9 Top-Rated Hikes in Yosemite National Park

Dec 1, 2017

Famed for its waterfalls and granite walls, Yosemite National Park is home to some of the most iconic natural wonders in America. For hikers, this World Heritage Site is a playground of unparalleled proportion and perfect for all levels of ability. Yosemite is home to one of the most challenging day hikes in the park's system (Half Dome Trail) but also offers wheelchair accessibility to the base of Yosemite Falls, its most symbolic feature.

Yosemite Valley is open year-round for hiking, and trails here, particularly the shortest, are almost always busy. A shuttle bus service operates in the valley. Visitors can park at Half Dome Village or Yosemite Village and access the shuttle to reach trailheads and sites. From late spring until fall, the hikes along Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road are open and take some of the pressure off the hiking trails in the valley.

1 Yosemite Falls Trail

Yosemite Falls Trail
Yosemite Falls Trail | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The showpiece of Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Falls is like a visual magnet that practically calls out to hikers as you drive through the valley. This is the highest falls in North America, and it is truly one of the most striking sights in the park. Hikers can get a close-up look at the falls, along with excellent views over Yosemite Valley from the Yosemite Falls Trail. You can hike 7.2 miles round-trip to the top of Yosemite Falls or opt for a two-mile round-trip hike to Columbia Rock.

The hike to the top of Yosemite Falls involves a heart-pounding, 2,700-foot elevation gain over a series of switchbacks, to a spectacular lookout, where you can also view the falls from above and the river that feeds it. The falls are at their best in the spring, when the amount of water flowing over the ridge is at its peak. Total time for this hike ranges from about six to eight hours. This hike has long drop-offs, but most exposed sections have guard-rails or railings to grasp on the inside.

The less strenuous hike to Columbia Rock takes you up only 1,000 feet and can be done in two to three hours, round-trip. This is still a moderately demanding hike, with a series of switchbacks. From Columbia Rocks, you can get a great view down the valley, and another half-mile trail takes you to a great view of Upper Yosemite Falls.

If you are interested in hiking but don't want to tackle longer hikes by yourself, you might want to consider looking into a guided hiking excursion at Yosemite. You can choose from beginner, intermediate, or advanced level hikes.

2 Half Dome Hike

Cables on Half Dome
Cables on Half Dome

The hike up Half Dome, another of Yosemite's iconic sites, is a bucket-list hike, best suited to adventurous hikers. If your idea of a great hike involves a 12-hour, 14-mile round-trip trek, massive elevation gain, cables, and something to write home about, this is the hike for you. This famous hike is a challenging trail, and it requires some advance planning, but if you have the time and energy, it's worth tackling.

The Half Dome trail is an all-day hike for people who are in good physical shape. The trail starts out following the route of some of the other popular hikes in the park, beginning on the Mist Trail, up to Vernal Fall, and beyond to Nevada Fall. The final section of the hike up the backside of Half Dome is so steep and exposed, the park has installed cables to make the climb possible. But even the hike up Sub Dome, to reach the cables, is serious work, with extremely steep and exposed terrain. The park has prepared a video on the Half Dome hike, so visitors know what they're getting into before they attempt it. You can only reach the peak from about Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Outside of this season, the cables are removed.

3 Mist Trail to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall

View of Nevada Fall
View of Nevada Fall | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Mist Trail, which leads to the top of spectacular Vernal Fall, is one of the most popular hikes in the park. You can combine a series of hikes that include a short hike to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, followed by the Mist Trail, and beyond to Nevada Fall. This gives hikers a chance to turn back whenever they've had enough, while still reaching some spectacular views along the way.

The trail starts out alongside the Merced River and leads to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, where it crosses the river and provides good views, looking up at Vernal Fall. This is a .8-mile one-way hike to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, with 400 feet of elevation gain. Many hikers only hike to the footbridge, so this first portion is the busiest.

On the opposite side of the footbridge, the path splits, with the John Muir Trail leading off to the right, and the Mist Trail branching to the left. The Mist Trail follows the river and Vernal Fall up a long series of stone stairs for another .7 miles, gaining an additional 600 feet in elevation. As the name suggests, the mist from the waterfall along this section of stairs is constant, and you can expect to get wet. Many people wear rain jackets. Eventually, you reach the top of spectacular Vernal Fall, for a complete view of the falls and river below.

If you are up for a longer hike, you can continue up another long set of stairs to the top of Nevada Fall, an even more stunning sight. Total hike time to the top of Nevada Fall is five to six hours, covering just under 5.5 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation.

This is an in-and-out hike and returns following the same route. The trailhead is located at Happy Isles (stop 16) on the shuttle bus.

4 Mirror Lake Trail

Mirror Lake Trail
Mirror Lake Trail | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Surrounded by Yosemite's signature granite walls, Mirror Lake is a pleasant place to relax on a hot day, and the hike in is easy. It also offers one of the best close-up views of the face of Half Dome in the park. Depending on your energy level, you can make the lake the destination, or do a complete loop up Tenaya Canyon and around the lake, following the river up one side and down the other. The return trip to Mirror Lake is 2.4 miles, and the complete loop around the lake is four miles.

Most people start the hike from shuttle stop #17, but the start of the trail can be confusing because trails lead up either side of the river. On the right side is a hiking path, on the left side is a paved access road, that leads to the lower pond below Mirror Lake. If you only want to go to Mirror Lake, take the paved access road, and this will get you to the more popular side of the lake with views of Half Dome.

5 Sentinel Dome Trail

Sentinel Dome Trail
Sentinel Dome Trail

High above the Yosemite Valley, Sentinel Dome hike offers spectacular views without much physical effort. Looking out from almost 4,000 feet above the valley floor, you can see far into the distance, and see the famous sites of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls from a much different perspective than you get from driving through Yosemite Valley. The total elevation gain for this hike is only about 400 feet, with most of the ascent occurring as you approach the highpoint of the Dome.

For photographers, this trail also has significance. Ansel Adams' famous photo of the Jeffrey Pine was taken up here, and today you can still see the fallen tree.

This hike begins off the Glacier Point Road, which runs along a high ridge to the south of Yosemite Valley. Drive time from Yosemite Village is about one hour, but this area is usually much less crowded. This is a seasonal hike, only open during the summer months, when the Glacier Point Road is open.

6 Cathedral Lakes

Lower Cathedral Lake
Lower Cathedral Lake

The Cathedral Lakes hike exposes you to some of the high alpine beauty found along the Tioga Road. You can hike to both Upper and Lower Cathedral Lake, for an eight-mile round-trip hike, or just hike to either one for a seven-mile return hike. Most hikers just hike to Lower Cathedral Lake, the more scenic of the two. This is the larger of the two lakes, and it offers a peaceful place to relax and enjoy a picnic. The grey granite shores and surrounding mountains contrast with the dark blue of the lake. The calm water reflects Cathedral Peak.

Both lakes are set well above 9,000 feet, and the elevation gain on this hike is about 800 feet to Lower Cathedral Lake and 1,100 feet to Upper Cathedral Lake. The trail begins from Tuolumne Meadows and is part of the John Muir Trail. Since this road is only open in summer, this is a seasonal hike.

7 May Lake Trail and Mount Hoffmann

May Lake
May Lake

If you're looking for a short but scenic hike along the Tioga Road, May Lake Trail is the perfect option. This 2.5-mile round-trip hike gains about 500 feet in elevation, and it's a steady climb up to the lake. Scenic lookouts, with views over the mountains, forest, canyons, and beyond to Half Dome, break up the trek. At Lake May, you can relax, or if you decide you're up for a much longer hike, you can tackle Mount Hoffmann, rising above Lake May. This will add on 3.5 miles round-trip to your hike, plus almost another 1,600 feet in elevation. The 360-degree view from Mount Hoffman is spectacular, taking in the entire area, with the added bonus of a view over May Lake.

As with Cathedral Lakes, this hike is only possible when the Tioga Road is open.

8 Bridalveil Fall Hike

Bridalveil Fall Hike
Bridalveil Fall Hike | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

This hike is really just a short walk, but considering this waterfall is one of the big attractions in Yosemite Valley, it's worth taking the time to stop and walk the 1.2-mile round-trip trail. You can get right to the base of the waterfall and feel the mist on your face as the water hits the rocks, after tumbling 620 feet from the top of the cliff wall. The trail is quite level and requires little effort.

If you are heading into the Valley on Wawona Road, Bridalveil Fall is the first parking area past Tunnel View.

9 Lower Yosemite Falls Trail

Lower Yosemite Falls Trail
Lower Yosemite Falls Trail | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Yosemite is one of the most beautiful parks in the United States, and Yosemite Falls is one of the most incredible sites the park has to offer, and the paved trail to the base makes it very accessible. This half-mile trail can accommodate wheelchairs on the eastern side of the loop. This is where you'll also find one of the nicest views of the upper and lower falls through the trees. You can take a shuttle to the trailhead, or you can walk from Yosemite Village, for a 1.5-mile round-trip stroll.

Where to Stay near Yosemite National Park

For the ultimate in convenience and luxury, the best place to stay is at a lodge in Yosemite National Park. If you have camping equipment, you'll find plenty of good camping options in and around the park. Hotels and other accommodation outside the park are surprisingly limited and will require some commute time. Below are some of the best hotel options in the vicinity:

  • In the Park: The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is a beautiful 1927 lodge, classified by the National Parks system as a Premier Lodge. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and also a National Historic Landmark, this luxury hotel is located in the most prime location possible in Yosemite Valley. The design features a stone façade, open-beamed ceilings, and grand common rooms. Guest rooms are more modern but tastefully decorated.
  • El Portal: The two-story Cedar Lodge, in the nearby town of El Portal is a good option, particularly for families. Spacious rooms are quiet, and some offer full kitchens and separate bedrooms. Commute time to Yosemite Village, along Highway 140, is just 30 minutes.
  • Highway 120 and Groveland: About 50 minutes from Yosemite Valley, along Highway 120, Rush Creek Lodge offers rooms and suites with balconies, an on-site outdoor pool, a games room, and restaurant. Slightly farther out, closer to the town of Groveland, is the comfortable Yosemite Westgate Lodge. In the town of Groveland are the Hotel Charlotte and The Groveland Hotel, both quaint little properties with small-town charm.
  • Camping: For a complete list, see our article on the Best Campgrounds in and around Yosemite.

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Rubicon Hiking Trail, Lake Tahoe
Rubicon Hiking Trail, Lake Tahoe | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

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