Ultimate Travel Guide: Yosemite National Park

For three days in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt and Naturalist John Muir camped at Glacier Point. During their camping trip, Muir passionately implored Roosevelt to safeguard and conserve the marvel of nature, Yosemite National Park, which is now recognized as one of California’s most awe-inspiring treasures thanks to his conviction.

“Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of nature more clearly revealed beside the frailest, most gentle and peaceful things,” penned Muir about witnessing the harmonious coexistence of natural forces in the Sierra Nevada Wilderness.

These days, Yosemite National Park attracts more than 3 million annual visitors and spans 700,000 acres, offering abundant opportunities for exploration. Don’t just rely on our or Muir’s description of its splendor. Yosemite demands personal experience. Go see for yourself. 

We’ve compiled a detailed travel guide, providing you with comprehensive assistance in organizing your upcoming visit to Yosemite National Park.

Let’s hit the road!

Camping Near Yosemite National Park

Securing a campsite within Yosemite National Park can prove to be quite challenging, as reservations are often fully booked up to a year in advance.

However, there’s a fantastic alternative – consider staying at Outdoorsy Yosemite, conveniently located just outside the park, nestled along the picturesque shores of Bass Lake.

Outdoorsy Yosemite has spacious RV sites, allowing you to either have an RV delivered or bring your own, positioning you right by the park for easy access and enjoyment. Even if you don’t own an RV, worry not! Outdoorsy Yosemite also offers cozy cabins, providing you with a comfortable bed just a stone’s throw away from the park.

Best Times to Visit Yosemite National Park

Yosemite remains accessible throughout the year, and truth be told, there is no unfavorable time to visit the park. Nevertheless, when selecting the ideal season for your trip, there are a few factors worth considering.

El Capitan blanketed by snow in winter.

Summer (June through August)

Summer in Yosemite offers near-perfect weather, longer days for exploring the park, and less road or trail closures—making summer the busiest season in the park. Expect crowded trails, campsites, and traffic. Most of the waterfalls flowing in Yosemite come from snowmelt in the high country. This means waterfalls may be dry or hardly running by August.

Fall (September through November)

In fall, crowds begin to thin and temperatures cool down significantly. Waterfalls have usually slowed to a trickle by late September and some road closures may occur due to weather. However, big leaf maples, black oaks, and other deciduous trees start their colorful transition. This creates an incredibly vibrant and beautiful landscape that you won’t want to miss.

Winter (December through February)

Winter might be Yosemite’s best kept secret. Several road closures to higher elevation destinations result in less visitation to the park. However, the Glacier Point/Badger Pass Road is plowed to the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area, making it accessible for winter recreation opportunities. Plus, Yosemite Valley transforms into a beautiful winter wonderland. 

Spring (March through May)

If you’re a waterfall chaser, spring is your season. As the weather warms, snowmelt from higher elevations causes Yosemite’s waterfalls, streams, and river to come to life. Spring is also a great time to see California wildflowers like poppies and baby blue-eyes. These flowers put on a colorful display along park highways and the foothills of the Merced River.

Yosemite National Park Must-Dos

Curious about the activities you should include in your Yosemite visit? We have conveniently categorized the must-do experiences for your road trip based on trip length. Whether you’re planning a day-long adventure, a weekend getaway, or an extended stay, you’ll find our recommendations tailored to each duration of your visit to the park.

One Day Yosemite Must-Sees

Just going for the day? You can still see plenty! Yosemite’s allure lies in the fact that you can witness the park’s magic without even stepping out of your car. Moreover, once you catch a glimpse of the mesmerizing granite monoliths, you’ll immediately start scheming a return to see more.

Tunnel View

At the east end of  Wawona Tunnel, Tunnel View remains the most photographed, painted, and appreciated viewpoint in Yosemite National Park since 1933. Picture-perfect and postcard-worthy, Tunnel View is often the first (or last) view visitors admire before entering or leaving the park.

For a peaceful sunset, consider taking a short trek up the mountainside to Inspiration Point. Not only will you escape the crowds, but you’ll also be rewarded with an unobstructed, panoramic view of the park’s most iconic landmarks as they’re painted in pink hues from the setting sun.

Glacier Point. Photo by Morgan Shannon.

Glacier Point

If you only have time for a single sunrise in the park, spend it at Glacier Point. Located 4,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, this 1-mile (round trip) trek will take you to awe-inspiring, panoramic views of Yosemite icons like Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Nevada Fall, and Vernal Fall.  

At sunrise, you’ll beat the crowds and have an opportunity to watch as the first light of the day illuminates the High Sierras.

Note: Glacier Point Road typically opens to motor vehicles in May and is accessible until October or November. Due to unpredictable weather, we recommend checking current conditions before traveling to the park.

Yosemite Valley. Photo by Morgan Shannon.

Yosemite Valley

After spending the morning peering at the valley from above, drop down into Yosemite Valley to get acquainted with the park’s iconic peaks and waterfalls.

Take the Cook’s Meadow Trail—a short, flat footpath with humbling views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Sentinel Rock. Or, spend some time gazing upward at climbers tackling Yosemite’s legendary 3,000-foot sheer granite goliath, El Capitan, from El Capitan Meadows.

On your way to Lower Yosemite Falls, cross Sentinel Bridge and see Half Dome reflecting in the calm Merced River below. 

A paved 1-mile path will take you to the foot of Lower Yosemite Falls, a portion of the highest waterfall in North America. At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls is ten times the height of Niagara Falls and a must-see for anyone visiting the park.

For the perfect picnic in the park, stop by the Cathedral Picnic Area and sit beneath John Muir’s favorite rock formation, Three Brothers. Here, Eagle Peak, Middle, and Lower Brother shape a dramatic backdrop said to rival that of beloved El Cap.  

As you exit the park along Northside Drive, take in awe-inspiring views of El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls from the perspective of the Merced River at the Valley View viewpoint, before climbing to Yosemite’s most notorious vantage point, Tunnel View.

Yosemite Weekend Trip Must-Dos

While a one-day trip to Yosemite offers a condensed version of the park’s highlights, if you have the luxury of more time, contemplate incorporating one or multiple scenic areas or incredible trails into your itinerary.

Cathedral Lakes. Image courtesy of The American Southwest.

Cathedral Lakes

Surrounded by 10,000-foot peaks, Cathedral Lake is one of the most impressive High Sierra lakes in Yosemite. Although a popular hike in the Tuolumne Meadows area, Cathedral Lakes doesn’t receive the same foot traffic as popular trails in the valley, so you can expect to share the trail with mostly long-distance backpackers undertaking the John Muir Trail.

The trail to Upper or Lower Cathedral lakes is a moderate 7-mile roundtrip hike, or you can see both lakes by adding a mile to your trek. Cathedral Peak, Echo Peak, and Tresidder Peak dominate the landscape, making this trip to the ‘high country’ worth adding to your Yosemite bucket list.

The Mist Trail

A 7-mile stairmaster, the Mist Trail has a longstanding reputation as being Yosemite’s signature hiking trail.

Featuring two incredible waterfalls, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, the Mist Trail runs parallel to the Merced River, weaving through the forest, before ascending a 600-step granite stairway to the top of 317-foot Vernal Fall.

From here, you can opt to head back the way you came—a 2.5-mile round trip adventure—or continue on for another 1.5 miles to reach 594-foot Nevada Fall. For added scenery (and mileage), cross the footbridge to the John Muir Trail and take in unique views of Liberty Cap and Nevada Fall on the way back to the car.

Mariposa Grove. Image courtesy of NPS.

Mariposa Grove

Located in the southernmost part of Yosemite, Mariposa Grove is home to hundreds of mature giant sequoias, two of which are considered to be among the largest in the world. Trails ranging from .3 miles to 7 miles allow you to get up close and personal with thousand-year-old trees, like the Grizzly Giant and a nineteenth-century tree tunnel, Wawona Tree.

Yosemite Falls

If you caught a glimpse of Yosemite Falls from the Lower Yosemite Falls trail and you’re wondering what it would feel like to stand on top of the tallest falls in the states, you’re in luck.

One of Yosemite’s most historic trails, Yosemite Falls Trail, takes you up a series of switchbacks, high above the treeline, to 2,425 feet above the valley floor.

Clocking in at 7.2-miles (9.9 miles if you continue to Yosemite Point) and 2,700 feet of elevation gain, this trail is not for the faint of heart. But if you put your best boot forward and make the climb, you’ll be rewarded with unobstructed, panoramic views of Yosemite Falls, Columbia Rock, Half Dome, and the valley below.

Yosemite Falls. Image courtesy of Yosemite.com.

Taft Point and the Fissures

Often referred to as Glacier Point without the guardrails, Taft Point is a 2.2-mile trail famous for its uninhibited, dizzying views of Yosemite Valley. After a short walk through the woods, you’ll arrive at the cliff’s edge, where you can peer straight down at El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.

Although you may be tempted to step out onto the iconic overhanging rock featured on several social media platforms, you should always exercise extreme caution when approaching Taft Point’s 3,500-foot granite cliffs.

Must-Dos for Yosemite Extended Stays

Experienced Yosemite visitors know that the most rewarding views are often attained through effort. While some stunning vistas and viewpoints are reachable by car, if you have more than a few days to spend in the park, we highly recommend lacing up your hiking boots and exploring some of these long-distance trails for an even more enriching experience.

El Capitan. Photo by Morgan Shannon.

Panorama Trail

If you’re looking for a full day of action-packed hiking, try the lesser known 8.5-mile Panorama Trail. It eloquently pieces together several of the aforementioned iconic park treasures and trails.

Start by either taking the Glacier Point tour bus to the top of Glacier Point. You can also park a car at Glacier Point and have a second car parked at the end of the trail.

Take the Panorama Trail along the eastern slope of Illilouette Ridge. You’ll take in incredible views of Half Dome, Vernal Fall, and Nevada Fall. You’ll cross Illilouette Creek and immediately be greeted with sweeping views of Yosemite Valley. Eventually, the trail will meet up with the famed John Muir Trail or Mist Trail before heading back down to the valley floor.

Half Dome. Photo by Morgan Shannon.

Half Dome

Towering nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, Half Dome proves to be the ultimate challenge for adventure-seekers and adrenaline junkies visiting Yosemite.

The strenuous 17-mile round-trip trek to the top of Half Dome requires hikers to climb nearly 4,800-feet. On top of that, you must ascend two metal cables for the last 400 feet to the summit. Along the way, you can expect awe-inspiring views of the surrounding High Sierra. Iconic sights from the trek include Yosemite landmarks like Liberty Cap, Vernal Fall, and Nevada Fall.

The hike can take anywhere from 10 to 12 hours to complete and requires a permit, so pre-planning is a key part of ascending Half Dome. The Half Dome cables are usually up by the Friday before Memorial Day, depending on weather conditions, and are taken down the day after Columbus Day.

Clouds Rest. Image courtesy of The American Southwest.

Clouds Rest

Did you miss your chance to land a permit to climb Half Dome? Don’t fret—the Clouds Rest trail takes you 1,000 feet above Half Dome. It also happens to receive a lot less foot traffic.

Clouds Rest is a 12.5-mile strenuous trail that climbs 2,700 feet of elevation. The views from the peak’s summit are equally as spectacular as Half Dome. The difference? You probably won’t be sharing the view with 300 people.

The trail begins at Tenaya Lake, a pristine subalpine lake. It quickly climbs to scenic vistas overlooking northern and eastern Yosemite Wilderness. The ascent to the top of Clouds Rest borders a 4,000-foot drop-off into Tenaya Canyon on the right and a 2,000-foot sheer cliff into Sunrise Creek Canyon to the left, so tread lightly. At the top, a 360-degree panoramic view of the surrounding wilderness will greet you.

Things to Know About Yosemite National Park Before You Go

Before you go, take notes on getting around the park, snagging permits and paying fees, and being bear-aware.

Getting Around Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is accessible by car. However, some roads may be closed from November to May and tire chains are sometimes required in winter months.

A free Yosemite Valley Shuttle is available for transportation throughout the valley and operates year round and is available 7am to 10pm.

The Mariposa Grove Shuttle is available seasonally for free transportation to and from Mariposa Grove.   

The Yosemite Valley-Tuolumne Meadows Hikers’ Bus is available seasonally and can be taken from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, with various stops at trailheads on the Tioga Road

To find out more about available transportation within Yosemite National Park, visit the National Park Service Website.

Permits and Fees

Merced River in Yosemite Valley. Photo by Morgan Shannon.

Half Dome

A maximum of 300 hikers are allowed each day on the Half Dome Trail, so obtaining a permit can be a highly competitive process. Only 75 permits are available for day hikers; 50 permits are available via reservation and 25 are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Permits are required 7 days a week, cost $10 per person, and are not refundable.

Park entrance

When you enter the park, you will be asked to purchase a park pass that is valid for 7 days. This pass is $35 per vehicle for non-commercial vehicles, $30 per motorcycle, or $20 per person if you’re entering by foot or bicycle.

More information about park fees and passes can be found on the National Park Service Website.

Bear Safety

Hundreds of black bears call Yosemite home. Understanding proper food storage and knowing what to do if you see a bear are critical steps to keeping you and your family safe, as well ensuring that Yosemite’s wildlife remains wild.

Head to Yosemite National Park

Head to the listings on Outdoorsy and browse through RV rentals near Yosemite to plan your upcoming visit. Also, don’t forget to explore our State & National Park Guides if you have other parks in mind for your road journey. Have a wonderful and enjoyable travel experience!