Yosemite has long been revered for its stunning, unique landscape, and no wonder. From the glacier-scarred face of Tutokanula – that's the native Miwok name for the iconic granite formation also known as El Capitan – to giant sequoias bigger than a school bus to North America's tallest waterfall, Yosemite is full of larger-than-life sights.

Before the arrival of European settlers, the Yosemite Valley was home to Indigenous tribes including the Miwok, Paiute, and Ahwahneechee – and indeed, many of their descendants still live in the surrounding Mariposa County. Over the past 130 years since this corner of their lands were turned into a national park, generations of visitors have experienced the surreal splendors of Yosemite, from its famous firefall to the shimmering Tuolumne Meadows. Hikers, climbers, backpackers, grandparents, tots – Yosemite has a little something for everyone, so much it can be hard to know where to begin your visit.

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If this is your first time to Yosemite, we can help you narrow it down with a greatest-hits of one of the greatest parks in the United States. From your approach to the park by car to when your head hits the pillow at one of several lodges and campgrounds on site, and all the adventures in between, here's what to do on your first trip to Yosemite.

Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, USA
Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, USA © PhotoAlto / Jerome Gorin / Getty Images

The drive into Yosemite Valley,  Yosemite National Park

On the thrilling, winding drive into Yosemite Valley, you'll be impressed by the panoramic windshield views of a glacier-carved canyon, thickly forested, with grassy meadows beside a bubbling river and granite monoliths scraping the sky. Stop at Tunnel View for a postcard-perfect shot of the valley floor, snaggletoothed Half Dome, stalwart El Capitan and cascading waterfalls rushing down sheer cliffs.

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Tourists board a free Yosemite shuttle service bus at Yosemite Valley © Michael Vi / Shutterstock

Yosemite National Park: hiking the Valley

In the valley, park your car for the day and ride the free visitor shuttle buses to avoid traffic jams. Be sure to arrive early, as parking lots may fill up as soon as 9am. From convenient shuttle stops, it's an easy stroll right up to the base of double-tiered Yosemite Falls, the continent's highest at over 2400ft, or pulse-pounding Bridalveil Fall. If you've got more time and stamina, ascend the slick granite-rock staircase on the Mist Trail, which runs so narrowly beside Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall that you're likely to get sprayed with water, above which spritely rainbows flash. Still got some energy? Get an advance permit for the all-day hike to Half Dome or sign up for a rock-climbing lesson with Yosemite Mountaineering School. Or chill on a blanket in El Capitan Meadow with a pair of binoculars and watch the pros scaling its daunting granite face, looking like ants.

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Mother with infant on her back at the the base of giant Sequoia trees © My Good Images / Shutterstock

For the kids

For a leisurely afternoon, grab a picnic spot and have a splash at Happy Isles. If you prefer a dry cool-down, bring the kids to the Valley Visitor Center for a free film about Yosemite's show-stopping wonders, then peruse the natural history displays and check daily schedules of free ranger walks and talks. At the nearby Yosemite Museum, cultural demonstrators bring to life Native American tribal traditions, including intricately patterned woven baskets.

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Cathedral Lake and surrounding mountains in Yosemite National Park © markmandersonfilms / Shutterstock

Heading into Yosemite's High Country

After a day or two in Yosemite Valley, escape to higher – and significantly cooler – elevations. It's an hour's drive to Glacier Point, winding through pine forest to a stellar viewpoint that peers down into the valley and over the jagged, rocky rooftop of the Sierra Nevada. On the way up or down, stop off for a walk through wildflower meadows out to dizzying Taft Point or climb Sentinel Dome. Afterward, detour south to Wawona, with its open-air pioneer village, and catch a free shuttle to the majestic Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees, the largest living things on earth.

An even more gobstopping scenic drive follows historic Tioga Rd (Hwy 120) to high-altitude Tuolumne Meadows (8600ft), which bursts with a rainbow's palette of summer wildflowers and is ringed by granite domes that beckon to climbers and hikers. Also off Tioga Rd, don't skip Olmsted Point, with its panoramas of Half Dome and startlingly deep Tenaya Canyon; or pristine Tenaya Lake, a refreshingly cold dip on a hot summer day. Hiking trailheads abound, most served by free shuttle buses. If you'd rather see the Sierra Nevada's peaks and alpine lakes on horseback, book a trail ride with Tuolumne Meadows Stable.

Girl  with Small Backpack Taking photo of Yosemite
Woman taking a photo of a valley in Yosemite on her phone © Nirian / Getty Images

Visiting Yosemite National Park in any season

Summer is the most popular time to visit the park, when all roads are open and a variety of outdoor pursuits are possible. Be prepared for big crowds, elbow jostling on trails, jam-packed campgrounds and 'No Vacancy' signs at park lodgings.

Spring is another busy time, when Yosemite Valley's waterfalls peak during April and May. Early in spring, some park roads will still be closed by snow, but valley campgrounds are open and lower-elevation hiking trails are passable. Plan your trip here.

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Yosemite Valley in fall © Loic Lagarde / Getty Images

Fall is Yosemite's shoulder season, with fewer crowds. Many waterfalls are dry and overnight temperatures make camping chilly. But you'll have some hiking trails almost to yourself as the aspen trees begin turning a shimmering gold.

Winter in Yosemite really is a wonderland, with snowshoe trails and tame downhill and cross-country skiing at Badger Pass, California's first alpine ski resort established in 1935. Bonus: park lodging rates drop during winter.

Tip: Check here for road closures before you go.

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A stately dining hall at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel © Kit Leong / Shutterstock

Where to sleep in Yosemite

What's better than waking up underneath pine trees as the sun breaks across Yosemite Valley? To drink coffee with this view, you'll usually need to book rooms, cabins or campsites many months in advance, as park lodgings are usually in high demand – especially for summer vacations. 

Tip: to find last-minute cancellations, check online or call starting a week before your trip.

In Yosemite Valley, the historic 1927  Ahwahnee Hotel is one of the nation's best (not to mention most luxurious) examples of 'parkitecture,' designed to blend with an outstanding natural setting. In summer, imbibe cocktails on the back patio with views of Half Dome, or toast your tootsies by grand fireplaces during winter. For budget travelers, old-fashioned Curry Village, dating from 1899, sets up canvas-tent cabins in the forest and by the river that are big enough for families. Motel-style Yosemite Valley Lodge looks ho-hum, but new eco-friendly 'green' rooms and waterfall-view tables inside the Mountain Room restaurant are noteworthy.

Camping at Tuolumne Meadow
A couple relaxing on the banks of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park © DNY59 / Getty Images

Outside the valley, the Victorian-era Wawona Hotel (closed in winter) is a genteel hostelry with wide porches and grassy lawns near the Mariposa Grove. Open only in summer, Tuolumne Meadows Lodge and White Wolf Lodge both rent rustic canvas-tent cabins off Tioga Rd that feel like going to camp when you were a kid.

If you bring your own tent, the park's busiest campgrounds are in Yosemite Valley, and you'll need reservations (except during winter). First-come, first-served campgrounds outside the valley are more immersed in nature, but they fill quickly on summer weekends and holidays – arrive before 10am to hopefully score a site.

Lonely Planet's Yosemite, Sequoia & King's Canyon guide features in-depth research and advice on the best sights, hikes and camping grounds. Perfect for everyone, from the road-tripping family to the serious outdoor enthusiast.  Also check out our articles on Yosemite's top day hikes and Hiking through Yosemite's back-country for more information on how to experience Yosemite to its fullest.

Introducing Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

 

This article was first published August 2019 and updated April 2021

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