Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the world. It is popular for scenic sites like the Yosemite Falls and Half Dome featuring steep granite cliffs. At the heart of the park, there is Yosemite Valley, one of the best hiking spots in America.
If you are a hiking enthusiast, you can find routes for any hiking season. You can choose anything from the short and sweet treks or the strenuous multi-day hikes.
The Yosemite Valley covers a stretch of 7 miles in length and 1 mile in width. It is accompanied by waterfalls and glacier-carved granite walls. Every time someone mentions Yosemite, everyone imagines the Yosemite Valley and outstanding beauty.
The valley is home to some of the most unforgettable sites like Yosemite Falls, cascading down from 2,425ft. It also has the most amazing view of the Half Dome.
The Best Time of Year to Hike Yosemite
Are you wondering what’s the best time to visit Yosemite? Well, it mostly depends on what you hope to get out of your hiking adventure. The Yosemite National Park is open all year round. However, it’s quite popular during spring since that’s when everything in the park comes alive.
In the spring season, the animal babies appear, the dogwoods bloom and the waterfalls flow at their peak levels. It’s right before the huge summer crowds come in so you don’t have to worry about overpacked trails. Even better, you can catch a few glimpses of the lunar rainbow that appears in the mist in a full moon at the base of Lower Yosemite Falls.
Summer is the peak time for tourists. At least 4 million people arrive each year thereby the Yosemite Valley is chaotic. You will find long lines on the hiking trails too. By mid-summer, the waterfalls are nearly dry and the temperatures are sizzling.
In autumn, the visitors reduce considerably and the area becomes vibrant thereby transforming the foliage.
During winter, the park is very quiet. Most of the trails are icy or covered with snow. Therefore, they are ideal for snowshoeing with frozen falls and the snowy peaks.
Plan as Much as Possible in Advance
If you are a spontaneous traveler, you might not like the idea of booking your reservations at least 6 months in advance. However, if you want to get the best of Yosemite, you need to do it as early as possible. The same applies for the accommodation since most places are fully booked by the peak months. The Curry Village and the Lodge are usually full months in advance.
If you are booking the car campgrounds in Yosemite Valley, you need to make your reservations as from 15th March through November. For Crane Flat, Tuolumne Meadows, Hodgdon Meadow, and Wawona, reservations are required from summer through fall. Reservations are available up to 5 months in advance and in blocks of one month at a time. They are available on the 15th of every month at 7 a.m. PST and are usually filled immediately.
You should research the dates and accommodation early enough so you can switch as soon as the first option is not available. Also, you need to do your research on Yosemite trails and find out the ones you prefer before you arrive.
Yosemite National Park has a good seasonal newspaper with a lot of helpful activities and tips to do during your visit. It’s the best tool to help you shape your visit at the park.
Keep Your Decision-Making Skills Sharp
Start by checking online for the recent trail conditions. If you can’t find the exact information on the trail you want, the information on the nearby hiking trails with the same elevation will give you an idea of what to expect. You should know that snow conditions in winter and spring change very fast. In most cases, they change in 24 hours.
For instance, the bridge found at the base of the Wapama Fall found in Hetch Hetchy when in high water changes from a refreshing shower to a very dangerous torrent in 24 hours depending on the time of the day and the temperature. Therefore, simply because someone was able to cross the bridge earlier, it might not be a good decision for you. Beware that experienced, fit and very strong hikers have passed away trying to cross the bridge when others did so without any incident.
Most of the elevations in Yosemite National Park range from 2,127 ft (about 648m) to 13,114ft (3,997m). Even with a little snow, it’s easy to find the hike or water. Hiking trails along Highway 140 and closer to Mariposa are usually snow-free for the better part of the year, even when the higher elevations are at their peak snow levels. You can always turn around and plan your hike for another day if the conditions are not right.
Don’t Drive If You Can Avoid It
You don’t need a vehicle to explore many areas in Yosemite. As such, you will not worry about traffic and parking fee. There are free shuttles going up and down the valley all year along the Tioga round. YARTS public buses also travel highway 140 and 120 thereby linking the valley and the high country with the Western and Eastern Sierra foothills.
You can also explore the valley and avoid traffic by cycling. You can bring your own bicycle or rent one. There are 12 miles of paved trails available in the valley offering the best views of Yosemite Falls. Even better, you can access the most popular areas like Mirror Lake.
What to Pack for Hiking in Yosemite
If you are wondering what wardrobe to bring for the hiking trip, it will depend on the season. Spring and fall might bring mixed weather forcing you to bring warm and cool wardrobe. If possible, you should bring warm clothes that can be easily removed when hiking.
It is quite chilly in the night and early morning so you need a warm and waterproof coat. During the summer, it will most likely be hot throughout the day but you need a light jacket or sweatshirt in the evening. During winter, you should bring cold weather clothes such as warm and waterproof boots, gloves, a hat, and a coat.
Carry the Most Appropriate Gear for Extended Snow Travel
If the hiking trail will have a lot of snow travel, you should bring a few additional equipments with you. In the night, the cooler temperature forces the snow to freeze so it’s hard to kick steps in the snow. If the trail is very steep, the trail will be slippery so you are going to fall and get hurt if you lose your footing. Sliding down a short snow slope showing a very clear runout might not be very dangerous but a long slope with trees and rocks will often result in serious injuries.
You will be safer bringing an ice axe and crampons for icy conditions. They will give you the extra traction to prevent slips. When you plunge the shaft of the axe into the snow, you should be able to create a stable anchor with every step. Also, the ice axe allows you to arrest your fall if you slip. By mid-afternoon, the snow will soften such that you are sinking to your ankles or punching through a crust to find softer snow below.
As the snow conditions change, you can take a few steps on top of the snow before plunging through to your knees. It’s very tiring to walk on this type of snow. However, if you find yourself here, you need lightweight snowshoes. Skis are also great because you can make fun and fast descents. Having the right gear and knowledge on the best way to use it will make your hike through the snow effortless.
Wear Extra Sun Protection
On a high-elevation, the sun can hit back with very high intensity. Exposure to UV rays at higher altitudes is very high than sea level. It’s not an immediate safety concern but it’s good to have the right sun protection before going up. When there is snow on the ground, it will reflect the sun’s rays. Therefore, you might end up getting sunburned in the underside of your nose or underneath your ears.
When hiking, whichever weather it might be, you should wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with high SPF rates. Make sure you reapply it regularly. It’s prudent to wear lightweight long-sleeved hiking shirts made out of nylon. Also, don’t forget long pants and a wide-brimmed hat. They will also offer the best defense against bugs such as mosquitoes.
Have Navigation Systems Dialed
Simple trails might become tough to navigate if there is too much snow. In these conditions, it’s very easy to take a wrong turn and become disoriented. Yes, you are likely going to follow the pre-existing tracks but you should know that some of the people you might be following might not have an idea of where they are going.
That’s why you need to have a good navigational system, especially in snowy conditions. Get a good GPS app with downloadable maps to be able to access the maps even without a cell network. Don’t forget to carry a map and compass and use them to navigate.
Remember, snow usually protects the ground beneath from damage. As such, it’s a durable surface where you can camp and walk on without any danger. If there are deep enough snow covers, manzanita bushes might make the travel difficult but you will have more freedom to explore the trail.
Mirror Lake & Tenaya Canyon
Distance: 2.4 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation: 147 feet
The Mirror Lake and Tenaya Canyon route will lead you as close as possible to the base of Half Dome. The route also provides a great opportunity to take photos of the beautiful scenery and its reflection on the Mirror Lake, which is more of a pool in Tenaya Creek rather than a lake.
You can also have a splash in the waters of one of the most popular swimming sites in the park.
The path is paved for the first mile leading towards Mirror Lake, with a trail that follows Tenaya Creek. For a refreshing swim, the best time to hike the route is during spring and early summer with melted snow flowing into the creek. There are also exhibits along the path that shows the area’s cultural history and the succession of the lake-to-meadow.
Distance: 0.5 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation: 10 feet
This half-mile trip is a short hike with minimal gain in altitude, making it very easy for almost everyone. The amount of people remains consistent for most of the year, the crowd isn’t overwhelming and visitors will still be able to explore a couple of islands in the Merced River that are great for cooling down from the summer heat.
When the water levels have subsided in the later portions of summer and autumn, the trail makes for a calming stroll through the forest and traversing over the river through a bridge as the water gushes over and around boulders.
The snowmelt causes the waters to swell with restless whitewater rapids in the mid-spring, while the trees look stunning with their blossoms. The path will guide you towards a nature center that showcases various interactive exhibits about the history of the area’s wildlife – only open from April to October.
Vernal Fall Footbridge
Distance: 1.6 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation: 400 feet
The Vernal Fall Footbridge usually acts as a stopping point for hikers heading to Half Dome or Mist Trail’s peak and is found approximately half a mile from its trailhead.
This is people get their first glimpses of Vernal Fall and Merced River seen on both sides.
While being a short trail, it still challenges hikers with a workout consisting of 300 feet in altitude gain. Of course, a hiking stick will help ease the journey. Walking a bit further will allow you to enjoy a better view of the waterfall, and in the spring or early summer, you can keep going until you feel the sprays of water.
Bridalveil Fall Trai
Distance: 1 mile | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation: 200 feet
This 1-mile round trip is one of the most popular hiking trails in Yosemite Valley, leading to Bridalveil Falls – one of the most astonishing waterfalls in the park.
From the beginning, you’ll catch glimpses of the cascade through a forest of pine trees and 620 feet from a valley. There is a paved path that leads from the parking area to the waterfall’s base, which you can follow. While spring is the best season to experience the water’s full strength, the falls flow throughout the year. Be very careful when stepping across the wet rocks as they can get very slippery.
The mist is heavy and carries far during spring – you might have to wipe the water off your glasses even from a quarter of a mile away. If you prefer not getting wet, bring a hooded poncho or jacket for this hike.
Distance: 2 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation: 500 feet
This trail is lightly used and provides hikers with Tunnel View-like vistas without a great number of people flocked around the area.
This 2-mile trail is easy for most people and has an altitude gain of 500 feet. The first half of the trail is steep and managing to get through fallen trees afterward will reward hikers for the effort of getting through the trail.
This path exhibits a part of Half Dome and Clouds Rest, as well as views you can’t get from Tunnel View. Photographers and artists will enjoy the trail and understand the reason behind its name as they get excellent photo opportunities and views of sections of Ribbon Fall, North Dome, Merced River, Royal Arches, and Bridalveil Meadow.
Start your hike in the hour before sunset to get magnificent views and photographs.
Distance: 3 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation: 1,000 feet
This trail features steep areas but its short length compensates for it, making it considerably moderate. A decent level of fitness will be needed by this demanding hike to reach Columbia Rock for its viewpoint.
The trail is found in the Upper Yosemite Falls trail, and it provides 180-degree views from Cathedral Spires and Half Dome before reaching the halfway point.
At the bottom of the trail, a sign can be found with information on the route and stone steps in the forest. The trail won’t give views on Upper Yosemite Falls, but stunning waterfalls rushing from the cliffs and draining into the east side of Eagle Peak can be seen. Colorful flowers may also be seen in late spring or early summer.
Lower Yosemite Falls
Distance: 1 mile | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation: 50 feet
With a height that is 10 times greater than Niagara Falls, Yosemite Falls is the tallest falls in the continent. It even features some drops along its 2,425-foot-drop which are also some of the tallest in the world.
Taking on this easy trail for half a mile, the water will be rushing at its highest level in spring and summer when you can prepare yourself to get a little wet. You can prepare by bringing a waterproof jacket with you before the hike.
In late summer or early fall, the falls are usually dry and you may miss its stunning waters. However, you can still enjoy the views at the start and end of the lower waterfall which is 320 feet high. If the trail is not layered in snow, it can accommodate wheelchairs and strollers – making it popular among hikers of all ages and fitness.
Distance: 1.2 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation: 360 feet
You may recognize Turtleback Dome from photos and videos on the internet, but seeing it up-close in real life is much more impressive. The path is short and easy to traverse, bringing classic Yosemite vistas without tour buses disrupting the view.
The trail is 0.6 miles following a service road in one way, but it constantly elevates so you might have to take short rests to keep going. However, the views at the end will be worth the effort of completing the hike.
Towards the north, you’ll get a view of the 600-foot-high waterfall called “The Cascades”, alongside other towers of the dome. In the west, you can see the High Sierra blending into the foothills. One of the best exhibits in this hike is the Yosemite Lewisia or Bitter Root, a rare Sierra wildflower that grows only in a narrow strip of land across in southern Sierra, Nevada.
Distance: 2.6 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation: 990 feet
If you love hiking, the Inspiration Point is a granite shelf that gives you the best scenic views of the area. You can enjoy the same views as you would from the Tunnel View without any obstructions. It’s a very short hike that’s uphill for the first half thereby discouraging the other hikers. As such, you can enjoy the most secluded scenes and memorable photos.
You should take your hike right after a storm as the sky clears and the fog drifts through the valley when the clouds part to bring in the light. Sunrise is the best time to see these amazing views. If you are more enthusiastic, you can continue to the Old Inspiration Point. It is memorable for 1851 when a party of Army personnel pursuing Indians noticed the Yosemite Valley for the first time.
Sentinel and Cook’s Meadow Loops
Distance: 2.25 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation: 10 feet
Are you looking for an easy hike over paved paths and boardwalks without too much effort? Well, this should be your first choice. Sentinel and Cook’s Meadow cover about 2.25 miles leading through two meadows. To the north of the Merced River, there is Cook’s Meadow and to the south, there is Sentinel Meadow. Here, you can enjoy spectacular views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome.
The best time to hike is late April until mid-June when the falls flow effortlessly and the wildflowers are blooming. During this time, you can enjoy views of the magnificent falls and capture memorable photos. Actually, most of the gift cards in the souvenir shop have pictures of these falls.
Take a stroll through the meadows and capture pine violets, baby blue eyes, evening primrose, western azalea, shooting stars, goldenrod, and numerous other wildflower varieties in bloom.
Distance: 9.6 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Elevation: 3,200 feet
If you are a more experienced hiker, you can enjoy a few challenging hikes available in Yosemite Valley. The 4-Mile Trail is a strenuous hike where you can enjoy amazing views of Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Valley. There is a scenic backdrop of the Half Dome and the Sierra mountain peaks.
The hiking trail starts from the valley from close to the Swinging Bridge and goes all the way to the south valley rim near Glacier Point. When you reach the top, you can buy ice cream for the hard work. You can book a ride from the parking lot to Yosemite Valley from this point. You can also go back and enjoy more scenic views on the way down. Of course, you should be prepared to spend 6 to 8 hours going up and down.
The Mist Trail
Distance: 3 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation: 1,000 feet
With this hike, you can enjoy amazing views of Vernal Fall and the Yosemite Valley. The first mile is paved, busy, and almost uphill leading to the Vernal Gall Footbridge. Next, you will continue on the Mist Trail for half a mile using the steep granite stairway. You need a lot of lungpower to make it through as you watch your steps cautiously. There is a lot of heavy water spray from the falls especially during late spring and early summer.
On the way, you can enjoy the unique views of Vernal Fall. If the sun is out, you can catch a rainbow developing in the mist. Once you reach the top, you can look down the entire length of the 317ft waterfall before going back down.
Snow Creek Trail
Distance: 9.4 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Elevation: 2,700 feet
It is a classic trail that’s quite tough for any hiker. You can access it from the Mirror Lake trail in Yosemite Valley. It’s quite similar to Upper Yosemite Falls trail but a little narrow and a quick vertical climb. For 1.7 miles, the hike is quite punishing with a lot of switchbacks. They lead to unforgettable views of Yosemite from the Tenaya Creek Canyon stretching to the Half Dome.
On the way up, you will pass the Mirror Lake before getting a distant view of the Hidden Falls as you continue climbing. There is very little traffic on this route compared to other trails. Even better, you can enjoy the best views of granite landforms like Clouds Rest and Half Dome. As you climb higher, you will come across more interesting views.
Distance: 14 to 16 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Elevation: 4,800 feet
This hike should definitely be on your bucket list. It attracts a lot of adventure enthusiasts from all over the world. It is bound to take your breath away. John Muir, a renowned naturalist, has mentioned that it is the most beautiful and sublime features of the Yosemite rocks.
It is one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite Park and soars about 4,737 feet from the valley floor. The summit of the granite crest is believed to be inaccessible but since the iron eye bolts were added to the rock, it’s easy to do it. On the final 400ft, cables were installed, allowing hikers to pull up on the steep grade to get to the top of the rock.
Distance: 13 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Elevation: 3,700 feet
If you love hiking in Yosemite, the Pohono trail is a great choice for you. It’s found on the east-side and goes through the southern rim of the Yosemite Valley from the Glacier Point to the Tunnel View. You can enjoy every beautiful attraction in the valley. However, you can only use this hike when the Glacier Point is open, from mid-May until early November.
You should consider going early in the season to enjoy the numerous waterfalls in the park. You can enjoy the natural landmarks such as Taft, Glacier, Inspiration Points, Crocker, Nevada Falls, Vernal, Tunnel View, El Capitan, Sentinel Dome, Half Dome, Bridalveil, Yosemite and many more.
Starting out, the climb will be difficult as expected but as you progress it becomes easier. If you are not super fit and athletic, you should consider getting transport back down once you get to the top. However, you should plan for a day’s hike up and ascending as you enjoy the magnificent views.
Upper Yosemite Falls
Distance: 7.6 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Elevation: 2,600 feet
It is the ultimate workout for any enthusiastic hiker. It is one of the oldest trails in Yosemite Park, created in the 1870s. It goes all the way up to Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America. It is definitely worth the amazing views at the top including Sentinel Dome, Half Dome, and Yosemite Valley among others.
The trail is open all year round but it’s inspiring in the spring when the waterfalls are very powerful and strong. At the top, you can take a picture of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome together.
You should plan for a few days of rest and recovery after the hiking. Unless you are an experienced hiker who does this regularly, you will most likely be sore. It’s going to be an unforgettable story to share with your friends. Once you are done with the hike, visit the valley and buy a few mementos from the gift shops. You can also spend the night.
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