Yosemite National Park is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island. Many people find it daunting to figure out how to plan their visit. We find it easiest to first think about the regions of the park: Yosemite Valley, the Mariposa Grove and Wawona, the Glacier Point corridor, Tuolumne Meadows, the Hetch Hetchy area and vast wilderness spaces of the park.
Those making a short visit of a couple of days will commonly see Yosemite Valley, the Mariposa Grove and Glacier Point. Those with a bit more time can add Tuolumne and eventually Hetch Hetchy. We have, however, had visitors who came for a week and spent all those days in the Valley.
The “incomparable valley”
This is the famous, iconic Valley. People often refer to it as “the park” as in “We went out to Glacier Point and then into the park.” Of course, Glacier Point is part of the park (and has been since the original park was created in 1864). In fact, Yosemite Valley is only about seven square miles in a park of 1200 square miles. Despite that, for many people the Valley is Yosemite and Yosemite is the Valley and with good reason.
The sites and scenes that are the most famous and the most unique to the park are found in the Valley or on its border: Half Dome, El Capitan, Glacier Point, Royal Arches, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, Vernal and Nevada Falls. The vast majority of Yosemite photos you see are taken here.
It’s here that you’ll also find the visitor center, bike and raft rentals, the grocery store, post office, Ansel Adams gallery and several dining options both casual (the Lodge cafeteria, Curry pizza deck, etc) and fancy (the excellent Mountain Room restaurant and the world-famous Ahwahnee Dining Room, a pricey gourmet restaurant at the Ahwahnee hotel).
Though incredible, the Valley is hot in the summer and locals looking to hike on their days off typically will be found out toward Glacier Point or Tuolumne Meadows when the sun hits hard. Alternatively, you can start super early which not only helps beat the heat, but also the crowds. For trails on the north side (and thus south facing), such as the Yosemite Falls Trail or the Snow Creek Trail, starting early is essential on a hot day.
Carved by raindrops and snowflakes
No, there are no glaciers at Glacier Point. It is so-named because from there you see the confluence of the glacial valleys where Tenaya Creek and the Merced River meet. Ten to twenty thousand years ago, two large glaciers met there and the combined weight carved out the valley 2,000 feet below the current valley floor, which then filled in to the present depth with glacial debris.
Because of that debris, Glacier Point is “only” 3300 feet (1000 meters) from Yosemite Valley. Straight up. To get from the Valley via road, it’s a one hour drive or about 30 miles. Our home is roughly at the halfway point between the two. By trail, it’s 4.7 miles on the misleadingly named Four Mile Trail.
Glacier Point was part of the original 1864 park and offers a tremendous overlook of the Valley with views of the surrounding mountains and the Sierra Crest. It is especially popular for its evening views of Half Dome. There are some great walks in the region: Sentinel Dome, Taft Point, Dewey Point, Ostrander Lake make nice trips from points along the road. If you want to do what I call The Yosemite Half Marathon, you can hike or run up the Four Mile Trail, go to the Glacier Point Lookout, and then down the Panorama Trail to the top of Nevada Falls and then down either the John Muir Trail or the Mist Trail. If you choose the JMT, it comes out to almost exactly a half marathon from trailhead to trailhead.
NOTE: The Glacier Point Road is scheduled to be closed for all of 2022 for road work.
Mariposa Grove and Wawona
Land of the giants
The Mariposa Grove is the premier sequoia grove in Yosemite. There are two others: the Tuolumne Grove and the Merced Grove, but those two have a couple dozen trees each as compared to over 400 trees in the Mariposa Grove.
When the original 1864 state park was created, the Yosemite Grant saved two things: Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. Like Glacier Point, the Mariposa Grove is roughly one hour away from Yosemite Valley and our house is at roughly the midway point on that trip. Unlike Glacier Point, until 1890, the land between the valley and the grove was not part of the park. In other words, it wasn’t set aside because it happened to border the valley, but because it is in and of itself a natural wonder that, at the height of the Civil War, motivated Congress to create the first park of the kind in the world.
If I set aside rock climbing destinations and had to pick a favorite spot in the park, it would probably be the Upper Grove of the Mariposa Grove. It’s a nearly pure stand of sequoias and early in the morning or in the winter is typically deserted. It is, therefore, a “must-see” on a par with the famous valley itself. If your trip includes a day in one of the great groves of Sequoia National Park, we’ll let you off the hook on this one, but we think the Mariposa Grove can hold its own against any of the other groves (it’s a tossup for me whether my favorite grove is the Mariposa Grove or the Redwood Canyon Grove in Kings Canyon National Park).
While out at the southern end of the park, it’s worth visiting Wawona. The village of Wawona is home to the Wawona Hotel where Teddy Roosevelt ate lunch on his trip to Yosemite. He didn’t stay there though — he skipped the dinner party in his honor and ditched the governor and all the dignitaries to camp out in the Mariposa Grove with John Muir and Charlie Leidig and two horse packers. The next morning, he told Leidig to avoid civilization and keep to the mountains and they snuck by the sleeping dignitaries on their way to Glacier Point for a second night with Leidig and Muir.
Wawona is also home to the Pioneer Village, a collection of buildings from the Yosemite Pioneer days that is well worth the relatively small effort it takes to visit. The Wawona Meadow Loop is a great flower walk in season and the Chilnualna Falls Trail is an enjoyable walk to nice set of cascades.
The Yosemite High Country
We finally get outside the original 1864 Yosemite Grant into the other 95% of the park that was added in 1890 when Congress created the national park very roughly as we know it now.
Tuolumne Meadows proper is a large alpine meadow, but for most of us we use the term to refer also to the vast high-alpine country along the Tioga Road. This is where the locals tend to spend their days off in the summer partly because it’s so much cooler up there at 8,000-10,000 feet than down in the Valley at 4,000 feet, and partly because it’s only accessible by car a few months of the year, so we have to take advantage of those months. The rest of the year you have to get there by skiing or walking.
There is certainly breathtaking scenery along the road, such as the views from Olmstead Point or Tioga Pass, but for most people Tuolumne means getting out of the car and hiking. There are numerous nice hikes in the four to ten mile range and you can also just relax by Tenaya Lake. From our house it’s about an hour and a half to Tenaya Lake and about an hour and three quarters to Tuolumne Meadows proper. The hikes along this corridor are countless. For backpackers, there are many loops of 50 or 100 miles, or you can hop on the Pacific Crest Trail here and hike to Canada.
Yosemite’s Lost Twin
Hetch Hetchy Valley was Yosemite’s twin valley. John Muir considered it the more beautiful of the two, because it had been completely spared from development… until it was dammed and flooded. If you go there now, you can see the dam and the reservoir that provides drinking water to San Francisco.
It’s a gentle relatively flat walk to go view Wapama Falls which runs in the spring and early summer. Along the way, you can stand on the dam and contemplate the loss of Yosemite Valley’s sister valley and envision what this valley would look like with another 430 feet of depth.
Hetch Hetchy is a fairly long ways from anywhere else in the park. To get there you need to actually leave the park by the Big Oak Flat gate and then drive over half an hour to get there. As such, it’s one of the less-visited parts of the park. For backpackers, it gives access to the wild and rarely visited northwestern part of the park. For dayhikers, it’s a bit limited though. There is the hike out to Wapama Falls and, just before Hetch Hetchy itself, the hike up to Smith Peak, from where the picture above was taken. In the right season, the flowers both along the drive and at the reservoir are fantastic though.
From our house, it’s over one and a half hours drive to get there.
Even if you have visited all of the regions in this guide and taken some ten-mile hikes, the fact is, you will still not have visited most of the park. To do that is almost a life’s work. There are still some trails we have not done. Many of these spots have a minimum hiking distance of sixty or seventy miles round trip to get in to see them. If you’re a serious trail runner, you might be able to do some of these as day hikes, but only the hardiest will be able to cover the seventy miles to get out to the remotest corners and back.