When thinking of the National Parks system, most people think of Yosemite. No, Yosemite wasn’t the first National Park (that was Yellowstone), nor is it the most visited (Great Smokey Mountains holds that distinction).  But for most National Parks enthusiasts, nothing can match the grandeur of the granite monoliths and cascading waterfalls of Yosemite.

Located about 75 miles north of Fresno, California, Yosemite contains nearly 750,000 acres of pristine high Sierra mountain terrain.  The elevation in the park allows for significant diversity, with Yosemite Valley sitting at just over 2,000 feet above sea level, and some of the higher peaks at over 13,000 feet.  It is this incredible view of towering granite rock formations above a serene valley that made John Muir fall in love with the area, and push for it to become a National Park in 1890.  Today, the park attracts around five million visitors annually, but it could have been much more – or less.

The iconic Tunnel View of Yosemite Valley

In the 1970s, the National Park Service (NPS) conducted a survey of naturalists, local entrepreneurs, and park visitors as to the future of Yosemite National Park.  People were asked what they felt the methodology should be to balance protection of the area with the desire of people to see it and its role as a major tourist destination for the region.  Options covered the spectrum from only allowing access to Yosemite Valley to those who were able to hike in to one seeming to turn the Park into a new Disneyland-esque tourist mecca with rides and major thoroughfares leading in and out.  Ultimately, people chose a centrist route, which exists today: the Park is fairly isolated and has limited auto traffic but is open to everyone to take advantage of some of the most breath-taking scenery in the world.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself with the ability to take a trip to Yosemite, here is what you will need to know.  The Park is really divided into two sections: Yosemite Valley, and everything else.  The Valley is open year-round, but much of the rest of the Park is seasonal.

The High Country (the high meadows and mountains that feed Yosemite’s rivers) is impassable for all but the summer months, though if you are in the Park during the summer, don’t neglect a visit to the Tuolumne Meadows, best accessed through the east entrance of the Park.  There, grasses and wildflowers grow alongside small lakes and streams, perfect for catching a view of some of the Park’s wildlife, and a wonderful feeling of seclusion you will not find in the crowded Valley.

If big trees are your thing, a summer visit to see the Giant Sequoias of the Mariposa Grove is sure to be a highlight for you.  The Grizzly Giant is the largest tree in the Park, and at 209 feet tall and nearly 100 feet around at its base, it is just the thing to make you feel insignificant!

The Grizzly Giant really is big!

If the road is open (again it is seasonal), one must-see in the upper elevations of the Park is Glacier Point.  Glacier Point has the best view overlooking Yosemite Valley that you can get without hours of hiking.  In fact, if you want hours of hiking anyway, the trek from the Valley floor up to Glacier Point is one of the most difficult – and rewarding – hikes in the Park.  From the Point, you can see the iconic Half Dome, Vernal and Nevada Falls (more about them a bit later), and many of the other features that make Yosemite unique.

Half Dome from Glacier Point

However, as amazing as all of those sights are – and they truly are – the highlights of the park can be found in Yosemite Valley.  Driving into the Valley from the south entrance, you will go through a tunnel.  There is a parking area immediately following it.  Stop there.  This is the Tunnel View of Yosemite Valley.  You will see Bridal Veil Falls on the right, with Half Dome towering behind, and the El Capitan granite monument on the left.

Yosemite Valley has walks and hikes for any and all levels.  For instance, the path around Mirror Lake is fully flat and paved, perfect for those with wheelchairs.  Bridal Veil Falls trail is about ¼ mile roundtrip, and also flat.  On the other end of the spectrum is the trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, my personal favorite.  That is a steep hike (you will gain about 2,000 feet in elevation) over somewhat slippery terrain at times, and is about eight miles roundtrip in total.  (You can always just go to Vernal Falls, making it about five miles roundtrip up to the top of the Falls.)  If you visit the park in spring – or even summer after a year of significant snowfall – the Falls will be absolutely thundering!

Vernal Falls from the top

For the best view of the famous Yosemite Falls – they cover just under 2,500 feet, though the top section is only about 1,430 – visit the Yosemite Valley Visitors Center.  The Falls are just behind.  You can then go to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel for a luxurious lunch in an iconic setting.  The Hotel used to be called the Ahwahnee Lodge, but the rights to that name are currently tied up in litigation.

Yosemite Falls

If you are a serious mountain climber, you can get a permit to climb some of the granite features in the park like Half Dome (which can also be hiked from the back, though I find the view from Glacier Point to be better), or El Capitan.  However, unless you are truly an expert, it is best to stick to the ground and hike/walk.

Parking in Yosemite Valley is hard to come by, but there is a shuttle that circles the area and stops at all of the main sights, so you can park once and not worry about having to find parking again each time you want to stop.  Just don’t leave unsealed food in your car or it may attract bears!

Given that the drive into the Valley is about an hour from the Park entrance, to make the most of your time you will want to try to stay at one of the lodges inside the Park.  However, if you find them too pricy, or just can’t get reservations (they can book more than a year in advance), there are plenty of hotels outside of the Park in the nearby town of Mariposa.  There are also a few Airbnb rentals inside the Park boundaries in the private community of Yosemite West.

Regardless of when you visit, you will never forget your trip to this amazing land of waterfalls and rock.  Yosemite is the quintessential National Park, and one of the shining highlights of the system!

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