Known for its plunging waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, sheer granite cliffs, and more, you could easily spend weeks exploring Yosemite National Park. The park has a distinct appeal no matter what time of year—here, shoulder season simply means less people and a chance to see Yosemite's beauty from a different angle. Spring brings gushing waterfalls, summer allows for tackling all outdoor pursuits, fall boasts colorful trees and fewer crowds, and winter becomes a snowy wonderland for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Getting around the park is made easier by the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS), an affordable public transit system that allows you to meander through the park car-free. Ticket prices include park admission and kids under 5 with a paying adult ride for free. Four routes connect to Yosemite from the gateway communities of Merced, Fresno, Mammoth Lakes, and Sonora (the latter three operate in summer only).
Plan ahead when you visit this storied destination to ensure the trip of a lifetime—here’s a guide to get you started.
Towering 3,593 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor, El Capitan is the undisputed king of the granite monoliths and a mecca for daredevil rock climbers. Get a good look at the earth’s largest single piece of granite from El Capitan Meadow. With a pair of binoculars, you can even watch the climbers inch their way up The Nose.
If you’re new to granite crack climbing or traditional climbing, sign up for a class with Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service in Curry Village. The beginners’ “Welcome to the Rock” class will have you climbing and rappelling at heights of up to 60 feet on your first day. To learn more about Yosemite climbing, head over to the El Capitan Bridge and have a chat with one of the Yosemite Climbing Rangers. The “Ask a Climber” program (11 a.m.–3 p.m. in summer) is a daily gathering of rangers, climbers, and curious onlookers.
Merced River Rafting
Give your adrenaline a day off as you float gently down the lazy Merced River. Lie on your back in an inflatable raft, trail your fingers in the water, and gaze up at Yosemite’s granite walls as you meander downstream. Rent equipment at Curry Village, drop your boat in the water, and wave hello to El Capitan as you pass. (A shuttle bus takes you back to the start so you can conserve your energy for other park activities.)
Lace up your boots and wander easy trails along the Tuolumne River or more rugged paths to the summits of lofty domes and granite-backed alpine lakes. Sleep in a tent cabin, nosh on a burger from the Tuolumne Grill, or attend a poetry gathering at the log-walled Parsons Lodge. Time your trip to Tuolumne Meadows carefully—this 8,600-foot-high country is accessible only from June to October.
Upper, Lower, and Middle Yosemite Falls combined make up the highest waterfall in North America, topping out at a prodigious 2,425 feet. A challenging trail accesses the upper fall’s crest, but the base of the lower falls can be visited with an easy stroll. From April to June, wear rain gear—an icy spray drenches all who come near.
One of the West’s most photographed landmarks, Half Dome inspires awe from every angle. Hardcore hikers can trek to its summit (permits are required); everybody else can admire its sheared-off granite from afar. Check out the perspective from Mirror Lake at the base of the stone monolith or drive up to the Washburn Point overlook on Glacier Point Road.
Wawona Tunnel View
The vista from Tunnel View is one of Yosemite’s most iconic scenes, made famous by an Ansel Adams photograph. From the Wawona Tunnel’s eastern side, shoot your own postcard-panorama of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. Or hike the Pohono Trail uphill for an even bigger view where you can enjoy the scenery in relative solitude.
The Ahwahnee Yosemite Dining Room
Grandeur rules at The Ahwahnee Dining Room. Bounded by massive timbered walls, its 34-foot-high ceilings are dotted with dozens of wrought iron chandeliers. Enormous picture windows framed by heavy draperies let in views of Yosemite Valley. The dining room seats 400 people—and there’s no bad seat in the house, especially at Sunday brunch. Be sure to check The Ahwahnee's guest updates prior to visiting.
Glacier Point’s 7,214-foot overlook provides an unforgettable vista of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra crest. Stand at the stone walls and survey Vernal and Nevada Falls and the Merced River canyon, or walk inside the granite Geology Hut to peer out at Half Dome. Best time to visit? Sunrise or sunset, when Half Dome and its granite neighbors turn pink.
To extend your trip to two more of California’s iconic national parks, consider doing the Majestic Mountain Loop. This packed itinerary is perfect if you’ve got limited days to spend in the High Sierra but want to see as much as possible; it takes you to three of the most iconic national parks in the state—Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite—in three days. Included in the tour are five can’t-miss points of interest in each park, so you can be sure that you’re not missing any highlights.