'The mountains are calling, and I must go,' penned John Muir, the poetic naturalist of the Sierra Nevada. You'll feel that same irresistible urge once you find out all that Yosemite, Muir's move beloved national park, offers. If you've never before stood underneath a giant sequoia tree bigger than a school bus, or gazed up in awe at North America's tallest waterfall, now's the perfect time: Yosemite National Park celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2014. Hikers, climbers, backpackers, grandparents, tots – this is the people's park, with outdoor adventures for everyone. Here's how to make your first visit unforgettable.
Yosemite Valley's rock stars and waterfalls
On the thrilling 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.
In the valley, park your car for the day and ride the free visitor shuttle buses (www.nps.gov) to avoid traffic jams. 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.
Not all of the valley's best attractions are outdoors. 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.
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 (www.nps.gov), 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 (read more here). Afterward, detour south to Wawona, with its open-air pioneer village (www.yosemiteexperience.com), 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 (www.nps.gov) (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 (see here), 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 (www.yosemitepark.com).
Visiting Yosemite 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. Just 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 (see the opening information), but valley campgrounds are open and lower-elevation hiking trails are passable. Plan your trip here.
- 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 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.
Where to sleep in Yosemite
What's better than waking up underneath pine trees as the sun breaks across Yosemite Valley? Everyone else thinks so too, which means park lodgings and campsites are in high demand. You'll usually need to book rooms, cabins or campsites many months in advance, 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 Lodge at the Falls looks ho-hum, but new eco-friendly 'green' rooms and waterfall-view tables inside the Mountain Room restaurant are noteworthy.
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.