Top 10 Things to Do in Yosemite National Park

by Jon D. B.
top-10-things-to-do-yosemite-national-park

As the National Park Service describes, Yosemite National Park is “Not just a great valley, but a shrine to human foresight, the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, the persistence of life, and the tranquility of the High Sierra.”

Truer words were never spoken when it comes to a national park. From towering waterfalls to vast wildlife-filled wilderness, Yosemite has something for everyone amid one of the planet’s most impressive landscapes.

But first, be sure to note that if you’re visiting Yosemite from May 20 through September 30, 2022, you’ll need a reservation to do so. That being said, let’s get to the top 10 can’t miss destinations within Yosemite National Park.

10. Glacier Point‘s Panoramic View

View from sentinel dome. yosemite national park. USA. (Photo by: Bluered/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If you’re looking for one of the most spectacular views anywhere in North America, Glacier Point has it. Towering 4,150 feet over the Yosemite ecosystem, the peak offers unparalleled views of park high country, Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and even birds-eye views of three park waterfalls.

To visit, the park’s road to Glacier Point is typically open from May or early June to sometime in November. More adventurous souls, however, may prefer to ski there in winter.

Similar views are available as Washburn Point (just south of Glacier Point), but Glacier’s views of Nevada and Vernal Falls can’t be beat. If you prefer your waterfalls up close and personal, though, then #9 is for you.

9. Vernal & Bridalveil Falls

The Vernal Fall, Yosemite Park. (Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

There are a dozen phenomenal waterfalls in Yosemite. But if you’re wanting to walk right up to the falls, then Vernal and Bridalveil are best bets.

Vernal Fall’s immense size and power is a true sight to behold. It flows all year, making it an excellent stop in any season (unlike Yosemite Falls). By mid to late summer, however, it narrows and separates into one to three falls as water flow decreases.

For peak Vernal Fall, visit in late May. Vernal is viewable via Glaicer Point, though from a great distance. There is also a wheelchair-accessible trail available to this viewpoint. For the truly adventurous looking to access the fall directly, however, head to Vernal Fall Trail. It’s a steep trek, but entirely worth it to soak it all in right at the source. Or, you can view Vernal from Mist Trail (#8) and view this amazing fall from front-on and the top.

Bridalveil Fall, Spirit Faces and Sunset Rainbow, Yosemite National Park. (Photo by: Ron Reznick/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

And then there’s the gorgeous Bridalveil Fall, a completely different waterfall type that’s just as majestic – but for entirely different reasons. Unfortunately, the trail may still be closed due to the Bridalveil Fall Rehabilitation Project by the time you visit. But if it’s open, be sure to walk to the base via the short but very steep trail. It only takes a few minutes to reach, and is beyond worth it.

Either way, Bridalveil is often the first waterfall visitors spot upon entering Yosemite Valley. Visit in spring for the most thundering power it achieves all year. View this fall from the Bridalveil parking lot on the way to the valley, or from the tunnels are on Wawona Road (Highway 41) and/or Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120).

8. Mist Trail – Yosemite National Park’s Top Trek

Visitors hike the Mist Trail toward Vernal Fall in the Yosemite National Park, California on July 03, 2020. (Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)

Sometimes, things are popular for the right reasons. Mist Trail is one of those things. This gorgeous trek is the most walked in Yosemite, which turns some off due to crowds. But get there early or outside of the busy season, and it’ll become one of your favorite trails in America, guaranteed.

On Mist Trail, you’ll skirt the 317-foot Vernal Fall as well as the incredible 594-foot Nevada Fall on your way to Little Yosemite Valley. Heading to the top of Vernal Fall makes for a 2.4 mile round trip. Heading on to Nevada Fall doubles this to a 5.4 mile round trip.

Please note that Yosemite National Park asks visitors taking Mist Trail to “watch your children closely since the path can get slippery when it is wet. And don’t go near the water. The current is deceptively strong, even in what looks like still pools of water. A number of fatalities have occurred when children and adults have waded into the water on this trail.”

To find the Mist Trail trailhead, head to Yosemite Valley and find it near the Happy Isles Nature Center at shuttle stop 16. For less traveled trails, visit our Yosemite National Park Must-Sees: Hikes, Views, and Landmarks, from Lower Yosemite Falls to Stanford Point.

7. See El Capitan from His Meadow

USA: Yosemite National Park / El Capitan (Photo by Rolf Schulten/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Want a face-to-face meeting with the most famous granite monolith in Yosemite Valley? Head for El Capitan Meadow where you’ll get an incredible, straight-up view of El Capitan himself.

As for Yosemite’s towering Capitan, the granite formation rises over 3,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor. In his meadow, El Capitan stands opposite Bridalveil Fall. He’s long been a favorite for experienced rock climbers, but is just as impressive from below. If outside of the meadow, you can also spot El Capitan from roads in western Yosemite Valley, Tunnel View, and Bridalveil Fall area. He really is that massive.

Visiting El Capitan Meadow also offers spectacular views of Cathedral Rocks and other granite formations some visitors find even more impressive. To get to the meadow, head down Northside Drive on your way out of Yosemite Valley.

6. Yosemite Icon: Half Dome

Vew of the Half Dome monolith from Glacier Point at the Yosemite National Park in California on June 4, 2015. (Photo credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

Alongside El Capitan, Half Dome is one of the most recognizable symbols of Yosemite National Park. And if you’re a landmark chaser, this absolutely incredible, 5,000-foot granite formation has to be on your list.

Incredibly, it is possible to hike or rock-climb to the top of Half Dome. But for a more tame view, the Yosemite symbol is visible throughout the majority of Yosemite Valley.

The most popular way to see Half Dome, however, is Mirror Lake (which isn’t really a lake). Regardless, this destination provides excellent views of Half Dome from up close. Prepare for a 2 mile round trip via paved trail with up to a 11% grade (so not too bad).

If far away is okay by you, then keep an eye out for Half Dome from Yosemite Village, Yosemite Valley Lodge, and Curry Village.

5. Tioga Ecosystem via Tioga Road

Hikers silhouettes watching a panoramic view from Olmsted Point and the Tioga road in Yosemite National Park, California, USA. (Photo by Marji Lang/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Surely you’ve noticed thus far that there’s nothing but incredible sights in Yosemite. For something a bit different, however, be sure to head to Tuolumne Meadows, a “large, open subalpine meadow graced by the winding Tuolumne River and surrounded by majestic peaks and domes, as NPS describes it.

Taking The Tioga Road to the meadows offers a 47-mile scenic drive between Crane Flat and Tioga Pass. On the drive, you’ll pass through gorgeously unique forests, meadows, granite domes, and alongside lakes. There’s plenty of turnouts offering beautiful vistas along the way, too, so a half to full day could be easily spent exploring Tioga along Tioga Road (the continuation of Highway 120 throughout Yosemite National Park).

Please note, however, that The Tioga Road is only open from approximately late May/June through October/November. Tour buses are also available on this route during this time.

4. Yosemite’s Unmissable Vista: Tunnel View

Visitors enjoy the spectacular scene from Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park, in Yosemite, Calif., on Monday Jan. 22, 2018. (Photo by Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

If there were ever a spot to swallow pride and brave the crowds, it’s Yosemite’s Tunnel View.

A viewpoint at the east end of the Wawona Tunnel along Wawona Road (Highway 41), Tunnel View offers an absolutely astounding, picture-perfect view of Yosemite Valley. But photos truly don’t do it justice. This is one spot you have to stop for yourself while in the park. An absolute can’t miss and must-see.

From the viewpoint, everything from El Capitan to Bridalveil Fall and Half Dome are all visible at the same time. What more needs to be said?

3. America’s Finest Waterfall: Yosemite Falls

As impressive as Half Dome and El Capitan are, few things compare to beholding a titanic waterfall. And Yosemite Falls is nearly as titanic as they come.

Towering 2,425 feet above Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Falls is one of the largest waterfalls on the planet. This skyscraper-sized fall swells in April through June when winter snow melts to give way to spring and summer.

To take in its majesty, head to Yosemite Village and Yosemite Valley Lodge. Or, take the one-mile loop trail to Lower Yosemite Fall (the lowers 320-ft section of the full falls), which is both wheelchair accessible and available via the park shuttle stop.

If you’re feeling truly adventurous, however, it is possible to hike to the top of Yosemite Falls. But beware, this is a truly strenuous trek that take a full day to complete.

2. Giant Sequoias of Mariposa Grove

Visitors look at the Grizzly Giant tree in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias on May 21, 2018 in Yosemite National Park, California which recently reopened after a three-year renovation project to better protect the trees that can live more than 3,000 years. (Photo credit: DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images)

If this list proves one thing, it’s Yosemite’s status as a land of giants. After unfathomably huge granite formations and some of the largest waterfalls on Earth, we make our way to the the largest trees to ever live: the giant sequoias.

Yosemite National Park is home to over 500 mature giant sequoia trees, and they leave a lasting impression on millions of visitors every year. These tremendous living things have a presence unlike anything else in the park. One of the largest and most famous is the Grizzly Giant Tree, a 209 feet (63.7 meter) tall giant who scientists now believe to be almost 3,000-years-old – the max lifespan for a giant sequoia. Or so we believe.

The best place to view these giants in Yosemite is the famous Mariposa Grove, the park’s largest grove. And it is truly unmissable. As large as Grizzly Giant looks in the image above, there is no preparing for the tree’s truly immense size in person as hundreds of other giants loom all around.

1. The Full Yosemite Valley Tour

Visitors to Yosemite Valley ride bikes with a view of Yosemite Falls for the first time in 2½ months after closing because of the coronavirus on Thursday, June 11, 2020 in Yosemite National Park, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“The far-famed valley came suddenly into view throughout almost its whole extent: the noble walls, sculptured into endless variety of domes and gables, spires and battlements and plain mural precipices, all a-tremble with the thunder tones of the falling water. The level bottom seemed to be dressed like a garden, sunny meadows here and there and groves of pine and oak, the river of Mercy sweeping in majesty through the midst of them and flashing back the sunbeams.”

John Muir

None have described the true magic of Yosemite Valley like the ‘Father of National Parks,’ John Muir. Many of the individual landmarks he loved are mentioned above, but to experience Yosemite fully is to tour Yosemite Valley unencumbered.

In the valley, you can drive directly to many of the park’s famous cliffs and waterfalls via car or bus year-round. But there’s nothing like exiting the trappings of modern society to walk freely throughout the valley and soak in the Merced River, towering granite temples, and serene flowing meadows. Outsider recommends stopping at Valley View, too, on your way out of Yosemite Valley via Northside Drive. You won’t regret it.

To access Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park:

  • Car: You can drive into and around Yosemite Valley all year. Highways 41, 140, and 120 (from the west) provide access all year, although tire chains may be required from October or November through March or April.
  • Bus: Amtrak and YARTS provide public transportation to Yosemite Valley

For more on this spectacular California park, be sure to see our Top 10 Things to Know About Yosemite National Park w/ PHOTOS next.

And to plan your full excursion, head to our Yosemite National Park in California: Everything You Need to Plan Your Trip from Must-Sees and Camping to Wildlife and Trails.

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