20 Things to Know about When Visting Yosemite National Park

What more is there to say about Yosemite, besides the fact that it is arguably the most beautiful national park in the United States and perhaps even the world. It is one of the few places where even the least interested outdoorsman needs to visit, because you don’t have to hike or camp out overnight to be blown away by the beauty of this place. Just being there or driving through it is enough to leave you breathless.

Before I jump into my list, I thought I’d reiterate the purpose of my lists to provide better guidance. My lists aren’t meant to be comprehensive nor are they meant to rehash the wealth of info that the National Park Service or other sources provide. Instead, I’m aiming to hit on some of the important stuff and fill in the gaps with helpful info I wished I knew when I visited, while also doing my best to show you how breathtakingly scenic these places are.

And finally, most of this list pertains to visiting at all times of year, but if you are visiting in early spring you will find some of the information particularly helpful.

So here we go, here are 20 things to do, see, or know about when visiting Yosemite National Park.

1.The Merced River (HWY 140 Route)

Merced River (Yosemite)

Merced River (Yosemite) by Daniel Gillaspia

One thing I really love about this park is the drive along the Merced River while you are coming in from HWY 140. There are a number of turn-out points that give you great views of the rushing river. And don’t hesitate to work your way down the river bank to get up close and personal with the Merced and get some interesting photos. Trust me, it will be completely worth your time, just don’t wander too carelessly down the rocks.

Yosemite Merced River

2. Tunnel View

TunnelView

Tunnel View shot taken at late morning.

You’ll see more photos of this view than maybe any other view of Yosemite and perhaps even of any other national park. Coming into the park from HWY 41, you’ll drive through a tunnel and then pop out to the spectacular view. The look out point will be on the left and you owe it to yourself to stop.

When I visited in late March, there was hardly anyone in the parking lot at around 10am. However, if you come during peak season in the afternoon (Sept/Aug) I’m sure the lot will be overflowing so consider that. If you’re just looking for an amazing view then seeing the view at any time of day will do. However, if you are a serious photographer then you want to catch the sunrise that will rise right over the valley or catch the sunset when the sun beams off the granite walls in a beautiful bright hue of orange and red. Often times in the evenings, low lying fog blankets the valley providing for exceptional photograph opportunities.

yosemite tunnel view

If you’re interested in finding out about the “secret” spot to view Tunnel View and how to get there, leave a comment and I’ll message you the details!

3. Sentinel Bridge

Sentinel Bridge is a must-see stop for all photographers. There’s a small parking lot that I’m sure is overrun during peak season, but during the spring we had no problem grabbing a spot and were met at the bridge by only two other photographers.

Sentinel Bridge sunset at Yosemite

Sentinel Bridge at Yosemite by Daniel gillaspia

Photography Tip: If you only have one night, then you’ll want to utilize your one sunset as best as you can. So in the evening get shots from Tunnel View first, then move to Sentinel Bridge to catch the sun beaming off Half Dome. That way, from Tunnel View, you can capture the fog that may be blanketing the valley floor before it gets too dark. Alternatively, if you have multiple nights, then you could shoot from Tunnel View one evening and then Sentinel Bridge the next. Of course, there are also other options for great sunsets shots in the park.

4. Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America at 2,425 feet. Not only is its height impressive but the sound of the roaring water of the falls can be heard from around the park.

Lower Yosemite Fall

Lower Yosemite Fall by Daniel Gillaspia

One reason I suggest visiting a time other than August is that often Yosemite Falls will be dried up. I personally haven’t been in August, but I know others who have confirmed that the falls disappear in late summer. That’s not cool because: 1) you want to see (and hear) the highest waterfall in North America, and 2) you want to take awesome photos of it. Assuming the falls are roaring, there are a number of spots you can roam around the park to get shots but I suggest at least doing the trail to Lower Yosemite Fall, which is very easy and accessible to everyone. There, you’ll see and hear the roar of the lower fall which will give you an even better sense of how powerful the upper falls actually are.

And have you ever heard of “moonbows?” That would be a rainbow seen at night caused by the light reflected from the moon. Yosemite Falls is one place where they are visible, though you’ll have to catch them when the moon is bright. This video showcases them very well.

5. Waterfalls, for days…

Yosemite has no shortage of waterfalls. Of interest are: Sentinel Falls (2,000 feet), Bridalveil Fall, and Vernal Fall. Nevada and Vernal Fall can be viewed from a distance from Glacier Point, but keep in mind that the Glacier Point does not open up until about May. If you can make the trip to Yosemite in February (especially if you are a photographer), then you have to check out Horestail Fall and its magnificent burning glow at sunset that only lasts for about two weeks out of the year.

YosemiteWaterfall (1)

There are many more there to check out, to find out more just click here.

6. Half Dome

The most iconic image of Yosemite has got to be Half Dome. Just viewing it at any time of the day is impressive, especially when it’s snow capped in winter. I’m a big advocate of visiting in the spring, but the good thing about visiting the park in the summer is that you can apply for a permit to climb to the the top of Half Dome, which would be amazing and is on my bucket list. And for any people out there who don’t know, Half Dome is the inspiration of the North Face logo you see everywhere (not to be confused with South Butt).

Half Dome

Now, if you really want to witness the magic of Half Dome, try watching the sun’s burning glow off the north face at sunset. I ran into some rain and bad cloud coverage the evening I set up to take shots  but the clouds broke for a few minutes to let me get some shots of the sunlight cutting across the north face, so don’t be discouraged if you run into a cloudy day there you may still have a chance.

NorthFaceHalfDome

This was shot with a telephoto lens from Sentinel Bridge.

7. Best hikes at Yosemite

There are so many good hikes here, I could go on and on. In fact, I’ll probably do a separate post on hikes at some later point. Probably the best thing about the hikes here is that there really is something for everyone. The NPS has put out very informative videos on these hikes and many of them have been reviewed hundreds of times online so you should know exactly what to expect from these hikes. While we opted for a backcountry hike (see below), I think the Upper Yosemite Fall trail would be my choice for a hike in the valley. Limited hiking may be one of the drawbacks to visiting in the winter or spring because some of the hikes are not accessible or they possess real dangers like falling ice chunks that upon impact with your head will leave you with the kind of unforgettable Yosemite experience that you don’t want.

If you’re looking for a place to start in terms of researching hikes, here’s a good hiking resource.

8. Snowshoeing

I first strapped on snowshoes in my first visit to Yosemite in March of 2013 and it was quite the experience, mostly because we got severely dehydrated due to our hiking ignorance and after getting lost we had to actually depend on a compass to find our way through the backcountry (also due to our hiking ignorance). I’m going to post about that life-changing hike near-death experience to Dewey Point later, but for now just know that there are ample snowshoe opportunities here up until the end of March. Of interest to many are the ranger led snowshoe hikes, including the moon-lit hikes they have on the nights leading up to a full-moon. You can rent snowshoes from Badger Pass or bring your own. And if you’re into more challenging routes, look to the backcountry routes heading out of Bader Pass.

Panoramic from Dewey Point

9. Badger Pass

Badger Pass is a ski area up in the mountains in Yosemite. It offers slopes fitted for beginner skiers and also is a place to start off for backcountry snowshoeing and cross country skiing. We started our hike to Dewey Point from that area. Don’t forget to get the most up to date conditions for Badger Pass before going out there because they do not have artificial snow up there. Chains may be needed to get up there.

10. Curry Village

So you want to know where to stay in Yosemite? Our first night in Yosemite we stayed at Curry Village, where you can stay inside the park on a budget. The catch? You’ll be sleeping in a tent. It’s actually pretty cool, though. Staying in the tent adds a rustic feel to your experience (while also allowing you to hear everything going on in neighboring tents). And don’t worry, they have showers and bathrooms so you’re not roughing it too bad. If you’re staying in the park when it gets really cold at night, you’ll probably want to do what we did and reserve a tent with a heater. It’s a little extra $, but you’ll be hella toasty.

I do feel obliged to mention two, shall we say… “incidents” about Curry Village, though.

First, this happened: Falling boulder risk forces Yosemite closures.

Second, this happened: Yosemite closes Curry Village cabins after hantavirus outbreak

With that said, I’d honestly be willing to stay at Curry Village again in a heartbeat.

11. Yosemite View Lodge

After spending a night in Curry Village, the city-dweller in me was ready to move on up a little bit. So we booked a night at Yosemite View Lodge, and I loved this place. It’s about 20 minutes outside of the park but the rooms are fantastic. We stayed in a King Suite room complete with a fire place, huge two-head shower, hot tub, and balcony view of the Merced river. Not all rooms have the river view so you will have to request it. I got my reservation for half-price by booking through the above link so it was absolutely worth it (another likely perk of avoiding peak season). The Lodge has a pizza restaurant adjacent to one of the buildings and the pizza is really good, and I think there’s also another restaurant there as well. This lodge was perfect after a long couple of days of hiking to relax in.

If you’re into the more luxurious type of stay (and your budget permits), then you’ll likely want to stay at the Ahwanhee Hotel.

Here’s a video clip I took showcasing the sound of the Merced River you can hear from your hotel room at Yosemite View Lodge.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olEPLmj4HRk?rel=0]

Me hanging out at the balcony at Yosemite View Lodge

The moon setting just outside our hotel room at Yosemite View Lodge.

The moon setting just outside our hotel room at Yosemite View Lodge.

12. Driving or walking around the valley

If you aren’t into strenuous hikes or maybe just want to relax a little then just driving or walking around the park and taking photos can be good way to take in Yosemite. I’d recommend stopping by all of the waterfalls you can access and even relaxing in the meadows taking in views of the granite monoliths, such as the 3,000 ft. face of El Capitan. If you see little shiny spots on any of the monoliths, know that you are witnessing some brave rock-climbers work their way up the side of the walls. For a granite wall like El Capitan, it takes climbers multiple days to make it to the top. Check the shuttle schedule in the park to avoid the congestion and parking issues.

ElCapitan

El Capitan, the largest single granite monolith in the world.

If you’re a photographer there are endless possibilities for shots around the valley floor. But even if you’re just looking for beautiful backgrounds for your family photos or yes — even selfies — it’s a good idea to wander around the meadows and streams for good shots and take in the fresh scents of Yosemite.

Yosemitestream

YosemiteBrad

Also, the meadows are home to some wildlife and you wouldn’t believe how sociable some of the animals are. Picture your most sociable friend. Now imagine that person as a deer. That’s how the deer act at Yosemite. When we were in a meadow we came across the most sociable deer I’ve ever seen. And if you’re really lucky, you may come across a bear, just hope it’s not as outgoing as the deer.

YosemiteDeer

Social Butterfly Deer

13. Frazil ice (spring only)

Frazil ice is a phenomenon that happens in the spring when ice forms from frozen mist from the falls and then passes down along the streams. As the ice flows, it collects into big bunches of slushy ice that then turn into snow… expect it’s not really snow and if you step on it you will die. Confused? Scared?  Check out this amazing video made by the National Park Service and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I’d never seen anything like it.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9V9p4mFEYXc?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

14. Mariposa Grove

Mariposa Grove is an area in Yosemite known for its Giant Sequoias, which are trees native only to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California and grow to be the biggest trees in the world not to mention around 3,000 years old. The Grove is near the southern most entrance to Yosemite (HWY 41), so if you enter that way and want to see Sequoias you might as well go straight to it because it is a little ways from the Valley.

See my post on Sequoia National Park for more on these massive creatures.

Grizzly Giant

Grizzly Giant

In the winter, you probably have to snowshoe to get around up there, but when we went in late March most of the snow had melted. If you’ve never seen giant sequoias before then this is a good spot to do so. However, on the downside, the sequoias are somewhat spread out and there aren’t many clusters of them like you’d see in Sequoia National Park. At the Grove, we saw the Grizzly Giant, the 25th largest giant sequoia, which was pretty cool. However, if you really want to see sequoias, including the largest tree in the world, then make the trip up to Sequoia National Park.

Yosemitewoodpecker

Woodpecker in Mariposa Grove

15. Starry nights

This park gets really dark with minimal light pollution. There are some amazing time lapses put together of this park showcasing the Milky Way and are worth watching. At Glacier Point, they have observatory nights during the summer where you can view planets and galaxies with the help of professional astronomers so look into that. If you can’t make it up there in the winter then just find an open spot in the park and look up. I took my very first shot of stars from the Tunnel View parking lot and the stars were plenty bright from there, though it’s hard to tell in the photo below.

YosemiteStars

16. Glacier Point

Glacier Point is an area of Yosemite where you have superb views of Half-Dome and the entire valley. I’ve seen a ton of amazing photographs taken from this point so if you are there in the summer definitely check it out and look into the astronomy tours just mentioned. In the winter, it’s a long cross-country ski up to Glacier Point, but they have a lodge there where you can stay overnight. In the summer it’s as simple as a drive up there and a minimal hike.

glacier point panorama

Magnificent photo of Glacier Point taken by Naphat Chantaravisoot

17. Food (and beer) in the Park

There are a variety of options in Yosemite for food. In spring the lines at some of these places around lunch time were getting pretty long, so I can only imagine how they would be in the summer. I can attest to both Degnan’s Deli and Loft as being solid choices for meals, as the sandwiches and pizza we had were good. But note, if you don’t want to be wasting time in line for food then try to hit up the spots right when they open up for lunch/dinner or take a slightly early lunch. And don’t forget, they serve beer at these places, which is scientifically proven to be worth the dehydrating effects it will have on you after a long hike.

18. Interesting history

Like most national parks, Yosemite has a ton of interesting history behind the park. I’ll spare you the history lesson but I’d encourage you to check out some of the documentaries about how the park was started, both geologically and politically. You won’t likely be surprised that the beginnings involved the ouster of Native Americans and a prolonged fight over the exploitation of natural resources. Make sure you check out the influence of the eccentric, John Muir, though. He’s a man who played an integral role in this national park and used to do things like climb the tops of trees during thunder storms to experience “treeness.” 

19. National Park Service resources

Yosemite probably has the best online resources for a national park that I’ve ever come across. The park website has plenty of info and their Youtube channel has tons of well-done videos to help you get informed on the park. Also, because the park is so popular there are ton of people like me writing about it so you have no excuse not to be informed (unless you were like me my first time out to Yosemite).

20. Save the best for last

This is really something for foreigners or for people who are making their first trip out to the region. If you’re planning on making a circuit route through the different national parks in the area (e.g., Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Pinnacles) then try to put Yosemite last on the list. The reason is that while the other parks have much to offer, Yosemite is top dog and you’ll invariably find yourself comparing the other parks to your experience in Yosemite. Just look at reviews of the other parks and you’ll see constant comments about how Pinnacles National Park is interesting but “doesn’t compare to Yosemite.” Again, this is really a personal preference thing but it’s something to think about.

YosemiteFog

Moon rising near Yosemite

Moon setting near Yosemite

That’s all I have for Yosemite. Remember, do plenty of additional research on the park and the specific hikes you’re looking for. Drop me a comment or message if you have any questions on my own experiences at the park.

Feel free to check out my Flickr account and Facebook page!

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10 thoughts on “20 Things to Know about When Visting Yosemite National Park

  1. bayphotosbydonna

    Beautiful captures! Love your site and am now following. Husband and I have finally been able to buy an RV and we want to travel the U.S., specifically to our country’s beautiful national parks. Looking forward to your posts to help us decide where we want to travel! 🙂

    1. dgillaspia

      Thanks for the follow. Buying an RV and traveling the US is on my bucket list so congrats on that. I’m sure that will be an amazing experience and hopefully I’ll be able to offer you plenty of helpful tips and info on some amazing destinations!

  2. Bill Green

    Hi, I’m Bill Green. Moved to Ca. 2 years ago from Tx. My first trip to Yosemite is coming up in April. I’m a serious semipro photographer and would appreciate any & all tips for best spots to get memorable photos. Especially your “secret” spot to Tunnel View and how to get there. I”m retired, but love to hike and capture beautiful images. Thanks in advance for your tips and guidance in this amazing NP

  3. Sam K

    Thanks for the tips. These would be greatly help me in my one and a half day trip to Yosemite by the end of April. I found your site while looking for things to do in Yosemite, and noticed you mention a “secret” spot near Tunnel View. I am interested, and hope that it is easy to reach.

  4. Sam

    Hello! Great post, we’re going in early August and I am so beyond excited! I’d like to know this secret spot though! Care to shoot me an email?

  5. Summer rossel

    Great site! Thx! Secret spot info please .

    My family has been to Yosemite yearly and we are looking for fun new places to see/explore. Kids are 5,8,10,14… Any suggestions!? Going to focus on tulommne meadow, do some dome hikes etc but if there is something else you can recommend that would be great!

    Thanks!
    Summer

    1. Daniel Gillaspia Post author

      Thanks for the feedback! Since you’ve been to Yosemite several times you’ve probably done a lot of the easier trails to waterfalls like Lower Yosemite Fall and Bridalveil Fall, which are definitely kid friendly. The Tuolumne River hike in Tuolumne Meadows is a pretty easy hike as well that would be very kid friendly.

      For something a little I would suggest trying to get out to Glacier Point on a Saturday to take part in the astronomy sessions that they have. I think your kids are for the most part old enough to have fun with that. Here’s a link to look into that: http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/stargazing.htm

      Thanks for reading!

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