A Detailed Yosemite National Park Guide

Yosemite National Park in Autumn
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With around 4 million visitors each year, Yosemite National Park in California is one of the United States’ most popular national parks and offers seemingly endless opportunities for adventures. One look at this breathtaking landscape will quickly reveal why it attracts so many visitors.

Yosemite’s awe-inspiring granite rock faces, towering sequoia groves, numerous waterfalls, and expansive wilderness make it a bucket list destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts around the world.

In this article, we’ll provide an overview of Yosemite National Park, including the history and key facts, and provide you with all the information you need to begin planning your visit.

History

Humans have lived in the area that is now Yosemite National Park for thousands of years. The region is the ancestral home of the Miwok (Ahwahneechee) people, who have called it home for nearly 4,000 years.

Until the 19th century, there were no European settlers in the Yosemite Valley. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 led many people to travel to the state in search of riches. The influx of people resulted in conflicts over land and resources between various groups, including many violent confrontations.

A Euro-American militia called the Mariposa Battalion formed in 1851 and pushed the native Ahwahneechee people onto reservations. In doing so, the members of this militia became the first non-native group of people to enter the Yosemite Valley. Following a series of conflicts known as the Mariposa Indian War, Yosemite became open to settlers, investors, and traders.

As more people settled the territory and explored its potential commercial value, word began to spread about the area’s incredible natural beauty. In 1864, the United States government formally recognized Yosemite’s value. With Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Yosemite Grant, the park came under the protection of California.

Four years later, Scottish-American conservationist John Muir walked to the Yosemite Valley from San Francisco Bay. Muir was inspired by its grandeur and concerned about degradation to ecosystems from activities like logging. As a result, he began to write about Yosemite and the High Sierra. He also pushed for greater conservation efforts in the region and brought influential people there to emphasize the importance of preserving natural environments.

In 1890, the efforts of Muir, Yosemite Guardian Galen Clark, and other conservationists came to fruition. The United States Congress passed a bill protecting the land around the Yosemite Valley, as well as the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. However, it wasn’t until 1906 that the area came under federal protection and that exploitation of the park’s resources finally came to an end.

This was thanks to John Muir, who took President Theodore Roosevelt to Yosemite on a camping trip in 1903. On the trip, he convinced the president that the area deserved protection as federal land. Three years later, Roosevelt signed a bill protecting Yosemite National Park’s entire area and returned the land to the federal government.

water reflection in Yosemite National Park

Key Facts about Yosemite National Park

Size: 3,028 km2 (1,169 square miles)

Number of visitors: around 4 million a year

Established on: 1 October 1890

Length of hiking trails: Over 1200 km (750 miles) of official trails

Highest point: Mount Lyell at 3,997 meters (13,114 feet)

Lowest point: Merced River 648 meters (2,127 feet)

Other interesting facts about Yosemite:

  • The name “Yosemite” comes from the Miwok language and means “killer” or “those who kill.” The term referred to the tribe of people living in the Yosemite Valley, whom Miwok tribes in the surrounding area feared.
  • The Yosemite people called the valley Ahwahnee, which means “large mouth,” because of the valley’s shape and its rock features. They referred to themselves as Ahwahneechee, or “dwellers of Ahwahnee.”
  • Yosemite was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 because of its exceptional natural beauty and unique geological features formed through glacial erosion.
  • The park contains five of the world’s highest waterfalls: Yosemite Falls (739m), Snow Creek Falls (652m), Sentinel Fall (585 m), Staircase Falls (518m), and Ribbon Fall (491m). Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America.
  • More than 20% of California’s 7,000 plant species are found in Yosemite. The park is a suitable habitat for over 160 rare plants.
  • Geologists estimate that ice accumulations in Yosemite during a glacial episode one million years ago amounted to an ice thickness of up to 1,200 meters (4,000 feet).
  • Nearly 112 km (70 miles) of the Pacific Crest Trail, a world-famous thru-hiking trail, run through Yosemite National Park. Much of this overlaps with the 340-km (211-mile) John Muir Trail.
  • Yosemite’s Badger Pass is the oldest downhill skiing area in California.

Climate and Weather

Yosemite National Park experiences hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters. The temperature and weather conditions are often dependent on elevation. The Yosemite Valley and Wawona Meadow lie at 1,220 meters (4,000 feet) above sea level, with elevation in the park climbing to nearly 4,000 meters (over 13,100 feet) at Mount Lyell. Visitors should expect lower temperatures in higher elevation areas.

Below you can find out more about what to expect in each season. Unless otherwise specified, the average temperatures listed are for Yosemite Valley.

Summer (July to August)

Summers in Yosemite are warm and dry. Since the park receives less than 5% of its annual precipitation in the summer months, visitors can generally expect warm, sunny days and cool, dry nights.

Temperatures in Yosemite Valley can reach 38°C (100°F) in the summer, although average highs hover around 32°C (89°F) and average lows around 13-14°C (56-57°F). In higher elevation areas like Tuolumne Meadows (8,600 feet / 2,622 m), summer highs only reach 22°C (72°F) on average, with nighttime lows dipping close to freezing.

Skies are typically clear most of the day, but summer afternoons often see thunderstorms resulting in short but intense rainfall, thunder, lightning, hail, and winds. Usually, these storms pass by nightfall.

Fall (September to November)

Nights in Yosemite get increasingly colder in the fall, with daytime highs staying warm throughout October. Clear skies are common in September and October, although early winter storms are possible by October. High temperatures range from 28°C (82°F) in September to 13°C (56°F) in November, with lows from 11°C (51°F) to 1°C (33°F).

Crowds become thinner this time of year, making this an excellent time for those seeking a quieter visit. Snow begins to accumulate by mid-November, but September and October still often provide visitors with enjoyable weather for outdoor activities like hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing.

Winter (December to March)

Winters in Yosemite are cold and wet. Around 70% of Yosemite’s precipitation falls between November and March, so winter visitors should expect snow and rainstorms and potential road closures.

Average high temperatures in the winter range from 8 to 14°C (47 to 58°F), while lows vary from -2 to 1°C (28 to 34°F). Snow is common, especially in the higher elevations, with the snowpack reaching its maximum depth in mid-March.

Winter visitors are required to have chains in their vehicles at all times when in Yosemite (usually from around October to April) due to potentially heavy snowfall and poor conditions on the roads. Many other areas in the Sierra Nevada require the same, so make sure to come prepared.

Firefall in Yosemite National Park 2020

Spring (April to June)

Spring weather can be unpredictable in Yosemite, with variable conditions and large swings in temperatures from one day to the next. Lower elevations begin to see wildflower blooms in March and April, while higher elevations remain snow-covered through mid-May to mid-June. Snow typically falls in the park in April and is possible in May.

Average high temperatures range from 18°C (64°F) in April to 27°C (81°F) in June, with lows from 3°C (38°F) to 11°C (51°F).

When to Visit

Yosemite National Park is open year-round, and there’s really no bad time to visit. When you plan your trip will depend on several factors, including what kinds of activities you want to do while you’re there and whether or not you’re okay with crowds.

Summer is the most popular time to visit the park and sees the biggest crowds and highest prices. The park’s peak season falls between late May and early September, with 75% of visitors coming between May and October.

If you want to hike Half Dome or visit some of the park’s high elevation areas, including the iconic overlook of Glacier Point, June to September is the best time to go. Many of the park’s iconic waterfalls are dry by mid-summer, so you may not get to see them on a summer visit. Although the summer months are hot in Yosemite Valley, the Tuolumne Meadows area offers cooler temperatures, fewer crowds, and access to the incredible hiking trails in the High Sierra.

Those seeking to avoid the crowds should consider the shoulder seasons in spring and fall or the low season in the winter. Spring is the best time to see the park’s wildflowers and numerous waterfalls, with peak runoff from snowmelt occurring in May or June. Keep in mind that a spring visit may mean limited access to high elevation areas.

Fall is an ideal time to visit Yosemite and arguably the best time of year for hiking and rock climbing. The summer crowds usually thin out after Labor Day in early September, and temperatures begin to cool down in the valley.

Most of Yosemite is covered with snow from November through May, and many high elevation attractions are unreachable. For example, the road to Glacier Point and Tioga Road (access to Tuolumne Meadows) are typically closed in November and opened in early June, but ultimately this depends on the weather.

While seasonal road closures may make certain areas of the park impossible to visit in the winter and early spring, seeing Yosemite this time of year is magical. When snow-covered, the Yosemite Valley is a true winter wonderland, and there are many opportunities for winter sports, like skiing and snowshoeing. January tends to be the quietest month, making this a perfect time of year to visit for those seeking solitude.

Whenever you decide to visit, make sure to check the park’s latest guidelines and closures. As of February 8, 2021, reservations are required to enter Yosemite.

Cloud's Rest in Yosemite National Park

Recommended Gear

There is no special or technical equipment required for a trip to Yosemite. What you pack will depend on when you plan to visit and what kinds of activities you want to do while you’re there.

For a spring, summer, or fall visit, you’ll want to have plenty of layers (including a weatherproof shell, insulating layer, and even a warm jacket) to ensure you’re prepared for potential thunderstorms and varying temperatures and weather conditions at different elevations.

We also recommend carrying bear safety gear with you, including a bear canister (required for overnight hikers in wilderness areas) and bear spray, due to the hundreds of black bears that live within the park’s borders. These bears are rarely aggressive, but it’s best to prevent the bears from getting into your food and be prepared in the event of an attack. You can learn more about the park’s recommendations for bear safety and food storage here.

For more advice on what to pack when heading into the wilderness, take a look at our backpacking checklist.

For visits in the late fall, winter, and early spring, you should bring the following items in addition to the usual hiking essentials:

  • A winter emergency kit and shelter in case of bad weather or a sudden snowstorm
  • A solid cold-weather layering system, including a moisture-wicking base layer, insulating mid-layer(s), and a weatherproof shell with good water and wind resistance
  • Trekking poles to improve your balance on snowy and icy trails
  • Traction devices or crampons for your hiking boots to avoid slipping on snow and ice (only required in higher elevation areas)
  • Chains for your vehicle

If you plan on doing any hiking in Yosemite when snowfall is possible, check out our winter hiking guide for tips on safety and preparation.

What to Do in Yosemite National Park

Hiking and Backpacking

With 95% of Yosemite’s territory designated as wilderness and more than 1200 km (750 miles) of official trails, the park offers incredible opportunities for hiking and backpacking. Hiking is possible year-round, but you’ll have the widest selection of open trails in the summer and early fall.

With the exception of Half Dome, day hikes in Yosemite do not require permits. You will need a permit, however, if you plan on backpacking or staying the night in the Yosemite Wilderness.

Best Hikes in Yosemite National Park

  • Half Dome: One of Yosemite’s most iconic features is also one of the park’s most sought-after hikes. The trail is 26 kilometers long (16 miles) and is very strenuous, with around 1,460 meters (4,800 feet) of elevation gain. This hike is only possible when the cables at the top are up (usually from late May to early October) and requires a permit.
  • Clouds Rest Trail: This challenging 23-km (14-mile) hike ends at Clouds Rest, one of Yosemite’s most stunning panoramic viewpoints. There is significant elevation gain (540 m / 1,775 ft) as well as exposed areas along the trail, making this hike best for those who are not afraid of heights. The hike is possible from June through October and best avoided when there are thunderstorms or snow visible on top of the mountain.
  • Pohono Trail – Taft Point and Sentinel Dome Loop: This 8-km (5-mile) hike is arguably the best easy to moderate hike in Yosemite. It’s rarely crowded and features incredible views of Yosemite Valley. The hike is ideal from around May to October.
  • Cathedral Lakes: Part of the famous John Muir Trail, this 13-km (8-mile) round trip will take you to both the Upper and Lower Cathedral Lakes. The moderate hike offers breathtaking views of granite peaks reflected in the lakes’ calm waters.
  • Upper Yosemite Falls: This full-day, challenging hike (6 to 10 hours) is 12.2 km (7.6 miles) long with around 800 meters (2,600 feet) of elevation gain. The trail offers stunning panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Falls. The best time to do this hike is in spring or early summer when the falls have plenty of water.
  • Glacier Point via Four-Mile Trail: This challenging hike will take you up to one of Yosemite’s most iconic overlooks – Glacier Point. When the park’s shuttle system is operating, you can use it to hike this trail one way, or do the round trip for an added challenge. The hike is 7.6 km (4.7 miles) one-way or 15 km (9.4 miles) round-trip, with 975 meters (3,200 feet) of elevation gain.
  • Mist Trail (Vernal and Nevada Falls): This popular, moderate to challenging hike features gorgeous scenery along the Merced River and unforgettable views of Yosemite’s waterfalls. The trail is best from April to June when the waterfalls are fullest. The hike is 4.8 km (3 miles) round-trip to Vernal Fall, and 11 km (7 miles) round-trip to Nevada Fall.
  • John Muir Trail: Those seeking a longer hiking adventure should consider the 340-km (211-mile) John Muir Trail, one of the best and most famous sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail runs from the Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. In addition to Yosemite, the hike will take you through incredible natural areas, including the Sierra National Forest, Inyo National Forest, Kings Canyon National Park, and Sequoia National Park. A permit is required to hike the JMT.

Camping

Camping in Yosemite is possible year-round. Typically, the Hodgdon Meadow, Wawona, and Yosemite Valley’s Upper Pines and Camp 4 campgrounds remain open throughout the year.

If you want to camp deeper in the park or don’t have winter camping gear, you will probably be happier visiting in the summer. Seasonal campgrounds in Yosemite usually open anywhere from late May to August, depending on their location. Because there is a lot of competition for campsites in Yosemite, you’ll want to make your reservations well ahead of time.

Campsites become available up to five months in advance on the 15th of each month. During the peak months of May to September, most campsites are filled within minutes or even seconds of becoming available at 7 am Pacific Time.

If you can’t get a reservation for your desired dates, you can try your luck at some of Yosemite’s first-come, first-served campgrounds. More information about camping in Yosemite is available from the National Park Service here.

Rock Climbing

The Yosemite Valley was essential to the development of modern rock climbing, and climbers from around the world dream of ascending the park’s iconic granite cliffs, including Half Dome and El Capitan. The park’s rock faces featured in the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo and continue to be some of the most sought-after climbs in the world.

The climbing season runs from April to October, but late spring and early fall are best.

Winter Sports

Downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing are popular activities among the park’s winter visitors. Badger Pass Road typically opens from mid-December to March or early April, allowing access to the Badger Pass Ski Area.

While Yosemite Valley does not usually have enough snow for snowshoeing and skiing, there are several marked trails in the park that are skiable from mid-December to March. There is also an outdoor ice skating rink at Curry Village and snow tubing at Badger Pass.

Vernal Falls, Yosemite Valley in Winter

Wildlife Viewing

With more than 400 vertebrate species, Yosemite National Park has exceptional biodiversity and opportunities to see diverse wildlife. There are around 90 mammal species that call the park home, including the black bear, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, Sierra Nevada red fox, pacific fisher, mountain lion, and mule deer.

There are also excellent bird watching opportunities in the park. Yosemite provides essential habitat for more than 165 species of birds and nearly 100 transient species. Commonly seen birds include Steller’s jay, common raven, American robin, mountain chickadee, and acorn woodpecker.

Water Sports

Swimming, boating, kayaking, and rafting are fun activities to enjoy in Yosemite in the summer. Swimming is allowed in all of the park’s bodies of water, with the following exceptions: Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and any tributary within 1.6 km (1 mile), Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River, Emerald Pool and Silver Apron (above Vernal Fall), Lake Eleanor Reservoir, Wawona Domestic Water intake and any area within 91 meters (100 yards) upstream.

The Merced River is a popular swimming and rafting destination in the summer, with the best months being June and July. You can rent a raft (water levels permitting) or bring your own.

Kayaking is an excellent way to enjoy the calm waters of Tenaya Lake and take in the gorgeous views of granite peaks dotted with green pines. While kayaks are the recommended way to explore the lake, the National Park Service permits any type of non-motorized boat on Tenaya Lake.

Wherever you decide to go swimming, paddling, or boating, make sure to always enter the water from sandy beaches to protect the shores.

Where to Stay

Inside Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley is considered to be the most popular and convenient place to stay when visiting the park due to its proximity to major attractions like Half Dome, El Capitan, the Mist Trail, and Glacier Point. There are various hotels, cabins, and camping options in the valley. Camping is affordable, but the other options come at a premium price, especially in the high season.

There are also campgrounds in other areas of the park (some of these are open only in the summer) and various lodging options in Wawona in the south and Tioga Road area in the north. Lodging inside the park fills up very quickly, so make sure to plan ahead if you want to stay here.

View of Half Dome in Yosemite

Outside Yosemite National Park

There are many different towns and villages outside of the park with numerous lodging options. Since Yosemite covers a large area, where you choose to stay should be based on which attractions interest you the most and how much time you are willing to spend driving. Below are some places to consider when planning your stay.

  • El Portal (3 km / 2 miles from the Arch Rock Entrance) is the closest place to Yosemite Valley outside of the park. The small village has an RV park, a bed and breakfast, and several motels.
  • Fish Camp (3 km / 2 miles from the South Entrance) provides the best access to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. This tiny settlement has a few small inns and the Tenaya Lodge.
  • Oakhurst (24 km / 15 miles from the South Entrance) is farther away than some other options, but it’s a good choice for travelers on a budget who don’t mind the extra driving time. There are not many attractions in the town itself, but there are plenty of restaurants, bars, shops, and grocery stores, as well as a theater, cinema, and Children’s Museum.
  • Mariposa (56 km / 35 miles from the park’s Arch Rock Entrance) also has reasonably priced accommodation and offers an old-town charm. The town was founded in 1849 during the California Gold Rush and is full of quirky restaurants, bars, and historical sites.
  • Groveland’s (38 km / 24 miles from Big Oak Flat Entrance) historic downtown has many interesting sites, including California’s oldest saloon. The town is a lively place to stay in the summer, with live outdoor music on the Groveland Hotel patio.
  • Midpines (45 km / 28 miles from the Arch Rock Entrance) has moderately priced accommodation for those who don’t mind the drive to the park. There are some glamping options and a KOA with Kamping Lodges, but the town does not have many facilities and services beyond what’s available at your accommodation.

If you’re planning to visit in the winter or early spring, check the seasonal road closures before booking anything to ensure you don’t end up having to take a very long detour to access the park. Mariposa, Midpines, and El Portal are on Highway 140 and usually provide the least icy route into the park in the winter.

How to Get There

Travelers from all over the globe can get to Yosemite with a little planning. The closest airport is the Fresno/Yosemite International Airport (FAT – 1.5 hours away). It’s also possible to fly into Sacramento (SMF – 2.25 hours away), San Francisco (SFO – 2.5 hours away), Oakland (OAK – 2.75 hours away), or Los Angeles (LAX – 6 hours away). Public transportation to Yosemite is available at all of these airports except for LAX, or you can rent a car and then drive to the park.

If you’re visiting during the summer or fall, you can also fly to Mammoth Lakes (MMH – 2.5 hours away) or Reno (RNO – 4 hours away) and reach Yosemite via Tioga Road Highway CA 120. This road is closed seasonally, so we recommend avoiding this route if you are visiting in the spring or winter. When in doubt, you can call the National Park Service or a visitor center ahead of time to confirm it is open.

Having a car or other vehicle on your Yosemite National Park visit will make things easier and give you more freedom to travel around as you please, but it’s not necessary. There is public transportation available year-round to get to the park and to move around once you’re there. Please note that there may be exceptions to this due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Keep in mind that road traffic during the summer can be a hassle. Using the park shuttle – even if you have your own vehicle – may be simpler than driving yourself, getting stuck in traffic jams, and struggling to find parking at the trailheads.

Car driving on Glacier Point Road in Yosemite

Conclusion

From unforgettable hikes in the backcountry to climbing the park’s iconic granite cliffs, Yosemite National Park is full of opportunities to explore the wonders of the Sierra Nevada. Whether you decide to see the park’s roaring waterfalls in spring or enjoy solitude and snow-covered peaks in the winter, Yosemite will enchant you with its immense natural beauty every time of year.

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A Detailed Yosemite National Park Guide

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