So many people travel to Yosemite and only see the highlight reel of tourist attractions down in the valley. And while these spots are undoubtedly gorgeous and not to be missed, there’s so much more to Yosemite than what can be seen from the valley road. Whether you only have a couple days, or you have all the time in the world to explore the area, read on to discover the can’t miss spots in Yosemite National Park!
Yosemite National Park is made up of 1200 square miles of vast wilderness, roaring waterfalls, valleys that stretch for miles, and granite cliffs that look like they came straight from a painting. The park is just a six hour drive from Los Angeles and has something for everyone to enjoy.
Yosemite Valley is where many tourists spend the majority, if not all, of their time. This area of the park contains some of the most famous attractions in the world. El Capitan, Half Dome, Tunnel View, The Ahwahnee, Merced River, Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls can all be seen while driving through the valley. These are all breathtaking sites, and if you only have a day or two to spend in Yosemite I suggest taking one of the Yosemite Valley Loop trails to see the sites that interest you the most. These trails are flat and easy and can take as little as a couple hours or as much as an entire day. Make sure you chose a trail that will allow you enough time to explore the other spots on this list.
Mist Trail – Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls
The Mist Trail is my favorite hike in all of Yosemite. I may be biased because it was the first hike I ever did in the park, but I truly believe this trail cannot be beat. With two gorgeous waterfalls and some of the most jaw-dropping views anywhere in the park, The Mist Trail is the one hike in Yosemite that I think should not be missed. The 8.8 mile loop trail starts at Happy Isles and follows the Merced River to the spectacular Vernal Falls. You’ll continue past Vernal Falls to Emerald Pool and then begin the climb to Nevada Falls. You’ll eventually reach the top of Nevada Falls where you’ll find sweeping views of the valley below. Take the John Muir trail back down for some of the most rewarding scenes looking back on the falls. This is a steep trail with over 2,oooft of elevation gain, so it’s recommended you are comfortable on long hikes and come prepared with plenty of water and snacks. As with all falls in Yosemite National Park, the best time for viewing is early Spring when they are at their peak.
As beautiful as Yosemite Valley is, some of the most picturesque sites in the park are found when you leave it. Tioga Pass is a road that connects Yosemite National Park to Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierra. This is California’s highest pass and often closes for several months in the winter due to extreme snowfall. If you’re in Yosemite while the road is open, a drive along this scenic pass should be a priority. Even if you don’t stop at any points along the way, the drive is absolutely stunning.
Tenaya Lake is one of the best places to stop for a visit while driving Tioga Pass road. This beautiful Alpine Lake was created by the Tenaya Glacier, the same glacier that created Half Dome. There are several trailheads nearby that lead to other areas of the park, but if you’re short on time, a quick stop at this lake to take in the scenery is highly recommended.
Lembert Dome is a granite rock formation near the East entrance station of the park. If you plan to hike El Capitan or Half Dome this short trail can probably be missed. But if you’re not an experienced climber or you have little time in the area, Lembert Dome is the perfect hike. The hike to the dome and back is less than 3 miles roundtrip, but due to the high elevation, it can feel longer. Be patient and move slow if you’re not used to high elevation hikes. You will be rewarded with some of the most spectacular views in the park once you reach the top. As an added bonus, this trail is often overlooked by visitors and therefore very quiet. On a Saturday in July I had the entire hike and dome to myself.
Tuolumne Meadows is one of the largest high elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada. It’s home to the most popular High Sierra Camps and boasts incredible views in every direction without having to walk very far from your car. If there’s only one place you stop while driving Tioga Pass road, make it this one. If you have the time and energy this is also the starting point for several well-known hikes in the area such as Lyell Canyon, Cathedral Lakes, and Glen Aulin. This is a worthy stop on it’s own, but the farther away from the parking area you wander, the more spectacular the scenery becomes.
Check back this summer for a detailed description of backpacking trips in this area.
You’re not going to find a bad view in Yosemite. Every turn will introduce you to another stunning scene, and every pull-out will have landscapes that top the last one. If you want to get off the beaten path and discover the lesser known parts of Yosemite you’ll have to hike to them. Merced Grove, Sentinel Dome, Inspiration Point, Glacier Point (you can drive to this one when the road is open for the season), Cloud’s Rest, Hetch Hetchy Falls, Olmstead Point, and Taft Point are all just as amazing as the other places I’ve mentioned. My list of can’t miss spots in Yosemite National Park is only the starting point to discovering yours.
The most popular campgrounds in Yosemite are Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines, Tuolumne Meadows, and Wawona Campground. (There are other well-known campgrounds in the park, but they will not be open for the 2021 season.) These campgrounds fill up as soon as they are released for reservation and are notoriously difficult to get. I have yet to successfully get an in-park campground reservation, so I can’t comment on their scenery and amenities. But I believe any place you are able to stay in the park would be beautiful. There are several options outside of the park for camping. My favorite campground is Yosemite Lakes RV Resort. This campground is just 5 miles from the west entrance to the park and sits on the south fork of the Tuolumne River. Carlon Falls (pictured above) is just down the road and a great short hike away from the Yosemite crowds.
All of the lodging inside Yosemite National Park is lovely. The Ahwahnee, Yosemite Valley Lodge, and Wawona Hotel are highly sought after and are often reserved up to a year in advance. If you are unable to get a reservation at the lodge of your choice inside the park, there are several options for private lodging in nearby towns.
Yosemite National Park is an incredible place to visit year round, but during the summer months it can become very hot in the middle of the day. If you intend to spend time hiking in the summer, I recommend going earlier or later in the day in order to avoid the intense midday heat. During the winter months much of the park will see snowfall. Hiking on snow covered trails should only be done by experienced winter hikers. Make sure to check with the park for closed roads and current road conditions. No matter when you visit be sure to have good maps with you, follow trails, and always carry extra food and water.
As with all travel and planning during this pandemic, it would be wise to double and triple check the park website and campground and accommodation websites for closure information and safety protocols in effect before traveling. Be sure to stay flexible with your plans and have a back up or two in place before you leave, but above all else HAVE FUN and TRAVEL SAFE!