As the hub and undisputed gem of Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Valley is a treasure trove of photographic opportunities: granite precipices and cliffs create sharp contrasts against the lush and fertile land of the valley floor. All of the big names are here: El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls…it's just a matter of deciding which waterfall to explore first or which hike to attempt next.
Activities range from birdwatching to biking, horseback riding to hiking and all manner of sport in between. In addition to the natural beauty, you'll also find the bulk of visitor amenities in Yosemite Valley: the Valley Visitor Center, Yosemite Museum and Nature Center at Happy Isles are all based in the Valley, making it the perfect base camp to explore the myriad of natural treasures of Yosemite National Park.
The highest measured waterfall in North America, Yosemite Falls is the superstar attraction in the park, especially in late spring when the snow melts and water flow is at its peak. With a cumulative drop of 2,425 feet (739 meters), Yosemite Falls actually consists of three falls and is also the sixth highest waterfall in the world (seventh according to some sources). Though there is some discussion about its place in the world's highest list, it's an incontrovertible fact that Yellowstone Falls is the centerpiece of the valley and the park.
The best views of the cascading torrent can be seen from various vantage points, including Yosemite Village and Yosemite Lodge. For active viewers, a one-mile loop trail leads to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall and also possible to hike to the top of Yosemite Falls as a strenuous, all-day hike. For a unique experience, on a clear night with plenty of moonlight and enough water to create mist.
Perhaps one of the most famous hikes in Yosemite National Park, Half Dome was, like El Capitan, once considered impossible to climb. Now, thousands of park visitors reach the summit, but it still remains a challenge that requires knowledge and preparation. Half Dome rises 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) above the valley floor and 8,800 feet (2,682 meters) above sea level.
The hike, which takes between 10 and 12 hours round-trip, is strenuous, but the vistas are more than worth it. Hikers are treated to views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap and panoramic expanses of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra. In order to get those views, though, you’ll have to ascend the cables. These two metal cables will allow you to climb the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment; if the views don’t take your breath away, the cable ascent just might.
Yes, it's a big rock, but what makes El Capitan a must-witness sight in Yosemite is the fact that it's the largest exposed-granite monolith in the world. Oh, and people climb it. Rising 3,593 feet (1095 meters)—more than 350 stories—above the Valley, El Capitan was once considered impossible to climb. However, since Warren Harding first conquered the "nose" in 1958, El Capitan has become the standard for big-wall climbing.
Take binoculars to spot the little bits of color that pinpoint adventurous climbers tackling the smooth and nearly vertical cliff.
One of the first waterfalls that you'll see as you enter Yosemite, Bridalveil Fall is 620 feet (188 meters) in height and flows year-round, with peak water flow occurring in May. On windy days, it looks almost like the waterfall is falling sideways.
Bridalveil Fall became one of the most photographed waterfalls in the park after Ansel Adams published his Gates of the Valley photograph, featuring Bridalveil Fall welcoming visitors to the magnificence of nature that can be found in the park. Take the short (about 20 minutes round trip), but steep, hike up to the base to see the falls close-up, but be sure to dress appropriately: you’ll encounter spray in the spring and possibly icy conditions in the winter.
An overlook with an incomparable view of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Yosemite's high country (stay for stargazing if you have the time), Glacier Point is accessible by car during the summer and by cross-country ski during the winter. Perhaps it's getting to Glacier Point that is half the fun!
During the winter, skiers are rewarded only after a 10.5 cross-country tour; during the summer, hikers can choose from the misleadingly named Four Mile Trail (it's actually closer to five miles long), the nearly nine mile Panorama Trail or, for the truly ambitious, a combination of the two trails, to reach the promontory.
However, if you lack the time, desire or stamina to climb the nearly 3,200 feet (975 meters) above the valley floor, consider the four-hour Glacier Point Tour, which departs daily from Yosemite Lodge.
Ansel Adams is known for his striking black and white photos, capturing and preserving the wild beauty of nature’s monuments. Through his poignant images of Half Dome and Vernal Fall, Yosemite became a symbol for the evocative drama of the American West and the park took its place in the hearts and consciousness of the American public.
Fans of Ansel Adams will definitely want to visit the gallery in Yosemite, which features original photos, archival replicas and other unique pieces. More than just a display of Adams’ work, the gallery also features works from other contemporary artists; exhibits are rotated every six weeks. The gallery hosts a variety of activities, including photography workshops, viewings of Ansel Adams films and free camera walks every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday during the summer.
One of the most iconic hikes in Yosemite, the Mist Trail leads hikers to not one, but two of Yosemite's standout waterfalls: Vernal and Nevada Falls. You can reach the Vernal Fall footbridge (the best view of Vernal Fall) in about 1.5 mile (2.6 km) round-trip; be prepared for a three mile (4.8 km) to reach Vernal Fall. The hike isn't difficult if you stop at the footbridge, but if you continue up to Vernal Fall, be prepared for steps cut into the cliff side.
Pushing on to Nevada Fall will take your total up to a seven mile (11 km) round trip, but it's worth it for some of the finest views in all of Yosemite, encompassing Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, and the back side of Half Dome. You'll get close enough to the falls that you’ll feel the spray kiss your face and clothes, so wear proper clothing and exercise caution when hiking on the slick rocks.
Located in the eastern section of Yosemite National Park, Toulumne Meadows provides an alternate view from the popular Yosemite Valley section of the park. A gently rolling, sub-alpine area near the Tuolumne River, the Meadows is home to a wide variety of wildlife, several alpine lakes, hiking trails and plenty of rock climbing.
Try the easy hike to Soda Springs and Parsons Lodge or trek up to Gaylor Lake for spectacular high-country views. Less crowded than the Valley, Toulumne is worth the approximately two-hour drive from the Yosemite Valley to experience this idyllic setting.
Of all Yosemite’s lodging options, Ahwahnee Hotel stands out - not only for its location, set amidst the park’s most recognizable features (you can see Yosemite Falls from the legendary dining room), but also for its interior, redolent of the dawn of Yosemite as a national park.
A National Historic Landmark, the Ahwahnee Hotel was the product of a need for “luxury” in the park. Completed and opened to the public in 1927, the hotel has 123 guest rooms comprised of 99 hotel rooms, four suites and 24 cottage rooms on the grounds surrounding the main building. It costs a pretty penny to stay in the Ahwahnee and rooms fill up quickly; to learn the story behind the architecture and interior design of one of the most recognized "Great Lodges of the West," sign up for a free tour. If you’re not up for spending the time—or money—in the dining room, enjoy a cocktail at the Ahwahnee Bar and still experience the flavor of the hotel.
Yosemite contains three groves of massive, ancient Giant Sequoia trees, perhaps the largest living things on Earth. Mariposa Grove is by far the largest and easiest to access, with more than 500 Sequoias to admire—some almost 3,000 years old—and some like Grizzly Giant, whose base measures 96 feet (29 meters) around and might be the largest in the world. Hike less than a mile from the parking lot to wander through the California Tunnel Tree, take the two-mile trek uphill to the Mariposa Grove Museum (located inside a historic log cabin) or consider hopping on the one-hour tram tour that operates from May through October.
Mariposa Grove Road and the Mariposa Grove are closed for a restoration project until approximately spring 2017.
Located in Yosemite Valley, Mirror Lake is famous for its reflections of Half Dome and Mount Watkins when the water level is high enough; to be fair, it's more of a pond than a lake. But it's a pretty pond that can be accessed by an easy two-mile round trip stroll from the valley floor.
If photographs are what you're looking to capture, be sure to visit in the spring and early summer; birders will enjoy catching glimpses of white-headed woodpeckers and martens. If you’d prefer a circumferential view of the lake, there’s a five-mile (eight kilometer) loop hike that is sure to satisfy.
With its origins located in the southeastern corner of Yosemite National Park, near Merced Lake, the Merced River flows for 145 miles (233 km) westward through a series of canyons and gorge, spilling into the Little Yosemite Valley and dropping over Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls before continuing through Yosemite Valley.
The Merced River and its tributaries are home to some of the most popular recreational activities in Yosemite National Park, including boating, fishing, whitewater rafting and swimming off of its sandy beaches. One-day intermediate to advanced rafting trips are available to challenge Class III and IV rapids in the spring; during the rest of the season, the river becomes friendly to rafters of all abilities. There are also wonderful hiking trails that wander through the river shed; perhaps the most famous is the John Muir Trail, which starts near Happy Isles and climbs the Giant Staircase, past Vernal and Nevada Falls.