The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Valley View

Yosemite National Park truly is among the most beautiful places on the planet! It was the very first national park I visited and one I have gone on to explore numerous times since. In fact, during our 2017 trip to all the national parks, my husband and I ranked Yosemite #6 in the country based on a variety of criteria (scenery, trails, facilities, photogenic, crowds/transport).

In my opinion, Yosemite National Park should be on every adventure lover’s bucket list and in this guide, you will find out everything you need to know to plan your own visit!

Quick Facts about Yosemite National Park

Location: California, USA
Native Land: Ahwahneechee
Size: 748,436 acres (3,028.8 sq km)
Annual Visitors: 4.1 million (2018)
Established: Federal protection (1864); National Park (1890)
Visitor Centers: Yosemite Valley (year-round), Wawona and Big Oak Flats (May–October), Tuolumne Meadows (June or July–late September)
Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle; $15 per individual

Official Park Map

Click for full version on the NPS website

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is a hub for tourists, climbers and backpackers from all over the world. There really is something for everyone in the park, no matter what age or ability level! In fact, over 4,000,000 visitors flock to the park each year to witness it’s grandeur, with the majority landing in Yosemite Valley.

The Yosemite Valley is a mile-wide, 7-mile-long canyon enveloped by ginormous granite walls and cascading waterfalls. As John Muir described it – “No temple made with human hands can compare with Yosemite”Many tourists only visit the Valley but definitely keep in mind that the park has plenty more to see!

RELATED: America’s National Parks Ranked Best to Worst

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Yosemite Valley Boardwalk
Spring in the Valley

When to Visit Yosemite National Park

There isn’t a right and wrong time to visit Yosemite, but there are some factors to consider when choosing your season. The Valley is open year-round and changes dramatically throughout the seasons.

  • Spring is a wonderful time to visit for flowing waterfalls
  • Summer is optimal for hiking and snow-free trails
  • Autumn is a photographer’s dream with all the changing colors
  • Winter brings a tranquility over the usually bustling park

Keep in mind that late spring – early autumn will be your best bet for accessing hiking trails snow no free (especially those in the higher elevations). Some sections of the park’s road system are closed during the winter season, including most of the high-country, Glacier Pass Road and Tioga Road.

My personal preference is to visit during the months of May-July to enjoy lush meadows, running waterfalls, and (mostly) snow-free hiking trails. These months are usually quite busy but I personally think it’s worth it for the beautiful landscapes and hiking trail access.

RELATED: 15 Least Crowded National Parks

FYI national park lovers – I put together a checklist of all the parks, so you can mark each off as you visit them! It’s free to download via my travel resource library! Click the image below.

National Park Checklist Free Printable Download - Renee Roaming

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Tunnel View
Tunnel View

Most Iconic View in Yosemite National Park

Tunnel View is unarguably the most iconic view in Yosemite National Park. When driving into the valley and exiting the Wawona Tunnel, Yosemite appears before your eyes in all of its glory… you will definitely want to find a spot in the parking lot and get out of the car to enjoy the view!
Right by the parking lot there is a viewing overlook where visitors can witness famous sights such as Half Dome, Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, and the entire Yosemite Valley. You can take in all of the highlights of Yosemite by booking a guided tour, such as this one that includes transportation from San Francisco.

Fun fact: El Capitan is considered the largest exposed granite monolith in the world, rising more than 3700-feet above the Valley. Those with binoculars may even spot the odd rock climber traversing the face of El Capitan, or see headlamps at night from climbers camping out on the wall. This orientation tour is a great way to see the park with an expert.

“There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods…and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred” — President Theodore Roosevelt, 1905

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Half Dome Sunsetv
Half Dome from Glacier Point

Must-Do “Easy” Yosemite Activities

There are many accessible and “easy’ activities in Yosemite National park, many of which you don’t even need to leave the car to experience. Here are some of my top recommendations:

Drive the Valley Floor Loop

Driving the Valley Floor Loop is a fantastic way to see a range of Yosemite’s most famous sights. Visitors can stop at Yosemite Falls (option to walk the 1-mile Lower Yosemite Falls trail), El Capitan Meadow, Sentinel Bridge, Valley View, and various other pull-offs along the way. The Valley can also be explored on foot or via bicycle for those wanting to avoid traffic jams.

Explore Tioga Road

Tioga Road is another scenic drive for views of the Yosemite high-country. Tioga Road traverses west-east across the park and allows visitors to access both sides of the Sierras during summer. There are numerous overlooks along the way, including Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake Scenic Overlook, and Tuolomne Meadow. This guided hike includes a van tour of Tioga Road.

Mariposa Grove

Yosemite is home to giant sequoia trees and they can easily be viewed by visiting the Mariposa Grove. The area has numerous walking trails ranging from very easy (Big Trees Loop), moderate (Grizzly Giant Loop), and strenuous (Mariposa Grove Trail). Fun fact: the area is home to over 500 mature giant sequoias!

Visit Glacier Point

Lastly, Glacier Point is a must-see location for anyone visiting Yosemite National Park. Glacier Pass Road allows easy access to a large parking lot for Glacier Point, with a short paved trail leading visitors to the overlook. Glacier Point provides panoramic views of Half Dome, Nevada Falls, Vernal Falls and the valley floor. Tip: visit during the late afternoon and stay to witness sunset!

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The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Yosemite Falls
Lower Yosemite Falls Trail

Best Yosemite Hiking Trails

Yosemite is home to some world class hiking trails! There are a range of short and easy options, a bunch of moderate trails, and some more strenuous and challenging routes. I suggest you choose a couple from the list below that are within your fitness range: You can also book a hiking tour if you prefer exploring with a guide.

RELATED: A Beginners Guide to Hiking

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Half Dome Hike
Hiking Half Dome

For the Adventurous Yosemite Explorer

Yosemite is teeming with opportunities for adventure and one of the most sought after is bagging the summit of Half Dome. Day hiking Half Dome has become a popular activity, with a permit system now in place to regulate its access. The summit can be accessed via a 14 to 16.5-mile trail (roundtrip, depending on which route you take) from the valley floor or via other high-country routes. Check out this blog post that discusses the different routes.

There are metal cables to assist climbers up the side of Half Dome and it is recommended that you bring gloves to protect your hands. This is not a hike for the fainthearted or unfit – be prepared for a strenuous trek, exposed sections and steep drops. If you do make it to the top, the views from Half Dome are absolutely breathtaking!

For one of our trips my husband and I opted to take a 3-day adventure in the Yosemite backcountry. We spent our first night camping at Upper Cathedral Lake, then two nights base-camping nearby Sunrise Lakes. We used this location to day-hike to Half Dome and Clouds Rest and felt really immersed in the Sierras – would highly recommend! You can even book a guided multi-day camping trip while you’re visiting Yosemite National Park.

RELATED: A Beginners Guide to Backcountry Camping

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Taft Point Sunset
Taft Point

Best Photo Spots in Yosemite National Park

As mentioned earlier in the blog post, Tunnel View is an absolute must-see in Yosemite, and it’s also a wonderful photography opportunity. Ansel Adams captured some now very famous images of Tunnel View back in the 1930s and 1940s, which have continued to inspire generations of photographers. Tunnel View can be photographed at sunrise or sunset, with both times providing unique and beautiful light.
Some more photography spots include:

  • Valley View: best at sunrise but also pretty in the late afternoon/sunset.
  • Cathedral Beach: best at sunrise, especially after some snow fall.
  • Artist Point: best at sunset when golden/pink light is hitting El Capitan.
  • Yosemite Falls: good in a variety of light.
  • Taft Point: best captured at sunset for golden light over the valley.
  • Glacier Point: best captured at sunset for gorgeous views of Half Dome.
  • Firefall at Horsetail Falls: a phenomenon that happens around the second week of February, when light hitting Horsetail Falls makes it appear like lava or fire.
The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Fire Falls
The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Valley View
Valley View

Where to Stay in Yosemite

  • The Ahwahnee Hotel: historic park lodge in Yosemite Valley featuring a restaurant, pool, and bar.
  • Curry Village: tent cabins, cabins, and Stoneman House rooms. Also has a pool, showers, and restaurant.
  • Wawona Hotel: vintage 1876 wilderness retreat with  a pool,golf course, and restaurant.
  • Yosemite Valley Lodge: motel-style accommodation in the village, featuring a resturant and pool.
  • High Sierra Camps: six remote tent-cabin camps along the John Muir Trail in eastern Yosemite, accessible only by hiking.
  • Thirteen campgrounds are spread across the park, including Yosemite Valley, Wawona, and Tuolumne Meadows. Reserve through These campgrounds have options for tent camping as well as camper/RV parking. You can also use The Dyrt to compare campgrounds, use my code Renee90 for a free 90 day trial.

RELATED: Top Tips for Sleeping in Your Car on Road Trips

Outside the park
The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Valley Van View
El Capitan views

Getting around Yosemite National Park

There are a few options for how you can explore Yosemite National Park. You can access the park with your own car and use that to get around. Or you can drive into the Valley in your own vehicle but then opt to take the park shuttle buses to various trailheads and lookouts. You can ride your own bicycle around the Valley or rent one once you arrive in the park. Another option would be to take a day-tour from somewhere like San Francisco, which usually involves a large tour bus and less flexibility.

My personal preference is to drive my own vehicle but then access various spots on foot or shuttle bus if necessary due to crowds. I find that arriving at trailheads early in the morning will usually result in finding a parking spot, though it does depend on the time of year.

RELATED: The 15 Most Underrated National Parks in America

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Cathedral Lakes
Cathedral Lakes after fresh snow

Others Places to Explore near Yosemite

Yosemite National Park is located in the perfect area to explore many more California and nearby gems. Here are some suggestions for places to add-on to your road trip:

RELATED: Winter California Road Trip to Yosemite and Redwoods

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park - Taft Point
Taft Point

Fun Facts about Yosemite National Park

  • Yosemite was designated a National Park in 1890, and in addition became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
  • Before it became National Park, Yosemite had been home to the Ahwaneechee Native Americans for over 4,000 years. The California Gold Rush and trappers were the reason the Ahwaneechee people left the area in the mid 1800s.
  • Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America, with an impressive 2,425-foot drop to the valley floor. The month of May is the best time to view the falls at their peak flow.
  • Tioga Pass is the highest pass in California and the Sierra Nevada.
  • Wildlife found within the park include black bears, coyotes, mule deer, bighorn sheep, red foxes, chipmunks, squirrels, mountain lions, and many more.
  • Yosemite National Park employs 1,200 summer and 800 winter National Park Service staff.

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 California's Yosemite National Park should be on every adventure lover's bucket list and in this guide you'll find everything you need to know to plan your own getaway! I'm sharing all the best hiking trails, the top photography spots, where you should stay, the peak season to visit, and much more! #Yosemite #YosemiteNationalPark #USA #NationalParks #RoadTrip

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite National Park


  1. This is a fantastic post. I’m busy combing through it and it came just as the right time, too. My husband and I are visiting this summer but we only have ONE DAY in Yosemite (gasp, I know). We are going with the recs in your book (love it) to start but will have to return. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Beautiful article Renee. Will be using this guide when Laura and I travel over there 100%! Incredible website too, I’ve been using it as inspiration to create our own. Cheers mate ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. When I visited Yosemite a couple of years back, I was spellbound by its beauty. Thankyou for this wonderful blogpost reminding me of my incredible trip. Your photos are just stunning.

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