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Yosemite National Park, California
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The best things to do in Yosemite

From killer waterfalls to animal sightings, here are our recommendations for the best things to do in Yosemite

Erika Mailman
Written by
Erika Mailman
Daisy Barringer

Yosemite is one of the most well-known national parks, and for good reason: it’s got extraordinary vistas, wildlife and history. And while the best things to do in Yosemite include breathtaking walks, enormous waterfalls, and stunning vistas – hiking isn’t the only thing to do there. Sure, the two most popular Yosemite activities are hiking and camping – either at busy campgrounds on the valley floor or in the backcountry reached by making a more solitary jaunt – but there's so much more to Yosemite. 

Looking for something to do besides hiking and camping? Yosemite really has it all, from active pursuits like horseback riding and skydiving to contemplative art-making, photography and yoga. You can drink fine wine and get a massage at a hotel, or rough it by filtering river water to drink in areas of the park where few people venture. You’ll be surrounded by bears, whether seen or unseen, and appreciate spectacular granite monoliths and giant sequoia in this park that sparked the nation’s discussion of preserving land for its natural beauty.

Best things to do in Yosemite

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 (approx. 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.

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. And don’t forget to check out the red elevator that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s choices in ‘The Shining.’  Don't hesitate to book: The Ahwahnee is closing January 2 through March 2, 2023 for seismic updates.


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 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.

This beautiful part of the park is home to 500 mature giant sequoias and the reason 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, trees are so big 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.


Enjoy a summer barbecue at a beautiful hotel property right outside of the park in the tiny town of Fish Camp. Open for selected dates, 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 at $55 for adults and $25 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 the best house-cooked olive tapenade you’ll ever put in your mouth.) 

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.


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.

This small batch brewery and restaurant sits 10 minutes from Yosemite’s South Gate in Oakhurst, CA. The brewmaster, who you can often spot working on site, will set you up with everything from Pilsner-style ales to a hoppy pale to a dark smooth Porter. He’s a Dutch man who grew up in Amsterdam inhaling the hops aromas wafting across the canal from the Heineken brewery. South Gate rolls out 6-8 new beers annually 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 into Yosemite even sweeter.


This is a family-friendly space with 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. The center is open April through October.

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. Note: Glacier Point will be closed to car traffic throughout 2022 for road improvements, but you can still hike or ski in — be aware that during this time you’ll have to make it a round trip.


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. Dogs are beloved here; at a March event honoring the Outlander series, each purchase came with a free tartan dog scarf. Finally, this place has a wine slushie machine. Need we say more?

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. In the huge stainless steel hot tub, UV light and an oxygen-infusing food grade hydrogen peroxide are used. 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.


This beautiful (and less visited) glacial valley in the northwest corner of the park 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.’

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.


If you can manage climbing 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 late May through mid October.

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.


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 to near extinction. Now there are three herds thanks to a state-funded recovery plan which relocated ewes and rams from Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park to the Yosemite wilderness (they wear GPS collars and can be tracked). You can view the steep cliffs and rocky outcroppings of Cathedral Range — and hopefully bighorns — from Tuolumne Meadows.

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