Yosemite National Park
The jaw-dropping head-turner of America’s national parks, and a Unesco World Heritage site, Yosemite (yo-sem-it-ee) garners the devotion of all who enter. From the waterfall-striped granite walls buttressing emerald-green Yosemite Valley to the skyscraping giant sequoias catapulting into the air at Mariposa Grove, the place inspires a sense of awe and reverence – four million visitors wend their way to the country’s third-oldest national park annually. But lift your eyes above the crowds and you’ll feel your heart instantly moved by unrivaled splendors: the haughty profile of Half Dome, the hulking presence of El Capitan, the drenching mists of Yosemite Falls, the gemstone lakes of the high country’s subalpine wilderness and Hetch Hetchy’s pristine pathways.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Yosemite National Park.
With their massive stature and multi-millennium maturity, the chunky high-rise sequoias of Mariposa Grove will make you feel rather insignificant. The largest grove of giant sequoias in the park, Mariposa is home to more than 500 mature trees spread over 250 acres. Walking trails wind through this very popular grove; you can usually have a more solitary experience if you come during the early evening in summer or anytime outside of summer.
If you drove, the views from 7214ft Glacier Point might make you feel like you cheated – superstar sights present themselves without your having made barely any physical effort. A quick mosey up from the parking lot and you’ll find the entire eastern Yosemite Valley spread out before you, from Yosemite Falls to Half Dome, as well as the distant peaks that ring Tuolumne Meadows. Half Dome looms practically at eye level, and if you look closely you can spot hikers on its summit.
Yosemite's most distinctive natural monument, Half Dome is 87 million years old and has a 93% vertical grade – the sheerest cliff in North America. Climbers come from around the world to grapple with its legendary north face, but good hikers can reach its summit via a 17-mile round-trip trail from Yosemite Valley. The trail gains 4900ft in elevation and has cable handrails for the last 200yd.
This ‘honey, hit the brakes!’ viewpoint, midway between the May Lake turnoff and Tenaya Lake, is a lunar landscape of glaciated granite with a stunning view down Tenaya Canyon to the back side of Half Dome. Looming over the canyon’s eastern side is 9926ft Clouds Rest, a massive mountain comprising the largest exposed chunk of granite in Yosemite. (As its name implies, clouds often settle atop the peak.) Rising 4500ft above Tenaya Creek, it makes for a strenuous, but rewarding, day hike: it's 14-mile out-and-back with 1775ft of elevation gain.
West of Yosemite Village, Yosemite Falls is considered the tallest waterfall in North America, dropping 2425ft (740m) in three tiers. A slick trail leads to the bottom or, if you prefer solitude, you can clamber up the Yosemite Falls Trail, which puts you atop the falls after a grueling 3.4 miles. The falls are usually mesmerizing, especially when the spring runoff turns them into thunderous cataracts, but are reduced to a trickle by late summer.
Some of Yosemite's best vistas are granted to those who hike the steep, 1.3-mile trail up to this viewpoint. Inspiration Point used to be a spot along an old road into Yosemite Valley. The roadbed still exists, but this hike (the western end of the Pohono Trail) is now the only way to reach the point. The view from the top – a large, open area – isn’t as spectacular as the views on the way up, but it’s a worthy destination nonetheless.
The hike to Sentinel’s summit (8122ft) is the shortest and easiest trail up one of Yosemite’s granite domes. For those unable to visit Half Dome’s summit, Sentinel offers an equally outstanding 360-degree perspective of Yosemite’s wonders, and the 2.2-mile round-trip hike only takes about an hour. A visit at sunrise or sunset or during a full moon is spectacular.
Stretching nearly 3 miles from Pothole Dome in the west to Lembert Dome in the east, Tuolumne’s main meadow is beautiful to behold, especially at sunset, when golden light ripples across the grass and laps up the sides of distant peaks into the still blue sky. Grab a fishing pole and dip into the gently rolling Tuolumne River as the sunlight fades, or just find a quiet spot to sit and stare at the landscape as the mood shifts and the colors shimmer.
Just east of Olmsted Point, the shiny blue surface of Tenaya Lake (8150ft) looks absolutely stunning framed by thick stands of pine and a series of smooth granite cliffs and domes. Dominating its north side is Polly Dome (9806ft). The face nearest the lake is known as Stately Pleasure Dome, a popular spot with climbers – you may see them working their way up from the road. Sloping up from the lake’s south shore are Tenaya Peak (10,266ft) and Tresidder Peak (10,600ft).