The American Field Trip Guide to Yosemite National Park

In 1864, in the middle of the bloodiest year of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln took a moment to sign into law the Yosemite Park Act, which deeded the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the state of California as a national trust, to be preserved for “public use, resort and recreation.”

This was the seed of the national parks idea, the first time land was set aside to be preserved simply for its natural beauty. Although Yellowstone was the first officially named national park, Yosemite and the sequoia groves to its south set the standard and the precedent for conservation.

Where it’s located:

Yosemite lies east of California’s Central Valley, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Getting there:

Nearby airports include San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, Fresno and Merced. You can also take an Amtrak train to Merced, then a connecting bus into the park. Driving is the easiest way to get most places within the park, but parking can be an issue, especially at the height of summer.

The Yosemite Valley shuttle transports visitors all over the eastern valley, and stops at all major points of interest. Shuttles run year-round from 7 am to 10 pm. We highly recommend using the shuttle to get around within the valley rather than driving and trying to find parking at each point.

Where to stay:

To get the most out of a Yosemite visit, staying inside the park is by far your best choice for accommodations. Aramark is the concessioner of Yosemite’s lodging; this site has all the details. You can book a fancy hotel room at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, a canvas tent cabin at Half Dome Village, and a range of things in between.

Yosemite has 13 very popular campgrounds; many of them can be reserved up to 5 months in advance. See this site for campground and reservation details. All the campgrounds are very family-friendly.

Some campgrounds are available on a first-come, first-served basis, but you’ll need to arrive at the site quite early in the morning to reserve, especially during May and June. It’s also possible to get a spot from a cancelled reservation; enquire at the visitor center.

How long to stay:

Yosemite is a big park that covers a lot of area, and it takes some time (and possibly some waiting in traffic) to get into the heart of it. For that reason, and because it’s one of the most iconic, beautiful, adventure-packed parks in existence, we recommend at least 3-4 days to get a sense of it. As always, longer is better!

When to go:

There is no bad time to visit Yosemite. Melting snow swells Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls in spring, while summer and fall are perfect for hiking, backpacking, rock climbing and paddling. In winter, high elevation roads to Tuolumne Meadows and Glacier Point close, but the valley stays open and turns into a snowy wonderland with opportunities for downhill and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Best for:

  • Wildlife
  • Hiking
  • Rock Climbing
  • History
  • Scenery
  • Paddling

Pair with:

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, immediately south of Yosemite, are great additions to your Yosemite trip. The area is also surrounded by National Forests that boast hiking, paddling, and climbing opportunities without the crowds.

Areas:

Yosemite Valley:

Yosemite Valley is the heart of the park; it is home to Yosemite’s most iconic views and bears the load of most of its 5 million yearly visitors. Many of the park’s amenities are here, including campgrounds and lodges, restaurants and stores, museums and theaters. The valley is open year-round.

Hetch Hetchy:

Once a glacial valley very much like Yosemite Valley, with sheer granite cliffs, waterfalls, and a flat and meadowy basin floor, Hetch Hetchy was flooded and turned into a reservoir in 1913. There are several hikes in the area; while you’re walking around, imagine what the valley might have been like when John Muir explored it and described it as “a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples . . . a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite.” Then recommit yourself to fighting the good fight of land conservation ;).

Tuolumne Meadows:

A subalpine wonderland of rolling meadows, jewel-colored lakes, granite domes and abundant wildflowers and animal life, Tuolumne Meadows has some of Yosemite’s best hiking and rock climbing. The area is only open in summer; specific opening and closing dates depend on snowfall, so check before you go.

Mariposa Grove:

This beautifully renovated grove of ancient sequoias reopened to visitors in the summer of 2018. Interpretive signs or a guided ranger tour will help you fully appreciate both the grove and its restoration.

Wawona:

There are trails, an art museum and lodge here; one of Wawona’s best points of interest is its Pioneer Yosemite History Center, where you can take a wagon ride, see demonstrations and visit historic buildings that explain Yosemite’s pioneer past.

Activities:

Scenery gazing:

You could come to Yosemite and do nothing but stare at your surroundings for several days; in fact, whatever other activities you’re doing, you should spend a lot of time staring at your surroundings. Some of the best viewpoints in the park are:

  • Glacier Point: Look straight out at Half Dome and down into the valley for views of Vernal and Nevada Falls.
  • Tunnel View: A classic (and crowded) view of Yosemite Valley; you’ll be able to see El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome and the expansive valley floor.
  • Valley View: Look up from below at Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan.
  • Olmstead Point: Along Tioga Road, pull off for a look at Half Dome’s backside and the rolling granite formations in front of it.

Rock climbing:

Yosemite is famed for its granite, with some of the most famous climbing routes in the world. Because it’s such a popular place to climb, it’s especially crucial to be aware of climbing’s impact. If you’re an experienced climber, please go to this site to read up about safety, regulations and best practices before you go.

If you’re new to the sport, the Yosemite Mountaineering School offers guided trips from half a day to multiple days.

History:

As America’s 2nd oldest park and its main inspiration is establishing a system of public lands, Yosemite is full of history.

You can experience it by walking around the historic lodges in Yosemite Valley and near Mariposa Grove, watching one of the park movies, visiting the museum, Indian Cultural Exhibit and Ansel Adams gallery, or attending a ranger program.

One of our favorite experiences at Yosemite was a live stage performance about John Muir. Written and performed by Lee Stetson, who has portrayed John Muir in the park’s shows since 1983, it’s a deeply worthwhile way to spend an evening in Yosemite Valley.

There are several other shows and historical performances sponsored by the Yosemite Conservancy as well; see here for schedules and ticket details.

Hiking:

Hiking is one of Yosemite’s best and most accessible activities. Trails are well-maintained and well-trafficked, and there is one for every level of ability.

There are literally hundreds of options here, so I won’t detail specifics of any trails in this guide. You can check our blog post to see which trails we hiked during our time in Yosemite, research on AllTrails before arriving, or just get advice from a ranger once you’re in the park. A few notes on some of the park’s most popular trails:

Half Dome:

In a park full of icons, this granite monolith is perhaps the most iconic. You can reach the top via a strenuous, 17-mile trail. You’ll need a permit in order to be admitted to the last stretch of the trail that takes you to the summit.

Vernal and Nevada Falls:

This is one of the park’s most well-trafficked trails and for good reason: this hike is a stunner. There are two ways to tackle it: you can ascend the steep steps alongside the falls and then descend via the more circuitous John Muir trail, or go up John Muir and down the steps.

Either way, it’s a fairly difficult hike (though our 4-year-old managed it just fine). Keep a hand on little ones, as there are some steep drop-offs. Never, ever swim in the water above the falls—it may look calm, but there are hidden currents and you can easily get swept away to your death. Water is one of the two main causes of death in Yosemite. 

Cathedral Lakes:

An eminently worthwhile hike in the Tuolumne Meadows section of the park, mosquitoes can make this trail unpleasant at times. Get your mosquito spray on and wear pants and long sleeves. This advice applies to any summer hiking in the high country; the item most commonly purchased at the Tuolumne Meadows store by Pacific Crest Trail hikers is DEET.

Swimming:

On a hot day, splash around in the valley’s Merced River or in Mirror Lake, or go for a chillier experience in Tenaya or Cathedral Lakes in the high country. There is also a pool at Half Dome Village that you can access for a small fee, and it is utterly delightful.

Skiing and Snowshoeing:

Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area is a lift-operated ski area within the park. You can rent equipment and take lessons, or hit the slopes with just a lift ticket.

You can also cross-country ski or snowshoe in many areas of the park. There are 90 miles of marked cross-country ski trails and ranger-guided snowshoe walks from mid-December through March.

Paddling and Floating:

There are several places in the park where you can paddle. The Merced River is the most popular and floating through the valley on its green waters is one of the most pleasant ways you could possibly spend a summer day. You can also paddle on any other lake in the park (barring the Hetch Hetchy reservoir) and most rivers.

Check with a ranger on where you can safely put in and take out, especially on the rivers. Here are some basic guidelines.

Biking:

Bikes are a great way to get around the park, most particularly within Yosemite Valley. There are 12 miles of paved bike paths and bikers are also permitted to ride on all park roads.

Bringing Kids:

The variety of activities and amenities in Yosemite make it one of the most family-friendly parks in the NPS system. You can explore a trail all day, then come back to camp, hop in a swimming pool and grab a pizza for dinner. Yosemite also excels at ranger programs geared toward kids, and its jr. ranger program is a great resource for families (adults will enjoy it too!)

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from our readers about visiting Yosemite National Park:

What are the best hikes to go on with kids?
What is the best easy hike with kids?
Best hikes with small child (6 months)?
Great kid-friendly trails outside of the valley, especially along Tioga Road?
Good walks for kids?

We got this question in at least a dozen iterations! Our answer really depends on your kids. For infants, like the 6-month-old asked about above, you can really do any trail (barring ones that involve technical climbing) while carrying a baby in a pack. Likewise, a 6- or 7-year-old used to hiking could probably handle just about any trail in the park.

But for kids old enough to hike on their own but not ready for difficult trails, there are still loads of options. Here are just a few (get more ideas on AllTrails or from a ranger):

  • Sentinel Dome: 360 degree views over the Valley and beyond. 2.2 miles; moderate.
  • Lower Yosemite Falls: Short, paved trail to the base of the falls. 0.5 miles; easy.
  • Mirror Lake Loop: A peaceful walk through woods and meadows around the lake; in the spring, Half Dome is beautifully reflected in the lake’s surface. You can take a dip in the lake, too. 4.7 miles; easy.
  • Mariposa Grove: There are several trails through this grove of sequoias, from the easy 0.3 mile Big Trees Loop to the moderate 7-mile Mariposa Grove Trail.
  • Tenaya Lake Loop: Walk around the gorgeous Tenaya Lake along the Tioga Road. 2.5 miles; easy.
  • Sentinel Meadow and Cook’s Meadow Loop: Flat boardwalk trail through the Valley’s meadows, with great views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. 2.2 miles; easy.
  • Elizabeth Lake: There are lots of lakes in the Tuolumne Meadows area of the park that make for great day-hike destinations. Elizabeth Lake is one of the easier trails. 4.6 miles; moderate.
  • Gaylor Lakes: Gorgeous scenery at the eastern edge of the park. 3 miles; easy/moderate (there’s a bit of a climb at the beginning, but nothing very intense.)
How do we avoid the touristy areas?
Tips to avoid the crowds and traffic. The horror stories scared us away from even going.
How do you escape the crowds in the Valley?

This is the other question we got over and over. We touched on this above, but we’ll say it again: Yosemite is crowded. It just is. A visit here may require you to settle into the communal experience of the Iconic National Park, just like a visit to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or Great Smoky Mountains will.

Which is not to say that you can NEVER escape the crowds—it just means that on your way to escaping them, you probably will deal with them a bit.

Here’s our best strategy: plan to spend most of your time in the park outside the Valley, at Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Meadows, Hetch Hetchy and along the Tioga Road. But don’t avoid the Valley altogether—it has some of Yosemite’s best and most classic experiences. Instead, plan to either stay in the Valley a night or two, or else get there very early, find a parking spot and then use the shuttle or bikes to get around throughout. Choose a day hike and watch the crowds taper off as you get farther along the trail. Or start a popular trail (like Vernal and Nevada Falls) late in the day to enjoy more solitude—just bring a headlamp for the hike back.

What’s the best time to visit the Valley for fewer crowds?

Yosemite Valley is open year-round and sees fewer crowds from late fall to early spring, especially on weekdays.

How much time would it take to see the best of the best in the park?

The most honest answer I can give to this question is: a week. At least. The “problem” with Yosemite is that IT’S ALL THE BEST OF THE BEST. But obviously you won’t always have that much time to spend. If you’re very strapped for time, even one day in Yosemite Valley would allow you to do a terrific day hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls, cool off with a float down the Merced, and take in sunset from Glacier Point. With a few more days, you can spend some time in Tuolumne Meadows (our favorite part of the park) or Mariposa Grove.

What’s the right minimum age for kids so we don’t have to miss out on all the park has to offer?

We really think there’s no wrong age to bring kids to a place like Yosemite. But we understand the question: if you’re planning one big family Yosemite trip to be The Yosemite Trip of your kids’ childhoods, you want to time it so they’re old enough to enjoy. Our son had just turned 5 when we visited and he was able to do all the hikes we wanted to do (including Vernal and Nevada Falls, Cathedral Lakes, and several others that are rated moderate/difficult) on his own. So if your kids are used to hiking, we’d say that 4-5 year olds will be able to do a lot. For a Half Dome hike, a hearty 7-year-old should be fine (but you’ll have to get permits first.)

What’s the best camping for RV’s?

If you’re bringing an RV to Yosemite, there are a few things to be aware of. There are no hookups in the park. You can use a generator during certain hours; info will be posted at each campground. The max length for vehicles in the park is 40 feet; the max length for trailers is 35 feet. But only a few spots can handle larger vehicles, most are limited to 35-foot RVs or 24-foot trailers.

This is a great resource for anyone hoping to RV camp in the park.

What are the amenities in the park? Places to eat?

Yosemite Valley is essentially a town within the park. You can get groceries, have a fancy meal at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, get a pizza at Half Dome Village, or find anything from rice bowls to fresh donuts. Other areas of the park also have general stores and basic equipment for sale. Really, you could hitchhike into the park with nothing but the clothes on your back and find everything you’d need inside.

Likewise, there are bathrooms facilities just about everywhere.

Any must-see ranger events?

We love the shows put on by the Yosemite Conservancy. There is also a Nature Center at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley that our kids loved and that has ongoing family-friendly programs.

How do you park without losing your mind??

You must enter a zen-like state :). Honestly, we didn’t have a terrible time parking, and that was with a 24-foot-long shuttle bus. Aim to park as early in the day as possible, leave your car in one spot, and bike or shuttle to get around from there.

Where did you park while you were there, overnight and to go and explore?

We mostly stayed in the Valley at Half Dome Village, but also spent a night in Tuolumne Meadows and a few nights on forest service land just outside the west entrance of the park. While in the Valley, we stayed parked at Half Dome Village or across the street from Camp 4, then took the shuttle or walked to get around.

Where should we stay if the campgrounds are full?
What is the best place to camp near the park?

Finding a place to stay is probably the trickiest aspect of a Yosemite visit. Campgrounds fill up almost as soon as the spots are released. Luckily, there are other options if you can’t get a reservation.

This post has some great ideas for camping and accommodation options outside the park.

What are the best backpacking hikes to do in Yosemite?

Though we didn’t do any overnight backpacking in Yosemite, there are plenty of great resources to help you find your perfect trip. Here’s a post to get you started.

If you have a month or so, we have dreams of doing the 212-mile John Muir Trail that stretches from Mt. Whitney to Half Dome. Someday!

Is there any good rock climbing for kids?

It’ll depend very much on your particular kid. We’d highly recommend getting advice from the guide service within the park. Maybe consider going on a family-friendly guided climb.

Tips from our readers:

“Venture outside the Valley.”

“Get out early during peak season.”

“Book hotels very early.”

“Go right after it reopens after a fire; no queues!”

“Don’t try and see it all, all at once; pick a few things/places and take the time to really enjoy it.”

Our cute friends at Local Passport Family made this blog post about what to do with only one day in the park, with kids.

“Avoid weekends, holidays, and afternoons at entrances. Do take the time to go to Tenaya Lake and Hetch Hetchy!”

“Enjoy the classic tunnel view with the crowds from Artist Point! Our favorite memory!”

“We love taking the bus to Glacier Point and then hiking back down to the valley.”

“If you want to explore the valley, bring a bike!”

Final tips:

Neither David nor I had been to Yosemite before our visit and it was one of the parks we were most intimidated by. Its size, iconic status and popularity had us putting off a visit until the tail end of our trip. Now, having been, we’ve realized that it’s really not so complicated and we hope this guide helps you be less intimidated than we were.

It’s a park visit you’ll probably want to plan ahead for in order to secure a place to stay, but once you’re there, it’s easy to get around via the shuttle system and there is an abundance of information on possible hikes and other activities. We can’t imagine you’ll regret anything about a visit there.

As with any of the busier national parks, be ready to embrace some waiting and a communal trail experience; remember that the parks are for everyone and be grateful such a wide range of people are drawn to spend time in this gorgeous natural playground!

You can also be a help to the park by following and gently reminding others to follow Leave No Trace principles. Consider bringing a small bag on your hikes to pick up any garbage you see along the way, and scrupulously follow all posted rules and warnings (as well as your own common sense.)

Instagram Feed Instagram Feed Instagram Feed Instagram Feed Instagram Feed Instagram Feed

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.

More Stories
Redwood National Park