Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, wrote John Muir. In Yosemite National Park, which inspired John Muir’s writing and environmentalism, there are granite pinnacles and meadows, old growth groves of sequoia and vertiginous waterfalls to witness, all within a day’s march of camp. For over a century, Yosemite National Park has awed its visitors with some of the most scenic protected wilderness in the world. Campers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts flock to the park by the millions to enjoy the dramatic vistas and idyllic trails. While there are plenty of opportunities for backcountry hideaways—most of which are on the north side of the park—day hiking doesn’t get any better than in Yosemite, and as long as a hiker is content to contend with the crowds, they will be amply rewarded with a truly spiritual backcountry experience.
The loop between Sentinel Dome and Taft Point connects two of the best viewpoints of the Yosemite Valley. Shorter, but separate, options are available, but this loop is still a very manageable five miles, leaving plenty of time to soak in the best views of the western Yosemite Valley and south rim.
In the heart of Yosemite Valley, the Four Mile Trail climbs 3,200 feet to Glacier Point, one of Yosemite’s most recognizable vistas. Given the elevation and mileage, about nine miles round-trip, plan to spend the better part of a day here. When Glacier Point Road is open, a shuttle is available for the return to the valley to make the day more manageable.
Few outdoor destinations are as iconic as Half Dome, and the Half Dome Hike ascends its flank. It’s a challenging hike to fit in one day at over 16 miles, but the scenery, flora and famed bolted-cable finish make Half Dome a bucket list item for anyone visiting the Park.
The Cathedral Lakes Trail passes through fir and lodgepole forest to a pair of lakes and the stone spires of Cathedral Peak. One of the most popular out of Tuolumne Meadows, some of its mileage follows the famed and scenic John Muir Trail.
While the most famous trees like General Sherman grow far to the south of Yosemite, the evergreen giant that has made Giant Sequoia National Park famous grows in impressive scale in Yosemite too. There are several groves within the park that make for mellow and short day hikes, serving as a welcome break from the heavy ascents elsewhere in the park.
The Tuolumne Grove at the western edge of the park is featured here for winter opportunities, but its trees are no smaller during the summer. At roughly 2.5 miles, it’s a short and level jaunt to a towering old growth grove of sequoias.
Not far from Tuolumne Grove, Merced Grove is inexplicably less visited, but for the signage at its entrance that foretells an underwhelming experience. The truth is somewhat different, as Merced Grove has more sequoias of greater size and variety than Tuolumne. Similarly short, its 3.6 miles make for a good warmup to something more straining.
The Mariposa Grove is Yosemite’s most enticing arboreal attraction, although it strains the definition of “mellow and short.” The best trees grow over four miles up at the upper grove, requiring a bit of a trek, although an available tram is a convenient option for the faint of heart. The grove is currently closed for restoration work, but will reopen in July 2017.
No Yosemite waterfall, in fact no waterfall in the Park System, will surpass Yosemite Falls for sheer spectacle when the spring melt charges its flow with glacial runoff that cascades more than 2,400 feet to the valley floor. There a couple ways to see the United States’ tallest waterfall in action.* The Yosemite Falls Trail to Columbia Rock offers magnificent views of the waterfall and the valley, and is a short (if strenuous) one-mile hike. Hikers have the option of continuing another five miles to the top of the waterfall. Access to viewpoints is also available on the valley floor at the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail, a quarter-mile access trail.
The Merced River’s course over the precipice from Little Yosemite Valley to the valley floor below creates a spectacular pair of waterfalls—and waterfall hikes—that are a must-see in Yosemite. Two options are available to you. A short 2.7-mile hike from the Happy Isles Trailhead gets you to Vernal Falls, and it’s a great option for those planning additional hikes later in the day or looking for something more mellow. For those looking for a greater challenge, Vernal Falls is the first step of the Giant Staircase Loop, a longer hike that passes the 594-foot Nevada Falls above. Best flows occur during the spring melt, which are reliably strong enough to drench springtime visitors.
*Ahem: By uninterrupted vertical drop.