Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite National Park is the treasure of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that is most renowned for its granite cliffs, giant sequoia groves, and cascading waterfalls. The park was first protected by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 when he signed the Yosemite Grant, but it wasn’t until October of 1890 that it was established as a U.S. National Park. Yosemite National Park protects nearly 1,200 square miles of pristine wilderness that is open for the public to explore year-round. Since Yosemite is so vast, I have decided to break-up the attractions into three sections: Yosemite Valley, Yosemite via Glacier/Wawona Road, and Yosemite via Tioga Road. The reason behind the three sections is because although Yosemite Valley can be accessed during any season, Glacier/Wawona Road and Tioga Road often experience road closures during the winter months, which makes visiting these sections unlikely. The roads to Glacier Point, Wawona, and Tioga Pass are usually open from May to October, but are subject to change depending on the snowpack that accumulates during winter.

YOSEMITE VALLEY ATTRACTIONS:

Tunnel View – Tunnel View is one of the most iconic viewpoints that are associated with Yosemite National Park. What makes Tunnel View so famous is how it perfectly frames Half Dome as the focal point with El Capitan off to the left and Cathedral Rock and Bridalveil Fall off to the right. The scenic overlook is the ideal panorama that encapsulates the natural grandeur of Yosemite Valley and its granite monoliths in the distance, which is overwhelming when viewed for the first time. Tunnel View is off of Wawona Road, just before the Yosemite Tunnel, and has parking lots on either side in order to accommodate the high demand of tourists that frequent this observation area.

Bridalveil Fall – Most often than not, Bridailveil Fall is the first waterfall that you will see when entering Yosemite National Park. The waterfall gains its name from the mist that forms from the fall and how it resembles a bridal veil. It can be seen from many different vantage points throughout the park, but my favorite is from the viewing area just below the falls at the end of the Bridalveil Fall Trail. The trail leading up to the viewing area is an easy 1.2-mile round-trip hike from late spring to late autumn, but during the winter it can get very treacherous. During the winter, the mist from the falls covers the trail and creates a layer of ice that is an extreme hazard to anyone hiking the trail without crampon traction gear.

Swinging Bridge Area – The Swinging Bridge is a wooden bridge that connects a hiking trail as it crosses the Merced River. What makes this bridge stand out is that it is an excellent location to photograph Yosemite Falls. The slow-moving waters of the Merced make this location wonderful for enjoying various water activities during the summer months, so don’t be surprised to see visitors swimming or rafting in the waters below.

Yosemite Valley Chapel – The Yosemite Valley Chapel is a charming church in Yosemite Valley that is surrounded by tree covered cliffs, stunningly lush meadows, and a dramatic view of Yosemite Falls. The chapel has a rich history and still provides worship services and even private wedding ceremonies. It is the oldest standing structure in Yosemite National Park and was designed to resemble a New England style of church.

Stoneman Meadow – Located adjacent to Half Dome Village, formerly known as Curry Village, the Stoneman Meadow gives visitors an up close and personal view of Half Dome and North Dome. There are wooden boardwalks that traverse the meadow in order to keep visitors from stepping on the growing vegetation. The Yosemite Conservancy states that Stoneman Meadow “plays an instrumental role in the valley’s ecological health by providing plant and wildlife habitat and regulating water flow.” Signs around the meadow remind tourists to stay off of the meadow as it is an active restoration area and walking on it can damage the new growth, so stay vigilant!

Happy Isle Loop:

  • John Muir Trail – The John Muir Trail starts at the Happy Isle Bridge and guides trekkers towards Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. After crossing the Merced River, via a wooden bridge that provides a great photo opportunity of Vernal Falls, there is a fork in the trail. Here hikers are given the option to continue on the moderate John Muir Trail or to test their skills on the strenuous Mist Trail. Although the Mist Trail is shorter in distance, it is a far more demanding and dangerous hike that should only be attempted by those understanding the risks. The Mist Trail gains its name for the fact that the mist from the waterfall covers section of this trail, which makes certain areas precariously slippery.

John Muir Trail to Vernal Falls – 3.9-miles round-trip

Mist Trail to Vernal Falls – 2.4-miles round-trip

John Muir Trail to Nevada Falls – 8.2 miles round-trip

Mist Trail to Nevada Falls - 6.7-miles round trip

  • Mirror Lake Trail – The Mirror Lake Trail is an easy hike that is pet-friendly and takes visitors to a small, seasonal lake at the base of Half Dome. The lake is fed by the waters of Tenaya Creek and creates a mirror effect when the waters are high and calm enough. There is the option to try the 5-mile moderately trafficked loop around Mirror Lake or to trek to the lake and hike back the way you came, which is a 2.4-mile excursion.

The Majestic Yosemite Hotel – Formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel is a luxurious hotel known for its stunning interior design and structural design. The hotel has garnered the honors of being Yosemite’s only AAA Four-Diamond hotel and the distinction of being a ‘Premier Lodge’ by the National Park Reservations. The hotel offers grand sitting rooms that are complete with large stone fireplaces and are the perfect place to stop by and warm up during the winter months.

Yosemite Valley Visitor Center – This section of the park has areas dedicated to informing visitors about the formation of Yosemite, as well as other park information and nature displays. Along with the visitor center, there is a Post Office, small deli, gift shop, and an Ansel Adams Art Gallery.

Yosemite Falls – Yosemite Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in North America and is the tallest in Yosemite National Park at over 2,400 feet (2,425 feet according to Wikipedia). Along with Half Dome and El Capitan, Yosemite Falls is a prominent symbol of grandeur that embodies the splendor of Yosemite National Park. The falls consists of three sections: Upper Falls, Middle Cascades, and the Lower Falls, with the most coveted segments being the Upper and Lower Falls. Depending on experience level and how much time you have, there are two hikes that will lead guests to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls or to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls.

  • Upper Yosemite Falls Trail – The trail to Upper Yosemite Falls is a challenging and strenuous 5.8-mile with a steady elevation gain that should only be undertaken by the well-prepared. The trail culminates at the top of Upper Yosemite Falls and rewards hikers with a view of the rushing water as it cascades over the cliff and down to the valley below.

  • Lower Yosemite Falls Trail – The Lower Yosemite Falls Trail is a short and easy 1.1-mile paved loop that is heavily trafficked due to its low skill level and popularity. Near the end of the trail there is a wooden bridge that rewards onlookers with a spectacular view of the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. This picturesque scene portrays the Yosemite Falls at the forefront as the water crashes down and continues under the bridge and down Yosemite Creek.

Cook's Meadow Trail – The Cook’s Meadow Loop is a flat and easy 2.2-mile loop that consists of paved paths and wooden boardwalks. The trail is accessible year-round and is used by pedestrians, bicyclists and pets on leashes. Views of Half Dome, Glacier Point, North Dome, and Yosemite Falls can be seen from various perspectives while hiking along the trail. The vantage points of the Sierra scenery are breathtaking and should be on everyone’s to-do list when visiting Yosemite.

Horsetail Fall – Horsetail Fall is a seasonal waterfall that can be found on the eastern edge of El Capitan. It is also known as one of Yosemite’s most amazing spectacles for being a natural Firefall. This phenomenon only lasts for about two weeks in February, when the light of the setting sun hits the water at just the right angle, which illuminates the water and creates and orange-red glow.

El Capitan Meadow – The El Capitan Meadow is an expanse of field with a commanding view of El Capitan. As with many of the meadows in Yosemite Valley, the El Capitan Meadow has signs along the dirt paths that ask visitors to remain on the trail in order to protect the fragile vegetation. From the meadow, visitors can crane their necks and watch the climbers as they take on the 3,000-foot vertical monolith from base to summit. The El Capitan Meadow can be reached by parking along Northside Drive, just after the junction with El Capitan Drive. As with any spot in Yosemite, it is best to arrive early as parking spots are hard to come by if you arrive mid-day on a summer’s afternoon.

Valley View – Valley View, also known as Gates of the Valley, is the final possible pullout as you make your way out of Yosemite Valley. The scenic lookout is off of Northside Drive, just east of El Portal Road Junction, but immediately before the Pohono Bridge. This vista can be easily missed if you are not looking for it, so stay vigilant since missing the pullout would mean having to reenter and turning around at El Capitan Drive (a time consuming mistake). Once at the vista it will be clear to see why some visitors consider this the best view of the park. This breathtaking view of the Yosemite Valley looks out onto the Merced River rushing in the foreground and El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks East commanding the horizon.

YOSEMITE VIA GLACIER ROAD/WAWONA ROAD:

Wawona – Wawona is located on the south fork of the Merced River and is home to the National Historic Landmark Wawona Hotel. The Wawona Hotel is a historic Victorian-style building that was built in order to cater to tourists visiting the nearby Mariposa Grove and surrounding giant sequoias. Despite being a small mountain valley community, Wawona offers a variety of outdoor activities that include horseback riding, hiking, picnicking, and golf.

Glacier Point – Glacier Point is an elevated overlook in Yosemite National Park that provides a different perspective of the valley. In order to get to Glacier Point, visitors must use Glacier Point Road, which is usually open from May to October, but is subject to the current weather conditions. Once you reach your destination, the viewpoint provides unparalleled top-down views of Half Dome, North Dome, Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Yosemite Falls, and the Yosemite Valley. Be sure to take your time walking along the paved path, as there are multiple viewing areas that should not be overlooked as you make your way to the main viewing platform.

YOSEMITE VIA TIOGA ROAD:

Olmsted Point – This viewing area offers a unique view of Cloud’s Rest, with Half Dome in the background, and a look into the Tenaya Canyon. The trail to the lookout area is a .25-mile round-trip hike, but the views from the parking lot are just as fascinating. For those who are not afraid of heights, there is a trail that leads up a dome across the street from the Olmsted Point Parking Lot. This hike is less than a mile and, at its pinnacle, the view from the top provides onlookers with a more majestic perspective of Olmsted Point and Tenaya Canyon.

Tenaya Lake – Tenaya Lake, also referred to as the “Jewel of the High Country,” is an alpine lake between Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley. The surface of the lake is at an elevation of over 8,000-feet and was formed by a branch of the Tuolumne Glacier. Tenaya Lake is fed primarily by Tenaya Creek, which continues its course into Yosemite Valley before converging with the Merced River. The lake is a popular summer attraction that draws tourists who enjoy boating, swimming, kayaking, and other water activities.

Cathedral Lakes - This 7 or 8-mile round-trip hike, depending on the route chosen, begins at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead and winds through the dense alpine forests and glacier-carved terrain. The trail is part of the John Muir Trail and draws hikers of all ages for its natural scenic beauty. After puttering along for the first 3-miles or so, hikers come to a junction and are then tasked with the arduous decision of choosing which lake to hike to:

Lower Cathedral Lake (7-mile+ round-trip hike) - A right at the junction fork will extend for .5-miles before terminating at the charming Lower Cathedral Lake, which comes in at just about a 7-mile round-trip hike. With almost a mile of shoreline, the Lower Cathedral Lake is an impressive granite-wrapped lake that is nestled in Yosemite’s High Sierra Mountains with views of Cathedral, Tresidder, and Echo Peaks. A casual walk around the lake will reward explorers with various perspectives of Cathedral Peak as it stands tall and casts an imposing reflection in Lower Cathedral Lake.

Upper Cathedral Lake (8-mile+ round-trip) - A left at the junction fork will continue along the John Muir Trail and eventually lead hikers to Upper Cathedral Lake, which is an 8-mile round-trip hike. If you continue on just beyond the Upper Cathedral Lake, there is an elevated position off the trail that is an idyllic spot to photograph Cathedral Peak and the Upper Cathedral Lake. It is also a great vantage point to enjoy the solitude while watching as sunset accentuates the splendor of the sky and granite peaks. Elevated positions can also be accessed by an easy climb up some boulders that are situated on the west end of the lake.

Tuolumne Meadows – Located on the eastern side of the park, Tuolumne Meadows is one of the largest high-elevation alpine meadows in the Sierra Nevada Range at over 8,600-feet. The meadows stretch along the Tuolumne River and offer a challenging wilderness hike for those eager to test their skills on a portion of the John Muir or Pacific Crest Trail. Once in the meadows, sightseers will be able to clearly view the Cathedral Range, Lembert Dome, Unicorn Peak, and Mount Dana. Depending on the time of year that you visit the Tuolumne Meadows, snow-melt can flood the meadows so that they look more like a marsh or even a lake. For those lucky enough to visit in late-spring and summer, or even September in high snowpack years, be on the lookout for the blooming wildflowers that have the meadows bursting with color.

OUTSIDE OF YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK:

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve – When driving Tioga Road from west to east, the drive will eventually culminate at Lee Vining, which is a stone’s throw away from Mono Lake. Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in the western hemisphere and is thought to be over one million years old. The lake is best known for its distinctive tufa towers that jut out from the shimmering blue water, which creates an eerie atmosphere. A superb area to view the lake is from Mono Lake South Tufa Area, which is off of Test Station Road. From the Mono Lake South Tufa Area, there is a small trail that takes visitors to the edge of the lake and provides onlookers with an ideal view of the wonder that Mono Lake emanates.

Restaurant of Merit:

*Tioga Gas Mart & Woah Nellie Deli (LEE VINING) – Don’t let the name or the fact that it is tied to the Mobil Gas Station fool you! This is the best restaurant in Lee Vining and serves some of the most mouth-wateringly delicious dishes. They are best known for their World Famous Fish Tacos, which are two tacos that are served on flour tortillas and filled with fried white fish, mango salsa, and ginger coleslaw, and black beans on the side.

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