Over the last year and a half I’ve visited Yosemite six times. It wasn’t until the pandemic that I was forced to put a halt to my travel business and start exploring the nearby areas I’ve neglected for too long. Needless to say from the first time I stepped foot in Yosemite, I was hooked. I’m lucky to live only a five hour drive from the park and have taken full advantage of that close proximity.
Yosemite is so much more than just the valley that sits at it’s floor, but there’s a reason the valley is the most popular area in all of Yosemite. Though I think the whole of Yosemite is worth exploring, this post will focus on what I think are the best spots in the Yosemite Valley. Check out this previous post if you have some time to explore outside the valley Can’t Miss Spots in Yosemite National Park
Continue reading for an overview of the Can’t Miss Spots in all of Yosemite Valley!
There are a few main entrances into Yosemite. From the eastern side Tioga Pass, the highest highway pass in California, takes you on a scenic drive through some of the most beautiful sites in Yosemite. It takes close to two hours (or longer on busy summer days) to get from the eastern entrance to Yosemite Valley. On the western side you’ll find the Hetch Hetchy , Big Oak Flat, and Arch Rock entrances best for those traveling from anywhere north of Yosemite. My favorite entrance, and the most convenient coming from Los Angeles, is the south entrance along Highway 41. For the purposes of this post I will be entering from this entrance and discussing points as they come up along the valley floor loop.
Tunnel View is the first great picture spot along the way. It’s a favorite for photographers, and it’s not hard to see why. The expansive valley floor with it’s lush forest, famous granite rock formations like El Capitan and Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall are all displayed before you. It’s a great stop on it’s own, but if you have some energy take a short hike to Artist’s Point from here.
I mentioned that Bridalveil Fall can be seen from Tunnel View, but there’s an even better viewing area just down the road. There has been some extensive restoration work going on at this viewing area, and it is not currently open to the public. Plans to reopen the area have been pushed back to 2022, but there are other places in the park to view these beautiful falls.
This is my favorite underrated stop on this valley tour. I’ve been in the Fall, Spring, and Summer at all times of day and am always surprised to find it relatively quiet. If you’d like a nice spot to relax with incredible views, this is your place. There are toilets and picnic tables and plenty of space to spread out for your own little slice of paradise.
Swinging Bridge is one of the busier stops along the valley floor. With the reflection of Yosemite Falls lining up perfectly on the surface of the Merced River it’s one of the best places to get a picture of the falls. There are an abundance of picnic tables and places to sit and enjoy the view, as well as walking trails that take you near Camp 4 on the other side of the river.
The Chapel, Sentinel and Cooks Loop
There’s a working chapel on the floor of Yosemite Valley. If you’re there on a Sunday you can try and catch services, but there is a limit to the number of people allowed in the small building. It’s still a great place to stop and a good jumping off point to walk Sentinel and Cook’s Meadow Loop. This trail is paved and flat and takes you through gorgeous meadows to the trailhead to Lower Yosemite Falls and back.
If you’re lucky enough to get a campsite reservation in the park you’ll likely be spending some time at Curry Village. It’s in walking distance from the Valley’s three most popular campgrounds. In addition to the cabins, tent cabins, and standard rooms you can find here, the village has a Peet’s Coffee, a pizza place, a grill, and a market. It’s a fun place to stop if you can find parking, and the coffee is delicious.
Upper Pines, Lower Pines, and North Pines Campgrounds can all be found within a short distance of each other. This spring I was gifted a campsite in Lower Pines from a friend and finally had my first experience with camping inside the park. I had previously camped in several places outside of the park and loved it, but there’s something extra special about being able to wake up in the heart of Yosemite Valley. This fall I was also lucky enough to snag a spot at Lower Pines for several days and found that you really can’t go wrong with any spot at any of the campgrounds. There are some prime riverfront spots at Lower and North Pines, but they will always be the hardest to book. Regardless of what site you’re able to get, the gorgeous Merced River and surrounding area are right at your door. The campgrounds have flush toilets and drinking water and each campsite has a picnic table, fire ring, and bear box. There are no water or electrical hookups in Yosemite.
Mist Trail tp Vernal and Nevada Falls
This trail was the first I ever hiked in Yosemite, and it’s become a tradition to hike it on every visit I make to the valley. The scenery along the trail is spectacular, these falls are some of the few that are flowing year round, and the view from on top of the falls is one of the best in the park. This is a popular trail and the starting point for anyone climbing Half Dome, but the crowds tend to clear out after reaching the base of Vernal Falls. I like to take this hike up to the top of Nevada Falls and then down the John Muir trail. It’s a perfect loop trail with different scenery at every turn. This trail has quite a bit of elevation, so start early in the summer and bring plenty of water. If you’re not sure you’re in the right shape, most people can at least make the trek to the footbridge of Vernal Falls.
It wasn’t until my most recent visit that I finally made the time to hike to Mirror Lake. I was there after some heavy rains reanimated Yosemite Falls, so I hoped the same would be said for Mirror Lake. The lake tends to dry up midway through the summer season and doesn’t always make a return before the following spring. This ended up being my favorite hike of the trip, and though I know the fall colors had something to do with it, I think this would be a beautiful hike any time of year. It’s a relatively short and flat hike suitable for most people, which makes it popular, but it’s worth adding it to your itinerary.
The Ahwahnee is said to be the crown jewel of the Yosemite hotels. From the grounds of the hotel you can see Half Dome, Glacier Point, and Yosemite Falls. It has an onsite dining room, large common rooms with fireplaces and sofas, a candy shop, and a world famous cocktail lounge. The drinks and eats don’t come cheap here, but they are worth the price. If you have even an hour of spare time it’s a great place to stop and take in the ambience.
Lower Yosemite Falls
Lower Yosemite Falls is likely the most popular stop on this list. During the summer months after 8am it is very difficult to find parking near the trailhead. Either go knowing it could be a while to find parking, or try walking to this spot from another area. The short trail to the base of the lower falls is very scenic and often very crowded. As with everywhere else in Yosemite, there’s good reason for this. The viewing area at the end of this trail is beautiful and shouldn’t be missed.
Upper Yosemite Falls
I knew the hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls was a strenuous one, but after having hiked the Mist Trail several times I thought it would be comparable to that. I was seriously mistaken in this assumption, and this trail kicked my butt. It’s gorgeous from the very beginning, and I started at 6am to try and beat the heat of the day, but the final third of the trail up to the top of the falls is a little torturous. Once you think you must be near the top, you turn a corner and see yet another series of never-ending switchbacks. On my way back down I passed a lot of people on this very exposed section trying to make the climb in the heat of the day. Every single one of them asked how much further and looked to be in some level of pain. All of that said, it was an incredibly rewarding hike. The views from the top are exquisite, and the feeling of accomplishment is the best I had from any hike in Yosemite (outside of my backpacking trip to Glen Aulin). There is a place to get a closer look at the top of the falls, but I do not recommend this for anyone with a fear of heights. This trail is best done in the spring when the water is roaring and the summer heat hasn’t quite hit, but go prepared with water and snacks.
Valley View is a small viewing area on Northside Drive at the end of the Valley Loop. I’ve only ever been early in the morning, so crowds have not been bad in my experience, but there are very few parking spots so it might be tough later in the day. This is a beautiful place to see Bridalveil Fall and a perfect sunrise spot.
Glacier Point can be reached either by car or by foot. During the winter months Glacier Point road is closed and the only way to reach Glacier Point is through hiking. Glacier Point Road will be closed for the 2022 and possibly 2023 seasons, so hiking to the point will be your only option. The Four Mile Trail is the most popular trail to this point, but don’t let the name fool you. This is a strenuous 9 mile out and back trail that gains over 3200 feet in elevation. If you are visiting when the road is open there are several places along the way worth stopping. The Taft Point and Sentinel Dome trails are well worth a visit. Glacier Point itself probably has the best view in all of Yosemite. From this vista you can see all of Yosemite’s major landmarks. In early spring when the waterfalls are at their peak is my favorite time of year to visit this spot, but it’s stunning any time of year.
Everyone will have their own opinion on which spots should not be missed. There are plenty of places left off of this list that others might enjoy, and I encourage you to set off and do some exploring while there! Whether you’re able to stop by only one or all of the places on this list, you won’t be disappointed. There is nowhere in the world quite like Yosemite, and any visit for any length of time is worth it.