Famous for its waterfalls and granite walls, Yosemite National Park is home to some of the most iconic natural wonders in America. For walkers, this World Heritage Site is a playground of unparalleled proportion and perfect for all levels of ability. Yosemite is home to one of the most challenging day hikes in the park system (Half Dome Trail), but also offers wheelchair accessibility to the base of Yosemite Falls, its most symbolic feature.
Yosemite Valley is open for hiking year-round, and trails here, especially the shortest ones, are almost always busy. A shuttle bus runs in the valley. Visitors can park at Half Dome Village or Yosemite Village and access the shuttle to reach trailheads and sites. From late spring through fall, the Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road hikes are open and take some of the pressure off the valley’s hiking trails.
1 Yosemite Falls Trail
The showpiece of Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Falls, is like a visual magnet that practically calls out to hikers as you drive through the valley. This is the tallest waterfall in North America and it is truly one of the most striking places in the park. Hikers can get up close and personal with the falls, along with beautiful views of Yosemite Valley from the Yosemite Falls Trail. You can hike 7.2 miles round-trip to the top of Yosemite Falls or opt for a two-mile round-trip trip to Columbia Rock.
The hike to the top of Yosemite Falls involves a heart-pounding ascent of 2,700 feet over a series of switchbacks, to a spectacular viewpoint, where you can also view the falls from above and the river that feeds it. The falls are at their best in the spring, when the amount of water flowing over the ridge is at its peak. The total time for this hike varies from approximately six to eight hours. This hike has long drop-offs, but most exposed sections have guardrails or railings to grab onto on the inside.
The less strenuous hike to Columbia Rock takes you only 1,000 feet and can be done in two to three hours, round trip. This is still a moderately demanding hike, with a series of switchbacks. From Columbia Rocks you can get beautiful views of the valley and a mile-long trail takes you to beautiful views of Upper Yosemite Falls.
If you are interested in hiking but don’t want to tackle longer hikes alone, consider taking a guided hike at Yosemite. You can choose from beginner, intermediate or advanced level walks.
2 Half Dome Hike
The hike up Half Dome, another iconic Yosemite site, is a bucket list hike best suited for adventurous hikers. If your idea of a great hike involves a 12-hour, 14-mile hike, massive elevation gain, cables, and something to write home about, then this is the hike for you. This famous hike is a challenging trail and requires some advance planning, but if you have the time and energy, it’s worth tackling.
The Half Dome route is a full day of walking for people in good physical condition. The trail follows the route of some of the park’s other popular hikes, starting on the Mist Trail, up to Vernal Fall and on to Nevada Fall. The last part of the hike around the back of Half Dome is so steep and exposed that the park installed cables to make the climb possible. But even the walk through Sub Dome, to reach the cables, is serious work, with extremely steep and exposed terrain. The park has created a video about the Half Dome hike so visitors know what they’re getting into before they try it. You can only reach the peak from about Memorial Day to Columbus Day. The cables will be removed outside this season.
3 Mist Trail to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall
The Mist Trail, which leads to the top of spectacular Vernal Fall, is one of the most popular hikes in the park. You can combine a series of hikes, including a short hike to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, followed by the Mist Trail and on to Nevada Fall. This gives hikers the chance to turn back when they’ve had their fill, while still reaching some spectacular views along the way.
The trail starts on the bank of the Merced River and leads to the Vernal Fall Footbridge , where it crosses the river and offers good views looking toward Vernal Fall. This is a one-way 8-mile hike to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, with 400 feet of elevation gain. Many hikers walk alone to the pedestrian bridge, so this first part is the busiest.
On the other side of the walkway the trail splits, with the John Muir Trail to the right and the Mist Trail branching off to the left. The Mist Trail follows the river and Vernal Ascend a long series of stone steps for another .7 miles, gaining another 600 feet of elevation. As the name suggests, the mist from the waterfall along this section of the stairs is constant and you can expect to get wet. Many people wear raincoats. Finally, you’ll reach the top of spectacular Vernal Fall , for a full view of the falls and river below.
If you fancy a longer hike, you can take another long set of steps up Nevada Fall , an even more beautiful sight. Total duration of the hike to the top of Nevada Fall is five to six hours, covering just under 8.5 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation.
This is an in-and-out walk and returns following the same route. The trailhead is located at Happy Isles (stop 16) by shuttle bus.
4 Mirror Lake Trail
Surrounded by Yosemite’s signature granite walls, Mirror Lake is a pleasant place to relax on a hot day. The walk is easy. It also offers one of the best close-up views of Half Dome’s face in the park. Depending on your energy level, you can make the lake the destination, or do a full loop to Tenaya Canyon and around the lake, following the river up one side and down the other. The return trip to Mirror Lake is 1.5 miles, and the full loop around the lake is four miles.
Most people start the hike from shuttle stop #17, but the beginning of the trail can be confusing because the trails run on either side of the river. On the right is a walking trail, on the left is a paved access road leading to the lower pond below Mirror Lake. If you just want to go to Mirror Lake, take the paved access road, and this will take you to the more popular side of the lake with views of Half Dome.
5 Sentinel Dome Trail
High above the Yosemite Valley, Sentinel Dome hike offers spectacular views without much physical effort. Looking out from nearly 4,000 feet above the valley floor, you can see far into the distance and view the famous sites of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls from a much different perspective than you get from driving through Yosemite Valley. The total elevation gain for this hike is only about 400 feet, with most of the ascent occurring as you approach the pinnacle of the dome.
This path also has significance for photographers. Ansel Adams’ famous photo of the Jeffrey Pine was included here and today you can still see the fallen tree.
This hike begins on the Glacier Point Road, which runs along a high mountain ridge south of Yosemite Valley. Driving time from Yosemite Village is about an hour, but this area is usually much less busy. This is a seasonal hike, only open during the summer months when the Glacier Point Road is open.
6 Cathedral Lakes
The Cathedral Lakes hike introduces you to some of the high alpine beauty along the Tioga Road. You can hike to Upper Cathedral and Lower Cathedral Lake, for an eight-mile loop, or simply stroll to either for a seven-mile return hike. Most hikers simply walk to Lower Cathedral Lake, the more scenic of the two. This is the larger of the two lakes and offers a peaceful place to relax and enjoy a picnic. The gray granite banks and surrounding mountains contrast with the dark blue of the lake. The calm water reflects Cathedral Peak.
Both lakes are well above 9,000 feet, and the elevation gain on this hike is approximately 800 feet to Lower Cathedral Lake and 1,100 feet to Upper Cathedral Lake. The trail starts from Tuolumne Meadows and is part of the John Muir Trail. Since this trail is only open in summer, this is a seasonal hike.
7 May Lake Trail en Mount Hoffmann
If you are looking for a short but beautiful hike along the Tioga Road, May Lake Trail is the perfect option. This 2.5 mile loop hike gains about 500 feet of elevation and is a steady climb to the lake. Scenic views, overlooking the mountains, forests, canyons and beyond to Half Dome, cap off the trek. On Lake May you can relax, or if you decide you want to hike much longer, you can cross Mount Hoffmann, which rises above Lake May. This will add on 3.5 miles round trip to your hike, plus almost another 1,600 feet in elevation. The 360-degree view from Mount Hoffman is spectacular, covering the entire area, with the added bonus of a view over May Lake.
As with Cathedral Lakes, this hike is only possible when the Tioga Road is open.
8 Bridalveil autumn walk
This hike is actually just a short walk, but considering this waterfall is one of the big attractions in Yosemite Valley, it’s worth taking the time to stop and walk the 1.2-mile trail. You can go right to the base of the waterfall and feel the mist on your face as the water hits the rocks, after falling 620 feet from the top of the cliff wall. The trail is quite flat and requires little effort.
As you walk up the valley on Wawona Road, Bridalveil Fall is the first parking area past Tunnel View.
9 Lower Yosemite Falls Trail
Yosemite is one of the most beautiful parks in the United States and Yosemite Falls is one of the most incredible sites the park has to offer, and the paved path to the base makes it very accessible. This half-mile route is wheelchair accessible on the east side of the loop. Here you will also find one of the best views of the upper and lower waterfall through the trees. You can take a shuttle to the trailhead, or you can walk from Yosemite Village, for a hike of about 1 mile.
Where to Stay near Yosemite National Park
For the ultimate in convenience and luxury, the best place to stay is at a lodge in Yosemite National Park. If you have camping equipment, you will find plenty of good camping options in and around the park. Hotels and other accommodations outside the park are surprisingly limited and require some travel time. Below are some of the best hotel options in the area:
- In the Park: The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is a beautiful 1927 lodge classified by the National Parks system as a Premier Lodge. Occupying the most prime location in the Yosemite Valley, this luxury hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as a National Historic Landmark. The design features a stone facade, open-beamed ceilings and large communal areas. The rooms are more modern but tastefully decorated.
- El Portal : The two-story Cedar Lodge, in the nearby town of El Portal, is a good option, especially for families. The spacious rooms are quiet and some have a full kitchen and separate bedrooms. Travel time to Yosemite Village, along Highway 140, is just 30 minutes.
- Highway 120 and Groveland: Located about 50 minutes from Yosemite Valley, along Highway 120, Rush Creek Lodge offers rooms and suites with balconies, a private outdoor pool, a game room and a restaurant. A little further away, closer to the town of Groveland, is the comfortable Yosemite Westgate Lodge. The town of Groveland is home to Hotel Charlotte and The Groveland Hotel, both quaint little properties with small-town charm.
- Camping: For a complete list, see our article on the best campsites in and around Yosemite.
More hiking, camping and outdoor destinations in California
- Hiking: Various California landscapes offer a wealth of opportunities for unique hiking experiences. Hike among the towering redwoods on the best hikes in Redwood National and State Parks, or along the shores of Lake Tahoe, with the help of our feature article on the top hikes around South Lake Tahoe. If you’re not sure where to start, check out our best hikes in California.
- Camping: One of the best ways to experience California’s natural areas is by camping on site. For more ideas on where to camp, see our articles on the best campsites in Yosemite National Park, Redwood National and State Parks, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park and Joshua Tree National Park.
- Destinations: Explore off the beaten path in California, discover where to go and what to see in California desert destinations, or see the sites of Joshua Tree National Park.