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Yosemite Waterfalls behind Sequoias  in Yosemite National Park
Photograph: Shutterstock/LorcelYosemite Waterfalls behind Sequoias in Yosemite National Park

The best things to do in Yosemite

You can't go wrong in this gorgeous national park, but here are the best things to do in Yosemite, according to people who know

Erika Mailman
Written by
Erika Mailman
Contributor
Daisy Barringer
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There are national parks, and then there are NATIONAL PARKS. Yosemite’s one of these, with instant name recognition—and with inclusion on many people’s lifetime bucket list. It’s a walker’s paradise, but also enjoyable by car, guided bus or tram tour, so long as you take time to pull over and really inhale the views and the scents of fragrant incense cedar and sequoia. Climbers love the granite face of El Capitan, an impressive monolith, and brave hikers can tackle the seasonal cable climb of Half Dome. Wildflowers abound and wildlife roams free, including bears right in the valley. Striking waterfalls, an amazing February phenomenon called the Firefall, and beauty in all four seasons appeal to photographers—Ansel Adams spent significant time here, and there’s a gallery in his name you can visit. Learn about the Miwok at the Indian Village of the Ahwahnee, which includes, among other structures, a roundhouse still used for ceremonies by the local community. Stay in a tent or upscale your stay at the Ahwahnee, an iconic example of “parkitecture.” Above all, take a few deep breaths and marvel at the incredible natural beauty of America’s third national park.

Best things to do in Yosemite

1. Mist Trail

The quintessential Yosemite experience is this three or seven mile hike with up close, feel-the-spray views of two of Yosemite’s most magnificent waterfalls. This signature hike has amazing views, including one that encompasses Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, and the back of Half Dome. If you’re not up for a five-hour hike, turn around at Vernal Fall (approximately two hours total), although the crowds thin out if you keep going. The best time to go is in the spring and early summer and as early in the morning as you can manage.

2. The Ahwahnee

This grand hotel is known for its dining room complete with 24-foot windows and luxe dining experience. (Note: Dinner requires ‘proper attire’—even kids must dress up.) Make time to roam the stunning grounds and admire the magnificent architecture known as National Park Service rustic, a style developed to make buildings harmonize with their surroundings—in this case, a sheer granite cliff behind the hotel. You can now take a 360-degree virtual tour of the hotel; don’t forget to “turn right” after the check-in desk to see the red elevators that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s choices in The Shining.

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3. Skydive Yosemite

This is the only skydiving center with views of Yosemite National Park. You’ll take a Cessna 10-14,000 feet into the sky and see Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Valley in a completely new way. Oh, and the part where you jump out of a plane and free fall with views of the Sierra for 40-60 seconds isn’t too bad either. You’ll land where you started, at the Mariposa-Yosemite Airport in Mariposa, outside of park limits. You can order a big ‘marry me’ banner in the landing area for marriage proposals when your intended is already breathless.

4. Mariposa Grove

This beautiful part of the park is home to 500 mature giant sequoias, which is why the idea of national parks came to be. President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation protecting the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley for 'public use, resort, and recreation' in 1864, the first time the federal government set aside scenic areas to be protected. Here, the trees are so big that they have their own names on the map, like the ‘Faithful Couple’ trees and the ‘Bachelor and Three Graces.’ You can even walk through the ‘California Tunnel Tree,’ which was carved into in 1895 to permit horse-drawn stagecoaches to pass through.

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5. Gold Rush BBQ at Tenaya Lodge

Enjoy a summer barbecue at a beautiful hotel property right outside of the park in the tiny town of Fish Camp. Reopening Memorial Day 2024 for the season, the barbecue takes place in a conifer forest clearing and is all about getting a taste of the Old West. There’s live music and a hearty menu, and if past pricing holds true at $59 for adults and $29 for kids, it’s a good deal for a fun evening activity. (If you’re going to Yosemite in colder weather, check out the hotel’s Jackalope’s Bar & Grill, which offers tasty burgers and sandwiches and house specialties like carnitas sheet pan nachos.)

6. Yosemite Trails Horseback Adventures

This family-run pack station offers one- and two-hour horseback rides departing daily. Experienced riders can also take the five-hour round-trip ride to Grizzly Giant, a 2,000-year-old redwood tree visited by President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir in this same equine way. The trail horses are all ‘sure-footed’ American Quarter Horses trained while young to travel in the high Sierra. You’ll have the pleasure of riding with these calm horses through water whenever the trails cross through streams. All trail rides start with a hands-on lesson in the arena before departing and are not offered in winter.

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7. Yosemite Falls Trail

Here’s your chance to hike 7.2 miles round trip to the top of mainland North America’s tallest waterfall. You’ll follow switchbacks through oak woodland on a steep trail that gains 2,700 feet in elevation, taking six to eight hours round trip. You start with a one-mile climb to Columbia Rock, which has beautiful views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Sentinel Rock, and after another half-mile, you can see Upper Yosemite Falls. The remaining two miles are even more strenuous but worth it for the vistas and to see the relatively small creek responsible for the roaring runoff in spring and early summer.

8. South Gate Brewing Company

This small-batch brewery and restaurant sits 10 minutes from Yosemite’s South Gate in Oakhurst, CA. South Gate rolls out beautiful beer while offering a wide range of core house brews. With views of Deadwood Mountain from the dining room’s large windows and excellent pub grub, this place makes the trip to Yosemite even sweeter. Try to make it for events like Oktoberfest to make the visit even more memorable.

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9. Happy Isles Art and Nature Center

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This family-friendly space has natural history exhibits, interactive displays and art workshops. The center also includes the Yosemite Conservancy Bookstore. Outside, you can travel short trails for short legs, and see evidence of a horrific rockfall in 1996 that sent 90,000 tons of rock tumbling from the Glacier Point cliff above the center—the equivalent of 2,000 SUVs landing on the valley floor simultaneously. It knocked down hundreds of trees! You can paint that massive cliff with daily art classes for anyone 12 and up held outside during the summer months, for a fee, while younger kids can have free lessons. The center is open from April through October.

10. Glacier Point

This jaw-dropping overlook perches 3,200 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley with gorgeous views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and the High Sierra. All Yosemite views are impressive, but this one is beyond special. You’ll be staring right at Half Dome’s monumental curve almost at eye level. Glacier Point provides a great starting or finishing point for three strenuous hikes: the Four Mile Trail, the Panorama Trail, and the Pohono Trail. Glacier Point is open for cars from late May through October or November, depending on snow melt, and is accessible in winter by snowshoeing or skiing. 

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11. Yosemite Wine Tails

That’s right; it’s not ‘trails’ but ‘tails’... like on the dog that will accompany you to this dog-friendly wine bar in Oakhurst, near Yosemite’s southern entrance. This establishment serves one-of-a-kind drinks you can’t find in the grocery store, an excellent selection of California wine and beer, and locally-made snacks. The owners require that every winery, brewery and other vendor they work with donates a percentage to a pet-centered nonprofit. Need we say more?

12. Yosemite Health Spa

Part of the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort in Midpines, CA, just outside the park limits, this spa boasts its own garden deck overlooking the valley below. You can do yoga here or get a massage, step into a locally made herbal steep bath, and enjoy the hot rocks sauna. The huge stainless steel hot tub uses UV light and oxygen-infusing food-grade hydrogen peroxide. Does going to the spa seem a little indulgent for a trip centered on the outdoors? Maybe. Will you care when you’re completely blissed out? Absolutely not.

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13. Hetch Hetchy Valley

This beautiful (and less visited) glacial valley in the park's northwest corner offers hiking, fishing, waterfalls, and wildflowers. It has one of the longest hiking seasons in the park and is dotted with remote lakes and hidden canyons. It’s also home to the 430-foot O’Shaughnessy Dam that creates the reservoir, giving San Francisco some of the cleanest municipal water in the United States. There’s no swimming or boating in the reservoir for that reason, but you can fish it year-round. Before the dam was built, John Muir—who fought its construction—called Hetch Hetchy ‘a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite.’

14. Iron Door Saloon & Grill

This place claims to be the oldest continuously operating saloon in California, established in 1852 (maybe). If you’re entering or exiting Yosemite through the Big Oak Flat Entrance, stop in Groveland (a 30-minute drive) for breakfast, lunch or dinner and ‘free drinks tomorrow.’ Their Bloody Mary mix is so in demand that they sell it in 32oz Mason jars to go. This historic structure has walls made out of solid granite and a sod roof covered in tin. The iron doors were made in England, brought around the tip of South America by ship and hauled in by mule to their present location.

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15. Half Dome

If you can manage to climb Half Dome, it’s one of those memorable adventures you’ll never forget. The 14-mile (10- to 12-hour) round trip hike gains 5,000 feet in elevation—and you’re at 8,800 feet above sea level where the air is thin. The infamous cables you’ll need for the last, steepest 400-foot stretch are metal ropes you hang onto while widely spaced wooden slats provide ‘resting stops’ for your feet. You have to get a permit in advance for this experience, which is open from late May through mid-October. Note: this winter’s incredible snowpack means the cables may not open until June.

16. Golden Crown Mine

Before the park was set aside for preservation, silver miners excavated here, and you can hike to five log cabins that were part of a mining camp near the Golden Crown Mine. The mine operated from 1879 to 1890 at Mono Pass, at a dizzying 11,000 feet elevation. The fragile mine complex has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, and the park encourages visitors to make the challenging hike to increase awareness of its historic importance. Start at the Dana meadows side of Mt. Gibbs to hike to Mono Pass, with an even more difficult hike up Bloody Canyon to the mine.

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17. Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep

Try to capture a glimpse of one of these majestic mammals by visiting Cathedral Range, where they have been repopulating after an absence of 100 years. The bighorns were once abundant in Yosemite, but hunting and disease brought them near extinction. Now, there are three herds thanks to a state-funded recovery plan that relocated ewes and rams from Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park to the Yosemite wilderness (they wear GPS collars and can be tracked). From Tuolumne Meadows, you can view the steep cliffs and rocky outcroppings of Cathedral Range —and hopefully bighorns.

18. Indian Village of the Ahwahnee

It’s important to spend some time thinking about how the entirety of the Yosemite Valley was land that belonged to the Miwok people and that violence and even murder accompanied the seizing of it. The last authentic Indian village was removed in the 1960s, while today’s recreation village was created in the 1920s during a period of overlap. The ceremonial roundhouse built in 1992 is used by local members of the Native American community for ceremonies, while you can also see a sweathouse, chief’s house, bark house, food storage systems like acorn granaries and other items that help give insight into what the valley used to look like.

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19. Wawona Hotel

This historic hotel is in the European style (most rooms don’t have a private bath and you share one down the hall) and is open seasonally. It’s just a short walk to the golf course and to the Pioneer History Center—and best of all, it’s close to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. You can eat all three meals in this 1856 structure with wonderful piano performances in the lounge in the evenings. Barbecues in summer, a crackling fireplace in winter: this place is memorable. Plus, Wawona is really fun to say.

20. Bridalveil Fall

A timeless, classic waterfall easy to find in the valley, Bridalveil Fall usually flows year-round. The National Park Service recently completed a construction project that updated the visitor experience and viewing area. No more yucky vault toilets, congested parking, and unclear walkways. Most importantly, there’s now an accessible trail to the primary viewing platform. Previously, the path was paved but at such a steep grade that it was not wheelchair accessible.

 

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21. Balanced Rock

This health & wellness organization offers customized retreats and adventures, yoga, hiking, Ayurveda, and more, right within the national park. For instance, join the Summer Solstice Backpack in June for five days of hiking and backcountry yoga with Ayurvedic-inspired meals, guided meditations, and refreshing alpine lake or river swims. The founders are Heather Sullivan and Eliza Kerr, and one-time instructor Chelsea Griffie was the first Black woman to climb El Capitan. Balanced Rock continues to run Women of Color Retreats annually to support inclusivity and celebrate diversity for women of color in the outdoor space. This year, it takes place in early October as a camping retreat in Yosemite Valley.

 

22. Elderberry House

The Elderberry House is the only fine dining restaurant in the Yosemite area, serving up French fare at the Château du Sureau, a castle resort just a half-hour from the south entrance of Yosemite. After a day of hiking and seeing incredible vistas, you can wind down with a three or five-course tasting menu and world-class wines. Along with European standouts, their list showcases California’s robust wine production offerings—for instance, just their Chardonnay list features close to 30 wines from Napa, Sonoma, the Russian River Valley and others.

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