12 Top Attractions & Things to Do in Yosemite National Park

Dec 1, 2017

Yosemite has long been a place of inspiration for artists, climbers, and nature lovers. Beginning in the 1920s, Ansel Adams' stunning black and white photographs of Yosemite drew attention to the park's beautiful landscapes and iconic sites like never before. Following WWII, climbers descended on the park and agonized over how to ascend the magnificent sheer walls. In their attempts, failures, and eventual successes, they created a cult following in Yosemite like no other climbing area in history. And all along, campers and hikers have been coming here to lose themselves in the park's magnificent mountains and valleys.

The most famous and beautiful section of the park is Yosemite Valley, home to big-name tourist attractions, like Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. Outside the valley, two main roads provide seasonal access to other areas of the park. Glacier Road allows access to stunning views over the Yosemite Valley. Tioga Road crosses the park in an east-west direction and runs through alpine scenery, where you can find lovely, and often less busy, hiking trails. Due to the altitude, Tioga Road opens later in the spring than Glacier Road. While the most famous sites are concentrated in Yosemite Valley, there are things to do all over the park, from hiking, biking, and climbing, to visiting museums and galleries.

1 Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls

Tumbling over a granite wall and pounding the rocks at the base of the cliff, Yosemite Falls is one of the most memorable and striking features in Yosemite Valley. Repeatedly popping into view over treetops and around corners as you drive through the valley, the falls look different from every angle, and it's impossible to take your eyes off.

You don't have to hike or even get out of your car to appreciate the beauty of this waterfall, but the most complete view, and one of the best views, of the falls is from the start of the Yosemite Falls hike, along the non-handicapped route on the left side of the river. You can walk right to the base of the falls with minimal effort and feel the mist sweeping over you. Another outstanding perspective can be had from the picnic site at the Swing Bridge.

2 Half Dome

View of Half Dome from Mirror Lake Hike
View of Half Dome from Mirror Lake Hike | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Half Dome is one of Yosemite's most famous sites and particularly well-known in the climbing world for being one of the first "big climbs." This granite icon looks much different depending on the angle you are viewing it from. Looking up at the sheer rock face from the valley, the enormity of the wall is obvious, and you can appreciate why climbers have been drawn here. You can also see Half Dome in the distance from Tunnel View, but the best place to view it is from the lookout at Glacier Point. From here, you get a true picture of the rock, how it looms over the valley, and how much higher it stands than the surrounding mountains. The dome shape is clearly evident and you can easily see why it's called Half Dome. For close up views of the rock face, the Mirror Lake hike is the best option. See our hiking in Yosemite article for more details.

3 El Capitan

El Capitan

Legendary among climbers, El Capitan is a 3,000-foot sheer rock face on the north side of Yosemite Valley. It is 1,000 feet higher than the face of Half Dome. From the Tunnel View lookout, El Capitan is the massive cliff on the left side of the valley, standing notably higher than everything else in view from this vantage point.

You can see the wall as you drive through the valley, but many people stop and view it or photograph it from El Capitan Meadow off the North Drive through Yosemite Valley. Since this is a one-way road, it's best to view it on your way out of the valley. At certain times of day, rangers set up in the meadow and offer talks on El Capitan. If you want to get up close to the wall or even touch it, you can park on the right side of this same road, beyond the El Capitan picnic area, and walk up to the wall. The short trail is marked as far as an open field, not far from the face, and rudimentary trails from here lead up through trees and boulders to the base of the wall. Climbers are almost always set up here. Not many visitors venture up to the wall, and this trail is not promoted by the park.

El Capitan gained renewed interest with the free solo climb of Alex Honnold in June of 2017. He became the first person to climb El Capitan without ropes, and completely unaided. The climb took three hours and 56 minutes.

4 Tunnel View

Tunnel View

The most classic view of Yosemite Valley is from Tunnel View. This vista, which will feel very familiar to most visitors, stretches out to El Capitan on the left, Bridalveil Fall on the right, Half Dome in the distance, and also takes in the lush valley at the base of the huge granite walls. Although it's an incredible sight at any time of day, in the morning, the walls are mostly in shadow. The best time to appreciate this scene is in the afternoon, when the walls are bathed in sunlight. The parking area is just beyond the tunnel as you enter Yosemite Valley from Wawona Road. If you are heading out to Glacier Point from the valley, you will pass Tunnel View just before you enter the tunnel.

5 Glacier Point

Glacier Point

A drive through Yosemite Valley generally entails looking up to see the sites. Glacier Point, at an elevation of more than 7,200 feet, gives you the grand view over the entire valley, as well as many other sites beyond, and provides a whole new perspective. This is one of the most incredible views in Yosemite National Park and is an absolute must-see sight.

The drive from Yosemite Village to Glacier Point takes about an hour, but you'll also find hikes and other lookouts in the area worth exploring. Four Mile Trail hike runs from Glacier Point down 3,200 feet to Yosemite Valley, coming out near Sentinel Rock. Despite the name, the trail is almost five miles. It's also a steep grade and in relatively poor condition. Not far from Glacier Point, Washburn Point is an equally spectacular lookout with incredible views over Vernal Fall.

6 Bridalveil Fall

Bridalveil Fall

Another classic sight in Yosemite National Park is Bridalveil Fall, on the south side of Yosemite Valley. This is an easy waterfall to reach on foot, with a short trail that will take you right to the base. From here, you can feel the spray hitting you and hear the pounding water as it crashes on the boulders. From Tunnel View, you can get a good look at the falls from a higher vantage point.

7 Hiking

Base of Yosemite Falls
Base of Yosemite Falls | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

It's hard to imagine visiting Yosemite without hitting some of the hiking trails. The park has a full range of hikes, from quick and easy, including some with wheelchair accessible paths, to full-day or multi-day hikes. The most popular trails involve hiking to waterfalls or out to high overlooks, but you can also hike to alpine lakes and meadows. The shorter and easier trails in the valley are always the busiest, but it is possible to escape the crowds if you tackle some of the longer hikes, or those with more elevation gain. Hikes along the Tioga Road are also less busy, but only accessible in summer.

One of the park's most well-known hikes is the hike up Half Dome; a huge day hike with 4,800 feet of elevation gain and an open section with cables. Easier, more family friendly hikes include Mirror Lakes, the hike to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, and beyond the footbridge to the Mist Trail. In summer, when the Tioga Road is open, you can hike through some beautiful alpine scenery. Also seasonal, but usually with a longer season, the Sentinel Dome and Taft Point hikes along the Glacier Road are popular sunset trails.

For a more complete look at the options, see our article on the best hikes in Yosemite National park. If you don't want to hike alone or would prefer to go with a guide, you can sign up for a Yosemite Hiking Excursion designed to meet your ability.

8 Climbing

Yosemite is the most famous rock climbing destination in the United States, and for many climbers, it is the pinnacle of their climbing careers. Half Dome and El Capitan have been luring climbers for decades. Climbing legends and leaders in the sport, like Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Jim Bridwell, and Alex Honnold, all made names for themselves on Yosemite's walls. Camp 4 campground, the place where climbers have been pitching their tents since the 1950s, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in the sport of climbing. It's hard to imagine another location so closely associated with the sport of climbing.

Rock climbing in the park is still as popular as ever in Yosemite. On any given day, you can see climbers clinging to the face of El Capitan or set up at the base. In June of 2017, Alex Honnold made history by completing the first solo free climb of El Capitan.

9 Tioga Road

View from Olmsted Point
View from Olmsted Point

The stunning alpine scenery along Tioga Road, Highway 120, running in an east-west direction through Yosemite, is a wonderful place for summer hiking and camping. Wildflowers bloom in the open meadows, and pristine lakes reflect the mountain peaks. Due to the elevation, this road is only open in the summer, and it opens later than Glacier Point Road. At the east entrance to the park is Tioga Pass, with an elevation of 9,945 feet.

Highlights along here include the views from Olmsted Point, and Tenaya Lake and the surrounding hiking trails. Near Tuolumne Meadows, you can hike to Lembert Dome and walk up the swooping back side of the dome.

10 Yosemite Museum and Indian Village

Yosemite Museum and Indian Village
Yosemite Museum and Indian Village | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

While most people only think of Yosemite's natural wonders, the Sierra Nevada region in and around Yosemite has been inhabited for more than 3,000 years. You can learn all about the first peoples of the valley at the Yosemite Museum and Indian Village. The museum displays artifacts, and docents are on hand to give demonstrations and answer questions. Out behind the building are some bark-covered dwellings, built in the traditional style used by the Miwok people, who once lived in the area, as well as their later, Euro-American-style buildings. The museum is free and conveniently located in Yosemite Village.

11 Biking

Road to Mirror Lake
Road to Mirror Lake | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Families, particularly those camping in the park, may enjoy some easy bike riding. In addition to biking on the roads, the park offers 12 miles of paved paths. One of the most popular areas for casual biking is along the paved service road on the north side of the river, which leads to Mirror Lake. Many people walk this stretch, but you can easily bike in to the start of the lake and walk the final short portion to the upper section of the lake. Another loop, east of Half Dome Village, skirts the Upper Pines Campground and runs past the trailhead for Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, and the John Muir Trail. This road is only open to bikes, pedestrians, shuttles buses, and wheelchair-transporting vehicles. Bicycle rentals are available at Half Dome Village.

12 Ansel Adams Gallery

Ansel Adams Gallery
Ansel Adams Gallery | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Although Ansel Adams' photography went far beyond Yosemite, his name and works are closely associated with this park, where he created many famous images. His powerful black and white images of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, and Jeffrey Pine are some of his most well-known works.

This small gallery makes an interesting stop if you are in Yosemite Village. Even if you are not looking to buy a piece of art, you may be inspired to create your own masterpieces after seeing some of the artwork on display in this store. The shop sells Ansel Adams original photos, reproductions, posters, books, and more.

Where to Stay near Yosemite National Park

The best place to stay, if it falls within your budget, is right in the park. This allows you to bypass the traffic getting in and out of the park, forget about having to find a parking spot, and it takes the stress out of almost every aspect of a visit to Yosemite. If staying in the park doesn't suit your spending plan, you will have to commute. Hotel options near Yosemite are surprisingly limited, but you can find a few good hotels in the nearby small towns.

  • In the Park: For a combination of luxury, convenience, and history, you can't beat The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, classified by the National Parks system as a Premier Lodge. Built in 1927, this outstanding property, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and also a National Historic Landmark, is set in the heart of the Yosemite Valley, surrounded by the iconic sites of the park. The stone façade and open-beamed ceilings blend beautifully with the scenery, while the rooms offer modern comfort and elegance.
  • El Portal: One of the best options for people day tripping to Yosemite is the Cedar Lodge in the small town of El Portal, just 30 minutes from Yosemite Village, along Highway 140. This is a mid-range motel-style property with a pool. Rooms are large, and some come with full kitchens and a separate bedroom.
  • Highway 120 and Groveland: Rush Creek Lodge is located along Highway 120, about 50 minutes west of Yosemite Valley. The hotel features rooms and suites with balconies, a large outdoor pool, games room, and restaurant. Farther on, in Groveland, The Groveland Hotel is modest but cute.
  • Oakhurst: Although commuting this far makes for a long day trip, you can find some decent hotels in Oakhurst, about a 1.5-hour drive from the main section of the park. Two good options here include the Best Western Plus Yosemite Gateway Inn and the Yosemite Southgate Hotel & Suites.

More Ideas for Planning Your California Adventures

Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Looking for inspirational travel ideas to add to your bucket list? How about hiking below the tallest trees on the planet in Redwood National and State Parks or camping with the largest trees on earth in Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park? Hit the hiking trails at Lake Tahoe to wander along the shores of the deepest alpine lake in the United States. To discover the wonders of the desert, head over to the fascinating landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, where you'll find all kinds of things to do, and then spend a night camping under the star-filled sky. And, when you're ready for a break, find a romantic getaway destination in California and relax for a bit.

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