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Indian Rock in Yosemite National Park
Photograph: Shutterstock

The best hikes in Yosemite National Park

Lace up your boots for one of the best hikes in Yosemite and get away from the crowds and into natural wilderness.

Erika Mailman
Written by
Erika Mailman
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Brisk mountain air, lushly flowing waterfalls, stunning granite walls and extraordinary wildlife... Yosemite National Park has to be seen to be believed. And one of the best ways to see it is to hike it. It doesn’t take long on a trail to leave behind most visitors for a more quiet, contemplative experience.

This list is not comprehensive – there are 750 miles of trails with varying elevations, degrees of solitude and ecology – but they are some of the best hikes in Yosemite. These hikes range from easy, flat walks on paved surfaces to the bragging-rights-forever scramble up Half Dome with its scary but doable seasonal cables. Some hikes are quite difficult, but in general you can find trails suited to any level of ability, while not all are ADA accessible. The two most popular trails have to be the Yosemite Falls Trail — to the tallest falls in North America — and the Mist Trail, whether you turn around at the footbridge at Vernal Fall or carve out hours to do the full route to the top of Nevada Fall.

Wear hiking boots, not sneakers; some trails consist of rock slabs that become slippery with water spray. Pay attention to information you receive about bears in the park, especially if taking a remote trail or planning to camp for the night, and be aware that some access roads may be closed seasonally. Currently, you need a reservation to enter the park during high traffic hours even if not staying overnight. But above all, appreciate the bliss of being in this very special park.

Best hikes in Yosemite

Located in the valley, this is an ‘amuse bouche’ hike – a flat, paved loop trail with informative exhibits. It brings you near the base of the falls with a footbridge that, depending on the season, may give you a welcome spray of water as you take in the waterfall’s final 320 feet of plunging drama. Walk the loop clockwise for the best views of upper and lower Yosemite falls. So long as the path is dry of ice or snow, it is wheelchair accessible.

Start: Lower Yosemite Fall Trailhead

Difficulty: Easy

Time: 30 minutes

Distance: 1 mile loop

Elevation gain: 50 feet

Just the name is charming, evocative of the fog that arises from the water spray from Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. Things start out easy, but you quickly start climbing in elevation as you follow the path that gets you close to two major waterfalls (Vernal first, then Nevada) and gives views of the Merced River and the valley. Footing can be slippery thanks to that mist. To provide variety and avoid a roundtrip, consider taking the John Muir Trail back down to the base. This path is not ADA accessible.

Start: Happy Isles trailhead near Shuttle Stop 16

Difficulty: Moderate to the footbridge; strenuous thereafter

Distance: 1.6 miles to Vernal Fall footbridge; 2.4 miles to the top of Vernal Fall; and 5.4 miles to the top of Nevada Fall: all roundtrip

Elevation gain: 400 feet to the footbridge; 1,000 feet to Vernal Fall; and 2,000 feet to Nevada Fall

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This beautiful grove of jaw-droppingly big trees lends itself to family strolls or strenous hikes, depending on which trails you take. We’re recommending the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail which lets you experience famous behemoths like the Bachelor and Three Graces, the Grizzly Giant and the California Tunnel Tree (yes, you can walk through it!). With a disability placard, visitors can park in the Grizzy Giant parking area for a portion of the trail that is wheelchair accessible.

Start: Mariposa Grove Arrival Area

Difficulty: moderate

Time: 1.5-2 hours

Distance: 2 miles

Elevation gain: 300 feet

This is a backpacking trail in Tuolumne Meadows, considered the high country. Accordingly, you have to get a permit to take this trail, and demand is currently very high. From Tenaya Lake, you’ll cross the Tenaya Creek and begin climbing up to the Sunrise Lakes then descend on the other side of Sunrise Mountain. You’ll see beautiful alpine meadows spread with wildflowers, depending on the season, and the dramatic peaks of the Cathedral Range, an offshoot of the Sierra Nevada which resembles a cathedral spire.

Start: Sunrise Lakes trailhead

Difficulty: Moderate

Time: 5.5 hours

Distance: 10.4 miles round trip

Elevation Gain: 1,650 feet

 

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Hetch Hetchy is an area of Yosemite that isn’t frequented as much as the valley, which gives you an opportunity to avoid crowds. Hetch Hetchy is similar to the valley in its landscape, and the Rancheria Falls are located at its eastern end; you’ll need a permit for this hike. Rancheria isn’t a huge waterfall with a vertical drop, but rather a series of cascades. Watch for Wapama Falls, and smaller seasonal cascades like Tueeulala Falls, along the way. Footbridges can become dangerous and close down when water overtakes them.

Start: Rancheria Falls

Difficulty: Moderate, but the trail is rocky

Time: 5-8 hours

Distance: 12.6 miles

Elevation Gain: 700 feet

We can’t resist the name, and many consider this a highlight of Yosemite. It’s part of the high country backpacking trails off Tioga Road west of Olmsted Point. You’ll see lots of waterfalls on this hike that starts with a steep descent, losing 4,000 feet, and climbs over a gorge and past three large waterfalls: Waterwheel, Le Conte and California. You’ll see dramatic granite peaks and domes, alpine meadows, and the lovely course of the Tuolumne River. You can also do this permitted hike in reverse, starting at Glen Aulin trailhead.

Start: White Wolf trailhead

Difficulty: Challenging (plus rattlesnakes!)

Time: Up to four days

Distance: 30.8 miles one way

Elevation gain: 5,350 feet

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This trail offers the chance to visit Indian Arch, an unusual and rare natural granite arch. If you keep following signs for North Dome, that’ll up your roundtrip to 10.4 miles (5-8 hours), or you can just return after getting a happy eyeful of Half Dome and Glacier Point from a vantage point not frequented by many visitors. The NPS website isn’t great for this trail, so try this Hiking Project website. Trail is not wheelchair accessible.

Start: Porcupine Creek Trailhead on Tioga Road, 1.2 miles east of the Porcupine Creek Campground

Difficulty: Medium

Time: 3.25 hours

Distance: 6 miles roundtrip

Elevation gain: 329 feet

 

Be warned: Before you even lace up your boots, this trail is lying to you... because it’s more like five miles, one way. So really this is a ten mile trail, but after you reach the gorgeous vista point at Glacier Point, you’ll forgive the fib. You’ll climb 3,200 feet on what was an 1872 toll trail. Glacier Point Road is closed until May 2023, so you’ll need to make sure you can make the return trip (you can head down by way of the Panorama to the Happy Isles trailhead if you prefer variety, but that’s a significantly longer trip)

Start: Four Mile Trailhead along Southside Drive in Yosemite Valley

Difficulty: Challenging

Time: 6-8 hours roundtrip

Distance: 9.6 miles roundtrip

Elevation gain: 3,200 feet

 

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Permits are obtained by lottery for this hike that tests physical acumen as well as your scare factor (if you’re a backpacker, request a Half Dome permit with your wilderness permit—we highly recommend camping in Little Yosemite Valley to get a jump on the summit assault). It’s the most challenging of Yosemite hikes, other than going all Alex Honnold and freesoloing El Cap. The last 400 feet involves climbing with cables you hold like banisters, with wide-spaced wooden slats like flat stairs for your feet to balance on. Cables are usually up from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day. Just as with Mount Everest, there’s a recommended turnaround time of 3:30pm – whether you’ve summited or not.

Start: Happy Isles trailhead near Shuttle Stop 16

Difficulty: Strenuous

Time: 10-12 hours roundtrip

Distance: 14-16 miles roundtrip

Elevation gain: 4,800 feet (That’s a lot, friends.) 

 

And here’s the full entrée, the trail most people consider the must-do trail to get a sense of Yosemite’s majesty. It takes you to the top of the highest falls in North America, along one of the oldest trails, built 1873-77. You’ll take switchback after switchback as you climb through oaks until you reach plateaus above the treeline where you’ll capture amazing views of the valley and its features. If you find you bit off more than you can chew, turn around at Columbia Rock (a two-mile roundtrip that only gains 1,000 feet in elevation and only takes 2-3 hours). Otherwise, continue on to say you reached the highest waterfall on this continent!

Start: Camp 4

Difficulty: Strenuous

Time: 6-8 hours round trip

Distance: 7.2 miles round trip

Elevation gain: 2,700 ft

 

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