Pets allowed
Allowed with Restrictions
Guided tours
Backcountry camping
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Yosemite National Park Overview | Yosemite Valley | South Rim | North Rim | Tuolumne Meadows Area | High Sierra Camps | Hetch Hetchy | Lodging/Additional Campgrounds

Yosemite National Park Overview

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.

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. Photo by Aron Bosworth.

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.  

South Rim

Half Dome view from Glacier Poin. Photo by Aron Bosworth.

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.

  • Glacier Point: Iconic view of Half Dome; site of the historic Firefall.
  • Dewy Point: A 7.5-mile loop that provides excellent views of the valley.
  • Sentinel Dome: Short hike with panoramic views.
  • Sentinel to Taft Loop: 5-mile loop hike along the south rim.
  • Taft Point: An overlook with hair-raising exposure.
  • Panorama Trail: Full day hike exploring the highlights of the inner/eastern portion of the South Rim.
  • Pohono Trail: Full day hike exploring the highlights of the outer/western portion of the South Rim.
  • Nearby campgrounds: Bridalveil Creek Campground

North Rim

Yosemite Falls Overlook. Photo by Jonathan Matthews

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.

Tuolumne Meadows Area

Tuolumne Meadows from Lembert Dome. Photo by Aron Bosworth.

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.

High Sierra Camps

Vogelsang Lake is the home to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. Photo by Brandon Katcher. 

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. 

Hetch Hetchy

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

  • Hetch Hetchy Reservoir: Beautiful granite valley; access to Yosemite's more remote trails.
  • Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne Trail: Rugged descent or climb along the Tuolumne River between Tuolumne Meadows and Hetch Hetchy.
  • Lake Eleanor Trail: Stunning views over Hetch Hetchy Valley lead to a remote lake/corner of the park.
  • Campgrounds: Hetch Hetchy Backpacker's Camp.

Lodging/Additional Campgrounds

The Grand Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley. Photo by Aron Bosworth

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.


  • The Ahwahnee Hotel: Historic and elegant lodge in the heart of Yosemite Valley.
  • Curry Village: Canvas tent cabins and dining in Yosemite Valley.
  • Yosemite Lodge at the Falls: Comfortable lodging near base of Yosemite Falls.
  • Wawona Hotel: Historic hotel near the park's southern entrance and Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias.
  • White Wolf Lodge: Canvas tent cabins and dining along Tioga Road.
  • Tuolumne Meadows Lodge: Canvas tent cabins with dining in Tuolumne Meadows.
  • Glacier Point Ski Hut: Winter cross-country/snow-shoe accommodations at Glacier Point; begin from Badger Pass Ski Area.
  • Ostrander Ski Hut: Backcounty ski hut reservable during winter months; begin from Badger Pass Ski Area.

Other Campgrounds

  • Crane Flat Campground: Camping situated half-way between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.
  • White Wolf Campground: Camping along Tioga Pass road; relatively close to Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows.
  • Wawona Campground: Camping along the South Fork of the Merced River near park's south entrance and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)




Parking Pass

National Park Pass


Massive granite monoliths. Plummeting waterfalls. Sierra high country access. Outdoor recreation galore.


Crowded during summer season.


ADA accessible
Geologically significant
Campgrounds + Campsites
Backcountry camping
Historically significant
Flushing toilets
Rock climbing
Potable water
Picnic tables
Old-growth forest
Big Game Watching
Guided tours

Site type




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I would like to insert a link in your posted article, are you still available?
I've been in March, July, and August. In regards to crowds...I appreciated my March trip. For weather and # of trails available to hike..I enjoyed July's trip. I hiked the Upper Yosemite Falls on my first trip in March. The trail was rather strenuous, however, the countless number of captivating view from beginning to end make this trek well worth the effort. I also hiked the Mist Trail up to Vernal Falls. Also, a beautiful and fun adventure. Both hikes offered sweeping views the entire trek. There was still plenty of snow on the valley's rim as well as along the trails for both hikes. I absolutely love this place.

In July, on my 30th birthday, I hiked Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point. Wow, what a rewarding hike! The trail gives numerous opportunities to view the valley floor, Yosemite Falls, Sentinel and Half Dome. The view from Glacier Point really allows you to take in the valley floor and high sierras . From there, I took the 8.5 mile Panoramic Trail to atop Nevada Falls. Once again, sweeping views of Illilouette Falls and a snow melt-fed stream to wade in during hot days. Nevada and Vernal Falls can be seen from a distance during this hike, so take time to enjoy. The hike down to the valley floor from Nevada was crowded. Regardless, ~14 miles of sustained views made my 30th one for the books.
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