Yosemite National Park is packed with famous landmarks, awesome hikes, and breathtaking views. If you are planning your first trip to Yosemite, how do you know what to do?
I am a big fan of lists (and photos!). In this post, I list out the best landmarks to visit, the best views, and best hiking trails in the park. Take a look, and then pick and choose what you want to do (there’s enough here to fill five days of your time). At the end of the post, I give recommendations on how to piece this all together so you can have the best experience here.
The Best of Yosemite for First-Time Visitors
Famous Yosemite Landmarks
The heart of Yosemite is Yosemite Valley. There is one road that loops through the Valley, linking car parks and villages to the hiking trails and viewpoints. If you drive this loop (or take the Yosemite Shuttle) you can see about half of these landmarks. Getting to them all requires some hiking and a drive on Tioga Road.
How to Use This Map: Click the icons on the map to get more information about each point of interest. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
Half Dome is Yosemite’s most famous icon. Rising 4,800 feet above the valley floor, photograph it from the viewpoints sprinkled throughout Yosemite (you can see it from everywhere!), hike to the top, or even rock climb up the face of Half Dome.
Photo credit: Mike Wooldridge
Proudly sitting on the other side of Yosemite Valley from Half Dome is El Capitan. This massive rock is a playground for rock climbers. El Capitan made it on the news in 2017 when Alex Honnold became the first person to free climb it without a rope.
Yosemite Falls is the 5th tallest waterfall in the world. During the spring months, when the winter snows are melting, this waterfall is literally roaring. Later in the season the flow can be just a trickle. If you want to see Yosemite’s waterfalls at their peak, plan to visit during the spring and early summer months.
This is another popular waterfall in Yosemite. You can walk to the bottom of it on a short, paved hiking trail, or for one of the best views, go to Tunnel View.
Vernal Fall sits in the back of the park, near Half Dome Village. Most people who see this waterfall hike to it on the famous Mist Trail. You can also see it from Glacier Point.
Nevada Fall sits above Vernal Fall. To get to the top of Nevada Fall, it’s a 7+ mile round trip hike up the Mist or Muir Trail. Don’t feel like hiking that far? Take in the view from Glacier Point, where you can see Nevada Fall, Vernal Fall, and towering Half Dome all in the same view.
Tuolomne Meadows is located on Tioga Road, a fairly long scenic drive away from Yosemite Valley. This is a much less popular spot to visit, since it is not located in the heart of Yosemite, so it’s a good place to leave the crowds behind, especially in the summer months.
Also located on Tioga Road, this is another quiet place to visit. This is also where the trailhead to Clouds Rest is located.
The Best Views in Yosemite
Let’s just start with our favorite view. From Glacier Point, you can pretty much look out over all of Yosemite. Stunning!
The view of Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point
There are several ways to get here. The easiest way is to drive here on Glacier Point Road. During the busy summer months, between the hours of 10 to 4:30, you may be required to take the shuttle from the Yosemite Ski Resort (Badger Pass). Expect this drive to take 30 – 40 minutes one way, longer if you have to take the shuttle. Or you can hike up Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, for an 10 mile round trip excursion.
Important Note: The road to Glacier Point is only open from May to late September or October, depending on weather conditions. In 2019, Glacier Point Road opened on May 10. For updates, check out the current conditions in Yosemite National Park by clicking here.
Many people skip this viewpoint, going right to Glacier Point. But Washburn Point is worth it, if you want a slightly different angle of the Glacier Point view. For those who are planning to hike Half Dome, this viewpoint lets you see most of the route.
Half Dome, Nevada Fall, and Vernal Fall can all be seen from Washburn Point.
Washburn Point is located on Glacier Point Road, 0.7 miles before you arrive at the Glacier Point parking lot. We walked between the two viewpoints and enjoyed ever-changing views of Half Dome. It’s a mostly downhill walk if you go from Washburn Point to Glacier Point.
Photo credit: Robert Engberg
Taft Point is also located on Glacier Point Road. It’s a rewarding 2-mile round trip hike to a viewpoint with a stunning view of Yosemite Valley and El Capitan.
Take in this iconic view with very little effort. From the Tunnel View parking lot the view is amazing, but expect to share this space with lots and lots of other visitors. This view is best in the afternoon, when the sun is at your back. We tried this viewpoint early in the morning and I had terrible photos filled with sun glare.
If you don’t like the idea of sharing Tunnel View with lots of people, consider the short hike up to Artist Point. It gives a slightly different view and you will leave the crowds behind. It is a 2-mile round trip hike that begins at the Tunnel View parking lot.
This view lets you capture Yosemite Falls and Half Dome in the same photograph. If you are hiking to the top of Yosemite Falls, you will pass this viewpoint during the hike. If you just want to go to Columbia Rock, it’s a 3-mile hike round trip with 1000 feet of climbing.
For a vantage point high above the valley floor with one of the best views of Half Dome, consider the hike to Yosemite Point. Getting here is not easy. It’s almost 10 miles round trip with 3,700 feet of climbing. However, very few people hike this far. We did this hike in July and shared this viewpoint with just a few other people.
The View from Half Dome
The view from the top of Half Dome is magnificent, but the real thrill lies in the fact that you are standing on top of this world famous landmark. Getting here is not easy and requires advance planning (only those with a permit can climb the Half Dome cables) but it so rewarding for your efforts.
The John Muir Trail near Clark Point
This is another one of our favorite views of Yosemite. It’s surprisingly awesome. On the John Muir Trail between Clark Point and the Nevada Fall footbridge, you can see Liberty Cap, the backside of Half Dome, and Nevada Fall.
Olmsted Point is located on Tioga Road. From here, enjoy another view of Half Dome, this time from the east side. If you zoom in with your camera, you may even get to see hikers climbing the Half Dome Cables.
As you drive along the Yosemite Valley floor, enjoy the views looking up at all of the famous landmarks. Mirror Lake is a popular spot for photography in Yosemite Valley.
Best Hikes in Yosemite
Yosemite National Park has a hiking trail for everyone. From short, easy walks to the waterfalls and viewpoints, to epic, all day hikes, there is no better way to explore Yosemite than on your own two feet.
The Mist Trail
Distance to Vernal Fall: 3.4 miles round trip; 3 – 4 hours
Distance to Nevada Fall: 6.6 miles round trip; 5 – 6 hours
The Mist Trail is one of Yosemite’s popular hiking trails. This trail climbs alongside Vernal Fall on long, stone staircases. The views of this waterfall are unbeatable from here and if the flow rate for Vernal Fall is high, there is a very good chance you will get wet (hence the name).
You can turn around at Vernal Fall, or keep hiking until you reach the top of Nevada Fall. Here is the view from the top of Nevada Fall.
The John Muir Trail
Distance: 8 miles round trip to Nevada Fall
Length of time: 5 to 6 hours
The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a long distance hiking trail 211 miles in length. It shares the same trailhead with the Mist Trail at Happy Isles, climbs up to Nevada Fall, and continues on to the eastern part of Yosemite National Park.
One of the best reasons to hike the JMT is to have this view of Yosemite:
If you have plans to hike up to Nevada Fall (or to the top of Half Dome) we recommend hiking up the Mist Trail and down the John Muir Trail.
Distance: 17 miles
Difficulty: Extremely strenuous
Length of time: 10 – 14 hours
Permits: You must have a permit to climb the subdome and the Half Dome cables
The hike to Half Dome is one of Yosemite’s most challenging and most memorable hikes. On this hike you get to walk on some of Yosemite’s most popular hiking trails, view the Vernal and Nevada waterfalls, and walk through shady forests of Sequoia trees. But the best part of the trail is the final climb on the Half Dome cables and your reward from the top, one of the best views of all of Yosemite.
Bonus! If you hike to Half Dome from Yosemite Valley, you will also hike on the Mist Trail and the Muir Trail, so it’s like getting three hikes in one!
LEARN MORE: Hiking Half Dome, A Step-By-Step Guide
Distance: 7 miles round trip; 3,000 foot elevation gain
Difficulty: Very strenuous
Length of time: 6 to 8 hours
There are a lot of great reasons to hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls.
From the trail, the views of Yosemite Falls are magnificent. For part of the hike, you are close enough to feel the spray and hear the waterfall thundering down the mountain. Halfway up the climb you get an amazing view of Yosemite Valley, with Half Dome in the distance. Once at the top, watch as the falls plummet down the side of the mountain and get a greater sense of just how far you hiked. And if you have the energy to continue onto Yosemite Point, your reward is one of the best views of Half Dome in all of Yosemite Park.
Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point
Distance: 4.8 miles one-way, 3,200 foot elevation gain
Difficulty: Very strenuous
Length of time: 3 to 4 hours one-way
From Yosemite Valley you can hike 4.8 miles up to Glacier Point on Four Mile Trail. It is a very strenuous climb but offers wonderful views of the valley as you go. It’s almost 10 miles round trip to hike to Glacier Point and back to the Valley Floor.
It is possible to hike one way from Glacier Point down to Yosemite Valley. There is a shuttle service from Yosemite Valley Lodge that goes to Glacier Point. The shuttle is offered daily at 8:30 am and 1:30 pm from late May to early November (depending on weather conditions). This costs $25 per person. Click here to learn more.
Distance: 8.5 miles one way
Length of time: 4 – 6 hours one-way
Panorama Trail connects Glacier Point with Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls. You can hike this one way, starting at Glacier Point and ending at Happy Isles for a total distance of 8.5 miles, or hike it round trip for a total distance of 17 miles.
Distance from Yosemite Valley: 19 miles round trip
Distance from Tenaya Lake: 14.5 miles round trip
Length of time: 8 – 14 hours, depending on your starting point
Go off-the-beaten-path on this all-day affair. Enjoy views out over Yosemite and back to Tuolomne Meadows. You can hike to Clouds Rest from Tenaya Lake or from Yosemite Valley, starting at the Mist Trail or John Muir Trail.
We did not do this hike for various reasons. We only had three days in Yosemite and spent two of them on Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, for a combined total of 27 miles of hiking in two days. Adding on a third hike 10+ miles in length was just not in our game plan. But when we return to Yosemite, hiking Clouds Rest from Tenaya Lake will be #1 on our list to do (or maybe hiking Half Dome again…that was epic).
More Notable Things to do in Yosemite
The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
This is the largest grove of sequoia trees in Yosemite. There are miles of hiking trails that wander through the Mariposa Grove and you could spend hours here.
Ansel Adams Gallery
When you want to take a break from hiking trails and scenic drives, pop into the Ansel Adams Gallery for a quick visit.
How We Spent 3 Days in Yosemite
The key to having the best experience is to arrive in Yosemite early. How early? Definitely before 8 am to avoid long lines entering the park, but even earlier is better.
We visited Yosemite during the week of July 4th.
We arrived in Yosemite at 7 am and drove the Yosemite Valley loop. Most of the day was spent hiking to Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Point. After a late lunch at the Yosemite Lodge, we drove back to Mariposa. We didn’t want to overdue it today because tomorrow was our day to hike Half Dome.
We spent all day hiking Half Dome (which included the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail), a day of epic proportions. This truly is a phenomenal hike and if you are up for the challenge, we highly recommend it.
After two big days of hiking, today was spent doing scenic drives and short walks to viewpoints. We went to Bridalveil Falls at 7 am and then drove Tioga Road to Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolomne Meadows. Tioga Road was nice but I think it’s only worthwhile if you really enjoy scenic drives or you plan on hiking in Tuolomne Meadows or to Clouds Rest.
Note: Tioga Pass is not open year round. It is closed throughout the winter when it is covered in snow. Typically, Tioga Pass is open from mid-May through November, although this varies due to how much snow fell during the winter.
We spent the afternoon driving to Glacier Point and Washburn Point, then took in one final view of Yosemite from Tunnel View, and drove back to Mariposa.
If you only have one day
If you only have one day in Yosemite, I highly recommend Tunnel View, Glacier Point, driving the loop in Yosemite Valley, and picking one hike that sounds good to you.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the Best Western in Mariposa. We were here in July, which is peak season. When we made our reservations, many hotels located closer to Yosemite were either sold out or ridiculously expensive. The Best Western was much better for our budget. We had a room with two queen beds and one bathroom. It was quiet and clean. My only complaint is that it took forever for the air conditioner to cool down our room. During our stay in July, daytime temperatures in Mariposa climbed well over 100 degrees and our small A/C unit took hours to cool our room down to a comfortable temperature (the cleaning staff turns off the A/C units during the day and our room would be 90+ degrees when we returned in the evening).
Staying in Mariposa was wonderful. Mariposa is a historic gold mining town and there are lots of restaurants to choose from, perfect to refuel after a day of hiking. It took between 45 to 60 minutes to drive to Yosemite.
If you have any questions about the best things to do in Yosemite National Park or need advice planning your trip, let us know in the comment section below.
Are you planning a trip to the United States? Read all of our articles about the USA in our United States Travel Guide.
Where Are You Going Next?
If your visit to Yosemite National Park is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, here are more articles to help you plan your trip.
- CALIFORNIA: One Day Itinerary for Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park
- CALIFORNIA: The Complete Guide to Death Valley National Park
- WASHINGTON: 14 Amazing Things to Do in Mount Rainier National Park
- UTAH: Utah’s Mighty 5: Travel Guide and Road Trip Itinerary
- UTAH: 10 Great Hikes in Zion: Which One Will Be Your Favorite?
- ARIZONA: The Ultimate Arizona Road Trip Itinerary
- NATIONAL PARKS: 20 Epic Day Hikes in the National Parks
- ROAD TRIP IDEA: Two Weeks in the American Southwest: Grand Canyon & Utah’s Mighty 5
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