It's hard to imagine another park that can rival the beauty and glory of Yosemite National Park. Located in Central California, Yosemite National Park offers incredible landscapes, hiking for all skill levels, and some of the most stunning views in the world. The best part is that Yosemite is a relatively easy park to navigate! Consider some of our tips and experiences before planning your trip.
Tip #1: Take the scenic route!
I cannot stress this enough! Entering through the west entrance will get you to the classic aspects of Yosemite National Park faster, but the east entrance coming from the CA-395 and jumping onto the CA-120 is WORTH the extra hour and half drive to Half Dome from Los Angeles. When you come in the east entrance you get to drive through Tuolumne Meadows, which is filled with snow capped mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, and unique granite landscapes.
Traveling through Tuolumne is incredible. The views are stunning and the landscapes are unique! Olmestead Point gives you a give of Tenaya Valley but is still a relatively simple hike and quick hike!
Tip # 2: Expect a "Moderate" hike to be a strenuous one!
As soon as we paid for our annual national parks pass, we pulled off to the right to do a "quick hike" to Gaylor Lake. This is an often overlooked hike, but offers STUNNING views of the valley and mountains. It's listed on the National Parks Services website as a "moderate" hike, but don't let "moderate" fool you. You're already pretty high in elevation at Yosemite! The Gaylor Lakes hike starts at least 10,000 feet above sea level already and while the hike only has a 600 foot gain, it's STEEP! Not to mention, it's windy! It was well worth the work, and a good way to start out the trip, but certainly taught us a little lesson!
Tip #3: A strenuous hike is NO JOKE, be prepared!
Gaylor Lake started us off with a bang. It was gorgeous and exhilarating, but it also helped give me a better sense of what a moderate and strenuous hike would look like at Yosemite. Our second day we woke up early to get to the Mist Trail, which takes you up to Vernal Falls, then Nevada Falls, and if you're daring....you can connect to the John Muir Trail and eventually get to Half Dome. A strenuous hike in Yosemite means you will be sweating, your knees will be shaking, and your tummy will be grumbling. Bring food, water, and comfort supplies! Be prepared to take long enough breaks to rest, and don't be afraid to take it slow!
When you look at the Mist Trail on the National Park Service's website, it's a moderate 1.5 mile (round trip) hike to the Vernal Falls footbridge, and another half mile or so to the base of the falls. I have to say, if you just want to see the falls, you could stop here and this would truly be a "moderate hike." There is a slight incline, but overall it's paved and the path is clear.
If you choose to head up to the top of Vernal Falls, you're turning to a "strenuous hike" that is 2.4 miles (round trip). This hike up is NO joke. It's extremely steep, the granite steps are wet, and if you go any later than 9-10 AM, you're talking about hundreds of tourists fighting for a spot.
This spot had the most stunning views of the trail and climb up to Vernal Falls. It was amazing being at the top and being so close to this powerful waterfall! Remember that you're already pretty high in elevation in the park, and you have a 2000 foot gain climbing to the top of Vernal Falls. Expect it to be a difficult climb, but a rewarding one!
Tip #4: Don't skip the easy hikes!
Yosemite only has a few "easy hikes." In the Fall, Yosemite Falls is down to a small dribble, so we skipped this hike and chose to check out Mirror Lake, meadow hikes, and a drive to Tunnel View. Mirror Lake is a 2 mile, paved hike and it was also pretty dry in September. In fact, tourists kept stopping to ask us "THIS is the lake?!" Keep in mind that Yosemite is VERY wet in the winter and spring, and it gradually dries up over the summer and into the fall. Despite the "lake" having dried up mostly, we still had some absolutely gorgeous views and we even had a few moments where "Mirror Lake" truly lived up to its name.
If you want to kick it up a notch, it's easy to find some areas to do granite bouldering on the Mirror Lake Hike. Without the lake, we were able to explore quite a bit of the land. We even ran into some beautiful female deer eating and drinking from what was left of the lake.
The easy hikes offer you some respite from the intensity of Yosemite National Park. We spent a lot of our nights walking through the meadows and taking paved trails like the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. Tunnel View doesn't count as a hike per se, but it's definitely something NOT to miss and it's easy to hit on the way out of the park. It's an amazing way to end the trip to Yosemite and a fantastic spot for watching the sunset.
All in all, it's important to know what to expect from your time at Yosemite National Park. There aren't a lot of easy hikes or moderate hikes, most things are considered strenuous. It didn't seem to stop all the visitors and we had the most magical time, which really tested our endurance and stamina. If you're prepared, and you pace yourself, Yosemite is an easy park to navigate with the most stunning views and hikes!