What to do in Yosemite
Your time in Yosemite is valuable, so what should you do with your time? There are several things to do in Yosemite and the best place to visit, in my opinion, is Yosemite Valley. Regardless if you are only spending one day in Yosemite or several weeks, there are sights in Yosemite Valley you just shouldn’t miss.
I’ve been going to Yosemite since childhood and try to visit Yosemite Valley at least once a year. It is by far my favorite vacation destination, and if you’ve never been, you are in for a treat! Although there are endless Yosemite activities, I’ve outlined some of my favorites, most of which are suitable for all ages.
Glacier Point: Yosemite Hiking, Driving or Bus!
Glacier Point is wonderful tourist attraction in Yosemite Valley. Everyone, regardless of age, size or disability can go to the top of Glacier Point. Glacier Point stands at a glorious 7,214 feet and from the bottom, it isn’t much of a sight (looks like a boring old mountain with steep cliffs) but from the top, it will take your breath away, providing you with stunning views of Half Dome, Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls and Little Yosemite Valley. You can also enjoy a hot dog and a Coke from the gift shop or purchase a souvenir. There are a few options to get there. You can drive your own vehicle up to the top via Glacier Point Road, take a bus ($25 one-way or $41 there and back) or, if you’re like me, you can hike to the top. Road accessibly is generally only open between June and October due to snow and although there are two hiking trails to reach the top, they too may be closed if conditions are hazardous. If you elect to hike, I would suggest using Four Mile Trail (yes, that’s the name). This is the shorter of the two options (4.6 miles in length and 3,200 feet in height) and this hike consists mostly of “switch backs” meaning you zig-zag back and forth up the mountain. If you go in the morning, you’ll enjoy a hike that is about 70% shaded. Four Mile Trail is awesome for people who enjoy longer hikes. Hiking this trail is long and may not be suitable for beginners. However, it really comes down to your level stamina. I’ve been hiking this trail since I was eight years old and my father last hiked it at age 60, but I’ve seen people half his size and age turn back from this hike, so it really comes down to your level of endurance. If this sounds like something you can handle, then hike to the top of Glacier Point. The time it will take you to reach the top will vary depending on how often you rest and how fast you walk, but as an estimate, I would allow at least two and a half to four hours. A big perk of this hike is you’ll get amazing views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome along the way. If you’re an avid hiker, consider using the Panoramic Trail (see below).
Mariposa Grove: See Some of the Largest Trees in the World!
Mariposa Grove is amazing and you will be blown away with how big these Sequoia trees are! And they didn’t get big overnight! Some of these trees are over 4,000 years old! One of these trees is even a tunnel that cars used to drive through! Adults and children alike will be mesmerized by these trees. Mariposa Grove is located near the South Entrance to Yosemite. You can drive to it from anywhere in Yosemite, but the South Entrance is definitely the easiest since it’s literally only a minute or two away once you get inside the park. The trails are easy for beginners and some are even paved! Parking in the afternoons can get full with no spaces, but don’t worry, you can drive to the Wawona hotel and take their free shuttle bus there and back to see the trees if needed. The trails for these are mostly level, some parts are even paved, with gradual to steep inclines toward the end. This is a great hike/trail for beginners that may only take you an hour to two round-trip. If walking or hiking is not an option for you, there are also tram tours that go around almost all the trees. Tram tours cost about $26 a person, but are free for children five years old and under. You can book a tram tour online at http://www.yosemitepark.com/big-trees-tram-tour.aspx or call (209) 372-4FUN.
Nevada Falls: Yosemite Hiking or Yosemite Horseback Riding!
Nevada Falls is an awesome hike in Yosemite with a waterfall view. You’ll start in Happy Isles (bus stop #16). The trail leading up to Nevada Falls is about half-shaded, and much like Glacier Point, it consists of mostly switch-backs (zig-zagging back and forth), which is easier than some of the hikes offered in Yosemite. The hike to the top of Nevada Falls is about 2.2 miles (5.4 round trip). Although you cannot drive up to Nevada Falls, for anyone unable to hike, you can actually “ride” up to the top on horses! I haven’t done this option in quite some time, but if you have children, they will LOVE it! If you are thinking “oh, that’s sounds fun!” as a warning, at times you may feel like you’ll fall off the edge of the trail. Unlike humans, these horses have no concept of cliffs and steep drops and frequently will walk right along the edge. This is can be quite scary, but these horses do these trails daily and I’ve never once heard of a fatality from horse rides to the top. Another benefit of taking a horse to the top is you’ll also be taken to Verna Falls as well. Vernal Falls, also known as The Mist Trail, is full of treacherous stairs, but with horseback riding, you’ll get the advantage of the views without the heartache. If horseback riding sounds fabulous to you, book your trip at Yosemite Valley Stables, which is on Happy Isle Loop Road near the North Pine Campground or on bus stop #18. Bus rides are free in Yosemite, so take advantage.
Vernal Falls: Yosemite Hiking or Yosemite Horseback Riding!
Vernal Falls is Yosemite’s number one biggest tourist attraction thanks to its beautiful waterfall. Like Nevada Falls, you’ll start in Happy Isles again for this one. Although this hike is only 1.5 miles to the top via The Mist Trail, this is 1.5 miles you will never forget. Like climbing stairs? If you answered yes, you’re in luck since this little hike consists of over 600 steps, some of which are VERY steep. Some people regard this hike as “easy,” but I personally feel this is one of the more challenging hikes offered at Yosemite, though short in distance. Of course, this hike is awesome for toning your legs, and butt and as another perk, it’s called the “Mist Trail” for a reason. As the name hints, you’ll be sprayed with mist on the stairs. This will feel refreshing, but also increase your chances of slipping and falling on wet rocks. If you hate hiking or if you have bad knees, you can ride to the top on horseback as noted under Nevada Falls. If you enjoy hiking, but the stairs are off-putting (they definitely are to me!) my recommendation is to hike up Nevada Falls and come down Mist Trail. When you reach the top of Nevada Falls, you’ll see trailhead makers for Vernal Falls. Follow the trail makers and you’ll hike down an easier path to the top of Vernal Falls. From there you have two options: continue the hike down and you’ll hit the stairs, but get views along the way (which is the option I chose) or you can turn back and return the way you came to avoid the stairs. The benefit of going down at least some of the stairs is the spectacular view you’ll miss out on from the top of Vernal Falls. You have to go down a ways to see the waterfall fully. Anytime I take anyone new to Yosemite, I always take them up to Nevada Falls and then we hike down the Mist Trail. You can also reverse this order, but I’d rather go down stairs then climb up them.
Lower Yosemite Falls: The Easy Walk with Wheelchair access
Lower Yosemite Falls is a very easy walk, not a hike, to see a waterfall up close and personal. Depending on the time of year you go, the falls may not be flowing (generally July through October means no falls), but this is a very easy walk, suitable for any age or disability. It’s about ½ a mile to reach the falls and the best way to access this trail is the bus, so get off on stop #6!
Yosemite River Rafting: Not as Dangerous as it Sounds!
The “rapids” in Yosemite Valley aren’t really rapids at all. Depending on the time of year you go, the river may be really full, but more times than not, it’s more on the empty side. Although there are deep spots, most of the river you can stand in (around three to four feet deep). The rapids are slow moving, and times, you will even need to use your oars or kick with your feet to get moving. One thing I’ve learned is Yosemite does not sell tubes or other floaties in any of their gift shops (trust me, I’ve looked!) This seems liked a missed opportunity, so hopefully that will be changed in the future, but if you want to avoid pricy raft rentals, you can bring your own rafts or tubes. I’ve tubed down this several times using tubes from dollar stores, so it’s definitely a lazy river. If you forgot your tube, don’t worry, at Curry Valley Recreation you can rent a tube with your family. Renting is charged per person, so there are zero incentives to cram 10 people into one raft. I’d just do five people in two rafts (unless you have a bunch of children). The cost per person is about $29 bucks and for children it’s about $20. You can reserve your raft by calling (209) 372-4FUN or booking online at http://www.yosemitepark.com/rafting.aspx. Now, if you’re thinking, rafting sounds fun, but if I bring my own tube, how will I get back? There’s a solution to that too. If you can’t arrange for a friend to pick up since they’ll be rafting with you, Curry Village Recreation will take you back for only for $4.50! This is the cheapest way to go. Just be sure to buy your pickup ticket before launching on the water so you’re not stranded.
Bike Riding in Yosemite
I love bike riding and Yosemite Valley offers several shaded bike paths and trails. If you aren’t from California, you likely won’t be brining a bike with you, but, for your convenience, you can rent a bicycle at Yosemite Lodge or Curry Village Bike Rentals. The cost per bike is $10 an hour, and if an hour isn’t enough, you might as well get the most of your money, and rent a bike for the full day at $28. Maybe you want to ride a bike, but you have a baby? Lucky for you, Yosemite Valley even has bike rentals with attached trailers! Of course, these are more expensive, about $16 an hour or $54 for the day, but it’s still an option. The bike trails are easy to spot and it’s a nice ride up to Mirror Lake (about a mile or two). Sometimes I call Mirror Lake a Mirror Puddle since often it really is just merely a puddle, so don’t be disappointed if that’s all you see. It’s still a beautiful ride.
Movie Night at Curry Village (Camp Curry)
At the Curry Village Amphitheater, you can see nightly entertainment. Generally it’s a movie about Yosemite National Park (like wildlife), but sometimes it’s a show, such as standup comedy. The entertainment is always free and open to the entire public, meaning you don’t have to be staying in Curry Village to watch their shows. There is an ice cream stand inside the restaurant next door and it’s fun to have some ice cream and watch the show. The shows don’t start at a particular time, just when it gets dark, and good seats go quick, so get there early and enjoy!
Yosemite Activities for Hikers Only (Or Enjoy the Views from the Valley Floor!)
Alright, although my above Yosemite activities are great for most people, there are hikes at Yosemite for those more experienced that I included for you enthusiasts out there.
Upper Yosemite Falls
Hiking Upper Yosemite Falls is strenuous, not recommended at all for beginners. Although in distance, this hike is shorter than Glacier Point (about 3.5 miles to the top) it is MUCH harder and will take you between three and five hours likely to reach the top. Most of the hike is in direct sun, and although there are switch-backs, there are areas you must walk up steep sand. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve slipped and fallen in this sand. The sand is very hard to hike through, and overall, this hike can be draining, so pack extra water on this hike and wear good hiking boots or non-slip durable shoes. I’d recommend starting this hike early in the morning to avoid as much of the sun’s rays as possible since shade is limited on this hike. When you reach the top be very careful and stay on the trail. Deviating from the trail may mean steep drops. The view of the falls in general is hard to see unless you are willing to hold onto a rail and walk along the side of a cliff (I’m not), but the view of the Valley, much like from Glacier Point, is spectacular. To access this hike, get off the bus at stop #7.
The Panoramic Trail is an all inclusive hike, and thus, is one of the longest hikes in Yosemite Valley, averaging about 14 miles in length. This hike may not be good for beginners, but if you’re looking for an awesome all day hike, this is it. Especially if you are new to Yosemite, this hike hits several popular hikes and trails, such as Glacier Point, Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls (Mist Trail). You can choose to access this hike from the Four Mile Trail to start with a four plus mile ascent to Glacier Point, take a bus up to Glacier Point making it a 10 mile hike or start at the Happy Isles trailhead in the Valley (where you access Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls). Since this hike will take you all day, I’d recommend starting on the Four Mile Trail. This is the easier way to do it and your 3,200 foot ascent will be the bulk of the hard hiking. Once you reach the top and take your pictures and eat your hot dog, look for the Panoramic Trailhead. This is near the snack shop, but if you don’t see it, don’t worry, there are always tons of forest rangers buzzing around to assist you. Once you access the Panoramic Trail, the remaining portions of the hike will be a slow and gradual descent down, which is just refreshing after a hefty hike up. You’ll see some amazing sights along the way only viewable from this trail, cross an old bridge, and hit a very popular trail, Nevada Falls. Be careful when you get here. It’s easy to make a mistake with the trailheads and go straight down to Happy Isles (ground level), but, if you’re looking to really get an all inclusive hike, look for the Mist Trail Trailhead which leads to Verna Falls. Vernal Falls is beautiful, but also very slippery, so be careful as you descend wet stairs. If you have knee problems, you can walk to the top of Vernal/Mist with ease, but then turn around and go back to Nevada’s trail for an easier decent. You can also do this hike in reverse, starting in Happy Isles, but the majority of your hike will be ascending up instead of down.
Hiking Half Dome
Half Dome is a must see in Yosemite, and lucky for you, anyone can see it from the Yosemite Valley floor (where it’s safe). For amazing views of Half Dome hike or drive to the top of Glacier Point. Although seeing Half Dome in person is a must, especially at sunset, it’s a hike I wouldn’t necessarily recommend. I’ve only hiked Half Dome once and it was by far one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. If you have a fear of heights, this one is not for you. The last portion of this treacherous hike is full of steep stairs (worse than Mist Trail), and if you don’t think it can get any worse, it does! Once you pass the stairs, you’ll walk gradually uphill, feeling like you reached the top, only to discover the incredibly steep cables! There are no experts to help with you with the cables, and if you forgot gloves, there are hundreds (old and new) abandoned at the bottom of the cables to share. The Half Dome cables, at least for me, are the hardest part of the hike. It gets so congested, you are climbing the cables at snail speed, which means you have ample time to look straight down, which makes me feel sick and light-headed. There are two cables that run parallel up the cliff and about every two to three feet are wooden planks you can balance on. I can’t stress enough that Half Dome is not for beginners. This is an ALL-DAY hike (literally around 10 to 15 hours covering 16 miles round-trip). If you are a hiking junkie, this is a once and a life time hike, but use caution and be sure to get your Half Dome permit months prior to your planned trip. Access to the trail is limited to persons with permits now and they will run out of permits if you don’t secure yours in advance. To get a Half Dome permit, visit www.recreation.gov or call (877) 444-6777.
If you are still on the fence about going to Yosemite Valley, I hope I’ve changed your mind. This is my favorite vacation destination for a reason, but you should know this list of Yosemite activities is far from inclusive (they even have a museum, a theater, art displays, shopping, Indian teepees, graveyards, restaurants, additional tours and hikes, etc). So in response to my prompt: What to do in Yosemite, as you can see, there is LOTS to do! Yosemite offers endless entertainment and outdoor adventures!
If you don’t love Yosemite yet, I know you will! It truly will be a vacation you’ll never forget.