Yosemite National Park covers more than 1,100 square miles and is bordered by the Sierra National Forest to the southeast and the Stanislaus National Forest to the northwest. The park is prized for its ecological diversity (black bears still roam the forests), towering waterfalls, and giant redwood forests.
The park can get busy during the summer months, so try to visit in the spring when the flowers are starting to bloom and the waterfalls are in full swing. It’s also worth noting that during peak season you’ll need to book parking in advance to ensure a spot.
As you enter the park on El Portal Road, you will drive along the Merced River, which has huge boulders. You will see jagged granite rocks and pine trees that grow so high that you can see the peaks on your neck.
Buy a map when you get to the park, and I also recommend downloading Yosemite National Park on Google Maps before you go, as cell reception is patchy at best. Also check in advance if the trails are open, some are seasonal.
There are hundreds of routes to choose from, so where do you start? Here are some of Yosemite’s iconic trails, all of which I’ve tried.
Mist Trail and Nevada Fall Extension
Distance: 8.8 miles (loop)
Elevation Difference: 1,900 feet
This is one of the most popular trails in Yosemite, and that’s because you get to experience the glorious spring-fall up close and personal, all the way up to 300 feet. The trail begins on a steep incline that opens onto a rough, wide path filled with boulders and vegetation. You will come to a bridge that will take you across the river and here is your chance to use the facilities and refill your water bottle. You will then see a fork in the trail – I recommend taking the fork to the right called the John Muir Trail – it’s much less busy and it’s a gentle, flat slope that cuts through the mountain via several switchbacks.
At the top of the John Muir Trail you can see Yosemite Falls and Sentinel Rock. At this point you can continue to Vernal Fall or continue to the top of Nevada Fall. This is a good place for lunch, but watch out for pesky squirrels who want to steal a piece.
The highlight of this hike is when you reach the roaring waters of Vernal Falls. It’s a bit tricky to walk down the steep steps to the waterfall pool, but thanks to the spray you’ll be rewarded with a real rainbow.
Distance: 7.2 miles (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 2,700 feet
This hike is one of the most challenging I’ve ever attempted as the elevation is quite steep and some parts of the trail are quite rocky and require some scrambling. You should bring plenty of water (at least two liters per person) as there is no other way to fill a water bottle than in the stream. It starts easy enough on a trail that winds back and forth through dozens of switchbacks until you reach Columbia Rock, where you can take in some amazing views, including Half Dome, a massive slab of granite that rises nearly 5,000 feet above the ground. The Yosemite Valley.
Then the real work begins as you’re whisked west to Yosemite Falls, another thunderous waterfall with a 320-foot drop. The rocky path zigzags upwards for several hours and is quite strenuous. Halfway through, however, we once encountered a hiker who was happily drinking a bottle of whiskey in a camping chair. Your hard work will be rewarded when you reach the “lookout” which takes you to a viewing platform at the edge of the falls where you can overlook the park. The return journey is almost all downhill (challenging in its own way), which would be greatly aided by trekking poles.
Four mile track
Distance: 9.6 miles (round trip)
Elevation Difference: 3,200 feet
While the Four Mile Trail doesn’t have the most exciting name, it’s known for being an incredibly fun trail with plenty of variety and great viewpoints. It starts at the bottom of the valley and takes you to Glacier Point. It also has the advantage of having a road at the top so you can get the bus back if you only want to go one way (check beforehand if the road is open as it will be closed all of 2022).
The first part of the walk is gentle and covered in wildflowers if you visit at the right time of year (they bloom most in May-June). From Yosemite Falls to Cathedral Rocks, considered one of the park’s most beautiful rock formations due to its unusual symmetrical appearance, you’ll be treated to a number of incredible views from nearly every angle. You can also see El Capitan, whose vertical rock face is a popular attraction among hardcore rock climbers.
When I attempted this hike it was in September in 40 degree heat so we only covered 6 miles. It was a great walk and we hope to complete it the next time we visit the park.
Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias
Distance: 3 miles (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 520 feet
This is an ideal trail to end your hike if your feet are a little sore after days of steep walking.
There are three redwood groves in Yosemite (Mariposa, Merced, and Tuolumne) and I recommend you visit at least one on your trip. These beautiful trees, giant sequoias, are the only living species of their kind. They can grow up to 300 feet long and up to 26 feet in diameter, which is more than four tall people stuck together.
Merced Grove is probably the least visited of the three and you have to drive there. The wide path takes you through a steep trail of sunlight-dappled forest for just over a mile before reaching the first giant sequoias.
In the park, efforts have been made to protect trees whose roots are sensitive, so there are barriers around the trees themselves. You will spend much of this walk looking straight ahead in awe of the height and beauty of these trees, with their distinct cinnamon red bark.
The return is mainly uphill, but it is not a particularly demanding terrain. Merced Grove is not always open to visitors, so check in advance. Tuolumne is a great option, but it can get a little busier.
Where to stay
I’ve visited Yosemite twice this year and both times stayed at the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort in Midlines, which is about an hour from the park itself. Accommodation at the resort is very affordable, starting at just $18 + tax for a dorm.
I highly recommend booking a private cabin, which is incredibly spacious, whimsically decorated with lots of antiques and surprisingly luxurious.