California’s Yosemite National Park, located high in the Sierra Mountains, is among the United States’ most majestic outdoor destinations. Home to the country’s tallest waterfall as well as 2,000-year-old Giant sequoias, expansive fields of wildflowers, and a sea of granite outcroppings, Yosemite is a true icon of America’s natural beauty, reeling in millions of visitors each year.
Climbers, in particular, have been making the pilgrimage to Yosemite for years, staying in the famous Camp 4 campground and pushing the limits on nearby big walls like El Cap and Half Dome. And even for average Joe and Jane climbers, there are plenty of awesome opportunities, with a number of guiding services in the park to choose from, including Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service and Sierra Mountain Guides.
But if you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, Yosemite really is a hiker’s dream come true. And you don’t even need to hike Half Dome or the Mist Trail to find a killer trek in the park. There are plenty of other world-class hikes that weave through old-growth forests and alongside creeks and past waterfalls before spiraling their way up rocky ledges to lofty perches high above the valley floor. Here’s a sampling of 7 amazing hikes to choose from on your next Yosemite National Park vacation.
1. Yosemite Falls Trail
Constructed in the 1870s, the Yosemite Falls Trail is one of the area’s most historical pathways, leading to North America’s tallest waterfall, which crashes 2,425 feet into the Valley floor. To begin your hike, you’ll immediately begin climbing multiple switchbacks through wooded oak forest. Eventually, you’ll stand above the trees that once towered over you, as the exposed trail begins to plateau and offer some of the park’s most astounding views.
Hiking to Columbia Rock flaunts remarkable scenery after just one mile, making this a short romp in the park a favorite. From here, it’s only another half mile to a gorgeous view of Upper Yosemite Falls. The upper half of the trail is much more technical, with vertical and rocky segments; however, the tiring climb is well worth being able to perch yourself directly above the country’s mightiest waterfall. From the Yosemite Falls Trail, you can extend your hike to Yosemite Point, adding another 1.6 miles total; or head to Eagle Peak, which adds another 5.8 miles round-trip.
Distance and Trailheads: To Columbia Rock is a two-mile round-trip, with 1,000 feet in elevation gain. You’ll start at the Camp 4 area, near shuttle stop #7 and El Cap shuttle stop #E2, along the Valley Loop Trail. To continue to Yosemite Falls is a 7.2-mile round-trip hike, with 2,700 feet in elevation.
Tips: Do not stray away from the path, as there are steep and dangerous drop-offs bordering to the trail; and of course, use heightened caution near the waterfall. Also note that Columbia Rock receives little to no sunlight during winter months and can be extremely icy depending on when you travel. Like the majority of hiking trails in Yosemite, it’s best to be avoided (and isn’t even allowed) during winter months.
2. Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley
The Four Mile Trail follows switchbacks down into the pit of the Yosemite Valley, providing incredible views the entire way. Connecting some of Yosemite’s most popular spots—Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point—this hike is an absolute must! While its popularity inevitably reels in tourists, it’s fairly easy to avoid mass groups, seeing that there is no single overlook; the entire trail is one never-ending lookout. Truly, there may not be a better way to see what Yosemite Valley has to offer than hiking this semi-short and strenuous trail.
If you’re looking for a longer hike, you can start with the Panorama Trail and follow the Four Mile uphill. From here, you can even extend to the Mist Trail, for an all-around amazing tour of Yosemite.
The Panorama Trail passes waterfalls and 360 lookouts of eastern Yosemite Valley, before joining the John Muir Trail (JMT). If you take the shuttle to Glacier Point, the hike is mainly downhill, passing Nevada and Vernal Falls, with a nice stop at Illouette Creek.
Distance and Trailheads: Four Mile Trail is 4.8-miles one-way, and Panorama Trail is 8.5-miles one-way. You may want to consider taking a shuttle bus to Glacier Point, so that you won’t have to worry about out-and-backs, and to allow an epic downhill into the Valley.
Tips: We recommend taking a hiker’s bus to Glacier Point, so that you won’t have to worry about hiking back the same one-way route or parking permits and related issues. It’s also worth noting that the Panorama Trail is much less crowded in comparison to those starting to the top of Nevada Falls, so combining this path with the famed Four-Mile is always a great option!
3. Pohono Trail
This east-west hike along Yosemite’s South Rim is a scenic smorgasbord. Here, you will witness an implausible bird’s-eye view of Yosemite’s most stunning icons: Dewey, Crocker, Stanford, and Inspiration Point, numerous waterfalls, and the notorious Half Dome and El Cap.
Though rather difficult, this particular hike is a treasure trove into the glacier-formed valley. Consider taking a long day hike or leisurely overnighter, starting at the panoramic Tunnel View and threading your way to the awe inspiring Glacier Point. Because this pathway reveals vantage points at the Fissures—a series of deep granite gashes into Profile Cliff—as well as vistas from Taft Point, you’ll experience some of the park’s lesser known views, of equal beauty to well-known overlooks.
Distance and Trailheads: From CA 120 E, you’ll turn left at CA 140 E and follow the road for nearly two and a half miles. The parking and trailhead are on your right, just passed the east end of the Wawona Tunnel. Unfortunately parking and transportation can be difficult, so it’s best to do your research ahead of time. Buses leave from Yosemite Lodge at 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m., or 1:30 p.m. The driver then spends a half and hour or so at the Point before returning to the lodge. Tickets prices vary, so call the Yosemite Lodge Tour Desk for reservations and inquiries: 209-372-1240.
Tips: The best time to go is whenever the Glacier Point Road is open, which is typically between mid-May and early November. Waterfalls are best in the spring and early summer, during the area’s heavy rainfalls. However, always be aware of snow, which can cause navigational issues at any time of year. It can be packed at the Glacier Point and Tunnel View endpoints, as well as fairly crowded at Sentinel Dome and Taft Point.
4. Cathedral Lakes
Follow the gradual incline to Upper Cathedral Lake. Near the top, you’ll pass a spur trail to Lower Cathedral Lake, just a half mile away. The return hike follows the same trail, which is arguably the busiest within the Tuolumne Meadows area.
Relatively easy and less crowded in comparison to other trails in Yosemite, this seven-mile out-and-back along the John Muir Trail offers incredible scenery, passing through the Tuolumne Meadows. With breaks in the forest, you’ll see the impressive Cathedral Peak—a 10,900-foot granite dome that towers above, as well as the High Sierra lakes and Echo and Tesidder Peaks. There are a few moderate climbs, but for the most part the trek is fairly flat. Shady forests will surround you before you reach the large Tuolumne Meadows, with its blooming wildflowers and open 360 views of the area’s beauty.
Hikes around Tuolumne Meadows, located off of Tioga Road, are among the most popular in the region, so be prepared for crowds. As part of the JMT, the trail to Cathedral Lake is a backpacking pathway, meaning that you’ll most likely share the route with several other hikers. However, masses here are not even close to the tourist numbers you’ll find in the Yosemite Valley.
Distance and Trailheads: This seven-mile journey gains about 1,000 feet in elevation, starting from the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead, just a half mile west of the Tuolumne Meadow Visitor Center, at Shuttle Stop #7. From the Yosemite Valley floor, take Tioga Road and drive towards the Tuolumne Meadows. The trailhead marker is directly across the street from the meadows.
Tips: Parking at the trailhead is limited, so like most of the access recommendations, we suggest taking the free shuttle bus.
5. Cloud’s Rest
Offering panoramic vistas over Yosemite’s most stunning landmarks, this hike is fairly strenuous, with thousand-foot switchback gains that expand a mile or more. With awe-striking views in every direction, you’ll see a number of landmarks, including Teneva Lake, Half Dome, Mt. Hoffman, and more. You may even catch a glimpse of Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan. This is one of Yosemite’s best hikes, in terms of infinite 360 panoramas…including straight down. (If you’re afraid of heights, this may not be your best option.) Though semi-strenuous, this particular trek is less difficult than that of Half Dome (and way less crowded).
Distance and Trailheads: This 14.5-mile round-trip gains 1,775 feet in elevation. Located off the Tioga Road, the trailhead is at the west end of Teneva Lake, 31 miles from the Tioga Road’s western end point at Crane Flat and 16 miles from Yosemite’s eastern entrance at Tioga Pass.
Tips: Because Tioga Road itself is only open between June and October, you’ll only be able to visit during those summer and early autumn months. When you see snow on the mountain, or there are expected thunderstorms, it’s best avoided. Low clouds of any variety can envelop you in a discombobulating fog, muddling your views. It’s no secret how Cloud’s Rest got its name.
6. Southern Yosemite, Mariposa Grove
This Yosemite classic is home to hundreds of one of the park’s most famous features: Giant sequoias. The biggest sequoia grove in all of Yosemite, this segment of the park hosts a mass population of these handsome beasts, including the well-known 1,800-year old “Grizzly Giant”; the Fallen Monarch—the first massive tree you’ll pass, dead and fallen to the ground; a quartet of sequoias called “The Bachelor and Three Graces”; and the famed California Tunnel Tree, a manmade tunnel drilled through a still-living sequoia, which was originally dug out to benefit tourist stagecoaches in the late 1890s.
Additionally, Wawona Point offers the country’s best views of the Wawona Valley. The lower loop is pretty easy, and the upper loops are both moderate. Keep in mind that because of this popularity, the lower grove can be exceptionally crowded, and the upper groves generally reel in a number of tourists as well.
Distance and Trailheads: Hiking to the lower grove is about 2.2 miles round-trip. Continuing passed the lower groves to the upper groves makes the journey around 5.5 miles in total. Elevation is dependent on which parts of the upper groves you reach, but generally you gain around 1,200 feet. There’s a parking lot at the trailhead, but it frequently fills up quickly, and when full, traffic monitors will block the road and guide you to the south entrance instead. Here, you can catch a free shuttle bus to the grove. Or, you can always walk from the park entrance, just adding another two miles total.
Tips: While the trail is closed through 2017 for restoration purposes, you can still see the Chilnualna waterfalls, Wawona Meadow field of wildflowers, and nearby swimming holes and a Wawona Swinging Bridge. Mark your calendar for this hike next year!
7. Tuolumne Meadows to Devils Postpile
Okay, so this trek isn’t located entirely within park boundaries, but it’s too good not to mention. It’s a multi-day 31-mile one-way trail that runs south, crossing iconic High Sierra vistas, into the elevated Ansel Adams Wilderness. Once you’ve reached Devils Postpile—a national monument near Mammoth Lakes, CA—you’ll see 60-foot columns of basalt, which rise sharply and extend from Mammoth Mountain’s volcanic base. This particular section of the John Muir Trail is recognized as one of the most scenic and enjoyable portions. It’s a backpacking trip can be done quickly in two days, or more leisurely over the course of three or four days. Take in the supreme scenery along Lyell Canyon, atop Donohue Pass, and around the Thousand Island Lake.
Distance and Trailheads: From CA 120 E to Big Oak Flat Road, you’ll head to the Meadows Ranger Station for parking and wilderness permits. These are best reserved in advance online. From here, you can take a shuttle bus from Devils Postpile National Monument. Located in the Ansel Adams Wilderness section of Yosemite, you’ll start at the Tuolumne Meadows trailhead for this 31-mile hike.
Tips: Camping at Thousand Island Lake is well worth it, with lovely views of Banner Peak, secluded in wilderness, beneath a starry night sky.
After hiking in Yosemite, you deserve a good night’s rest and a deep scrub at one of Yosemite’s favorite hotels. The historic Wawona Hotel , which was built in the late 1870’s, has 104 guest rooms, half of which boast private baths and open verandas. Just seven miles from the Mariposa Grove and directly across from the Wawona Meadow, this hotel is extremely convenient for Yosemite’s year-round adventurers. From here, you can also catch a free bus service into the grove during summer months.
Another option is to stay at Fish Camp, just two miles outside of the southern entrance of Mariposa Grove, with a handful of small inns to choose from. The larger Tenaya Lodge is wonderful after multi-day hikes, offering spa facilities, various activities, and all-purpose amenities on site. The Narrow Gauge inn is an alternative choice, with its own antique logging train!
Originally written by RootsRated for Rock/Creek.
Featured image provided by Todd Petrie
Rock/Creek’s official rules to prevent “up a creek” syndrome:
- When hiking in summer, especially in higher elevations, make sure you are prepared for a variety of temperatures. Sun protective clothing is a great option for during the heat of the day. A light jacket makes a welcomed addition if you stay out past dusk or find yourself exposed to cooler temperatures or wind/rain.
- Wool socks are still the standard selection for hiking footwear, though some people prefer synthetic options. Cotton is not ideal in the backcountry.
- Extendable poles are a great addition if you plan on hiking long miles or steep terrain.
- Plan out a nice lunch spot. This will ensure that you take a second to really sit and enjoy the scenery.
- If you are going to be hiking past water sources, there is no need to carry a gallon of water. Instead, carry a water filter and refill as necessary. Never drink unfiltered/untreated water!
- Invest in a reliable headlamp that never leaves your pack. Make sure the batteries are charged! You’ll eventually be glad you did.
- Pack a first aid kit capable of treating a variety of issues you may encounter while in the backcountry; blisters, cuts/scrapes, stings, and common aches/pains.
- Leave a note telling where you are going, which trails you will be hiking, which trail head you have parked at, who you are with, and when you expect to be back.
- No matter how many times you have been on a trail, it’s a great idea to carry a map.
- Take your phone and either turn it off or put it on airplane mode to conserve battery life. Put your phone in a zip lock bag or a waterproof container. If you really want to get fancy, invest in a Spot.
For more tips and tricks, come by one of our locations, or give us a call at 1-888-707-6708 (Toll Free). Helping people get outside is what we love to do!