Yosemite National Park: A Local’s Guide
Yosemite National Park is best known for its epic waterfalls, glacially carved valleys, and world-class rock climbing, and I’ve had the privilege of calling these XX acres my home for the past two years. Yosemite can appear daunting up front with its massive granite slabs (especially if you’ve ever seen Free Solo. No, I don’t live on the edge quite as much as Alex Honnold), but I’ll be right by your side as we explore the must-sees, history, and logistics of visiting the park. Here’s everything you need to know about Yosemite, and how you can plan your visit too!
A little history:
Back before President Abrahama Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, the land we now call Yosemite Valley was home to the native Ahwahneechee people for what is thought to be about 7,000 years before being forcibly removed from their land. Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, which protected Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias by transferring them to state control and certified that the space “be held for public use, resort, and recreation.” In 1890, Yosemite became our third National Park. Today, the park covers more than 759,000 acres with almost 95% of those acres being designated wilderness.
I highly recommend a visit to the Yosemite Museum to learn more about the area’s original occupants and their relationship with the land.
You know what’s wild? Out of the 4.5 million people who visit the park annually, very few wander far from Yosemite Valley’s notorious landmarks, and wooohooo, have I got some under-the-radar things to do for you! Read on for more.
- Size: 759,000 acres
- Recognized as a national park: 1890
- Visitors per year: 4.5 million
- Best time to visit: Late spring to early summer
- Busy season: Summer
When to Visit
Yosemite is open year-round to tourists, however not all seasons are created equal. The late spring to early summer is by far the best time to visit the park. This time of year, waterfalls are rushing with the snow melt and bears begin to emerge from hibernation.
To be honest, there’s not a bad season in Yosemite–it’s beautiful year-round–but there are a few things to consider if you visit in fall, summer, or winter.
Try to avoid summer if possible–it’s both blisteringly hot and peak season, which means it’s packed with visitors. By going in fall, winter, or spring, you’ll be practicing Leave No Trace principles by lessening your environmental impact and your chances of heat exhaustion.
By late summer, most of the waterfalls stop running (gasp). We may have a plethora of falls, but most of them are seasonal and reliant on our snowpack.
Fall temperatures are inviting (and the colors absolutely stunning), but California’s recent wildfire events could lead to unfavorable (and unhealthy) smoky conditions
In the winter, Badger Ski Area offers a small hill with ski rentals for those hoping to sneak in a little downhill shredding. If you’d rather cross-country ski or snowshoe, hit up the trails nearby for a pleasant and quiet stroll among snow-covered pines. Winter isn’t my favorite season, but Yosemite Valley’s walls do look enchanting covered in a light dusting of the white, fluffy stuff.
Be Bear Aware!
Bears are common in Yosemite Valley–it’s important to be bear aware!
Good news: There’s no need to worry about grizzlies. Grizzly bears are no longer found in California but you may stumble upon a black bear or two. That said, black bears aren’t always black! Confusing, I know. Black bears come in many different colors ranging from black, brown, cinnamon, and even blonde. Black bears are not generally aggressive and are easily scared away.
If you encounter a black bear approaching you or your campsite, remember the following:
- Do not run away from or toward the bear, stand tall facing the bear while making yourself as large as possible, and yell at the bear as loudly as you can until the bear retreats. If yelling doesn’t work, you can try throwing small things at the bear to scare it, however you do not want to throw anything at the bear that could actually injure it.
- Bear spray as it is prohibited within the park.
- The third thing you should be conscious of is speeding while driving through the park. Bears and other wildlife are killed every year by motor vehicles in the park. Please abide by the speed limit at all times and be watching for wildlife.
- If you do encounter a bear in the park doing normal bear things, please keep a distance of at least 50 yards while you enjoy the exciting experience.
Why scare the bears away if they’re not aggressive? Bears are very intelligent and food-driven animals with incredible senses of smell. Even if a bear only gets a small taste of human food, it can drastically change their behavior and cause them to seek out food they wouldn’t naturally eat. Always keep food inside of a bear box or canister unless actively preparing food. Under no circumstance should you feed any wildlife including bears.
We also want to discourage bears from approaching people in circumstances not involving food. Bears that are comfortable approaching visitors and taking measures to access their food are often put down in our national parks. We love our bears! We want to keep them around!
The Yosemite Bear Team encourages visitors to report sightings and non-emergency encounters by calling the Save a Bear Hotline at 209-372-0322. Even after living here for two years, encountering bears is one of my favorite experiences and a highlight to all of my guest’s trips.
Best Hikes in Yosemite National Park
Hiking is one of the most popular recreation choices inside the park. Read on for the best hikes for a first-time visitor below. Always remember to Leave No Trace on every adventure! More on the seven principles here.
- Four Mile Trail: If I had to choose a “Must Do” Yosemite Valley hike it would be this one. Don’t let its name fool you, this hike is actually 10 miles round trip with approximately 3,000’ of elevation gain. It’s an all-in-one banger with sweeping views of the Valley itself, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Sentinel Rock, ending at Glacier Point, which will only be accessible via hiking beginning the winter of 2021 through the 2023 season. Pro tip: Head out in the morning to maximize your shade.
- Tuolumne Meadows in Tioga Pass: At about 8,000’ above sea level, Tioga Pass is a gorgeous section of Yosemite that’s packed with peaks, alpine lakes, and my favorite, meadows. Tuolumne also tends to be much less busy than the Valley for two reasons: 1) It’s not as well advertised as the Valley and 2) it’s about a 1.5-hour drive to the pass.
- The Mist Trail: If you like waterfalls, don’t miss this hike! A cult classic, this trail is 6-7 miles with 2,000’ of elevation gain and is named appropriately. If you’re hiking during the spring and early summer, the waterfalls are full and the mist is thick. The trail is very steep and includes approximately 700 stairs, but the views are entirely worth it.
Vernal and Nevada Falls run year round, but slow down after the snowpack melts.
Pro tip: Hike the John Muir Trail (JMT) on your return trip to avoid the stair, accessible via the top of Nevada Falls. It connects at the start of the Mist Trail. Note that spring to fall gets pretty busy and the uphill section can get backed up.
- Taft Point/Sentinel Dome: These are two separate trails, but I’d recommend doing them together! They’re fairly short, begin at the same trailhead, and make almost a perfect loop. It’s about 5 miles round trip with 1,100’ of elevation gain. It is a busy trail, but for good reason! The views looking down into the valley are next level. Unfortunately, this trail is only accessible via Glacier Point Road, which is closed through 2023. Save this hike for later!
Best Hikes: Continued
- Half Dome: So, I’ll be honest, I’ve never done this hike in its entirety. I know, I know, bring on the shade. Don’t worry, it’s on my list.
This is a 16.3-mile out-and-back hike that gains 5,300’ that’s best known for its seasonal cable section. A permit is required to ascend the cables and approximately 300 permits are awarded daily through a lottery system. If you’re unable to snag a permit, hike up to the Sub Dome (where the permit section begins) for some super epic views! It’s totally worth it.
- North Dome Via Porcupine Creek: If you’re obsessed with Half Dome, you’re going to love this. This hike is 9.5 miles round trip and gains 2,200’, so now, it’s not the chillest hike in the park, but you do end up on top of North Dome which sits directly across Tenaya Canyon from Half Dome. Talk about sick views!
Bonus: Keep an eye out for Indian Rock, which is the only natural arch in the park!
- Cathedral Lakes Trail: This out-and-back trail leads you to two high alpine lakes that sit at the base of Cathedral Peak. It doesn’t disappoint. The hike is 9.5 miles long with 1,500’ of elevation gain, begins at around 8,000 feet and takes off out of Tuolumne Meadows.
- Clouds Rest via Sunrise Lakes: One of the most iconic Yosemite hikes, Clouds Rest boasts stunning views of Half Dome, Tenaya Canyon, and Yosemite Valley. It’s one of the longer ones at 14 miles round trip with 3,000’ of gain. I recently had the opportunity to experience this epic trail, and I’d recommend it to anyone! It’s a truly incredible hike.
- Upper Yosemite Falls: It gets a lot of hype, but I honestly wouldn’t recommend. It’s an 8-mile round-trip, out-and-back hike with 3,200’ of elevation gain up a slick and steep trail that is fully exposed to the sun almost all day. Yeeeesh. The views from the top of the falls are nothing spectacular–you can hardly see them from the viewing area.
The best spot to get a glimpse of the falls is about 1.5 miles up the trail. Anything past this is pretty repetitive. Check to make sure the falls are running before you go! If they’re dry, I’d bag this one all together.
Best Meadows in Yosemite Valley
While some of Yosemite’s best views are hidden in the backcountry, there are many noteworthy views that don’t require any hiking at all! Strolling through one of Yosemite Valley’s many meadows is a must. The meadows are also a great place for viewing wildlife, especially near dusk and dawn each day. Here are some of my favorites:
- Stoneman Meadow is a popular place to watch the sunset’s glow on Half Dome as it dips below the Valley walls. Epic.
- Cook’s Meadow is the perfect place to view Yosemite Falls.
- El Capitan Meadow sits at the base of the well-known monolith, El Capitan. Some of my favorites are
Best Viewpoints in Yosemite National Park
- Glacier Point
- Olmstead Point
- Half Dome View
- Valley View
- Bridalveil Straight
- Sentinel Bridge
- Tenaya Lake: This is one of my favorite spots in the park!
- Tunnel View
Best Places to Stay in Yosemite National Park
In order to stay within the park boundary during your trip, you need to plan pretty far in advance.
Best Yosemite Campgrounds
Camping lets you fully immerse yourself in Yosemite’s natural ways. There are plenty of campgrounds within the park and reservations become available in blocks of one month at a time, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 a.m. Pacific time.
Pro tip: Have your desired sites pulled up on your computer and ready to book at 7 a.m. on the dot for your best shot at securing a site. Didn’t get it? It happens! Check regularly for cancellations–they do happen!
Campgrounds in Yosemite National Park:
- Tuolumne Meadows
- Crane Flat
- Tamarack Flat
- Yosemite Creek
- Porcupine Flat
- White Wolf
- Bridalveil Creek
- Upper Pines
- Lower Pines
- Backpackers Camp
- Camp 4
- North Pines.
Yosemite Glamping: Tent Cabins
An upgrade from pitching your own tent, tent cabins are a little homier, cozier, and offer a bed to crash on at the end of your long hiking days. They’re a little more comfortable!
- Curry Village
- Curry Village is the park’s most popular lodging and for good reason! It really has it all. I’m talking a swimming pool, ice skating rink, bike rentals, ranger programs, and more. Their 403 Canvas Tent Cabins are made of canvas with a wood floor and are outfitted with a twin or double bed, electrical lights, linens, and towels with a shared shower/bathhouse. They do book up fast! Book your stay 10-12 months in advance for a chance at your preferred dates. Reservations open one year and one day in advance.
- In addition to tent cabins, Curry Village also offers:
- 14 Cabins With Central Bath
- 18 Standard Motel Rooms
- 499 Guest Accommodations
- 56 Cabins With Private Baths
- Housekeeping Camp
- There are 266 tents at Housekeeping Camp, but unlike Curry Village, these tents have one side that opens to the elements–think a horseshoe shape. They sleep up to six guests and offer a bunk bed, a double bed, a table, chairs, a mirror, electrical lights, and one outlet per tent. Visitors must bring their own sleeping bags and pillows or you can rent linens on site.
- Ahwahnee Hotel
- Ahwahnee is located at the base of Half Dome, which is ideal for viewing Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Glacier Point. The hotel itself is a National Historic Landmark with each room bringing the park’s natural landscapes indoors. Guests can go boating, visit the bar, gift shop, candy shop, or pool, or enjoy a meal in the formal dining room. There’s also a hot tub (heck yes), complimentary transportation, wifi, and laundry facilities.
- Yosemite Valley Lodge
- The lodge is just a short walk to Yosemite Falls, and has a Starbucks, a small cafeteria-style dining area, shuttle transportation, limited wifi, and a pool.
- Wawona Hotel
- The 104-room Wawona Hotel is also a National Historic Landmark just 45 minutes from the Valley floor. Closeby, you’ll find hiking trails to Chilnualna Falls, horseback riding stables, a nine-hole golf course, and a swimming pool. It’s also home to the Pioneer Yosemite History Center. Fun fact: President Roosevelt stayed there! It sells out fast! Book 10-12 months in advance to snag a room!
There are plenty of private homes in Wawona, Yosemite West, and Foresta within the park boundaries that are available for rent. Check out Airbnb and other rental sites to see what’s available! Outside the park, Rush Creek Resort, Evergreen Lodge, and Tenaya Lodge are great options as well.
Author: Outdoorsy Gals contributor Megan Reuscher
Hi! My name is Megan and I live in Yosemite National Park with my partner, two cats, and a couple handfuls of plants. I’m a big hiker, but I also enjoy a night in with a good book.