When you first catch sight of Yosemite National Park, probably from the beautiful Tunnel View Overlook, prepare to be blown away. Once your mind gets over how insane the view of the park is, you can't help but wonder what hidden gems are tucked away in the forests, behind the waterfalls, and atop the majestic mountains. Despite the fact that most people who visit spend their entire trip staying firmly within the 7 square miles of the Yosemite Valley, there are still undiscovered wonders even in that small area, and there are 1,161 more square miles of pure beauty that are equally worth exploring! Here are some of the highlights from across Yosemite.
Some tips for visiting Yosemite:
-Park at a visitor center and hop on a free shuttle bus that will take you around the park. It'll save you time, gas (which can be mind-bogglingly expensive the closer you get to the park), and effort, and you can relax and enjoy the views rather than worry about the traffic.
-Cell service can be spotty-- don't rely on getting a signal for maps/directions, communicating with pals, or posting that epic shot of Glacier Point. Pack a paper map, just in case.
-Since you're in a valley, things will be a little cooler than you might expect. Even in the summer, you might want to pack a sweatshirt along with your shades and sunscreen.
It's about an hour drive from Yosemite Valley to the famous overlook at Glacier Point, but it's one of the most incredible overlooks in the entire country. The walk from the parking lot to the lookout is short and paved, but it doesn't matter since the view is literally heart-stopping. If you're afraid of heights, seriously, be careful, you're three thousand feet above the valley, and can see forever; some find it pretty intense.
The Wawona Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1876, and it remains one of the coolest places to stay in Yosemite, although it doesn't look quite that old, it's steeped in history. Enjoy the wraparound porch, Victorian parlor with a fireplace, and dark and romantic dining room, but be prepared for relatively old-school accommodations.
You don't have to go too far north up the coast to see massive redwoods, you can find plenty in Yosemite. The lower grove loop at Mariposa Grove is about two miles, while the upper and lower groves are about 5-6 miles, so you can take as much or as little time here as you want, but there's plenty of impressive features in the lower grove alone.
*NOTE: Closed until Spring 2017.
Part hostel, part cafe, part spa, the Yosemite Bug Spa & Resort is absolutely perfect. Cabins, tents, and dorms for rent make for awesomely cheap accommodations that allow you to socialize with others exploring Yosemite. Spring-fed tubs, yoga lessons, and spa treatments allow for relaxation after long hikes. And fresh, locally-sourced meals from the cafe are the perfect complements to your adventures through the park.
Isn't it nice when the best views in the park are easy and convenient to access? Right off the road, you'll find another one of Yosemite's iconic lookouts: Tunnel View. But just because it's easy to reach doesn't make it any less impressive. Seriously, it's one of those places you have to see to believe.
Bridalveil Fall is a year-round feature of the park, and is one of the more popular waterfalls in Yosemite. You can hike to it, or appreciate it from afar. However, it's totally worth the hike, since the Ahwahneechee tribe, who lived in the valley, believed that inhaling its mist would improve your chances of marriage. Then again, they also reportedly believed that those leaving the valley couldn't look directly into them, lest they be cursed by the demon guarding the valley.
If you're looking for a solid dinner conveniently located inside the park, the Mountain Room Restaurant is your best bet. It mostly serves classic dishes, like steak and chicken, and while the food is good, the ambiance of the dining room (the huge windows offer great views of the falls) make for an unforgettable meal.
One of the most famous climbs in all of America, El Capitan is a notorious cliff that's even more imposing up close. It was once considered an impossible climb, but today, there are tons of named routes up the face. If you aren't much for tackling heights like that, it's just as fun to watch the climbers from afar.
Yosemite Falls offers yet another iconic view. The park's tallest and most imposing waterfall (and the 6th tallest in the world) is actually made of three drops, each more powerful than the last. It's at its peak in the spring when snow melt and rain swell the flow. You can see it from all over the park, but hiking up to it really highlights how massive it is.
Grab your camera (digital or traditional) and head to the nearby Ansel Adams Gallery, which offers free "Camera Walks," led by staff photographers who will brief you not only on how to use your camera to capture landscape photography and take pictures that will make your friends super jealous, but they'll also teach you about famed landscape photographer Ansel Adams, and about Yosemite itself. The gallery is worth exploring as well, seeing the park through Ansel Adams' eyes is pretty inspiring.
Back in the early 20th century, an enterprising couple, David and Jennie Curry, decided to take a little vacation to Yosemite Valley. Luckily for them, they were schoolteachers who had experience leading camping tours through Yellowstone, and they were able to offset the cost of their trip by leading guests through Yosemite. Their first tour was such a wild success that they set up a permanent campsite, hired a cook to feed their guests, and began promoting the crap out of their business, which they called Camp Curry. Curry Village is the descendant of the park's very first lodging spot, and offers a classic motel, cabins, and canvas tents (already set up for you!).
Half Dome is one of the park's most challenging hikes, but it requires no actual climbing skills and should be well-marked enough for older kids to complete. It's 17 miles and part of it involves helping yourself along with wooden planks and metal cables. You'll also need a permit. Otherwise, watching hikers make the final ascent from the meadow below is almost as intense.
Set off to see some waterfalls on the lovely Mist Trail. You'll find that it's at its most misty (we're talking rain gear-level misty) in the spring. There's a three mile loop (which takes you to Vernal Fall) and a seven mile loop (which goes on to take you to the top of Nevada Falls). If you have the time and the energy, do the whole thing, though, because it's truly an incredible view.
Nevada Falls is one truly epic waterfall. It's almost 600 feet tall, and in the spring, you can feel how powerful it is. Mist Trail and the trail to Half Dome cross the top of the falls, and the Mist Trail offers loads of great views of the falls along the way.
The Ahwahnee Hotel features the natural wood and stone look of most other National Park Service lodges, but a little-known fact is that the interior almost featured a Mayan revival motif, as designed by Henry Lovins. The board wound up deciding to go with a husband and wife team who blended Art Deco, Native American, and Arts and Crafts elements with a touch of Middle Eastern flair. The hotel also originally had a rooftop garden and dance hall on the top, but this was converted into a private apartment after it failed to attract many tourists. Some early plans for the hotel also had the building at a massive six stories, but it was decided that a smaller, cozier hotel would be more fitting. Every aspect of the hotel, especially the Grand Dining Room and the Great Lounge, were designed to highlight the beauty of the park and offer stunning views. With its unique combination of style, luxury, and natural beauty, it is, without question, the best way to experience Yosemite National Park.
The best time to visit Yosemite National Park: Summer is easily the most popular time to visit (which can mean traffic on the roads, and limited availability for campsites and hotels). While spring is a good alternative, keep in mind it might be snowy into May or even June here, and while most of the park is open, some roads close for the season. By fall, most of the waterfalls dry up, but some of the non-evergreen foliage is quite lovely, and most of the park remains open through November, when you also get more mild temperatures, although the weather can start to get a little unpredictable. Winter usually brings quite a bit of snow, but snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are always fun options!