Yosemite National Park. Home to some of the most iconic landscapes, intricate wildlife dynamics, and epic hikes.
Most people picture Yosemite Valley when they think of Yosemite National Park. Which makes sense – over four million people a year visit Yosemite National Park, and the most popular destination for visitors from around the world is the iconic Yosemite Valley. Incidentally, do not be surprised if you encounter not only crowded trails, but also road traffic leading into the Park.
However, there are other aspects of the park that attract less visitors, offering hikers a more isolated experience even during the busiest months at Yosemite (which, by the way are May through October – even though Yosemite National Park is open all year).
At nearly 1,200 square miles, Yosemite offers a variety of landscapes for various skill levels – from high waterfalls to deep meadows, and stands of giant sequoias to spanning meadows, Yosemite attracts everyone from pleasant hikers to hardcore climbers.
Here we will break down some of the top-rated hikes in Yosemite National Park. Regardless of what you are looking for, one of these hikes will have it for you.
Day hikes might often be on the “easier” side of the spectrum when it comes to hikes in Yosemite, but that does not mean they should be overlooked – these day hikes offer some of the best views while hiking Yosemite. Whether you are camping or just visiting for the day, you are going to want to check out these day hikes:
1. Bridalveil Fall Trail
Although the hike at the Bridalveil Fall Trail might be the shortest, this half-mile round-trip hike offers a stunning view of the first waterfall you will see in Yosemite National Park. The 620-foot waterfall, Bridalveil Fall, flows year-round. And, chances are, you will get sprayed from the “bridal veil” fog that the fall emits, year-round (but especially during spring). This may cause slippery rocks, but other than that hazard, the trail is easy and safe for most people. This hike is accessible to nearly everyone, but it is unfortunately not wheelchair accessible.
If you are interested in seeing this epic waterfall, but are not keen on crowds (or short hikes), then no need to worry or compromise your plans – Bridalveil Fall is visible from several areas of the park, including Southside Drive, Northside Drive, the Tunnel View, and the Gates of the Valley.
2. Mirror Lake Trail
It is true that Yosemite National Park is most known for its waterfalls – however, that does not mean that you would not be impressed by other views Yosemite has to offer.
For example, take the Mirror Lake Trail – this 2-7 mile hike is great for those people who want a longer, but still pleasant, hike. The trail to Mirror Lake begins at the Mirror Lake Trailhead (shuttle stop #17), and offers an out and back trail to Mirror Lake. This trail is 2 miles round-trip, but visitors have the option to hike further along the Mirror Lake Loop Trail, adding roughly 5 miles.
Despite the length of this hike, the Mirror Lake Loop Trail is relatively easy. This trail gains elevation of 100 feet as you stroll around the lake.
Although the Mirror Lake Loop trail is accessible (and beautiful) all year-round, the Lake is most filled during spring, as it is snow melt season. During the summer, Mirror Lake can be dry – but do not let this stop you from taking this hike. Mirror Lake is the name of the trail, but not the only scenic view – the Mirror Lake Loop Trail offers a holistic vista of Yosemite National Park, giving you sights of meadows, trees, and the iconic Mount Watkins in the distance.
3. Lower Yosemite Falls Trail
Did you know Yosemite Falls is North America’s tallest waterfall? Yosemite Falls stands high at over 2,400 feet – and falls in staggering steps.
The good news is you do not have to hike far to see part of the majestic Yosemite Falls. The Lower Yosemite Fall (or bottom step, still towering at 320 feet) is accessible via a one-mile round-trip hike – and with minimal elevation gain (50 feet).
Like the Bridalveil Fall Trail, the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail is highly accessible for most people. There is a wheelchair accessible path, which leads from the main parking lot.
The only thing that might stop you from hiking this trail would be the time of year – Yosemite Falls stops flowing mid- to late- summer, depending on the snow melt rate of that year. We recommend that visitors to Yosemite complete this hike if they are present during winter or early spring to truly appreciate the Yosemite Falls in all of its glory. Pro tip – during the winter, the Lower Yosemite Falls trail is exposed to direct sunlight – making this hike a great option compared to other trails that might be icy and inaccessible to you.
4. Upper Yosemite Falls
If you are looking for a slightly more challenging (and therefore, slightly less crowded) opportunity to view Yosemite Falls, you can continue from the Lower Falls Trail to the top of Yosemite Falls. This hike is roughly 7.2 miles with 2,700 feet in elevation gain, which makes this a more moderate- to difficult- ranked day hike.
The trail begins behind the wooded Camp 4 (Sunnyside Campground, along the Valley Loop Trail), which is about a quarter of a mile from the Lower Yosemite Falls trail. However, if you are not camping at this site, you might have to walk from the Lower Yosemite Falls main parking area (which, of course, would merely inconvenience you with a majestic preview of Yosemite Falls, as you pass the Lower Yosemite fall).
The hike to Upper Yosemite Falls is exposed over the treeline, so be prepared for lots of sun, and a lot of steep climbing as you ascend. The hike is rated for this steep incline, which leads to a stream crossing. Be sure to check the weather conditions before you hike to Upper Yosemite Falls, because the time of year (and snow melt) could affect the levels of the stream – and, as such, the hazards associated with crossing it.
The trail continues for several miles, and features switchbacks, granite steps, and sandy surfaces. Once at the top, you will certainly understand the magnitude of Yosemite Falls – the peak offers you cliff-edge views of Yosemite Falls, from the very top, which was certainly worth the climb.
Moderate To Difficult Hikes
5. The Panorama Trail
The Panorama Trail is aptly named, as it offers a stunning panoramic view of Yosemite National Park and all of its magnificence.
The trail begins at Glacier Point Road, and continues for 8 and a half miles – one way. It also includes a 3,700 foot gain in elevation, making this hike moderate- to difficult- ranked. However, the hike is mostly downhill (if you start from Glacier Point) – giving some of your muscles a “break” compared to other hikes at Yosemite.
The Panorama Trail is pocketed between the Glacier Point Trail and the Mist Trail (see below), which makes this trail slightly crowded at times. The views, however, are totally worth it.
Again, the best time to see the falls along the Panorama Trail is during the busiest season – late spring, early summer, during the snow melt. However, the falls along the Panorama Trail peak for a longer duration than other falls in Yosemite National Park, making this hike a great option during the off season as well.
If all of the hikes above (located in the Yosemite Valley) sound like child’s play to you, then perhaps you are ready to venture off into the Yosemite Backcountry. The backcountry includes the trail to Half Dome Rock (which begins in the Valley) and the relatively accessible (but still difficult-to-moderate) Young Lakes Trail.
6. Young Lakes Trail
This backcountry hike is best for casual (but experienced) backpackers. The hike is 6.6 miles to Young Lake, which is north of Tuolumne Meadows. Young Lake offers one of the most popular camping destinations in the park for backpackers, but there is still plenty of privacy – the area is divided into the lower, middle and upper lakes (the latter of the two which are less populated). The camping sites are located to the north shore of the lower and middle lakes, and the northwest shore of the upper lake.
Camping conditions are ideal summer through fall, but this hike is accessible year-round. The backcountry is (obviously) well-known for bears, and these campsites do not include bear boxes – so bear spray is required (not just merely recommended).
7. Half Dome Rock, Vernal Falls, and Nevada Falls (The Mist Trail)
Half Dome Rock is another one of the most popular destinations in Yosemite National Park. Some say that Half Dome Rock is the most iconic landmark in Yosemite. There is good news and bad news regarding crowds – the good news is that you need a permit to hike at Half Dome Rock, which alleviates crowding; the bad news is that you need a permit to hike Half Dome Rock, which could sell out weeks (or months, depending on the season) in advance.
Half Dome Rock is accessible via the Mist Trail, which also gives hikers views of Vernal Falls and The Nevada Falls.
One of the most popular hikes in Yosemite National Park is the Mist Trail, largely due to its diversity. However, this does not mean it is necessarily the most accessible – the Mist Trail to Half Dome Rock is 14.2 miles round-trip.
If you are looking for a day hike, you could stop at some of the falls on the Mist Trail and make it a 3 mile (to Vernal Falls) or 7 mile (to Nevada Falls) day hike, without going to Half Dome Rock. If you do decide to take the Mist Trail to Half Dome Rock, you are facing an elevation gain of 4,800 feet – making this hike pretty difficult.
A portion of the Mist Trail (along the hike to Half Dome Rock) includes cables designed to assist hikers with the ascent and descent of the steep terrain. The climb is about 600 feet, but is secure and offers assist from wooden foot boards. So, don’t be surprised if you encounter a line to climb – as emphasized, Half Dome Rock is one of the most popular landmarks in Yosemite (and also as emphasized, totally worth the trip). The view from the top offers a spanning spectacle of Yosemite Valley, and the surrounding peaks.
Even if you decide to take the 3 or 7 mile hike to the Vernal Falls or Nevada Falls, respectively, hikers still gain over 1,000 feet in elevation – making this a more moderate hike.
The best time to take the hike along the Mist Trail would be during the peak runoff of the Vernal and Nevada Falls – ranging from April to June, which is during the snow melt.
If you decide to visit during this time, however, keep in mind the signature status of this hike and the popularity it attracts during the most busy season at Yosemite National Park. Still, this hike is worth it regardless of the time of year, and the natural landscape will still impress you and offer you awe-some sights and sensations.
So there you have it – some of the most popular – and some of the most populated – hikes in Yosemite National Park. Regardless of crowds, you will find what you are looking for in this majestic landscape. And if you are responsible and experienced, you will even find solitude (especially on backpacking trips and backcountry hikes). Yosemite National Park is popular for one reason – it is one of a kind, and simply breathtaking. You have to see the sights – and take the hikes – to believe them!
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