More than 125 years after being declared a national park, Yosemite still never fails to wow visitors--even people who come every year.
Even before Yellowstone became our first national park, Yosemite sparked the idea of preserving valuable national land in 1864 when President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant to protect Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley.
Thanks to naturalist John Muir's passionate urgings, it became our third national park 26 years later. Today it's home to some 400 species of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles, some of the tallest waterfalls in the world, and hosts millions of visitors--just in summer alone.
If you've never been (or if you have, and just want to appreciate the pretty pictures to remind you), please enjoy the best of what Yosemite has to offer... and make a point to visit sometime.
When driving in, few things are more spectacularly rewarding after a long and winding journey than the view after exiting Wawona Tunnel, California's longest highway tunnel at .8 miles. You emerge from the darkness into a landscape that is both new yet familiar, having been endlessly photographed but breathtaking to newcomers and regular visitors alike. No need to put on your hiking boots here, just park and get out for that perfectly Instagram-able shot.
Only the Half Dome hike rivals the one up this Yosemite icon. Allow an entire day for the strenuous (but oh so satisfying!) hike to the top which will take about 10-12 hours and offers tremendous views along the way, particularly if you hike the Upper Yosemite Falls trail (beware: it can be slippery). Then drop in for a lazy raft ride down the Merced River, where you can enjoy a view of El Cap peeking through the clouds as you float slowly by.
Nothing in the park is as iconic as this granite formation that looks like a dome cut in half - but it's actually an optical illusion! No matter what, many visitors believe the hike up it is the park's best. The challenging hike (and cable-climb up the last 400 feet to the summit) takes over 14 miles round trip, which experienced hikers can do in five to six hours, while regular folks can split it over two days. Once at the top you're rewarded with miles of panoramic views of the High Sierra and Yosemite Valley.
Just seven miles long and not even a mile wide, Yosemite Valley packs a scenic punch like nowhere else. It's why this is one of the most-traveled areas of the park, with fairly level hikes and bike paths that pass underneath the towering granite monoliths and waterfalls. There's nothing like a sunset bike ride alongside the valley's tall meadow grass, breathing fresh evening air you wish you could bottle and take home. Deer, coyotes and even bears come out at dusk, possibly the most magical time of day to see El Capitan's polished granite walls glow a rosy pink.
See Half Dome from another perspective - its back side, reflected here in Mirror Lake. Though it dries up in summer, other times of the year it's a popular destination when you feel like putting the hiking boots back in the closet and taking a relaxing dip instead. Kids (and even some adults) have a blast jumping off the various rocks in and around Mirror Lake's perfectly still waters and it's easily accessible by bike path from the lodges and campgrounds.
This image looks like Photoshop, but incredibly, it isn't. Like a river of fire, Horsetail Fall transforms into blazing brilliance as it tumbles 2,000 feet over the eastern cliff of El Capitan - but it isn't actually on fire at all. The phenomenon occurs around Valentine's Day in February (if you're lucky) or after an unexpected fall rain, when conditions are just right for the sun to backlight the falls at a certain angle. And when conditions are absolutely perfect, Horsetail Fall glows orange and red at sunset, which it did during a few days after a big rain in October 2021.
The Mist Trail
No matter what time of year, this famous hike is perfect for young and old alike who want an up-close look at a massive waterfall from below and above. The trail itself is only half a mile, but then 600 steep granite steps take you up to the tree-lined Emerald Pool and a view of the top of Vernal Falls that is simply unparalleled. It's like being on a Stairmaster for an hour or two but way more fun, with a shallow area behind the falls you can take a dip in. Just don't go near the falls itself, because careless people have gone over.
Hetch Hetchy Valley
Yosemite Valley gets all the glory, but don't sleep on this reservoir area in the park's northwest corner that has one of its longest hiking seasons (though summers can be pretty warm). Hike 13-16 miles for views from Smith Peak, or travel the steep 2.5 miles of Poopenaut Trail. Some of the sights Hetch Hetchy offers are stunning views of Wapama and Tueeulala Falls and the O'Shaughnessy Dam that helps provide drinking water to the San Francisco Bay. You can't go in it, but you can fish along the shore here and along the Tuolumne River above.
At 8,600 feet above sea level, Tuolumne is surrounded by majestic peaks and waterfalls on all sides and graced by a winding river. It's lesser-known than Yosemite Valley, which is 5,000 feet lower in elevation, but offers fantastic hikes through peaceful meadows and sparkling lakes to lounge next to once you get there. Being less crowded you're more likely to see wildlife, like the mule deer pictured here.
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