Planning to visit Yosemite soon?
Get excited and keep reading because there are an incredible amount of things to do in Yosemite National Park, a highlight of visiting California.
We recently spent 5 days in the park and down below we are sharing our top things to do in Yosemite, plus tips on where to stay, best hikes in Yosemite, scenic drives, places to eat, and tips for planning a trip to Yosemite for the first time!
Can you imagine our joy after spending five months in the desert of the Southwest on our USA road trip, and then arriving into Yosemite Valley where water plunders down over sheer granite cliffs into one of the most famous valleys in the world!
I don’t mean one or two waterfalls, I mean scores of them wailing their thundering tears.
So if your wondering what is Yosemite famous for, one thing is waterfalls!
You’ve probably never seen as many waterfalls, as well as granite walls, meadows and trees as you will in Yosemite National Park California.
From giant sequoias to small wildflowers, it’s diversity is outstanding.
We were able to experience most of this diversity on our visit, choosing not to just focus all of our time in the valley!
Yosemite Valley in the California sierras is the place to come to experience something different from the desert. It cleansed all the dry red dust out of my spirit and soul.
“Wow. This is so pretty”, said Kalyra as we sat at the top of Vernal Falls and the Mist Trail overlooking Emerald Pools.
There are so many amazing things to do in Yosemite with kids (or even without kids), and it will be a family vacation they’ll remember forever.
Unfortunately, we had rain, snow and hail predicted for the entire week of our Yosemite Park visit. So not only did we get to experience the beauty of Spring in Yosemite, we also experienced the beauty of winter in Yosemite!
As Yosemite California is one of the busiest national parks in the USA, it’s a vacation you’ll want to plan for in advance.
We had accommodation booked at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite so could not circumnavigate the weather like we had done so well throughout our six month USA road trip to this point.
You know what they say, you just have to learn to dance in the rain.
Raincoats on, brilliant yellow umbrella out, and happy faces. We’re out of the desert and about to get soaked.
Things to Do in Yosemite National Park
Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Valley
Bridalveil Falls is opposite El Capitan, one of the most famous cliff faces in Yosemite NP.
Bridalveil was plummeting 360 feet when we arrived so we grabbed our yellow umbrella and raincoats and hit the forested trail to get to the bottom.
Streams were running everywhere and dogwood were in bloom.
It felt like the rain pelted down as we got to the bottom but it was the spray and mist from the falls saturating all of us. It was coming down so fast and hard we could barely see it through the mist.
This was our first water dumping in months so we cheered and squealed with joy.
The Bridalveil Falls Trail is pretty and one of the easiest hikes in Yosemite with kids, and one of the best places in Yosemite to get up close to a waterfall.
There are plenty of rocks around the kids can scramble on and I imagine in the summer it is quite shady and cool.
Mist Trail – Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls Hike, Yosemite Valley
Vernal Falls is one of the most popular Yosemite attractions, and one of the most famous Yosemite hikes.
From moss covered rocks lining the path to valley views, and spraying waterfalls, this hike has it all, and is fun.
Bring your raincoat as you will get soaked!
You have various options on this hike from shorter to longer, and perhaps less strenuous. See how the kids are going and don’t plan too much after it.
The hike to the top of Vernal Falls take you along the Mist Trail, named that way for a reason.
Vernal Falls thunders 317 feet down and sprays you as you walk the 600 stone steps beside it. It’s a very dramatic walk – and slippery so take care.
Have your kids count the steps as they walk up to take their mind off the pain involved in it. My girls complained the way up until they hit the stairs and started counting.
Getting to the stairs is also fairly strenuous. It’s a steep walk up the entire way and is three miles round trip.
You can stop at the base of Vernal Falls (1.4 miles round trip). Well I’m not sure it is the base. It’s more like the river that thunders downstream from it.
You can see Vernal Falls above it in the distance.
As you are walking up to the top of Vernal Falls be sure to look back. Odds are very high that you will see a rainbow. We saw so many and it was spectacular.
It just gets better as you stand above Vernal Falls and witness the power of the water surging over the edge.
A few meters above it along the path is Emerald Pools, a small shallow lake. People have swam in here before, somehow thinking it would be a good idea and have been swept over the edge. There are signs everywhere warning you and telling you the high fines you’ll get if caught doing it.
This is definitely NOT one of the smartest or best things to do in Yosemite!
You can turn back from here down the staircase to finish the Vernal Falls Trail (about 2 hours), or continue another another 1.6 miles to reach the top of Nevada Falls (7 miles round trip).
You can either hike back the way you came or take the John Muir Trail which goes through the forest back down (recommended).
We hiked to the bottom of Nevada Falls, not the top! I wanted to keep going but the girls were feeling quite challenged and I knew it would end up in a disaster.
We also met a man walking back who told us the John Muir trail had two (that he could see) waterfalls cascading over it and you would get absolutely soaked if you walked through it.
He had done the trail about 10 times and decided to turn around. So we thought that was a clear sign to turn back.
Although, I think turning back was harder, as it probably meant we did a longer hike and getting back down those stairs was hard on the knees.
The view of Nevada Falls from below them was beautiful and I’m glad we at least made it to there. It’s not that much further on from Vernal Falls. See how the kids are feeling as to whether you can go that far.
Hiking Vernal and Nevada Falls is one of the most exciting things to do in Yosemite with kids, and a Yosemite must see!
Don’t miss it.
Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Valley
Lower Yosemite Falls is probably the easiest of the Yosemite National Park hikes.
It’s an almost flat, 1 miles long round trip on a path to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. As you walk down the path you get a fantastic view of Upper Yosemite Falls as it cascades down into Lower Yosemite Falls.
But at the end of the trail you can only see Lower Yosemite Falls.
In 2006, Craig and I continued walking up to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. It’s a 7.2 mile return strenuous hike so we weren’t going to do the Yosemite Falls hike with kids – as I remember collapsing into our tent after it!
You can walk to the top of Lower Yosemite Falls, which is 2 mile round trip. I contemplated doing that with the girls but they were wiped out from the Vernal/Nevada Falls hike that morning!
There are so many things to do at Yosemite that you’ll want to plan carefully and take into account what your kids can manage.
Mariposa Grove, Grizzly Giant Loop Trail
This is one of the most amazing places to visit in Yosemite!
Step into the world of the giant sequoias trees at Mariposa Grove. While there won’t be as many as you’ll find in nearby Sequoia National Park, there are enough to amaze and delight you.
The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is the largest sequoia grove in the park with over 500 mature big trees.
The Sequoia are the largest living things on earth, and the oldest. They grow to be around 4,800 years old so it’s a title they deserve.
With their red trunks standing out in the middle of a green forest, they sure are beautiful.
Mariposa Grove is in the southern section of Yosemite park and is where you’ll find the sequoias. A visit here is one of the best things to do in Yosemite.
It’s only just reopened after a 3 year refurbishment closure so it was a treat for us to be there. You catch the shuttle in from the parking lot and there are several trails to enjoy.
We only learned abut the Guardian Loop Trail when we arrived. It’s a 6.5 mile round trip. Had we been more prepared we may have done that hike.
We settled for the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail.
This easy 2 mile loop trail takes you to visit famous trees such as the Grizzly Giant, Bachelor and Three Graces, and California Tunnel.
I especially loved standing in this tunnel and learning how the tree is growing its bark inward to heal the wound of the people back in the 60s who thought it was a good idea to carve tunnels out of giant sequoias for cars to drive through.
Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley
Mirror Lake was the last of our Yosemite National Park hiking experiences.
We were pretty tired and wanted something gentle and short to do before the rain came. It came as soon as we arrived at the lake and joined us for the 1 mile journey back to the shuttle bus!
The trail is flat, easy and follows Tenaya Creek. It was very muddy when we walked it, and decided not to walk the loop around the lake, which would have made it a five mile loop walk.
Mirror Lake is not really a lake and by the time summer is at its height most of the water has disappeared and turned into a meadow of grasses and sandy areas.
The hike gives views of Half Dome and Mr. Watkins, which we didn’t get to see due to cloud cover.
You’ll love getting your Instagram photos of yourself at the edge of the lake. Don’t forget your colorful umbrella standing looking out over the lake with your hands in the air. No. Please don’t do that. The world has seen enough!
Mirror Lake is yet another one of the most popular things to do in Yosemite Park. Go early to avoid the crowds.
Wapama Falls Hike, Hetch Hetchy
We loved the Wapama Falls hike in Hetch Hetchy so much!
This was the quietest of the Yosemite National Park trails, we only saw a handful of other people and it was an adventurous hike with diversity and stunning scenery.
This is off-the-beaten-path, and one of the unique things to do in Yosemite as so many people just stick to Yosemite Valley.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was created to supply the people of San Francisco with water after the devastating earthquake of 1906 destroyed their water source.
John Muir the champion voice for protecting Yosemite National Park protested the movement to build the O-Shaughnessy dam and destroy what he felt to be a valley as exquisite in its beauty as Yosemite Valley.
He died not long after it was approved, many say due to a broken heart.
It’s kind of bittersweet to visit this region as it is still so beautiful and a place that can be enjoyed by the people.
However, the dam has created a lake type feel now where once there would have been a river with the rising granite cliff face and domes with waterfalls streaming down the side.
The Wapama Trail started with a peaceful trail beside the reservoir and then became quite rocky and uphill.
We crossed several rock crossings over waterfalls streaming down and through green forests which protected us from the rain that came down when we were only 1/4 mile away from the end of the trail and the main event – Wapama Falls.
We had just passed Tueeulala Falls before it.
Wapama Falls was thundering down. At 1,080 feet high it is said to rival Yosemite Falls and is one of the tallest in North America.
You could feel it’s power even in the distance form the beginning of the trail. It was awesome to get so close to it. We couldn’t go on the bridge that goes under and past it as there was that much water it was spilling over the bridge rapidly and was too dangerous.
Just as we got to the falls, it started snowing and continued on for most of the 2.5 mile return trail.
The girls embraced the adventure and giggled and whooped at the thrill of it. It wasn’t too long though before their hands and feet started to freeze from the snow and rain and they were pleading for it to be over.
They made it and bath agreed it was a super fun hike.
They were ecstatic to get a hot chocolate after it to warm up. And of course, as we finished the walk, the snow stopped and the sun and blue sky came out!
Hetch Hetchy Valley is worth visiting in all seasons and it has the longest hiking season in the park. This is also where you want to come to experience wildflower displays.
Scenic Drive Hwy 41 Wawona
This is the view of Yosemite Valley you have been dreaming of.
It showcases the immense grandeur of the granite walls surrounding the valley.
I couldn’t help but think of John Muir and what must have gone through his mind, body, spirit seeing this view and having it all to himself.
It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter. John Muir
When you’re driving through Yosemite from the south gate down to the valley, you’ll drive through Wawona Tunnel. After you exit the tunnel, you are at Tunnel View!
Bridalveil Falls plunders over the top down into the forested valley. Here is where you’ll get your classic view of El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Rocks and Cathedral Rocks.
It was the only time we saw Half Dome; it was covered by cloud apart from this moment when the clouds lifted as we pulled into the parking lot!
Tunnel View is best seen in the afternoon or at sunset. Time your visit right.
Scenic Drive Hwy 120
Our first look at Yosemite Valley was from this viewpoint just as we came out of the tunnel on HWY 120 coming into the valley from the East Gate Entrance.
You could see the Merced River winding through the valley, the jagged granite peaks of the mountains and way in the distance, Bridalveil Falls.
I’m not sure how easy it would be to see the falls at other times in the year, but during the spring they are raging.
The afternoon is better for lighting!
Cascade Creek is just past the first tunnel view and worth pulling over to watch it cascade down the mountain. I’m not sure how full it would be outside of Spring.
Valley View appears on your left as you are driving out of the valley on the way to Hwy 41.
Unlike the other views above that look down on the valley, this one looks up the valley from the banks of the Merced River. It’s a beautiful and unique perspective.
Again, afternoon would be better for this viewpoint.
Glacier Point Overlook
Glacier Point has an overlook with a stunning view of the Valley, Half Dome and Yosemite’s High Country.
It is said to be one of the best views in Yosemite, and the country! There are several trails from up here. Sadly thanks to our freak winter weather, it was closed.
It is accessible by car from approximately late May through October or November.
Hikes from here:
- McGurk Meadow, Bridalveil Creek, and Dewey Point (moderate)
- Sentinel Dome and Taft Point (moderate)
Tioga Pass and Tuolumne Meadows
Tioga Road is a 39 mile scenic Yosemite drive past forests, meadows, lakes and granite domes.
We did it back in 2006 pre-kids and pre-blogging, It’s a beautiful region of Yosemite NP to experience and only opened during the summer so was closed on our recent visit.
It’s elevation is from 6,000 to nearly 10,000 feet.
Tuolumne Grove has giant sequoias. It’s a steep mile down into the grove from the parking area. The grove is smaller than Mariposa but quieter.
I’ve only learned since researching for this post that this area was right near where we stayed for the first two nights and we could have visited!
Tuolumne Meadows is a stunning area that offers many hiking trails.
Popular hikes are Cathedral Lakes and Tenaya Lake.
Biking the Valley floor
I so wanted to do this!!
We couldn’t make it work with the weather. There are several miles of biking trails that wind through the Valley. What a beautiful way to get around and avoid the hassle of parking and busy shuttles.
Home to the main Yosemite Visitor Center, Yosemite Museum, a Wilderness Center and the Ansel Adams Gallery.
We didn’t have time to visit any of these! But we typically love to chat with the NP Rangers to get up to date info on all the best things to do in Yosemite, road closures, grab your kids their Junior Ranger books, get maps etc.
The village is also where you’ll find a grocery store, a pizza place and a deli.
Parking is also available here, but it’s challenging and very busy, and of course the shuttle bus stops here (more info down below in the tips section).
Happy Isles Nature Center
A place to learn more about the parks geological story. There are various indoor and outdoor exhibits on the isles!
Pioneer History Center
In Wawona is a collection of historic buildings telling the story of people and events that shaped the national park idea in Yosemite. You can go on a horse0drwan stage ride, watch blacksmiths t work or hike scenic trails.
Rock climbing here is legendary.
Known as one of the premier rock climbing spots in the world, Yosemite National Park California has a cliff for you to conquer!
Hundreds of climbers from around the world visit each year to conquer the sheer granite cliffs of Half Dome and El Capitan.
If you want your kids to take on the challenge, enroll them in the Yosemite Mountaineering School. I’m not sure they’ll summit the legendary rocks by the end of it, but at least they’ll get a taste of the devotion rock climbers have to this area.
Had the weather been a bit nicer, we would have sent the girls off to rock climbing school. They go to indoor rock climbing camp back in Raleigh and love it.
For the die hards rock climbers, El Capitan is standing 3,593 feet from base to summit waiting for you to scale it. You’ll need at least 13 days to make it.
Climbers from all around the world take a shot at it. Can you imagine tying yourself to that wall to sleep at night? Get out your binoculars you may spot someone attempting the climb.
Planning a Trip to Yosemite
Where is Yosemite National Park Located?
The park is located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, and is approximately 1,200 square miles.
- West of the park is San Francisco and Sacramento
- To the Southeast is Las Vegas
- And to the South is Los Angeles
You can download several Yosemite maps here.
Driving to Yosemite
There are five entrance gates into the park:
- South Gate (Wawona entrance station) best for those driving from Los Angeles area.
- Arch Rock Entrance (South west gate) for those arriving from San Francisco
- Big Oak Flat (East Gate) best for those arriving from San Francisco area
- Tioga Pass Entrance (for those arriving from Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas or Death Valley area – ONLY open from approx May through October!
- Hetch Hetchy Entrance (northern most gate)
For directions to Yosemite National Park, there are three main roads going into the park:
- Highway 120
- Highway 140
- Highway 41
San Francisco to Yosemite National Park:
Big Oak Flat Entrance is the closest and most direct route into Yosemite from the San Francisco Bay Area
- Distance: 167 miles
- Time: approx 3 hours
Los Angeles to Yosemite:
- Distance: 313 miles / 504 km
- Time: approx 6 hours
Las Vegas to Yosemite:
(June through October, conditions permitting)
- Distance: 400 miles / 642 km
- Time: approx 8 hours
Sequoia National Park to Yosemite:
- Distance: 123 miles / 197 kms
- Time: approx 3 hours
You can rent a car from San Francisco here.
You can rent RVs from Outdoorsy or RV Share if you are looking to incorporate a longer road trip in this region.
Gas (petrol) is available at Wawona, Crane Flat, and El Portal 24 hours per day with a credit card.
There is NO gas available in Yosemite Valley or Tuolumne Meadows!
Flights to Yosemite
If you choose to fly then drive to the park, these are the closest airports to Yosemite, starting with the major international airports:
- San Francisco International (SFO) 169.2 miles
- Oakland International (OAK) 150.3 miles
- San José International (SJC) 187.5 miles
- Fresno-Yosemite International (FAT) 64.8 miles
- Merced Airport (MCE) 71.4 miles
Search flights to all these airports here.
What is the Best Time of Year to Go to Yosemite National Park
Yosemite NP is a year round destination, although in the winter months there aren’t as many things to see in Yosemite as some of the sections will be closed.
With all the snow we had on our visit in May 2019, I can tell you it is pretty covered in snow!
Summer school vacation time is extremely busy, although most things will be open then including the Tioga Pass road, which is only opened during the summer.
I feel spring is the ideal time to visit as the snow is melting and the waterfalls raging and so many of them. Weather can be unpredictable though (as we experienced).
I loved driving through the valley and looking out from the viewpoints to see the Yosemite National Park waterfalls streaming down. It is like the mountains were crying.
Savannah counted 10 in just a 2 minute drive and on only one side of the valley walls.
I loved the crowd levels when we visited (week before Memorial Weekend), although there were a lot of people, it wasn’t as bad as I remember visiting in late July in 2006, which was crazy – the traffic was like Times Square moving around the valley floor.
Late May or early June will be better timing to have the Glacier Point road open to the lookout though!
Where to Stay in Yosemite
Finding Yosemite National Park accommodation can be a challenge. Book ahead as much as you can to secure your spot!
Hotels near Yosemite National Park
Tenaya Lodge at Yosmeite
We stayed at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite for four nights (2 hosted). We will be writing a full review of this Yosemite accommodation as we LOVED it.
It’s one of our favorite family resorts so far in the US, and definitely one of the best places to stay with kids.
Even though it’s 2 miles outside of the South Gate Entrance, and then an hours drive to the valley floor, it’s still my pick for lodging near Yosemite National Park for what it offers, and you get to escape the madness of the Valley!
It’s right near Mariposa Grove and has a pretty waterfall hike from the lodge, and plenty of activities to do at the resort.
I loved coming home after a day of hiking to a hot tub, steam bath and a glass of wine by the fire, and conversations with other happy travelers more interested in conversations than getting lost in their phones.
It felt like the return to the old days of travel and was the perfect complement to our Yosemite trip.
Hotels in Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Valley Lodge
This may be a good alternative for family-friendly accommodation in Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite Valley Lodge is right near Yosemite Falls in the middle of the valley, so location is prime.
I thought the buildings looked like motel standard and tried to peak inside the rooms but only got a glimpse that didn’t wow me. We ate at the food court there which was pretty decent and had great views out of the glass windows.
It’s also really busy here and you have loads of cars coming in and out of the parking lot and people walking around. I doubt you’d get much serenity, but you will get location!
Personally, I much preferred the experience of staying at Tenaya Lodge, even if it meant an hours drive from the South Gate Entrance to the Valley floor.
After walking through Yosemite Lodge I was so glad we decided to pay for two extra nights at Tenaya instead of moving down there!
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
The Majestic is the fancy place to stay in Yosemite National Park.
See below for it’s popular dining experience.
To see all the Yosemite National Park Hotels go here.
Camping in Yosemite
The are 13 Yosemite National Park campgrounds and they are popular places to stay in Yosemite too.
Up to 7 are on a reservation system and the rest are first come first served, which usually fill by noon from April to September. You’ll want to make a reservation here as far in advance as possible.
Camp 4 is where Craig and I camped in 2006. We were just walk-ins and loved being at the base of the Yosemite Falls trail.
We were shocked to discover it is now a lottery system for the summer. We thought Yosemite National Park camping was busy in the the summer when we went. I can’t even imagine it now.
RV Camping in Yosemite
We stayed for two nights at the Thousand Trails Yosemite Lakes RV Resort & Campground.
This RV Park is on the South Fork Tuolumne River and about an hour’s drive from the valley floor. It was a picturesque setting but felt it was overpriced for what it offered.
$73 for just a patch of dirt and full hookups. Wifi was only available in their lodge. It is California though, and it is in a pretty setting by the river.
We were in and out each day and then trapped inside our travel trailer in torrential rain when we were in the campground.
Yosemite NP has 10 campgrounds that can accommodate RVs. Learn more here.
Places to Eat in Yosemite
Wondering where to go in Yosemite to eat?
I think your best bet is to take your own food into Yosemite National Park.
There are small stores in Half Dome Village (previously called Curry Village and Camp Curry) and Yosemite Village where you can pick up food supplies and aren’t priced too badly.
You can also get fairly cheap beer (local) and wine here too. So you might want to do that rather than ordering a pint at the bar!
There are plenty of places to sit outside at the villages. Even better there are many picnic spots in the valley by the river. Just be bear safe!
There is also a food court at Yosemite Lodge with pizzas, burgers and Asian food. The girls had a pizza here that seemed decent.
The Majestic Hotel is a very popular place to eat, so make a reservation as there can be waits of an hour or longer, and parking at the hotel is horrendous – it took us 35 mins to find a spot on a Thursday in May at lunch.
The meals here are more expensive. The drawcard are the views from the windows.
The pesto and bean soup I had was delicious, so the food quality is good. If you are short on time I’d skip it and go for a picnic in the valley instead.
The Big Lodge is another fancy place to eat in Wawona.
Tips for Visiting Yosemite
- The grocery store at Yosemite Village has a lot of produce and supplies handy – cheap beer and wine as well. You’ll find most of what you need to get you through.
- Yosemite Village is also home to the main Yosemite Visitor Center.
- Both Half Dome Village and Yosemite Village are also popular places to visit in Yosemite to buy supplies or souvenirs, book activities, rent gear, use the bathroom, and recuperate before heading back out on the trails.
- Yosemite is huge. Plan your trip carefully. Break the things to do in Yosemite with kids into sections. Allow for rest breaks!
- You can do the Junior Rangers program here, although you have to purchase the book, which is the first time we’ve experienced this. You also have to pick up a bag of trash, which I’m totally okay with as were my girls. However, it makes me wonder what the trash levels must be like in Yosemite to have this condition as no other park so far has. That makes me sad.
- You can drive in Yosemite Valley but the National Park encourages you to use the free shuttle buses. The Yosemite Valley shuttle provides service around eastern Yosemite Valley and stops near all overnight accommodations, stores, and major vistas. The shuttle operates all year from 7 am to 10 pm.
- There are three major parking lots: Yosemite Falls Parking Lot, Yosemite Village Parking Lot and Half Dome Village parking lot. Get into the park early. Find a park and leave it there. Then get the shuttle around.
- Bears are active in Yosemite National Park so be bear safe.
- There are loads of Ranger Talks and programs on offer in Yosemite National Park. Be sure to check out the schedule in the park newspaper or a visitor center.
Tours of Yosemite National Park
If you don’t want to visit Yosemite by yourself, you can do a guided tour. Here are some Yosemite National Park tours on offer:
- 2 day Yosemite Lodge tour from San Francisco
- This National Parks tour with G Adventures visits Yosemite + many other great National Parks nearby.
Other Things to do in California
- 28 things to do in San Francisco with kids
- 20 things to do in Los Angeles
- 8 must do San Francisco attractions
- 10 day southern California road trip