Hiking & Camping

Top Hikes in Yosemite National Park

By
Tim Gillespie
on
May 10, 2021

No doubt you’ve heard about Yosemite National Park as it’s one of the crown jewels of America’s national park system. 95% of Yosemite is designated wilderness. Meaning no cars, no structures, and no electricity, but luckily there are 13 campgrounds scattered throughout the park providing rustic comfort for outdoor enthusiasts. Hikers can criss-cross more than 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) of trails to take in Yosemite’s dramatic scenery, including towering granite walls, dramatic waterfalls, and giant sequoias.

Note:  At the time of this writing, reservations are required if you plan to visit Yosemite National Park between May 21 and September 30, 2021. This is being done to control crowd levels in the park due to Covid-19. Visit the national park service website to learn how to make a reservation.    

When to plan a hiking trip in Yosemite National Park 

Every season has its not-to-be-missed highlights from legendary hikes, valley bike rides, rafting, and snowshoeing through a winter wonderland. However, for those planning on hiking or backpacking in Yosemite, the best time to do it is during the summer months. Yes, the summer season is the busiest time of year but it is also when a majority of the roads are open, providing access to the most trails. Though you won’t be alone on the trails, once you begin a hike you will immediately leave a majority of the crowds behind.

Need new hiking boots?  Check out our Hiking Boots Guide

Let’s outline a few details for each season to help you make an informed decision on the best time of year for you.

Winter Season in Yosemite (December - March)

Winter temperatures hover around freezing, Most of the park is covered in snow during the winter with snowfall gaining the most accumulation in January. Expect hiking trails to be covered in snow.

Hiking and driving options are limited during the winter season due to the closure of Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road beyond the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area. Yosemite Valley and Wawona remain accessible by car, though tire chains are often required on park roads regardless of the type of vehicle. 

With limited crowds and spectacular winter scenery, winter in Yosemite can be magical.

Recommended Winter hikes:  Lower Yosemite Fall and Valley Loop Trail

Spring in Yosemite (April - May)

Spring is a time of transition in Yosemite, with lower elevations in full spring bloom, while higher elevations are still covered in snow. Days can be warm and sunny one day, and cold, wet, and stormy the next. As snow melts, streams and rivers fill or overflow with runoff.

The Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road beyond the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area typically remained closed until mid-May, and sometimes into June depending on snow conditions. Mariposa Grove Road usually opens by mid-April.

There will be fewer crowds than in the peak summer season. The Spring season’s main highlights are that most waterfalls will be at their peak flow due to snowmelt and spring flower blossoms will be at their fullest.

Recommended Spring hikes:  Mirror Lake and Mist Trail

Summer in Yosemite (June - September)

The summer months are the peak of the tourist season, and rightfully so because the temperatures are warm and precipitation is little. There will be occasional afternoon thunderstorms, especially in higher elevations.  

All areas of the park are usually accessible by car by late May or early June, although services along the Tioga Road often open a bit later in June. Arrive at Yosemite before mid-morning, especially on weekends, to avoid delays at entrance stations and popular areas like Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point.

During this time, you can expect crowded trails and campsites as well as road traffic. You need to book at least six months in advance to secure accommodations during this time; campsites have been known to reach capacity just days after they become available for the season.

Recommended Summer hikes:  Taft Point and Gaylor Lakes

Fall in Yosemite (October - November)

Fall in Yosemite can bring unpredictable weather. It may be sunny and clear one day and then snow the next. Daytime temperatures are relatively mild while nighttime temperatures drop close to freezing. Be sure to bring warm clothes and multiple layers. 

All areas of the park usually remain open through October, however, short-term closures may occur in November due to snow. Along Tioga Road, services are not available after September and overnight parking is not permitted after October 14th.

Similar to the spring season, there will be fewer crowds than during the peak summer months. Perhaps the biggest highlight this time of year is the fall foliage. The gorgeous foliage in the Yosemite Valley stands in beautiful contrast against the giant granite rocks.

Recommended Fall hikes:  Sentinel/Cook’s Meadow Loop and Wawona Meadow Loop Trail

Looking for advice on camping?  Camping Tips:  A Beginner’s Guide to Their First Trip
Hiking in Yosemite National Park
, Yosemite Falls

Now that we have outlined some details of each season, here is our list of top hikes in Yosemite National Park.

Lower Yosemite Fall Loop

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Distance: 1 mile (1.6 kilometers)

This short, easy trail provides hikers with spectacular views of both the upper and lower sections of Yosemite Falls. This hike is considered a must-do for every first-time visitor to Yosemite National Park.

The trailhead is located at shuttle stop number 6, less than a mile from Yosemite Village. For those wanting to start the hike from Yosemite Village, simply follow the bike path to the trailhead.

The entire trail is paved as it meanders through a forested area along the valley floor. After walking about a half-mile (0.8 kilometers), you will come to a footbridge and viewing area at the base of the falls. After hearing the roar of the water on your entire hike, this is where you can finally look up at the 320-foot (97 meters) cascade of falling water and feel the spray on your face.

Note:  Due to its location and accessibility, this is one of the more crowded trails in all of Yosemite National Park.   

Tuolumne Grove Trail

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Distance: 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) round trip

A great introductory hike for those simply wanting to see big trees, the Tuolumne Grove Trail provides access to the second-largest grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park.  

The trailhead is located at the beginning of Tioga Road in a large parking lot with picnic tables and restrooms. Be sure to read the kiosks at the trailhead to learn more information about Giant Sequoias and the history of the grove.

The trail is pretty straightforward and well-marked with signs along the way. The entire length, approximately 1 mile (1.6 kilometers), to the start of the grove is a downhill grade through a thick cedar and pine forest. As you enter the grove, identified by a sign, you will begin to see the massive trees. The grove features over two dozen Giant Sequoias and there is a small loop that takes hikers around to the different trees. Dead Giant, one of the more famous trees, has a tunnel carved through it allowing visitors to view the interior while breaking for a popular photo opportunity.

The short loop through the grove leads back to the main trail that you descended from the trailhead. When you are finished viewing the trees, hike back uphill to the parking lot completing this short, but interesting hike.

Note:  Though this trail is popular, it received much fewer hikers than the Mariposa Grove Trail.

Mirror Lake Loop Trail

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Distance: 5 miles round trip

This family-friendly trail is relatively flat and takes hikers to one of Yosemite’s most popular swimming spots.

The trailhead is located in the eastern part of Yosemite Valley at shuttle bus stop number 17. There is a well-groomed paved trail open to hikers and cyclists, though the last ¼-mile (400 meters), is closed to cyclists. Shortly down the paved trail, you will notice a dirt trail that cuts to the right. Take this trail for a more scenic option that cuts through the forest.

When hiking on the dirt path, after about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers), continue following the signs for Mirror Lake at the junction for the Valley Loop Trail. The trail then begins to hug the banks of Tenaya Creek. After walking alongside the creek, the trail then cuts into a series of granite boulders and then opens up to views of North Dome. After about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers), you will come to your first pools of Tenaya Creek, the beginning of the Mirror Lake area. You’ll recognize this by the crowds of visitors swimming in the waters.

Take some time to explore the sandy shores of Mirror Lake. There are no official trails in this area, but plenty of little areas to explore to find reflections of the granite cliffs reflecting in the waters. And of course, a few swimming holes. From here, you can turn back around and return to the trailhead if you are only interested in doing an out-and-back hike.

To complete the full loop, return to the main trail and continue heading in the same direction you were heading before arriving at Mirror Lake. The trail continues to be well-maintained as it grows through a section underneath Half Dome and Ahwiyah Point, a site of a major rockfall. After the rockfall, the trail returns to a forested area until you come to a bridge of Tenaya Creek. Continuing hiking the trail until you reach a second bridge until you reach the junction with Snow Creek Trail. Go straight at the junction and follow the signs for Mirror Lake. 

Upon returning to Mirror Lake, follow the paved route back to the trailhead where you began.   

Note:  The trail to Mirror Lake is best hiked during late spring when the water level is at its highest, allowing for a full reflection of Half Dome mirroring off the lake.

Taft Point

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Distance: 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers) round trip

Hiking to the top of Taft Point gives hikers a unique viewpoint of the Yosemite Valley that overlooks Yosemite Falls and El Capitan. 

The trailhead starts at the Sentinel Dome / Taft Point stop on the shuttle. Turning left from the trailhead (going right takes hikers to Sentinel Dome), the hike begins with a pleasant walk through a pine forest bordering a high elevation meadow. The trail is well marked as it descends slightly downhill through this forest before opening up to a series of fissures, cracks in the rocks that have split apart from each other. Be mindful that some of these fissures drop what looks like a thousand feet into a trench coursing down into Yosemite Valley. After passing through the fissures, the trail now starts to ascend to the lookout point, identified by a small railing on the ledge.  

The view from Taft Point is one of the most iconic views in Yosemite, but be mindful of the drop and do not get too close to the edge. 

Note:  This hike is only accessible when Glacier Point Road is open, which is in the summer.  

Sentinel Dome

  • Difficulty: Easy-moderate
  • Distance: 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers) round trip

Upon reaching the destination of Sentinel Dome, hikers will be rewarded with a 360-degree view of Yosemite National Park from El Portal to Mount Conness, including unobstructed views of El Capitan, Tenaya Canyon, and Half Dome.

Starting from the combined trailhead for Sentinel Dome and Taft Point, follow a short connecting trail downhill from the parking area/restroom to a signed junction. Turn right at this junction to travel northeast and then north toward Sentinel Dome. The first section of the trail meanders through a pine forest and intermittently climbs up overexposed granite. Just under 1 mile (1.6 kilometers), the trail merges with a dirt road for about a few minutes and then veers to the left turning back into a trail. Follow the signs for Sentinel Dome at this junction. The final stretch of the climb follows exposed granite that is well marked with cairns guiding hikers in the right direction. Just before the final climb, there is a sign marked Sentinel Dome. Turn left here to reach the summit.  

Note:  This is a popular spot to watch the sunset or stargaze at night. If you plan to watch the sunset, remember to bring a headlamp for the walk back.

Top Hikes in Yosemite National Park


Interested in hiking other National Parks?

Cathedral Lakes

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Distance: 7 miles (11.2 kilometers); 8+ miles (13+ kilometers) to see both lakes

Located near Tuolumne Meadows off of Tioga Road, these scenic lakes are a popular destination during the summer months and one of the best day hikes in the area. Best of all, though you won’t be alone on the trail, there are typically fewer crowds than on this trail than in Yosemite Valley. Plus, both lakes have breathtaking views of the 10,911-foot (3,325 meters) Cathedral Peak!

The trail starts just on the west end of Tuolumne Meadows, about a half-mile from the Visitor Center. At the beginning of the trail, you will notice a few other trails that criss-cross the area. Some of these lead to rock climbing areas on the nearby granite walls. However, the Cathedral Lakes trail will be the most well-trodden heading towards the southwest.

After leaving the trailhead, the path will begin to gradually climb along a rocky, uneven path through the forest. After about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers), the trail will begin to level out. As you hike along you will be able to see glimpses of Cathedral Peak through breaks in the forest. Just under 2 miles (3.2 kilometers), passes over a small creek. If you have a water filtration system, you can refill your bottles here. After passing the spring, the trail will begin to climb again.

At the 3-mile (4.8 kilometers) point, the trail comes to a junction with the John Muir Trail. Turning right at this junction leads to the Lower Cathedral Lake, about a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) walk. Turning left leads to Upper Cathedral Lake, about 0.7 miles (1.1 kilometers) along the trail.

Both lakes are beautiful and offer incredible views, though the lower lake is a little bit bigger. If you plan to camp, there are camping sites at each lake, but sunset is said to be better viewed from the lower lake.

To return to the trailhead, simply follow the trail back from the way you came in.

Note:  Mosquitoes tend to be an issue when walking through the meadows during the wet season. Please prepare appropriately.

The Mist Trail (Vernal and Nevada Falls)

  • Difficulty: Moderate to challenging
  • Distance:   3.4 miles (5.4 kilometers) to Vernal Fall round trip / 6.6 miles (10.6 kilometers) to Nevada Fall round trip

One of Yosemite’s signature hikes, The Mist Trail brings hikers to two amazing waterfalls that together total more than 900 feet (270 meters). Oh, and if you time your hike during waterfall season (springtime) then you will most likely get wet while hiking beside Vernal Fall.

The trailhead can be found in Yosemite Valley near the Happy Isles Nature Center at shuttle stop number 16. The Mist Trail shares the same path as the John Muir trail for the first mile or so. Hikers will need to cross the bridge over the Mercedes River to begin the hike.

At just under a mile (1.6 kilometers), the trail passes over the Vernal Fall Bridge. At this location, you will see your first peek of Vernal Fall. You’ll be sure to find many hikers pausing to take photos at this location before beginning the climb up to the falls. After crossing the bridge, the John Muir Trail and the Mist Trail split. Be sure to follow signs for Vernal Fall to stay on the Mist Trail.  

Shortly after this junction, the trail begins to ascend a series of stone steps, making their way up the steep slope in front of Vernal Falls. During springtime these steps can be slippery, so be careful and use the hand railings for extra precaution. This is also the area where the trail gets its name as the power of the falls spray a significant amount of mist on the area. The trail continues to get steeper as you ascend, with areas that require scrambling over boulders, but the view from the top of Vernal Fall is worth it!

Above Vernal Fall, the trail continues following the banks of the river towards Nevada Fall. Along this section, you will begin to see the peak of Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick in the distance while hiking through a beautiful coniferous forest. You will cross another bridge over the river where you will get a glimpse of Nevada Falls. After crossing the bridge, the trail will ascend multiple switchbacks and over a boulder field underneath Liberty Cap. As the trail levels out at the top, turn right at the junction heading towards Nevada Fall.

To return to the trailhead you can either retrace your steps back past both waterfalls or join the John Muir Trail by crossing the footbridge located on the top of Nevada Fall and walking mostly downhill for 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) to the trailhead.

Note:  To do the whole loop and take in the best scenery, it is recommended to hike up to both falls via the Mist Trail and then back down to the trailhead via the section of the John Muir Trail.

The Four-Mile Trail

  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Distance: 4.7 miles (7.5 kilometers) one way; 9.4 miles (15.1 kilometers) roundtrip

Considered by many to be one of the best hikes in Yosemite, the Four-Mile trail connects two of the most popular spots in the park, the Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point. While hiking along the trail, you’ll see El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Half Dome. This hike can be done in either direction by arranging car shuttles at the pick-up and drop-off points, or as a roundtrip hike. If shuttle buses are operating you can also arrange to use those services. Whichever direction one chooses, you will find that the trail is well marked and properly maintained. 

The up-to-down version of the hike begins at Glacier Point and travels most downhill to Yosemite Valley. Hikers often choose this route to avoid the challenge of hiking uphill, though the downside is that all the best views are on the higher elevations, giving the bottom part of the trail less appeal. 

The down-to-up version of the hike begins in the Yosemite Valley and gains an elevation of over 3,000 feet (900 meters). However, as hikers log more mileage along the trail, they will be rewarded with incredible views around each turn. Plus, there is a store selling snacks at Glacier Point to refuel their bodies.

Starting the trail from the bottom, near the Swinging Bridge, hikers will find the trailhead in front of the shuttle bus stop. Following the signs, you will eventually cross over the junction with the Valley Loop Trail. Continuing straight, after about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers), you begin to get your first glimpse of Yosemite Falls. A little bit further on the trail hikers will then come to the “reverser tunnel view” to the west, with Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan framing opposite sides of the view. At just under 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) the trail winds around the north and Upper Yosemite Falls comes into view. At around 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from the trailhead, you will start getting your first views of Half Dome. Shortly after this, there will be a junction for Union Point. It’s worth taking this small spur trail to see more incredible views of Half Dome and Clouds Rest. Once back on the main trail, you begin to see Sentinel Rock, a popular climbing spot. The last few sections of switchbacks hug cliff walls, though the trail remains wide enough for two people to walk side by side, or to pass when meeting another hiker going in the opposite direction. After more stunning views of Half Dome, the trail’s gradient is less steep for the last half-mile as it goes through the forest up to Glacier Point.

Once you come off the Four-Mile Trail you will encounter a gift shop, bathrooms, and a snack shop. Follow the paved paths slightly downhill to the viewpoint at Glacier Point.  

Note:  This is a popular trail so expect other hikers along the way. You will encounter most of the crowds at Glacier Point, as it is one of the main attractions inside the park.

Upper Yosemite Falls

  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Distance: 7.6 miles (12.2 kilometers)

This quad burner workout of a hike leads to the top of North America’s tallest waterfall. Upper Yosemite Falls stands at 2,425 feet (739 meters) and offers extreme hikers one of the best views in all of Yosemite.

The trail starts along the Valley Loop Trail near Camp 4. There are well-marked signs pointing hikers in the right direction so don’t worry about getting lost. As soon as you begin hiking, you will immediately feel the trail beginning to climb as you hike through an oak forest. Following switchbacks up the trail, hikers will find plenty of views of the valley below. At the 1-mile (1.6 kilometers) mark, you will reach Columbia Rock, where you will be rewarded with incredible views of Half Dome and Sentinel Rock. At this viewpoint, you will have gained 1,000 feet (304 meters) of elevation!

Back on the trail, the gradient will not be as steep as before but it will still be uphill. Eventually, the trail emerges from the trees and you will begin to see better views of Upper Yosemite Falls and expansive views of the valley below. The trail then begins to climb steeply again up the steps carved into the granite walls. For about the next mile (1.6 kilometers), the trail will gain almost 1,500 feet (450 meters) of elevation. After these switchbacks, the trail will level out at the top. The trail crosses over a stream and shortly after you will see a sign directing you to Yosemite falls, which is less than 0.2 miles (300 meters) away. From the top of the granite boulders, there is a “trail” with rail guards leading the official top of Yosemite Falls.

Be sure to spend some time on the top and take in the spectacular scenery before returning on the same trail you climbed up.

Note:  From the top of Yosemite Falls, hikers can continue along the trail to Yosemite Point by following signs for the North Dome Trail for panoramic views of many other peaks. This extension will add 1.6 miles (2.5 kilometers) to the hike.

Mount Hoffman (May Lake)

  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Distance: 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) roundtrip

This trail takes hikers past one of the more scenic lakes in all of Yosemite, Lake May, and then up to a 10,845-foot (3,305 meters) summit for an incredible panoramic view looking down upon Clouds Rest and Half Dome.

The trailhead can be found in the parking lot at the end of May Lake Road. Follow the well-marked trail that heads north. As the trail makes its way out of the forest it will turn into a bare granite landscape with views of Polly Dome towards the east. After a little more than a mile (about 2 kilometers), you will reach May Lake and a High Sierra Camp. This campground is seasonal, so if you plan to camp please check beforehand. At May Lake you can go for a swim or enjoy fishing before or after heading to the summit of Mount Hoffman.

To continue to the summit of Mount Hoffman, hike around the southern side of Lake May where the trail picks up at the southwest corner of the lake. There are no official signs but the trail is well-trodden due to its popularity. After leaving the lake, the trail travels through a small boulder field and ascends through a ravine and up a shoulder under Mount Hoffman. After the shoulder, turn right and begin the challenging climb.

Continue hiking to the northwest, as the trail travels over loose slabs of granite keeping an eye out for cairns that mark the path. As you climb, you reach a base of spires and you will be able to see the main summit of the mountain. Continue following the trail up into the bowl until reaching the summit, which is covered in broken slabs of rock. This last section of the climb is rated as a Class 2 rock scramble.  

Enjoy the incredible 360-degree panoramic views from the peak and take a rest from all that strenuous climbing. Your eyes will feel rewarded for all the work your legs just did!  

Note:  The hike up to Mount Hoffman is not an official park hike. Though you may find signs and markers along the trail created by other hikers.    

Further reading:  Top 6 Hiking Destinations around San Francisco

Yosemite National Park hiking
Hiking Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park

Now that we’ve highlighted the must-do hikes when visiting Yosemite National Park, let’s review the essentials to bring along with you when hitting the trails.

Hiking Essentials

  • Map:  Remember, your smartphone may not have reception at every trailhead. So print out a map of the area and know the important junctions on the trail.
  • Water:  The amount depends on the climate where you are hiking, but a good rule of thumb is 1 liter (32 ounces) for every two hours of activity.
  • Snacks:  Always bring a snack, just in case your hike goes longer than planned. Trail mix, granola bars, dried fruit. Keep it nutritious.
  • Sun Protection:  Apply a layer of sunscreen on your skin before heading out for a hike, even if it’s a cloudy day. Consider wearing a hat or sunglasses to minimize exposure to the sun. You can wear SPF protective clothing as well.
  • Headlamp:  Whether for an overnight or day hike, bringing along a headlamp is an essential safety must-have. These are small, lightweight devices that fit easily into any bag. You never know when you might need it, and if you do, you’ll be happy to have one.
  • Rain gear:  Ultralight rain jackets pack down small and can easily fit into your bag. Rainstorms can pop out of nowhere and it’s best to be dry when out in nature.
  • First aid kit:  Your first aid kit doesn’t need to be big. But make sure you have the basics: bandaids, alcohol wipes, waterproof matches, moleskin, burn treatment, and duct tape.

Okay, now that we’ve got our hiking safety taken care of, head out and explore the top hikes in Yosemite National Park.

Not ready to explore Yosemite National Park on your own.  Join Under30Experiences on our San Francisco & Yosemite trip.

Other National Park articles by Under30Experiences:

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Tim Gillespie
Tim is U30X's Thailand Manager & Community Builder, and has been living, traveling and accumulating experiences in SE Asia since 2009. He loves being in the outdoors, immersing himself in local cultures, and tasting exotic foods.

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