Yosemite National Park is nestled into California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s famed for its giant, ancient sequoia trees, and for Tunnel View, the iconic vista of towering Bridalveil Fall and the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome. This majestic park truly has a little something for everyone, but to make the best of your time here you really need to plan out your stay., and I’m here to help!
First and foremost, where are you staying? Accommodations book QUICKLY here, especially during the summer busy season (Late May – September); they range from simple tent cabins at the High Sierra Camps, to simple campsites, to deluxe rooms at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Visit the Yosemite Hospitality website for full descriptions, prices, and online reservations. Reservations are available 366 days in advance and are strongly recommended, for ALL accommodations, especially from spring through fall and during holidays.
Speaking from my area of expertise and experience, camping at Yosemite is quite the experience. There are campgrounds that take reservations and campgrounds that are first come first serve only. CLICK HERE for a well-organized chart explaining important campground information such as pricing, availability, running water, sites, pets, elevation and, most importantly, opening dates. Many first come first serve campgrounds are not open in from October through early spring; the opening of these sites depends heavily on the year’s snow pack. For example, in August of 2017, I traveled here expecting all the first come first serve campsites on Tioga Road to be open since their projected opening date was August 1st; on August 10th the only campsites open on Tioga Road were Tamarack Flat and Tuolumne Meadows. In our case, arriving at 1:00 PM on a Thursday did not bode well for our chances at getting a site. We were two people away from securing one for ourselves, however, a kind gentleman and his family offered to share their site with us for the night in hopes of better luck the next day. Arriving to
wait sleep in line at 4:45 AM only secured me the 6th open campsite available, but it was well worth the blacktop mattress for a weekend long site.
Food and Food Storage
There are plenty of restaurant and dining options throughout the park. Yosemite Valley has year-round dining options while these options are only available seasonally in Wawona, Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area (formerly Badger Pass), Glacier Point, White Wolf, and Tuolumne Meadows. Additionally, groceries are available all year in Yosemite Valley, Wawona, Crane Flat, and El Portal, and seasonally at Tuolumne Meadows. We indulged twice while in Yosemite Valley and were not disappointed either time. At Half Dome village we enjoyed delicious burgers for a late lunch after a tough 10 miles day and the following morning, devoured breakfast sandwiches from Degnan’s Cafe. Degnan’s was very busy but provided a good range of breakfast options and coffee along with a variety of delicious looking pastries and coolers full of drinks and prepackaged food items.
All campgrounds are equipped with a firepit and grilling grate that, with the help of tin foil and cooking equipment, converts into the perfect stove. Camp stoves are obviously also allowed and might provide faster and more convenient dining options from the comfort of your campsite picnic table. Each campsite also has food lockers; these food lockers provide a great place to store food and any other items with scent (think deod0rant, face wash, hand sanitizer, baby wipes, chapstick, sunblock, etc.) in a place that makes your stay safer for both you and the wildlife. We found that these lockers stayed cool throughout the day and wound up being incredibly convenient for all of our storage needs at our site.
Considering Yosemite is composed of 95% designated wilderness land it would not surprise me if many of my readers were hoping to obtain wilderness permits to further enjoy their stay in Yosemite. As someone who applied for one and was denied due to filled quotas four month in advance, be sure to apply for your wilderness permit exactly 6 months prior to when you would like to utilize it. Wilderness permits are only issued to a limited number people for each trailhead in order to provide outstanding opportunities for solitude, as required by the Wilderness Act. A reservation typically costs $5 per confirmed reservation plus $5 per person unless you plan to hike Half Dome on your trip which will run you a bit more money.
Don’t forget, while you’re backpacking, to make sure you have an adequate map; purchase the weather and tear resistant Yosemite National Park (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map). Gone are the days of folding your map into the current hiking section and sticking it in a zip lock baggie to prevent any dampness from ruining your plan! Please know that as an Amazon associate if you choose to purchase this item I will receive a small percentage of the sale; also know that this is the map that I purchased from Amazon for my trip and used on each of my hikes throughout the park. In your trail planning, don’t forget to stop, if and where you can, on your through hike to restock, enjoy running water and share your stories with the day hikers!
What we’ve all been waiting for! Trail suggestions. There is truly a trail for everyone at Yosemite National Park and I hope to share that with you here. Additional plug for the above map: there were many hikes and trailheads that we did not even know existed before looking at our National Geographic Map; the park map provided has the most popular trails minimally marked in a way that is not acceptable for proper navigation. Also, many of our favorite day hikes were found after laying out our Nat Geo map and studying a few trail options!
TRAIL: Mirror Lake Loop
DESCRIPTION: Bring your bathing suit for this one! A simple hike with no real elevation gain will bring you to one of Yosemite’s most popular swimming holes. The full loop itself is 4 miles long if you make it to Tenaya Canyon and loop around, however, it is only 2.4 miles from the trailhead to the lake. It is heavily trafficked and full of swimmers in the warm summer months. For my hiking partner and I, this hike was a waste of time. We prefer something more strenuous with greater reward but for people looking to cool off or hiking with children, this is a viable option. Close to the base of Half Dome, easily accessible and home to varying water depths.
TRAIL: Tuolumne Meadow
DESCRIPTION: Explore the meadow at first light or sunset. What a beautiful place to be as the light dances up over the towering rock faces to the east and an equally magical place to be as the sky turns from a soft cotton candy pink to fiery orange while the sun disappears over the dome-studded sub-alpine meadowy section of the Tuolumne River. Nearby you can find soda springs and Parsons Lodge. The Historic Parsons Memorial Lodge offers exhibits; check a schedule to see if there is one while you’re in town!
TRAIL: Tuolumne Grove
DESCRIPTION: The great part of this trip is that it is an entire trip to the grove is downhill. And this grove contains a couple dozen mature Giant Sequoias, including one you can walk through; if you haven’t already seen dozens of huge Sequoias in SEKI, don’t miss this hike!
TRAIL: Lower Yosemite Falls
DESCRIPTION: An accessible paved walk to the bottom of the falls. From here you can choose to stay on flat, solid ground or venture onto the large boulders littering the side of Yosemite Creek. Despite signs warning of injury, you’ll see people of all shapes, sizes, and ability doing some light rock scrambling to get as close to lower falls as they can. If you’re up for it and capable, I suggest doing the same. It’s incredible to get up close and personal with the 320 foot shortest section. If you come prepared, you can swim in a beautiful pool of water right at the base of this colossal waterfall. Yosemite falls is a 2,425-foot tumbler, tallest in North America, that is so tall it has to take two rests before it’s done falling.
TRAIL: Taft Point
DIFFICULTY: EASY – MODERATE
DESCRIPTION: An incredibly easy hike to the most perfect views of Yosemite Valley that overlook El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.Taft Point and its surrounding rock fissures provide panoramic views of the valley; make sure to take a gander at the vertical chasms that drop into a trench coursing down into Yosemite Valley but don’t get too close! Or do…
TRAIL: Sentinel Dome
DESCRIPTION: The hike to this granite dome which lies on the south wall of Yosemite Valley, will provide you with miles and miles of stunning views in whatever direction you care to turn. Looking west, you’ll see down Yosemite Valley and beyond to the Merced River canyon. To the north you’ll see Yosemite Valley, including El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. To the east, you’ll see Nevada Falls, Half Dome and Clouds Rest, and an assortment of High Sierra peaks. I never wanted to leave my spot atop Sentinel Dome; even if that spot changed countless times because I couldn’t pick which view I liked best.
TRAIL: Lembert Dome
DIFFICULTY: MODERATE – CHALLENGING
DESCRIPTION: This hike is relatively easy, but do remember you are gaining some elevation here! Once you make it to the open rock face you can determine what your ability level is for going further. With young children, this is certainly a great place to stop and enjoy your view; as an adult with decent coordination you should head on to the tippy top. Be selective in your route, however, there are multiple lines you can take to you desired elevation; choose whichever one works best for you! Lembert Dome offers excellent views looking west across Tuolumne Meadows on top of simply being an enjoyable hike followed by an exciting climb.
TRAIL: Cathedral Lake
DIFFICULTY: MODERATE – CHALLENGING
DESCRIPTION: A steady climb to Upper Cathedral Lake provides a stunning view that after a swampy crossing to a large rock shelf can be enjoyed along the shore of a beautiful lake. The impressive granite-wrapped High Sierra lake is surrounded by Cathedral Peak in the east and by Echo and Tresidder Peaks along the southern shore, all of them over 10,000 feet in elevation! A great place to swim, enjoy lunch and grab some sunshine. Please leave time to hang out here; swim, picnic and revel in the beauty of this spot. The hike up isn’t exceptionally steep or difficult, just a consistent climb.
TRAIL: Vernal and Nevada Falls
DESCRIPTION: This is a tough hike! Challenging but rewarding nonetheless. The first suggestion is to take the Mist Trail up and the John Muir Trail down. The second suggestion is to start this hike at 6:00 AM. FOR REAL THOUGH… unless you like waiting in line on steep, stone steps up along the side of a misty waterfall, leave for this hike before the crowd begins to climb. We had no choice but to hike on a summer weekend and even starting at 9:00 AM we were waiting in lines of people up 600 stairs until we made it to the top of Vernal Falls; here the crowds thin out as the remaining 1.5 miles consist of some seriously strenuous switchbacks. Once you reach the intersection for Half Dome you are home free and will be enjoying stunning views into the valley that are one hundred percent worth the wicked climb. Please cross the bridge and take the JMT back down to the valley floor; the trail is almost double in length but it is significantly less steep, it isn’t misty and full of people and it allows for so many beautiful view points along the way so don’t stop forget to stop and enjoy the view!
If you have trail questions or concerns you can stop at any of Yosemite’s multiple Welcome Centers and speak to friendly, knowledgeable staff; or at the trail head of many trails you may find PSAR (Preventative Search and Rescue) volunteers who are scattered to help prevent illness and injuries but can also suggest hikes and provide directions.