Travel Tips

Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Yosemite National Park

Locations in this article:  San Francisco, CA

yosemite stream and mountainCan you imagine how conservationist John Muir felt when he famously came to the edge of a cliff and looked down upon the lush Yosemite Valley for the fist time? Well, you can put yourself in his shoes when you visit the “grandest of all special temples of Nature,” as named by Muir himself.

When you think “Yosemite,” you might picture yourself dangling off the side of Half Dome, clinging on for dear life, or being pummeled by thousands of pounds of water at Yosemite Falls.

But the Yosemite Valley actually offers a little something for everyone – whether you’re an adrenaline junkie looking to climb the face of El Capitan, or a more laid-back type looking to sit back and relax on one of Yosemite’s wooded beaches. And if you’d like to visit Yosemite, but prefer to keep nature at arm’s length, exploring the Visitors Center and staying a couple of nights at the Ahwahnee lodge should do the trick.

We’ll take you on a personalized tour of Yosemite National Park, with insider tips on the famous spots, and ideas for places you might not think to go.

Just one more step . . . one more . . . one more . . .

The Yosemite Valley is a hiker’s paradise, with opportunities for people of all skill levels. Half-Dome, the hike of all Yosemite hikes, may look daunting, but it can be accomplished by hikers from beginner to experienced. The key is timing and route planning.

For a treat, advanced hikers should consider climbing to the top at night and watching the sun rise at dawn – you’ll feel like you’re on the top of the world.

If you’re a semi-experienced hiker and your knees and toes start throbbing from the impact on the way down, use the John Muir Trail instead of the Mist Trail. It adds extra mileage, but is less abrasive and the overlook at the falls is a sight to see.

yosemite streamBeginning hikers should bring hiking poles to help them up the quarter dome, and water purifying tablets to up their supply at the Merced River. Most importantly, novices shouldn’t get discouraged at their first glimpse of the cables, which take you up the steep homestretch to the top. People of all levels make it – you just have to take your time!

To get Half Dome’s panoramic view without the 16-mile trek, consider Sentinel Dome, a breezy 2.2-miler that gives a wide-ranging view of the Yosemite Valley, minus the cables, the mule poop, and the grueling switchbacks. You get a clear view of Half Dome, and can use your binoculars to spy on your friends and relatives wheezing at the top.

On the other end of the popularity spectrum lays Mount Starr King, a rigorous hike/rock climb for skilled adventure-seekers who want the Lewis-and-Clark experience of complete immersion in nature, with virtually no crowds. So few people have heard of the Starr King hike because no definitive map exists that takes you all the way up to the top of this lesser-known dome.

You can find the trailhead about 10 miles from the start of Glacier Point Road on Hwy 41. You’ll have to wade through a rocky river, trudge up a sand hill, and brave a mountain along the way, so mountaineering experience and rock-climbing gear is a must.

If you’re looking for the view of a lifetime, hike Cloud’s Rest. The 12.8 mile, seven-hour round-trip trek takes you to an outcropping that affords a panoramic view of Half Dome, Mount Starr King, Mount Clark, Tenaya Canyon, and best of all, the snowcapped mountains, which remain pure white even in the mid-August heat. You can either take the longer route via the Mist Trail (up through Nevada Falls to a fork in the road, where you veer right to Clouds Rest), or the shorter route from Tenaya Lake. Beware of bees at the top – they’re the only drawback to your view atop the Cloud.

vernal fallsHetch Hetchy was once a river valley equivalent to the Yosemite Valley—complete with hanging waterfall and running river—but is now a reservoir, created by the Raker Act of 1913, which allowed San Francisco to dam up the river to use its water supply. Though it’s called the “dam that killed John Muir” (he fought to protect the land, and passed away shortly after the act passed), trails around Hetch Hetchy require little imagination to give you a sense of the old wonders of the valley.

The surrounding Tueeulala and Wapama Falls now flow into a reservoir instead of a river, but the beauty is undeniable: Flowers and bushes come alive with butterflies in the springtime, and the sheer rocks jetting out of cobalt blue water make you feel like you’ve stepped into a Tolkien novel. Almost everyone can feasibly access Hetch Hetchy—drive to a trailhead to take a short hike to see the view, take day hikes around the reservoir, or backpack for a couple of days instead of driving.

Travel to the eastern end of the park near Donahue pass to find Lyell Peak. Sitting at the highest point in the entire national park, Lyell was one of the last glaciers that cut through Yosemite thousands of years ago and created the valley. Lyell stays freezing year round, so head out in the summertime, when you can hike through a snowfall in your shorts and T-shirt! This hike will take backpackers a couple of days from Tuolumne meadows.

For all hikes, research the level of difficulty before you go, and make sure you take the proper gear!

Beachin’ It

Bet you didn’t know that Yosemite has beautiful beaches? Sure, the chilly water will numb your body to the bone and woody underwater roots will creepily graze your ankles as you wade in, but on a sweltering July afternoon, the 50-degree river starts to feel like bathwater, and the roots merely add to the ambience of the Yosemite beach experience.

The best beaches can be found just behind the cabins of Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. With very few crowds, it’s easy to scope out your own personal patch of sand along the Merced River. Then you can kick back and watch the gurgling river weave through the greenery, or stare in awe at the steep mountain cliffs facing you. Bring sunscreen, bug spray, and keep Gold Bond next to you … it’s truly like gold.

the actual mirror lakeNear the base of Half Dome lies Mirror Lake (photo credit: Kenny Karst / DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.), named for the unmistakable reflections of Half Dome and Mt. Watkins that can be glimpsed if you catch the surface at just the right spot. Forget the major beach equipment for this trip: it’s an easy walk, but you’d have to lug your gear a mile from the shuttle stop to the shore.

Bring snacks though, because unlike most beaches in Yosemite, there’s no deli or concession stand nearby. And go soon! Mirror Lake will soon become “Mirror Meadow.”

Each year the lake gets smaller and smaller as the water seeps into the ground and gathers more sediment. While just a decade or two ago you could dive 16 feet deep into the Mirror Lake, trying the same stunt today will crash you into rocks just three feet below the surface.

Tenaya Lake’s white sandy shores, surrounded by cascades of polished granite rock, set it apart from all other terrain in Yosemite. The lake, which was formed by a long-disappeared glacier, offers beautiful icy-white water in the winter, and great opportunities for fishing and kayaking in the summertime. Easily accessible by driving, Tenaya has parking lots at both ends of the lake, and allows you to get away from the crowds in the valley.

There’s a great spot to beach it near Curry Village’s raft loading area, on the Merced River. A perfect people-watching location, you can spy on straggling tourists as they attempt to push off their rafts into the river, sometimes tumbling into the water.

The towering trees on the sloped beach provide ample shade for a folding chair, cooler, and inflatable inner tube. Don’t hesitate to bring your whole entourage—there’s a shuttle stop close by, which consequently gets crowded, so arrive early.

Elsewhere, you might get splashed at the beach under Sentinel Bridge. Why?

Though this we don’t recommend this “sport,” a surprising number of Yosemite visitors choose to take part in bridge jumping, where they leap from the bridge into the water – or sometimes right into rafters’ boats!

Relatively higher water levels and prime attack positioning (almost every raft must pass under this bridge) makes Sentinel Bridge beach a popular location for mischief. It’s a dangerous venture in a number of ways, so make sure that you don’t plunge into rocks, or get caught by park rangers.

If a ranger does spot you, try to talk your way out of the situation, and don’t mention us! Fortunately, your punishment will most likely constitute a harmless five minutes of picking up trash (which we can attest to from personal experience).

beer mugsHappy Hour, Yosemite-Style

As you can imagine, Yosemite cuisine is not exactly gourmet, but here are a few places to ditch the trail mix and get some good eats.

Located in Yosemite Village, Degnan’s Deli surpasses typical valley food, due to its wide selection of fresh ingredients, quick service, and the charm of the Yosemite-inspired sandwich names. For example, bite into the “Tuolumne Meadows,” a crisp mix of veggies on focaccia bread that satisfies your need for a fresh snack at the end of a sweaty day of hiking. It’s worth going back at least twice, so you can try the El Capitan sandwich, too!

The Wawona Hotel, located just outside of the valley, offers a great breakfast menu (order the Eggs Benedict), and a break from the rugged atmosphere of Yosemite. Wawona’s golf course and Summer Saturday Night barbecues on the white-picketed lawn will make you forget that your canoe dumped you into Tenaya Lake. And if you’re tired of sleeping in a tent, an afternoon on the veranda of the Victorian-style lodge, sipping cocktails, could be just what you need.

If a couple of your friends are looking to go out, get dressed up, and enjoy some good conversation in the wooded luxury of the Ahwahnee but don’t want to pay the full price of dinner, then consider ordering drinks and appetizers at the Ahwahanee bar. Cozy up in a cushioned corner with a Hemingway novel and enjoy the bar’s Sidecar cocktail. Or, pull up a chair with friends, order the zesty spinach-artichoke dip, and relax to the mellow tunes of the bar’s talented piano player.

Unbeknownst to many, there’s a place to go for a fun night out without getting fancy – the bar at Curry Village, a favorite of local park staff workers. The relaxed atmosphere makes this bar a great place to meet people, so if you don’t know anyone, get a pitcher of beer and stake out your spot on the porch in the Yosemite-fresh night air. If you’re lucky, others will pitch in for the typical bar food and join you for party time.

Happy hour Yosemite-style can also mean gathering around a cooler with beach chairs, and enjoying the great outdoors, the company, and the comfort that comes from knowing that you’re done with the day’s hike. You can get most happy hour snack foods from any of the markets in the valley, but we recommend bringing a few good bottles of wine, Trader Joe’s sun dried tomato and pesto sauce, and some bean dip. And don’t forget to look up! Away from the streetlights of urban America, stars light up the Yosemite night sky in a way you’ve never seen before.

Drift, Pedal, or Coast

family biking yosemiteBelieve it or not, there are other ways to get around the valley besides hiking. (photo credit: DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.)

A bike ride around the valley floor allows you to cover a greater distance than you would by walking, and gives a more intimate view of nature’s beauty than a bus ride. You can rent bikes at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls near the pool, or at Curry Village. Cruising along the green meadows with the wind in your face is well worth the $10 per hour it will cost you. You can also bring your own bike from home, of course.

Many Yosemite visitors experience the pleasure of rafting down the Merced River, but not many think to prepare for it. Purchasing a raft before your trip will allow you to skip the long lines and high prices of the park-provided rafts.

You can even get away with a taking along a few inner tubes or a blow-up mattress, but bring paddles to avoid the underwater rocks, hanging branches, and gigantic logs that may block your path.

And don’t bring expensive camera equipment; thrill-seeking tourists have been known to launch water gun and cannon ball raids on innocent rafters. Invest in a disposable underwater camera, and perhaps bring some of your own water guns to defend your turf!

yosemite hybrid shuttleTravel the valley floor for free on the Yosemite Hybrid Shuttle. Hop on at one of the 21 easily accessible stops, and hop off at any location that sounds interesting to you (Happy Isles? Stables? Upper Pines?) for a self-guided tour. Shuttles are reliable, wheelchair accessible, and good for the environment! Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge the shuttle drivers have to offer about the park and lesser-known tourism opportunities, and tune into their humorous comments along the ride.

And don’t forget that wintertime in Yosemite can offer many opportunities for adventure as well. There are more than 350 miles of terrain to explore if you take a cross-country ski trip around the valley.

Get over to the Badger Pass to begin your self-guided tour. If you’re not so inclined to cold, you can always curl up with a cup of hot cocoa inside the Ahwahnee lodge, and stare out at the cascades of crisp white snow.

By Corinne Crockett for

Looking for a place to stay? Don’t miss the Grand Dame Hotels of Our National Parks.

Check out some Great Lesser-Known National Parks.

That not enough? Don’t miss America the Beautiful: Five Great Hidden National Parks.

Or find more great destination ideas in our Off the Brochure Travel Guides series. Or explore the entire series with this map …

View Off the Brochure Maps in a larger map