Yosemite for First-Timers: Best Hikes, Best Views, & the Best Things to Do

Julie United States 20 Comments

Yosemite National Park is packed with famous landmarks, awesome hikes, and breathtaking views. If you are planning a 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.

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.

Half Dome

Half Dome Yosemite

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.

El Capitan


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 earlier this year when Alex Honnold became the first person to free climb it without a rope.

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls

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.

Bridalveil Falls

Bridalveil Falls

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 Falls

Vernal Falls

Vernal Falls 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 Falls

Nevada Falls

Nevada Falls sits above Vernal Falls. To get to the top of Nevada Falls, 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 Falls, Vernal Falls, and towering Half Dome all in the same view.

Tuolomne Meadows

Tuolomne Meadows

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.

Tenaya Lake

Tenaya Lake

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

Glacier Point

Let’s just start with our favorite view. From Glacier Point, you can pretty much look out over all of Yosemite. Stunning!

Glacier Point

Julie Rivenbark

The view of Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point

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.

Washburn Point

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.

Washburn Point

Half Dome, Nevada Falls, and Vernal Falls can all be seen from Washburn Point.

Walking to Glacier 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.

Taft Point

Photo Yosemite Taft 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.

Tunnel View

Tunnel View

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.

Artist Point

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.

Columbia Rock

Columbia Rock

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.

Yosemite Point

Yosemite Point

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 Visor

Half Dome View

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

Hiking Yosemite

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 Falls footbridge, you can see Liberty Cap, the backside of Half Dome, and Nevada Falls.

Olmsted Point

Olmsted Point

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.

Yosemite Valley

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

The Mist Trail is one of Yosemite’s popular hiking trails. This trail climbs alongside Vernal Falls on long, stone staircases. The views of this waterfall are unbeatable from here and if the flow rate for Vernal Falls is high, there is a very good chance you will get wet (hence the name).

Mist Trail

You can turn around at Vernal Falls, or keep hiking until you reach the top of Nevada Falls. Here is the view from the top of Nevada Falls.

Top of Nevada Falls

Distance to Vernal Falls: 3.4 miles round trip; 3 – 4 hours
Distance to Nevada Falls: 6.6 miles round trip; 5 – 6 hours

The John Muir Trail

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 Falls, 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:

John Muir Trail

If you have plans to hike up to Nevada Falls (or to the top of Half Dome) we recommend hiking up the Mist Trail and down the John Muir Trail.

Distance: 8 miles round trip to Nevada Falls
Length of time: 5 to 6 hours

Half Dome

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.

Climbing Half Dome

Half Dome Cables

Half Dome

Top of Half Dome

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

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!

Read more: Hiking Half Dome, A Step-By-Step Guide

Yosemite Falls

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.

Yosemite Falls hike

Hiking Yosemite with Kids

Yosemite Point

Distance: 7 miles round trip; 3,000 foot elevation gain
Difficulty: Very strenuous
Length of time: 6 to 8 hours

Click here for full details on how to hike to Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Point.

Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point

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. This costs $25 per person. Click here to learn more.

Distance: 4.8 miles one-way, 3,200 foot elevation gain
Difficulty: Very strenuous
Length of time: 3 to 4 hours one-way

Panorama Trail

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: 8.5 miles one way
Difficulty: Strenuous
Length of time: 4 – 6 hours one-way

Clouds Rest

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.

Distance from Yosemite Valley: 19 miles round trip
Distance from Tenaya Lake: 14.5 miles round trip
Difficulty: strenuous
Length of time: 8 – 14 hours, depending on your starting point

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.

Day 1

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.

Day 2

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.

Day 3

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.

Tioga Road

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.

Final View of Yosemite

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.

Did we miss anything? What’s your favorite thing to do in Yosemite?

Are you planning a trip to the United States? Read all of our articles about the USA in our United States Travel Guide.

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Comments 20

  1. These are great tips and photos which really help with the planning process. I am wondering about the half dome trail. You did it with children, and everything I’m reading says its pretty treacherous. What are your thoughts on doing this epic trail with an 11 year old boy?

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      When we did this, Kara was 12, almost 13, and handled everything very well. She also has loads of hiking experience and rock climbing experience. For her, the hardest part was the distance. It is a long day and it can be very hot in the summer. She handled the cables very well, maybe the best of the 4 of us. Could an 11 year old boy do it? That depends. Your son would have to be in very good shape, have lots of hiking experience, not be afraid of heights, and be prepared for a very long day where he would have to carry his own supply of water on his back. It’s possible, but I’m hesitant to recommend it. One more year makes a big difference. It’s up to you, but maybe saving this hike for a future date is a better idea. Cheers, Julie

  2. What is the best place to see So Capitan up a little closer? We will be hiking with a 4 year old and elderly people.

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      As you drive the loop (or take the shuttle) around Yosemite Valley you will have several great views of El Capitan. This is the easiest way to get those good views you want, especially with the wide age ranges of people in your group. Have fun! Cheers, Julie

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      I think Glacier Point and Tunnel View would be great spots to watch the sunset…they are both gorgeous views and you can hop right out of your car and see them, which means no hiking in the dark to get back to your car or the shuttle. However, they are both touristy and can be crowded. You could hike the 1 mile from Tunnel View up to Artist Point to leave some of the crowds behind. Cheers, Julie

  3. Hi -great article, all in one! Can you please suggest parking for Mist trail? did you start your hike before shuttle start running?

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      Yes, we started our hike at sunrise (around 6 am). We parked in Yosemite Valley Trailhead Parking near Half Dome Village and walked a half mile to the Happy Isles Bridge and start of the Mist Trail. This is the closest you can park as far as I know. After 7 am in the summer you can take a shuttle to the start of the hike to save you that 1 mile round trip walk to the parking lot. Cheers, Julie

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  4. Hi
    We are staying in hotel 25 min from visitor center .
    We have only one day , april 27 .
    Can you recommend some hikes for us (family 2+2 9yrs and 13yrs old )?
    We would like to to see much we can in that day !

    Regards Marcin

    1. Post

      I recommend doing either the Yosemite Falls hike or the Mist/Muir Trail hike. You won’t be able to do both of them, because they are both rather long, strenuous, and exhausting. There is a very good chance that the road to Glacier Point will not be open at the end of April. Most years it opens in early May, however, if it’s unusually warm, it can open in mid-April. Click here to visit the NPS website for more info. If it’s open…go!! The views are awesome. If it’s not open and you want that Glacier Point view, you can hike up to it from the valley floor, a roughly 8 mile round trip hike that is also rather strenuous. If you can’t drive to Glacier Point, drive the whole loop along the Valley Floor. The views are also very good from here. Have fun! Cheers, Julie

  5. Hotel advice? We are looking at staying at Evergreen lodge or Rush Creek since they both have availability and are close to the park but they are expensive. Did you find it way too long to drive every day into the park from Mariposa? We will be going for 4 days the last week of July. Applied for a half dome permit so hopefully will do that early one morning. Also conscerned about finding parking in the park each day?

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      It was about an hour drive from Mariposa to Yosemite. We chose Mariposa because it was so much cheaper than staying in/near Yosemite and we didn’t mind the drive. We would leave at 6 am (except on the morning of Half Dome when we left roughly at 5am), arriving at the park at 7 am, and there was still plenty of parking in Yosemite Valley. Most people arrive at 8:30 or later. The first two days, we left the park once we finished our hike for the day, usually early afternoon. Driving around Yosemite can be a nightmare midday/early afternoon because there are so many people on the road. It took us 45 minutes just to exit the park on the day of our Half Dome hike. So my advice would be to get in early, get your parking spot, do a hike, and then use the shuttle to get around, so you don’t have to move your car. Try to leave by 3 pm (to avoid the mass exodus later in the day) or plan on staying until the evening. Good luck getting your Half Dome permit! Cheers, Julie

  6. Any insight to Memorial Day weekend? Have an air bnb In Oakhurst and will be there for 3 Days.

    Can we drive into the park or have to shuttle it with time of year? Also will waterfalls be strong that time of year? Assuming yes

    1. Post

      I found this info for you on the NPS website (it’s from 2017). It looks like Memorial Day weekend will be very busy and there will be a shuttle running. Waterfalls should be raging in the spring. We visited in the summer, also when it was very busy. If you get into the park before 7 am, I would think you shouldn’t have trouble parking. The trails will get crowded, but even a one hour head start can help you have a better experience. Cheers, Julie

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      I think April is a nice time to visit, although all the roads and trails may not be open. Crowds should be low and finding accommodations should be easy. There is a chance that there could be snow on the trails, although I am not 100% about this. Depending on when you arrive, maybe wildflowers will be blooming. If you want to hike up Half Dome, the cables will not be up until Memorial Day. Tioga Road won’t be open, so you’ll miss some of the scenic overlooks, but that’s really not a big deal. We thought the better sights and trails were down in Yosemite Valley. Here’s some more information I found on the National Park website. So, if Tioga Road or the Half Dome hike is not on your to-do list and you want to visit Yosemite without the heat and crowds of summer, April should be a good time to go. Cheers, Julie

  7. Absolutely amazing article. This was so extremely helpful! I have been doing a lot of research for my trip next week, and this article perfectly summed up great trails to try, and what would be realistic goals for a day!! I didn’t want to miss anything in our four day trip, and now I think we can hit all of the trails and viewpoints we would like to! Thanks so much!!!

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