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While hiking on my recent visit to Yosemite National Park, I overheard two men saying that this national park is their favorite place on the planet. I understand that. In fact, Yosemite is also my son’s favorite national park and over the years our family has trekked on many Yosemite hiking trails.
We’re lucky. We live about five hours from the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park, located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Yosemite is famous for its granite domes and cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome, towering waterfalls, breathtaking vistas and the Merced River that flows through the valley.
Exploring on foot is the best way to see these incredible, natural features. Some Yosemite hiking trails are short and paved, making them accessible to most people. Others are long and steep, and some can be very challenging. But from easy trails to day hikes that involve backpacking, there’s a hiking trail for everyone. Even dogs are allowed on the paved trails.
Yosemite National Park’s Entrances
There are several entrances to Yosemite: South Entrance, Arch Rock, Hetch Hetchy, Big Oak Flat and Tioga Pass. Which one is best for you depends on the direction you’re coming from.
While Yosemite is beautiful year-round, spring through fall are the most accessible. With its location in the Sierras, Yosemite usually gets a heavy snowpack. As the snow melts, it feeds the waterfalls and river, making late spring or early summer a great time to visit. However, peak season is summer and it gets very crowded.
Fall is less crowded but the waterfalls and river are less full. When my son, Michael, and I went in mid-June the waterfalls and Merced River were the fullest I had seen. We could hear the roar of Yosemite Falls throughout Yosemite Valley. We even saw waterfalls that aren’t usually there.
If you go, it’s best to arrive early, park your car and walk or use the free shuttle system to get around the Valley Floor. And be sure to bring plenty of water when hiking.
These are our picks for the 16 breathtaking Yosemite hiking trails.
Yosemite Valley Floor
The most popular Yosemite sites are within the Valley Floor. You can walk through forests and meadows for the best views of waterfalls and granite domes. Plus, the Valley Floor is the starting point for many of Yosemite’s best hikes. It’s also home to Yosemite Village and the Visitor Center, where it’s worth stopping for maps and information.
1. Yosemite Valley Loop Trail
This 11.5-mile loop trail circles the Valley Floor and passes through meadows, offering great views of Half Dome, El Capitan and the Merced River. It’s a mostly flat trail and brings you to popular places like Bridalveil Fall and Yosemite Falls. But you don’t have to do the entire loop. You can easily do a portion of it. For example, I started in Yosemite Village on the Northside of the loop, walked through Cook’s Meadow and crossed Superintendent’s Bridge to Southside Drive.
There, I stopped at the Yosemite Valley Chapel built in 1879 before continuing to the Swinging Bridge (a great stop for photos). After taking a bunch of photos, I crossed back over to the Northside to meet up with my son who spent the morning hiking the strenuous Upper Yosemite Falls Trail.
SheBuysTravel Tip: During peak season parking lots are packed at popular stops, including Swinging Bridge. You can avoid traffic by walking along the Yosemite Valley Loop Trail to a variety of scenic spots.
2. Bridalveil Fall Trail
Bridalveil Fall is usually one of the first waterfalls visitors see. Park in designated spots along the road and walk 0.5 miles on a paved trail to Bridalveil Fall. It’s a beautiful spot to see the 620-foot waterfall plunging down the mountain and flowing into a stream.
When the waterfall is full, you can feel the mist from a distance.
3. Lower Yosemite Falls Trail
The 2,425-foot-high Yosemite Falls is North America’s tallest waterfall. From the one-mile paved loop trail you’ll have good views of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. You can walk right up to Lower Yosemite Falls, the final 320-foot drop.
When the waterfall is thunderous, you can feel the spray from the footbridge. From here, you can either head back to your car or continue along the scenic walk along Yosemite Creek. This walk is also accessible from and to Yosemite Village.
4. Cook’s Meadow Loop
The one-mile loop through Cook’s Meadow is a beautiful, easy hike that offers great views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Sentinel Dome and Glacier Point. From the Visitor Center in the village, walk west along the bicycle path and cross the street at shuttle stop #6.
A flat trail leads through the meadow to Superintendent’s Bridge above the flowing Merced River. It’s a scenic and restful stop with a view of Half Dome.
5. Mirror Lake Trail
The two-mile round-trip hike loops around the seasonal lake which offers reflections of the surrounding granite cliffs. The best time to see the lake is in spring and early summer. In late summer, the lake is usually dried up.
This trail begins at shuttle stop #17.
About the Mist Trail
The seven-mile Mist Trail, one of the most popular hiking trails in Yosemite, leads to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, the top of Vernal Fall and to Nevada Fall. Find the trailhead for all three at Happy Isles, shuttle stop #16. The hike is mostly uphill and follows the Merced River.
6. Vernal Fall Footbridge
It’s a moderate 1.6-mile round-trip hike to the Vernal Fall Footbridge. For many people (like me), the footbridge marks the end of the uphill hike. From the bridge, there are great views of Vernal Fall. You can watch the river, fill your water bottles at the fountain and use the bathroom. My kids continued the hike to Vernal Fall, and my son hiked past Nevada Fall on his bucket list day hike to Half Dome.
7. Vernal Fall (strenuous hike)
To reach the top of Vernal Fall, keep walking. About 0.2 miles from the bridge, the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail diverge. Follow the Mist Trail 0.3 miles up a steep granite stairway of over 600 steps. From here, you’ll have views of the 317-foot waterfall rushing down the cliff.
8. Nevada Fall (strenuous)
To reach Nevada Fall, continue on the Mist Trail from Vernal Fall. You’ll pass by Emerald Pool and Silver Apron. Note that it’s illegal and dangerous to swim here because of the current. Continue along the Mist Trail, another 1.5 miles of steep, rocky switchbacks to the top of Nevada Fall, crashing down 594 feet.
After Nevada Fall and before Half Dome, the Little Yosemite Valley Campground provides a place to rest.
9. Half Dome Hike
Permits are required to hike Half Dome, which rises nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley. Plan in advance for this full-day hike. And you should be in good shape for this strenuous 14- to 16-mile round-trip hike with a 4,800-foot elevation gain.
My son and his friend – both in great shape – hiked Half Dome a few years ago. They got an early start, about 6 a.m., and said it was their most challenging hike to date. But it was worth the incredible views.
It takes an average of 10-12 hours to hike to Half Dome and back. Along the way you’ll have views of Vernal and Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap. From the summit you’ll be rewarded with the best views of the Valley and the High Sierra. The last 400 feet of the hike are via two metal cables. Wear gloves.
10. Upper Yosemite Falls
While I walked on the Lower Yosemite Falls trail and around Cook’s Meadow, my son tackled the strenuous 7.6-mile round trip Upper Yosemite Falls trail. The trailhead is near Camp 4. The trail is one of Yosemite’s oldest trails and leads to the tallest waterfall in North America.
The trail is steep from the beginning with dozens of switchbacks. After about a mile you’ll reach Columbia Rock with views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Sentinel Rock. From there, it’s another 0.5 miles to the top of Yosemite Falls.
SheBuysTravel Tip: My son suggests a two-minute detour as you catch your first glimpse of the falls. There’s a small, unmarked fork in the path. Everyone goes left. But if you take the fork to the right, you’ll reach “Oh My Gosh Lookout Point,” where you can see the lower, mid and upper falls. Then turn around and resume your hike.
Along Glacier Point Road are several trails with amazing viewpoints. To get there from the South entrance drive 17.3 miles to Glacier Point Road. Check Glacier Point for potential closures before you go.
11. Taft Point
The 2.2 mile round–trip moderate hike leads to some of the best views of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. As you near Taft Point, you’ll see fissures, which are large cracks in the granite. Some of these are very deep – up to 2,000 feet. Watch your step around the fissures and the hike’s lookout point.
Usually less crowded than Yosemite Valley, Wawona is home to a Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees, waterfalls and meadows.
12. Chilnualna Fall Trail
A couple of years ago my husband and I, along with our dog Maya, hiked a portion of the 8.2-mile round-trip Chilnualna Fall Trail, comprised of five large cascades. We followed a series of switchbacks where Maya explored as far as she could on a 6-foot leash. The trail begins at Chilnualna Falls parking area, two miles up the Chilnualna Falls Road.
13. Wawona Meadow Loop
The 3.5-mile loop trail is dog friendly and begins at the Wawona Hotel. It’s a pleasant leisurely walk on a woodsy path around the meadow.
Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
Located in the southern portion of Yosemite, Mariposa Grove is home to over 500 giant sequoias. Here, there are a handful of trails leading to the trees. Park at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and take the free shuttle to the Mariposa Grove. Check in advance whether it’s operating.
14. Big Trees Loop Trail
The 0.3-mile paved trail is wheelchair accessible and leads to Fallen Monarch.
15. Grizzly Giant Loop:
This 2.0-mile trail is a great way to see the Fallen Monarch, Grizzly Giant, the California Tunnel Tree and more of the sequoia grove.
Day Hikes in Tuolumne Meadows
Accessible from the seasonal Tioga Road are several day hikes that range from easy to strenuous.
16. Soda Springs and Parsons Lodge
The 1.5-mile roundtrip hike is the easiest of the trails at Tuolumne Meadows. Begin the hike at the Lembert Dome parking area and walk along a gravel road to a sign for Glen Aulin and Soda Springs. The trail goes through a meadow and leads to Soda Springs, which are puddles of naturally bubbling water. Most of the springs are inside a cabin without a roof or door.
Where to Stay in Yosemite
My family has stayed both inside Yosemite National Park where there are campgrounds and lodges, and in accommodations just outside the park. On our recent trip, my son and I stayed at AutoCamp Yosemite, located in the town of Midpines. It’s about 25 miles west of Yosemite’s Arch Rock entrance.
It was our first time staying in AutoCamp and we thoroughly enjoyed the comfort and amenities. AutoCamp Yosemite has a fleet of AirStream campers, luxury tents and cabins. Our sleek Airstream had a bedroom with a queen bed, living area with a sofa bed and a full-sized bathroom with a tiled shower (and plenty of hot water!). Amenities include luxe linens, towels and Ursa Major bath products.
The Airstreams are well designed with compact storage and amenities in every nook and cranny. The kitchen has a microwave, mini fridge, cookware, dishes/bowls, glassware and silverware.
More amenities include a flat-screen TV, heating and air conditioning, and windows and skylights throughout the camper to let in the fresh air.
Outdoors, each Airstream has a fire pit, table and chairs. After a day of hiking, we enjoyed sitting around the campfire under the stars. We even made s’mores. Around twilight, we saw deer.
The resort has a General Store with grocery items, The Kitchen for prepared meals, and a 4,000-square-foot clubhouse. There’s also an outdoor swimming pool and freshwater pond. Complimentary granola is available in the mornings, and daily happy hour takes place from 4 – 6 p.m. Coffee is available 24/7 in the lobby.
For us, AutoCamp provided all the fun of camping but without the hassle or discomfort (I prefer beds over sleeping bags). We would definitely stay in AutoCamp again. Rates vary by dates and type of accommodations, ranging from $180 to $550 on peak days.
AutoCamp has several locations, and recently debuted AutoCamp Zion.