Yosemite National Park was one of those places that completely blew us away.
We heard about how incredible it was before visiting, but nothing compares to being there and seeing it for ourselves.
From waterfalls to wildlife, here are favorite things to do in one of the world’s most beautiful places.
1. Take your camera up to Glacier Point
We began our visit with a drive up to Glacier Point. This road is closed much of the year, opening around the end of May when all the snow has melted.
It is a beautiful drive, twisting in parts, with some stopping points to take in the ever-expanding views.
The higher you get, the more the trails appear leading off the road. But, avoid the temptation to start exploring as the best is at the very top.
At the end of this road, there’s a parking lot, restrooms, a small museum and store, and a gentle path leading to the viewpoint overlooking Yosemite Valley.
Grab your camera. You’ve probably seen this view on National Geographic – but nothing can surpass the panoramic grandeur of just standing and staring from here.
We got some trail maps from the store and took a short hike. The trails up here are marked, but you need those maps as it can be easy to get lost.
2. Go camping
There are multiple campsites throughout the park (you can find a complete list at Recreation.gov).
Some have excellent facilities, and some are located in absolute wilderness.
If you want to hike and camp in the wild, you need to get a Wilderness Permit for the overnight stays; these are free, and you can pick one up from a Wilderness Center, facilities that are dotted around the park.
We pitched for our first night at the Bridalveil Creek site down the road from Glacier Point.
A lovely remote campsite with plenty of space and basic facilities in stunning woodland.
We were lucky to show up and get a pitch – a week later, and it would have been reservations only.
3. Climb the Half Dome
The following day found us heading early to the Half Dome for some serious backpacking. You need an advance permit for the Half Dome trail.
We were lucky enough to get this with our Wilderness Permit – I guess because it was early in the season. It’s a challenging but fantastic trail with views you will never forget.
At the Half Dome itself, there’s a cable walkway to help with the climb, and it is so worth it for the sense of achievement on reaching the top.
You will need gloves for those cables, sturdy boots for the rocks, and plenty of water as it got a bit hot out there!
We found a great place to pitch our tent on the valley floor and watched the sunset slowly change the colors of the rocks all around us.
4. Explore Yosemite Valley
West of Half Dome is Yosemite Valley, an exquisite narrow valley with an excellent Visitor Center and village stores.
There are many small hiking trails, campsites, and picnic areas.
We rented some bikes and cycled around the area, stopping for a picnic at Mirror Lake, which was fun and a lot less strenuous than the previous day’s backpacking.
5. Marvel at El Capitan
Fully refreshed from a leisurely day biking, we headed downriver to see El Capitan, a massive sheer plug of rock carved by ancient glaciers in the valley.
This is a classic Yosemite view where the Merced River widens before curving around El Capitan, producing photo opportunities, since the 1860s, for that essential social media post.
We weren’t going to attempt it, but El Cap is world-famous for rock climbing. Numerous routes of varying difficulties wind up its vertical faces.
In June 2017, rock climbing phenom Alex Honnold became the first person to free solo the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan. This meant he climbed it without the use of ropes.
The movie produced about his incredible feat, Free Solo, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
6. Visit Yosemite Falls
Probably one of my favorite hikes was the route to Yosemite Falls.
We were lucky to be here in June when the last winter waters are still crashing through – they can be significantly reduced in the summer months.
It is a beautiful hike through changing terrain with stunning vistas and, of course, the falls themselves.
A few different trails leading from Yosemite Valley past the lower and upper falls cross each other and have varying levels of difficulty, so you can make the hike as long or as short as you want.
You are going to need a map. Your cellphone might work perfectly down in the village, but it’s not far up here before the signal, data, and even GPS become unreliable.
7. Try to spot bears
I guess, like all visitors, part of me desperately wanted to encounter a black bear, and part of me also felt a bit uneasy about it too!
We made sure all our food was in airtight canisters so it wouldn’t attract them – my biggest fear was being woken at night by a bear clawing the tent.
When we were on the trails, we kept an eye out for tracks and movement in the undergrowth, but it always turned out to be raccoon or deer.
The Yosemite National Park is 750,000 acres; I reckon we saw less than 4,000 acres in our tour of Yosemite Valley, so maybe those bears were hiding elsewhere!
8. Hike the Four Mile Trail
The Four Mile Trail runs from Sentinel Beach on the Yosemite Valley floor up around 3,500ft to Glacier Point.
We saw the trailhead at Glacier Point on our first day and had picked up a map of the route. It’s closer to 4.5 miles each way and took us just under 8 hours for the round trip.
It’s a good strong trail with spectacular views of the valley, falls, and Half Dome at every step. You’ll need plenty of water and plenty of energy to make it to the top.
Much of the trail runs through the forest, and parts are steep and twisting, slippery when wet.
Allow enough time to get up and back before sunset as you don’t want to be doing this in the dark.
9. Kayak along the Merced River
One of the best things to do in Yosemite is going kayaking, and the best place to do that is Merced River after hiring a kayak from the activities kiosk at Curry Village, the same place where you can also hire bikes.
Alternatively, you can hire an inflatable raft which is what we did.
We gently paddled downriver for a mile or so and stopped on a sandy bank for some lunch; it’s a fantastic way to take in some of the park’s incredible scenery.
10. Stop at Tunnel View
For our last day in Yosemite, we began at Tunnel View with the sunrise.
It was a truly magnificent experience, with views of the valley coming to life and vistas revealing themselves as the sun came up.
It’s almost impossible to describe this place in words or photographs because it’s about the sounds, smells, and feelings just as much as the sights.
From Tunnel View, the little-known Artist Trail rises 500ft at the start then flattens out to some impressive views with almost nobody else around.
It was a short hike of fewer than 3 miles, but we enjoyed it as much as any for the relaxed solitude and closeness of nature.
We probably spotted more wildlife on this short hike than on any of the other trails.
11. Check out the legendary Ahwahnee Hotel
For our last night in Yosemite Valley, we checked into the Ahwahnee Hotel.
A beautiful and quaint 1920s mountain hotel with a bar, pool, restaurant, and décor that can only be described as a whacky Tibetan monastery.
A perfect end to our wonderful Yosemite trip!
Last Updated on June 3, 2021 by Dave