Easily one of the most treasured natural areas in the United States, Yosemite National Park encompasses an astounding variety of beautiful, awe-inspiring terrain. Within the park’s 747,956 acres reside countless natural wonders, from the U-shaped glaciated valleys surrounded by towering granite walls to the narrow river canyons and ever-eroding gorges; from the vertiginous climbing routes and overlooks on hulking monoliths to the tranquil groves of giant sequoias; from the torrential, relentless push of Sierra snowmelt exploding over impossible cliffs to the placid reflections of mountain peaks in high alpine lakes. Yosemite National Park sits at the very heart of America’s endowment of extraordinary natural places.
The geologic history of Yosemite is a tale of heat, pressure, water, and time. Over 100 million years ago and miles and miles below the earth's surface, an enormous expanse of molten rock that was heated from plate subduction slowly cooled into the Sierra Nevada Batholith, a massive granitic formation that was 350 miles long and 60 miles wide. The slow cooling and intense weight of the overlaying rock created a highly dense and durable granite. Erosion reduced the downward pressure on the batholith, which rose toward the surface, and it also wore away at the layers that buried the rock. Gradually the granite emerged from its subterranean womb only to be met much later by another great sculpting force: glaciers. It was the famous naturalist John Muir who assembled the evidence from his many exploratory and observational romps through the park to support his theory that the distinctive, rounded shape of Half Dome, the magnificent rounded valleys, and the polished slabs of Sierra granite were all products of glaciation.
Over millennia, glacial pressure carved away at the granite, and a period of uplift intensified the landscape’s grade; this increased the force of the rivers that drained the seasonal snowfields, creating deeper and steeper canyons in portions of the area. As glaciers retreated, a truly unique landscape remained, and a robust ecosystem developed that includes thousands of species of plants and animals spanning the range of elevations. The foothill zones transition into the lower montane forests around 3,000 feet, and this montane forest environment, filled with ponderosa pines, incense cedars, and oaks, continues all the way up to 6,000 feet. This is also the zone of the giant sequoias, the elder statesmen of the region when it comes to living things. To put their epochs in perspective, imagine standing beside a 300-foot tree that was a sapling when humans in the Middle East were first manipulating iron and inventing alphabets. Moving higher from the upper montane forest toward 8,000 feet, the flora gives way to a subalpine forest of lodgepole pine and the country’s healthiest stands of the otherwise besieged whitebark pine. The alpine zone that soars above 9,500 feet is the domain of shrubs, rare wildflowers, lichens, and “sky-island” groupings of uncommon and threatened plants.
Yosemite National Park is also central to the story of conservation in the United States. Yellowstone may have been the first national park, but Yosemite was where federal protection for public land was first implemented. There are plenty of triumphs to trumpet in this history, but there are several ignoble moments as well. The very name of the park, Yosemite, conveys a sense of calamitous irony: In 1851, the Mariposa Battalion ruthlessly pursued Chief Tenaya’s group of Ahwahneechee through Yosemite Valley before capturing and relocating them. The white soldiers misunderstood the native name for the valley, Ahwahnee, to be the Miwok name for the dangerous tribes who resided in the valley, the Yohhe’meti, or “those who kill.” With native populations extirpated, the mid-19th century trend of tourism, development, and resource exploitation became an immediate threat to the area. Hotels, roads, land grabs, logging, and overgrazing were all part of the portfolio of modern impacts on the land. Incredibly, residents and admirers of the valley were able to persuade Senator John Conness to introduce the Yosemite Grant protecting the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove from private ownership and development; in 1864, with the nation divided by the Civil War, Lincoln signed the bill into law.
The fight to protect the sanctity of the place wasn’t over, however, as there were many further affronts to the legal intention of the grant. With resources strained, it fell to the military cavalries to implement the law and the Supreme Court to reinforce the law when it was challenged by homesteaders. In another ironic turn, it was James Hutchings who most enthusiastically promoted Yosemite to build his own tourism empire, and it was Hutchings who brought a case challenging the legality of the Yosemite Grant, which threatened his business, all the way to the Supreme Court; it was also Hutchings, however, who hired John Muir, the unique and eloquent champion of the land whose lobbying motivated influential policy makers and fed a popular support for conservation. It was largely due to Muir’s advocacy that Yosemite National Park was officially established by President Benjamin Harrison on October 1, 1890, and expanded under President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.
Today Yosemite National Park is enjoyed by more than 3.8 million people annually, making it the third-most visited national park behind the Great Smokey Mountains and Grand Canyon national parks. Given the enormous diversity of the park’s geography and environment, there are activities for visitors of every type, age, and ability. Planning a trip to Yosemite can be a large task, so we’ve separated the area into five regions that roughly correspond to some of the park’s geographic cues. As you plan your trip, remember that dogs are only allowed in developed areas such as paved roads, paths, and in campgrounds (they are prohibited in walk-in campgrounds), and they must always be leashed. Neither trails nor lodges are open to dogs. Also, an incredibly useful and free shuttle system runs year round in the eastern Yosemite Valley and during the summer in other areas of the park. This highly recommended service can help you avoid the headache of parking during the busy peak summer season. Regardless, there are plenty of strategies for planning an itinerary: think of hikes, lakes, rivers, or climbing routes that you’d like to explore, or focus on lodges, campgrounds, or incredible backcountry routes. The important thing is to responsibly enjoy this national treasure and to share your stories with future generations.
The classic Yosemite view of El Capitan towering over the forested valley floor as Bridalveil Falls plunges toward its confluence with the Merced River is one you won’t soon forget. The view of Half Dome from Cook's Meadow is equally unforgettable. Accessible year round, Yosemite Valley receives the vast majority of the visitors to the park, and for good reason; this is where you will overwhelmingly feel the sheer size and immensity of Yosemite's landmarks. "The Valley," as it is locally known, is home to some of the world's tallest and most challenging rock climbs, drawing in climbers from around the globe. It also is the starting point for some of the country's most coveted trails, including the 210-mile long John Muir Trail and the arduous trek leading up to Half Dome. Yosemite's towering walls provide the backdrop for some of the world's most impressive waterfalls. The falls are at their best in spring and early summer when Sierra snowmelt is at its peak. Whether you are craning your neck to see the nation’s tallest waterfall or looking for a more intimate cascade, Yosemite Valley has a waterfall for you.
Yosemite Valley is a world-renowned destination, and the park provides many of the creature comforts you would expect to find within a high-demand tourist area including a grocery store, lodging, post office, gas station, and medical services. While these amenities add a degree of convenience, the real gems are the granite walls, trails, river, meadows, and waterfalls that keep the valley at the center of a Yosemite experience.
Head to the South Rim for tremendous views of El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and Half Dome, or stitch together a long hike to incredible formations linking Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, Taft Point and The Fissures. There are a myriad of unforgettable highlights and vistas along the south rim. If you can’t make the hikes happen, be sure at a minimum to make the shuttle trip or drive up to Glacier Point.
Much of the activity around Yosemite Valley's rim is focused on the south side, the North Rim provides some monumental highlights, namely El Capitan and views of Yosemite Creek plummeting over Yosemite Falls. Keep in mind that you'll have to work a bit harder to access the north rim since there are no roads, but that same attribute also minimizes the crowds. The North Rim is the starting point for some lesser-traveled adventures, so creating a little personal space is often a matter of planning and ingenuity.
Removed from the pressure of Yosemite's lower elevations, Tuolumne Meadows and its surroundings offer a vastly different landscape and experience from Yosemite Valley. Set at an elevation of 8,600 feet, Tuolumne Meadows is the portal to Yosemite's high country. The meadows are fed by the Lyell and Dana Forks, the headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River, and framed by shapely granite domes in every direction. The picturesque peaks of the Cathedral Range rise above and provide peak baggers with a limitless playground; higher Sierra summits rise beyond. This is a stunningly picturesque area of the park if you are looking to enjoy alpine lakes, get "lost" in the wilderness, or access Yosemite's High Sierra Camps. Camping or lodging in the Tuolumne Meadows area sets you up for accessible adventures around the meadows themselves and some of Yosemite's finest day hikes and ultra-classic climbing routes. Tuolumne Meadows is also home to a wilderness permit office, a visitor center, camping reservations, a small grocery and supply store, and mountaineering shop. The only downside is that access to this magical part of the Sierra from Tioga Pass Road - the highest mountain pass road on the west coast - is seasonal; this is one tough place to get to once the first snow falls and the road closes.
Unique in the Sierra to Yosemite is a group of five outfitted "High Sierra Camps" each spaced approximately 5 to 10 miles apart along a scenic 50-mile loop. The High Sierra Camp loop explores some of the most beautiful terrain in Yosemite's high country and is open to hikers and horseback. The camps offer a catered backcountry experience and come equipped with wall-tent style accommodations, with breakfast and dinner provided. The High Sierra Camps allow hikers to travel the loop with less weight, leaving tents, food, and cookware behind. Booking any or all of the High Sierra Camps requires advance reservations. The more traditionalist backpacker need not worry; glamping is not mandatory along the loop; the experience is open to all, and backpacker camping is provided at each of the five High Sierra Camps (note: backpackers can also reserve breakfast and dinners in advance without booking camp accommodations). Most begin the loop from Tuolumne Meadows.
The construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1923 impeded the Tuolumne River and flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which by many accounts was as magnificent as Yosemite Valley itself. While the reservoir has altered this landscape, the valley remains an attractive corner of the park that receives less pressure than the popular Merced River drainage. Hetch Hetchy is filled with creeks and streams that pour over towering cliffs, and you’ll also find some of Yosemite’s most remote and rewarding trails leaving from or ending in this valley, such as the "Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne" and Lake Eleanor
There is a long tradition of camping and lodging in the park that ranges from the rough and rustic to the highly luxurious. Whatever your particular tastes and budgets may be, keep in mind that Yosemite is one of the most visited parks in the nation. Advance reservations are essential. Also, remember that you can avoid some crowds by adjusting your schedule; shoulder seasons (i.e. fall and spring) can be exquisite times to visit the park, and Yosemite can also be a paradise for winter activities after cold winter storms.