The Best Adventures in Yosemite National Park | California
Written by Julie Boyd | Photography by Julie Boyd
When I was 16-years-old, my dad pulled the car over to take in the majesty of Yosemite Valley at Tunnel View on a family trip to the park. Since that first moment, when I gazed upon the giant granite cliffs, bright blue skies, serene forests, and roaring waterfalls, I was hooked on Yosemite National Park.
Over the years, I have returned many times with my family, friends, and Brian to admire its natural beauty, and explore opportunities for adventure. From my travels so far, these are what I consider to be the best things to do in Yosemite.
Backpack through the High Sierra Camps
If you love the idea of backpacking to remote mountain destinations, but shudder at the thought of carrying a heavy pack and digging a hole to poop in, the High Sierra Camps are a great option. Nestled in the Yosemite wilderness, these outposts are spaced roughly between 5-10 miles apart, making for a great day hike. All you have to worry about is carrying the essentials because when you arrive to each camp, you are provided with dinner, a bed to sleep in (via a canvas tent and cot), and sent off the next morning after a huge breakfast.
When I went with my family a few years ago, we went to two of the five camps –Vogelsang, and Merced Lake. The cool thing about the camps is you can make your trip as long or as short as you like. We opted to do one night at each camp that we visited, but there were other groups who spent a day or two at each camp in order to rest and soak up the nearby scenery. Do note that there is a lottery process that you have to apply for, so it is important to plan in advance.
Pro Tip: It does take some level of fitness to hike to these camps, so make sure you do your research. While some locations may only be seven or eight miles apart, there is often significant elevation gains and drops between camps. The day we hiked out of Merced Lake, was about a 16-mile hike, and we had to go from about 7,000ft to 10,000ft, and then back down to 8,000ft. It was very strenuous to say the least.
Read more about our adventure: Backpacking the High Sierra Camps.
Hike to the Top of Yosemite Falls
This hike has been called nature’s stairmaster for a good reason. In 3.8 miles, hikers ascend 2,600 feet along rocky switchbacks. The payoff includes unique views of Yosemite falls along the trail, and panoramic vistas of the valley from the top.
Pro Tip:The best time to hike the falls is in the spring as they dry up throughout the summer, and often by August the water is completely gone. We also recommend getting a early start because the upper section of the trail is exposed and has little shade.
For more details about the hike, read about our adventure: Hiking to Upper Yosemite Falls
Hike the Pohono Trail to Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, and Taft Point
The 13-mile long (one way) Pohono Trail runs along the southern edge of Yosemite Valley between Tunnel View and Glacier Point, and offers stunning vistas along the way. You could do the whole trail as a long day hike, and perhaps take the shuttle back to your car, do it as a backpacking trip, or you can do a short loop between some of the iconic vistas like we did. Many people make their way along the Glacier Point Road, and only take the short routes out to each point. However, we found equally beautiful vistas, and solitude in the sections of the trail between each point.
Pro Tip: The Glacier Point Road is only open in summer, so be sure to check the Yosemite National Park website before your trip. As always, it is best to arrive early to beat the crowds and secure a parking spot, or consider taking one of the park’s shuttles.
For more information and photos from this adventure, check out our post: Glacier Point Hike to Sentinel Dome and Taft Point.
Hike the Panorama Trail
Should we hike the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls or the Four-Mile Trail to Glacier Point? Why choose when you can combine them into a super-hike! This strenuous, yet gorgeous, hike takes you past some of Yosemite’s most famous landmarks (Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, and Glacier Point), and also takes you off the beaten path a bit as you hit Panorama Point and Illilouette Falls. Many people opt to take the shuttle up to Glacier Point and hike down, or start at Happy Isles, hike up, and take the shuttle back. We consider that cheating though, and recommend doing a 16-mile loop instead by starting on the valley floor at Happy Isles, and then coming back down the four-mile trail. We did it in winter when there was light snow and hardly saw another soul on the trail.
Pro Tip: Like all long, strenuous hikes, be prepared. Remember to start early, bring lots of water, and keep sunset times in mind.
Snowshoe to Dewey Point in Winter
I am a huge fan of going to Yosemite in winter when the crowds die down. However, many of the trails are closed due to snow and ice, which really limits opportunities for exploring. This past winter Brian and I decided to give snowshoeing a try, and we found it to be a fun alternative to hiking. If you don’t have snowshoes, you can easily rent them from the Badger Pass Ski Area. From the rental shop, it’s easy to hop on the trail, and take the relatively flat 3.5-mile trek out to Dewey Point. When you arrive at your destination, you will be rewarded with a unique, panoramic view of Yosemite Valley. I thought it was especially exciting to see El Capitan from square on.
Pro Tip: If you feel like having a more relaxing trip up to Badger Pass, opt to take one of the free shuttles from Yosemite Valley.
View a detailed trail descriptions, and more images from our snowshoe adventure: Snowshoeing to Dewey Point.
Summit Half Dome
This is another strenuous feat that should not be taken lightly, but is worth the reward of boasting, “I made it to the top.” On my first visit to Yosemite, my dad made us do the hike to Half Dome in one day, which was both one of the best and worst things I ever did. As a teen, I had not developed a love for hiking, so I was pretty miserable the whole day. Not to mention it was August, and it was a dry, hot day.. However, the sense of accomplishment that I felt once I stood on the top of the granite monolith, and gazed out at the stunning views, is what really planted the seed for my love of hiking – something I am deeply grateful for.
Pro Tip: Make sure you are prepared, and use common sense. This is a very strenuous hike that involves climbing cables up a steep granite face to reach the summit. Bring lots of water, food, and gloves (for climbing the hot cables). Make sure you are in shape to handle a 16-mile hike with a 4,000 ft gain. If it is raining, don’t climb the cables; people attempt this every year and pay the price with their lives. Also, like the High Sierra Camps, you have to apply for a permit to hike Half Dome. More information can be found on the Yosemite National Park website.
Drive over the Tioga Pass
I am amazed by the amount of people who visit Yosemite and limit themselves to the valley floor and Glacier Point. Actually, maybe I should be thankful for that because it means fewer crowds in the high country! Anyway, there is much more of Yosemite to explore, and driving over the Tioga Pass makes for a scenic and memorable experience. The pass is a great access point for dozens of hikes that take you out to the valley rim, or into the back-country for views of pristine alpine landscapes. However, simply driving through and stopping to take in places like Tenya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows also makes the drive worthwhile.
If you are from Southern California like we are, I recommend driving through the whole pass and taking HWY 395 home in order to see Mono Lake and the Eastern Sierras. Plus, it gives you the opportunity to stop into Erick Schat’s Bakkery in Bishop for lunch, where you can order a sandwich on their delicious sheepherder bread, and stock up on dozens of other delicious treats.
Pro Tip: The Tioga Pass is closed in winter, so take advantage of this adventure in the summer.
Best Adventures in Yosemite Conclusion
No matter what you decide to do in Yosemite, it will be hard not to have a wonderful time, nor find unexpected adventures. Just remember to be safe, respect the park, leave no trace and have fun!