Yosemite offers a diversity of things to see and do and it’s often difficult for first time visitors to plan their trip. In 1984, UNESCO named Yosemite a World Heritage Site for its glaciated landscapes and spectacular flora and fauna. Today, more than four million people come to the park each year to relax in mountain meadows, swim in peaceful rivers and lakes, go rock climbing and hiking up craggy granite domes, and watch astonishing waterfalls and wildlife. It’s time for you to join them.
So many people visit Yosemite that the crowds can be intense, especially during summer high season. That makes plotting out your trip even more important, especially since all of the national park’s lodgings and campsites book up many months in advance for summer stays. If you can, visit the park on weekdays instead of a weekend, which will save you both money and time wasted in queues and traffic jams.
Start your explorations in the impressive Yosemite Valley. As you drive in, be sure to pull over at Tunnel View for the classic panoramic photo op of the valley’s waterfalls and landmark granite formations. Budget travelers will choose to camp or stay in tent cabins at Half Dome Village, while families who can afford more bed down at the Yosemite Valley Lodge, where the Mountain Room Restaurant & Lounge is an atmospheric spot for dinner. For once-in-a-lifetime luxury, check into the venerable Majestic Yosemite Hotel, or at least take a walk around its lobby and unwind in its fireplace lounge.
When you are ready to get active, free park shuttle buses will take you practically anywhere you want to go in the valley. Orient yourself at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, next door to the small, but fascinating Yosemite Museum. The most popular day hikes starting in the valley are the Mist Trail, which climbs a stone staircase beside Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, and Half Dome, a grueling all-day adventure that requires getting a permit in advance. Rock climbers are magnetically pulled toward the towering granite monolith of El Capitan. In summer, you can float down the Merced River in a raft or swim and sun yourself on sandy beaches. Whatever you do, don’t miss the short walk to the base of mighty, triple-tiered Yosemite Falls.
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From the valley, you can take easily day trips to other popular areas of the park. Driving south, a detour up Glacier Point Road finishes at an incredible viewpoint: Glacier Point puts you almost at eye level with the clouds, looking straight out at Half Dome and over the green valley with its tumbling waterfalls. Off Glacier Point Road, take a quick hike up Sentinel Dome or out to Dewey Point for another stunning valley vista.
Farther south, Hwy 41 winds down to Wawona, which has a Victorian-era hotel and the Pioneer Yosemite History Center. Wawona is where you would usually pick up the seasonal park shuttle bus to visit the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, but the grove is closed for restoration until fall 2017.
Take a scenic drive along the rooftop of the Sierra Nevada on Tioga Road (Highway 120), which is only open seasonally from late May or early June until the first major snowstorm, usually in November. Heading north out of Yosemite Valley, stop past Crane Flat for a hike down to the Tuolumne Grove, a smaller collection of giant sequoias. Other stops farther east along high-elevation Tioga Road include Olmsted Point for a different perspective on Half Dome, tranquil Tenaya Lake with its sandy beach, and the trailhead to hidden May Lake. The highlight of this road trip is Tuolumne Meadows. Surrounded by granite domes and peaks, these lush highland meadows bloom with wildflowers in early summer, a sight worth planning your entire trip around.