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A Hiker’s Guide to Yosemite National Park

Best Hiker’s Guide to Yosemite National Park

Visiting Yosemite National Park

First explored in the 1850s, Yosemite National Park consists of nearly 1,200 square miles of epic waterfalls, colossal towers of granite, ancient sequoias groves, and abundant wildlife. Almost 95% of the park is designated wilderness area, making it one of the largest wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada. 

Often confused as the first national park, in 1864 Yosemite became the first piece of land set aside by the United States government for preservation and public use. While Yosemite helped pave the way for the establishment of the National Park System, it wasn’t until 1872 that Yellowstone was officially declared the first national park in the nation. Yosemite wouldn’t officially become a national park until 1906, after a 16-year movement led by John Muir that ended after President Theodore Roosevelt agreed to a three-day camping trip near Glacier Point.

At one mile wide and seven miles long, Yosemite Valley only covers 1% of the park area and holds some of the most famous features, including Half Dome, Sentinel Dome, and the 3,000-foot tall El Capitan. The drive through Tunnel View and the gateway into the Valley is an unforgettable experience that leaves visitors truly breath taken as they descend into the shadows of granite giants. Other notable areas of the park include Tuolomne Meadows, the Mariposa Grove, the Cathedral Range, and Glacier Point. 

On average, Yosemite receives over four million visitors each year. At times, it can take anywhere from one to four hours just to get into the park through one of the five entrances and parking lots are typically full by 9:00 am. When visiting Yosemite Valley, the park suggests that if you are lucky enough to find a parking spot, then consider walking, biking, or riding the free shuttle around the valley in order to limit congestion. At other areas of the park, such as Glacier Point, it can take up to two hours to find parking during peak times.

What the Future Holds

While Yosemite did require reservations during 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no longer requiring reservations prior to entering the park. However, they are developing a visitor access management plan to help with future congestion and ever-increasing visitors. In July of 2023, they held a virtual public meeting that provided a platform for people to comment and provide strategies for key issues the park is facing due to heavy congestion. The park is currently looking at multiple future options, such as a shuttle system, reservation system, and infrastructure updates. However, they will not come to a final agreement until 2024.

Animal Safety

Yosemite is home to a wide variety of animals including bobcats, mountain lions, and black bears. While the park was once home to grizzly bears, they have not lived in the region since the early 1920s due to overhunting and extirpation. Most of the black bears in Yosemite are brown in color and vary in size, the largest captured being 690 pounds. The bear in Yosemite are known for being extremely smart and the park requires campers to stash food and scented items in bear boxes.

For many visitors, seeing a large predator is the highlight of their wilderness trip. It’s essential to familiarize yourself with animal safety, carry bear spray, and always make plenty of noise while hiking.

Hiking Tips

There are 800 miles of hiking trails to enjoy in Yosemite and plenty of people who are looking to enjoy them with you! For this reason, it’s important to get to your trailhead before 9:00 am to secure a parking spot and an early start to your day.

Like many mountain ecosystems, the weather in Yosemite can be very unpredictable. Summer temperatures average 89 degrees Fahrenheit during the day but can plummet at night. It’s also common to experience afternoon thunderstorms during summer which can become dangerous especially at higher elevations and in open areas. It’s recommended to wear breathable layers, including a waterproof jacket, and bring plenty of water and snacks.

This year Yosemite has experienced record-breaking snow melt leading to fast-flowing and dangerous waterways. Even in previous years, the water in Yosemite is infamous for being swift and cold. Yosemite experiences drowning incidents each year and it’s important to be careful of where you step when near a body of water. Rocks can slick and most drowning incidents occur when someone unexpectedly falls in. Even when water doesn’t look fast, the undercurrents can be strong.

Recommended Hikes:

1) Yosemite Valley Loop Trail

Yosemite National Park, El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalv… | Flickr
Yosemite Valley Loop Trail

Distance: 11.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 200  feet

Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

Type: Loop

This loop hits many of Yosemite Valley’s top attractions and provides an opportunity to hike through the Valley’s varied terrain which includes meadows, talus slopes, and the Merced River. While the loop is nearly 12 miles long, most people only hike a portion of it near the attractions they wish to see.

2) Upper Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Valley & Upper Yosemite Falls | Yosemite National P… | Flickr
Upper Yosemite Falls

Distance: 6.6 miles

Elevation Gain: 3,254


Difficulty: Strenuous

Type: Out-and-Back

A strenuous hike that most people recommend a walking stick for, this route provides spectacular views of the Yosemite Valley while traversing upwards. It also travels past Columbia Rock, which offers an awesome view of Half Dome and Sentinel Rock.

3) Mist Trail

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Mist Trail

Distance: 7 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,900 feet

Difficulty: Strenuous

Type: Out-and-Back

A classic yet challenging hike, Mist Trail is on many people’s must-hit lists and is popular for a good reason. The hike takes you to both Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall while also past a scattering of fabulous views. While it may be difficult, it is one of Yosemite’s signature hikes and provides views of two of its most famous falls.

4) Four Mile Trail

A Strenuous Yosemite Trio: Four Mile Trail + Panorama Trail + Half Dome —  Lily M. Tang
Four Mile Trail

Distance: 9.6 miles

Elevation Gain: 3,200 feet

Difficulty: Strenuous

Type: Out-and-Back

Starting at the base of Sentinel Rock, this trail winds up to Glacier Point. One of the most famous viewpoints in the entire park, it is well worth the strenuous elevation gain and offers plenty of looks at Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Half Dome.

5) North Dome Trail

North Dome & Basket Dome (Sierra Nevada Mountains, Califor… | Flickr
North Dome Trail

Distance: 10.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 2300 feet

Difficulty: Strenuous

Type: Out-and-Back

The North Dome trail offers an opportunity to climb to the top of a large dome in the park without needing a permit. It’s typically one of the lesser traveled trails and starts at Tioga Road. Some people say that no one has truly seen Half Dome unless viewing it from across the Valley while standing on North Dome.

6) Cathedral Lakes

Going Off-Trail in Tuolumne Meadows: Nelson Lake to Cathedral Lakes — Lily  M. Tang
Cathedral Lakes

Distance: 9 miles

Elevation Gain: 1550 feet

Difficulty: Strenuous

Type: Out-and-Back

Following the John Muir Trail, this is an excellent opportunity to escape the large congestion and crowds that are constantly present in the Yosemite Valley. That being said, it is one of the busier hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows area. The lakes are situated at the base of Cathedral Peak and are surrounded by jaw-dropping views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

7) Half Dome via the John Muir Trail

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Half Dome via the John Muir Trail

Distance: 16 miles

Elevation Gain: 4,800 feet

Difficulty: Strenuous

Type: Out-and-Back

Arguably the most famous hike in all of Yosemite, Half Dome via the John Muir Trail is a bucket list hike for people around the world. While it does require permits won through a lottery, it offers some of the best views in the entire park while also providing plenty of adrenaline. The well-known cables stretch 400 feet up to the summit and are the most mentally challenging part of the entire hike. However, if you can overcome the fear, you will be greeted by extraordinary scenery.

Nearby Lodging:

Luckily, Yosemite National Park is one of the few parks that offers plenty of rental cabins within its borders. Most of these stays are near Yosemite Village and provide easy access to the park’s main attractions. However, there are also plenty of beautiful cabins to stay in outside of the park that allow visitors to explore the surrounding mountains and towns.

1) Peace of Mind Cabin in Yosemite – Tuolumne Meadows, California

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Peace of Mind Cabin in Yosemite – Tuolumne Meadows, California

0 minutes to Yosemite National Park

Rate: $406

2) The Mariposa Cabin – Mariposa, California

Cabin Exterior | Driveway Parking (6 Vehicles) | RV/Trailer Parking
The Mariposa Cabin – Mariposa, California

50 minutes to Yosemite National Park

Rate: $282

3) The Rare Jewel – Yosemite National Park, California

The Rare Jewel – Yosemite National Park, California

0 minutes to Yosemite National Park

Rate: $344

4) Sugar Pine Haus – Oakhurst, California

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Sugar Pine Haus – Oakhurst, California

30 minutes to Yosemite

Rate: $218

5) Grandma’s Cabin – Yosemite National Park, California

Grandma's Cabin
Grandma’s Cabin – Yosemite National Park, California

0 minutes to Yosemite National Park

Rate: $206