Yosemite is one of those truly magical places that must be experienced in person. My family went there regularly when I was growing up but I had not been back for many years. My son and I went there in 2015 and even though I went there many times in the past it seemed new again. We went right before the main summer rush so there were lots of tourists but we avoided the main tourist onslaught. I forgot how the granite walls tower above you when viewed from the valley. The sights in Yosemite simply cannot be adequately captured with a camera. You lose the scale and grandeur of the place with photos. Yosemite is a photographer’s dream and there are photo opportunities throughout the park. You could spend weeks in Yosemite and not see everything. Be sure to stop at Visitor Centers and ask the rangers for suggestions. Some of the rangers are like walking Yosemite encyclopedias and they can give you suggestions for sights and trails that you might miss otherwise. Ask different rangers because they often have different perspectives or areas of specialty. Here is my humble list of places to see.
Click the links in each section for a more detailed article.
The Tunnel View (details) is often your first view of the Yosemite Valley. You drive through a tunnel almost a mile long that was carved through solid granite. As you emerge from the tunnel you get a complete view of the valley including El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridal Veil Falls, Sentinel Dome, etc. This is a very touristy stop but everyone has to stop here.
Take time on the Valley Floor (details) and just enjoy the huge granite formations surrounding you. Ask rangers at the Visitor Centers for trail suggestions. Park by some of the ponds and streams and just enjoy the views. Pack a lunch and find a meadow or sit under the trees and enjoy the moment.
Vernal Falls is a very touristy hike because of its proximity to Yosemite Village. The falls is amazing but the hike was a bit of a challenge for me due to the thin air, moderate inclines, and combination of wet granite and shoes with no grip. I wanted to continue to Nevada Falls but our time was limited and my hiking shoes were not gripping well on the wet granite steps in front of the falls.
Bridal Veil Falls is often the first waterfall that you encounter in the valley. It had very little water when we viewed it. Years ago I remember it being a thundering waterfall but on this trip it barely had any water. I did longer exposure photos and it looked like a ghost waterfall. We were able to scramble the rocks and get very close to the face of the falls which I have never done before. This provided a very unique view of the falls that I may never see again.
Yosemite Falls is a very touristy spot but it is always impressive. Avoid going during the main hours of the day to miss the main crowds. This multi-stage falls is probably one of the most photographed waterfalls in the world.
The Four Mile Trail is a strenuous trail starts at the valley floor and climbs to Glacier Point. I was only able to get about 1.5 miles up the trail but there were some very nice view of the valley, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, etc. We hiked Lembert Dome earlier in the day and I didn’t have the energy to complete the trail. I found the trail challenging mostly due to the thin air and near constant incline.
Glacier Point Road
The road to Glacier Point has many places to see and trails to hike. We only saw a few of the wonders on this road but here are my favorites.
One of my favorite things to see in Yosemite is the bright and elusive Snow Plant.
Glacier Point is a cliffside area offers spectacular views of the valley and a close-up view of Half Dome. Glacier Point can get very crowded so avoid the normal tourist hours. The lighting is better towards evening and golden hour (the time around sunset) can give a magical glow to the valley and Half Dome. Bring some binoculars or find one of the public telescopes and observe the people on the top of Half Dome. Rangers give a variety of talks and presentations and take advantage of these when you can.
The Taft Point / Sentinel Dome (details) loop hike is a must see. Both destinations are fantastic but both are completely different. The best solution is to take the loop trail and see both.
Many more sights and trails await on the Tioga side of the park. This is the Yosemite high country and the air gets very thin. As you climb out of the valley be sure to look back because there are some impressive views of the valley.
The short hike to Tuolumne Grove rewards you with some personal time with some very large giant sequoia trees. These trees can live for thousands of years, can be around 30′ in diameter, and over 200′ tall. You can walk through the burned Tunnel Tree and see the sky through the middle of the tree.
Olmstead Lookout is one of the many impressive places to stop along the road. A nice parking lot and viewing area allows you to see the views but take a little extra time and hike around the area.
Lembert Dome is closer to the Tioga entrance to Yosemite. This hike is only about 3 miles with a 900′ elevation gain but it starts at 8,500′ so the air is quite thin. The dome itself offers nice views and the granite formations are quite impressive.
Tioga Pass & Mono Lake
Just outside the Tioga entrance to the park lies Mono Lake and the Tufa beds. These large, alien-looking formations are a short walk from the parking lot. Be sure to stop at the Visitor Center to learn about these formation before seeing them.
- YosemiteHikes.com provides an excellent overview of Yosemite hikes with ratings, difficulty levels, and articles with photos.
- Be sure to have proper footwear on the trails. My hiking shoes were good for normal trails but they did not grip well on the smoother granite. For the granite hikes I wore my normal cross trainers. These were harder on my feet and ankles but they had better grip on the granite. Make sure your footwear grips well.
- Do NOT underestimate the effects of altitude (good article to prepare for elevation). The valley elevation is about 4000′ and the air is thin. At Lembert Dome you will be over 9000′. At sea level this would be a pretty easy hike but at 8000-9000′ it is not as easy as you would expect.
- Easy hikes can be more difficult than expected due to the thin air.
On the trails be sure to bring water and energy snacks. Drink small amounts of water often and be sure to stay hydrated. Carry the essentials and always prepare for the worst just to be safe.
- Take only photos and leave only footprints.
- Ask the rangers questions and allow them to give you advice and suggestions. Listen to the rangers because they have your best interest in mind and they REALLY know their stuff.