has standing water.

Vernal Fall Trail

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

The Vernal Fall Trail may be challenging, but the views are worth every step. The 317-foot waterfall draws its power from the Merced River and sits just downstream of Nevada Fall. The trail has a relatively slow incline until you get to the rock stairs just before the viewing area. Because the steps are so close to the falls, they tend to be very slippery, especially towards the top. There are railings for support, but hiking poles wouldn’t hurt either, particularly when making your way back down the rocks. Most travelers on this route come back with soaked layers, so pack a poncho and a waterproof camera because you’ll definitely want to get photos. There’s almost always a full rainbow at the base of the waterfall, a vibrant band created from the thick mist. It makes for a once-in-a-lifetime view that you’ll want to share with everyone.

Yosemite National Park’s Lesser-Known Must-Sees

The more popular trails in Yosemite National Park have gained attention for a reason. With record-breaking waterfalls and world-famous views, these routes are surely worth working around the crowds that flock to them. However, if you’re a hiker that values the quiet of nature during the journey, you might want to throw in a couple of the lesser-known must-see trails, especially in the late morning or early afternoon, when park traffic is at its peak.

Pothole Dome Trail

Located near Yosemite Valley, Pothole Dome Trail is a nice easy stroll through the national park that leads to a flat boulder that looks over the Tuolumne Meadow and Cathedral Rock. Named after the craters at the top of the flat, granite, this trail is an absolute must-see. The view of the lush green valley is enough to keep you there for hours, and the half-mile hike in is easy enough to come back for a second visit during the same trip. There is a bit of a scramble at the top of the trail. Hikers recommend sticking as far right of the boulder’s slope as possible for the easiest climb up. Make this overlook your daily lunch spot that you won’t have to fight other tourists for.

Mount Watkins Trail

Similar to the Pothole Dome, the Mount Watkins Trail ends on a flat bedrock with incredible views. But rather than overlooking a pasture of green treetops, you’ll be marveling at the peaks of the namesake mountaintop as well as the heavens-reaching summit of Clouds Rest. You’ll follow the well-marked trail until you reach the wide, granite slab that leads to the viewing area.

You’ll feel on top of the world by the end of the trail, but, of course, with this sky-high view comes a more difficult climb, but not in the direction you’d expect. According to Mount Watkins summit-ers, the hike back is much more challenging than the hike in. So, conserve your energy and be sure to fit in a water break at the lookout before heading back.

Stanford Point Trail

The Stanford Trail gives visitors a great mix of what the Pothole Dome and the Mount Watkins trails provide, and with how rigorous the hike is, it’s a good thing, too. This trail tends to be reserved for hikers with a bit more experience under their belt. The higher you climb, the more treacherous the trail becomes. Because of this, hiking poles are highly recommended year-round. If you plan on giving this route a try in the winter, you should add crampons and snowshoes to your equipment list. There tend to be a few downed trees along the way, too, so don’t be surprised if you have to hurdle a trunk or two.

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.

While these florals and trees make excellent photo subjects, Outsider reminds you to follow LNT guidelines and refrain from disturbing any of these plants. Ensure that future visitors (and animals) will be able to enjoy these plants by taking only photos and leaving only footprints on the designated trails.

Wawona Meadow Trail

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

Conveniently located right beside Wawona Hotel, the Wawona Meadow Trail is a popular option for those lodging in the northern part of town. This trek takes Yosemite National Park visitors past must-see vibrant meadows alive with dozens of varieties of wildflowers. You can spot the budding tops of corn lilies, trillium, baby blue eyes, red columbine and dog violets, to name a few. This trail tends to be hit-or-miss for hikers, so be sure to visit this trail during the park’s peak blooming season.

Tuolumne Grove Trail

The Tuolumne Grove Trail reminds us how small we are in the timeline of the earth. Here, you can find almost two dozen giant, ancient sequoias that sprouted their roots long before we came to know the magic of Yosemite National Park. “Big Red” is the largest sequoia in the grove and shares the grove with the “Dead Giant” tunnel tree, a popular spot for romantic, outdoorsy proposals. Tour through this grove to learn about the history of these incredible, resilient trees and bask in the wonder of their massive stature.

This absolute, top-of-the-list, must-see trail is located near El Portal off of Tioga Road. The trail begins with an immediate dip in elevation, so prepare for a more rigorous hike on the way back.

Yosemite Grand Tour

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

The Yosemite Grand Tour is the best way to see the best parts of the national park as well as the High Sierra in a single day. Near Curry Village, the Yosemite Grand Tour begins on the Valley Loop Trail and continues onto Panorama and John Muir trails before finishing on the Mist Trail. Along the way, you can access overlooks and popular attractions such as Union Point, Glacier Point, Illilouette Fall, Panorama Point, Nevada Fall, Vernal Fall, Grizzly Point and Sierra Point. The route also meets up with several other trails along the way, in case you decide to take a detour and make the trek even longer.

Throughout this long hike, you get to see all the types of foliage and flora that Yosemite has to offer. From the tops of pine trees to the roots of juniper bushes, you’ll quickly come to know just how much life thrives in this part of California.

As beautiful as the park is in the wintertime, the Yosemite Grand Tour is not suitable for snowy hikes. With narrow parts, downed trees and steep changes in elevation, it is extremely dangerous, even with the right equipment. The best way to enjoy this multi-trail route is to start early in the morning so that you have time to visit all the attractions along the way without racing against the setting sun. There are several water stations and restrooms along the way, but it’s best to carry at least two liters of water at the start of the trail.

Outsider.com