A waterfall wonderland hidden in a deep glacial valley and a wilderness of white granite peaks in the Sierra Nevada: this is Yosemite National Park, one of our favorite national parks not just in the USA, but in the whole world. Big words, I know, but believe us, Yosemite deserve all the big words. Also, get prepared for big crowds, especially in Yosemite Valley. It’s very popular.
It just seems right that Yosemite is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as well, because of its unique landscape formed by glaciation.
1. Explore Yosemite Valley
The busiest part of the park, and it was love at first sight for us… Well, I should say love at second sight. We’ve seen it in August for the first time – which is the worst time of the year to visit the Valley (but great for exploring Yosemite backcountry). The cliffs were impressive, but most of the waterfalls were dried up. We went back in late May, and that was the time when the Valley impressed with its roaring waterfalls that make it unique in the world.
Yosemite Valley is home to 8 enormous, beautiful waterfalls, all of them having their own charm. A lot of them can be seen from the valley, but some require a short walk or a longer hike. All of them are worth a visit though!
2. Walk to the bottom of the world’s 5th tallest waterfall
The king of all waterfalls in the Valley is 2425 feet (739 meters) high Yosemite Falls, the 5th tallest waterfall in the world. It’s impossible not to notice it, because its roaring sounds fill the valley – that if you visit it the right time: May or early June.
Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet / 97 m), the bottom section of Yosemite Falls can be accessed on a short walking path from the parking lot – or the shuttle stop. (Once you found a parking spot in the Valley – not an easy task in the summer -, you’d better use the free shuttle to get around.) Be there early in the morning, it’s a busy viewpoint.
3. Take the challenging trail to the top of Yosemite Falls
There’s a steep, challenging hike, the Upper Yosemite Fall Trail to the top of Yosemite Falls for the adventurous ones. We loved this trail for its magnificent close views of the Upper Yosemite Fall and its Middle Cascades, the iconic Half Dome and the panorama of Yosemite Valley!
We continued the hike from the top of the waterfall a bit further toward Yosemite Point, so we could actually cross Yosemite Creek which is a nice place to relax.
4. Walk to Bridalveil Fall
A very short and easy walk leads to Bridalveil Fall (620 feet / 188 m), another popular beauty in the Yosemite Valley. Arrive as early as you can to avoid large crowds.
5. Take the half day hike on Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls
The smallest waterfall in the valley is Vernal Fall with only 317 feet (~96 m) – yes, this means small here! But it has one of the most special views: the mist coming from the falls results in a rainbow somewhere near the waterfall in sunny weather. A big, strong, beautiful rainbow. Of course, you have to pay the price: you’ll get completely wet because of the mist. Put on a raincoat before getting near Vernal Fall.
Vernal Fall is not as easily accessible as Bridalveil Fall or Lower Yosemite Fall, it requires a short hike on a steep trail. But we could enjoy views of the wild Merced River all the way. In addition, good things won’t end at Vernal Fall, because the trail continues to Emerald Pool and to the top of Nevada Fall (594 feet / 181 m).
It’s perfect for a half day hike and can be extended to a full day hike by adding one more hidden waterfall (Illilouette Fall on Panorama Trail) and famous Glacier Point.
6. Find the most hidden waterfall of Yosemite Valley: Illilouette Fall
Illilouette Fall (370 feet / 112 m) is an almost perfectly symmetric waterfall in a deep, green, inaccessible valley – scenery that looks just like a postcard!
There’s no way to go to the bottom of this fall, but you can have an astonishing view from Panorama Trail – a trail that’s full of great views all the way, as you can guess by its name.
7. Enjoy the views from Glacier Point
Glacier Point is the place where we got a wide, impressive panorama of the whole valley, including Yosemite Falls, Vernal and Nevada Fall, and even more distant peaks could be seen which were still snow-capped at the end of May.
Two very scenic, but strenuous trails take you to Glacier Point (Four Miles Trail and Panorama Trail), and it’s also accessible by car via Glacier Point Road which opens in late spring. You get there how you want, but it’s a place not to be missed as Glacier Point offers one of the most breathtaking panoramas we’ve seen in the USA.
Of course, we hiked there and truly felt that we deserve that panorama. 🙂
8. Find the other famous viewpoint by the road: Tunnel View
Driving from Wawona to Yosemite Valley, we came out of a long tunnel and immediately felt like Alice in Wonderland. Right, we arrived at the viewpoint called Tunnel View.
There’s a parking lot by the road, so we could spend some time there enjoying the wonderland which welcomed us with appealing views and a nice, huge rainbow – a thunderstorm has just been over.
9. Look into the magical mirror of Yosemite Valley: Mirror Lake
Mirror Lake is more a pond than a lake, but it has a high enough water level in spring to reflect Half Dome and the other surrounding granite peaks. It’s accessible from the Valley by a lovely walk along Tenaya Creek.
10. Get impressed by giant sequoias at Mariposa Grove
Located near Wawona, in the southernmost part of Yosemite National Park and about an hour drive from Yosemite Valley, you find a grove of about 500 mature giant sequoias. You can marvel at them while taking the wheelchair accessible trail (about 45 minutes), or you can choose 6.5-7 miles long trails to discover specialties like Wawona Tunnel Tree, the Telescope Tree or the Mariposa Grove Cabin.
11. Find waterfalls outside of the Valley: Chilnualna Falls
Compared to the famous Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, Chilnualna Falls Trail is almost deserted. Yes, it’s outside of Yosemite Valley, the trailhead is right next to Mariposa Grove. Chilnualna Falls is an 8.4 miles round-trip hike with three lovely waterfalls and several cascades not far from the trailhead.
12. Drive Tioga Pass Road
This is the only one on the list which is not an experience but a bucket list item for us. It’s a remote but wonderful drive through Yosemite backcountry with highlights like Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows or Tuolumne Grove (sequoias, again!), and countless hikes
Where to stay in Yosemite National Park?
I don’t know how much in advance you need to book the lodges in or near Yosemite Valley – I was not successful when I tried half a year in advance. Finally, we decided to stay in a lodge in Fish Camp which is an hour drive from the valley.
There are also campgrounds in the valley, but it’s good to keep in mind that they are busy, too, and some of them need reservation in advance.
Best time to visit
Yosemite Valley is beautiful all year, period. But if you want to hike, you should plan it from May to October. Moreover, if you want to see the waterfalls, the best time is May and early June.
Most of the waterfalls get their water from snowmelt, and they usually dry out by August – except from Vernal and Nevada Falls on Merced River which have some water all year.
Finally, here’s a short teaser video that we took on a spring weekend:
Is there a national park which is especially memorable for you?
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