Yosemite is California’s crown jewel. This natural wonder of towering granite megaliths, plummeting waterfalls and endless pine trees lures millions of visitors each year. What draws that many people to Yosemite? To name a few; hiking, biking, fishing, camping, river rafting, swimming, horseback riding, rock climbing, inner tubing, sightseeing, skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, relaxing and more.
In all the years we’ve been returning to Yosemite, we still have not seen everything there is to see nor done everything there is to do in the park. Yosemite is separated into three sections; the high country to the north at Tuolumne, the Valley in the middle and the high country to the south at Glacier Point & Wawona. Forethought should be given to what portions of the park you would like to visit and how long you plan on staying. If you plan on visiting all three regions, you will need at least a week if not more.
Tuolumne is located in the northern high country and accessed by Highway 120 (Tioga Road). Tuolumne is known for its open meadows, granite domes, cooler high-altitude temperatures and seclusion as compared to the rest of the park. There are no hotels, restaurants or other modern conveniences. Accommodations include a large campground and Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. The campground has flush toilets but no showers. A general store, snack stand, gas station, RV dump station and mountaineering store are nearby. Just down the road is Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, which consists of several large tent cabins and a central cafeteria. Showers are available for those staying at the lodge.
Directly across the road from the campground are Tuolumne Meadows and most of Tuolumne’s attractions including Lembert Dome, Soda Springs, Parson’s Lodge, McCauley’s Cabin, stables and several hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty. The stables offer the opportunity for visitors to explore the Tuolumne Meadows region on horseback. Heading west from Tuolumne along Highway 120 you’ll pass Tenaya Lake. This is one of Yosemite’s largest lakes and offers sandy beaches for swimming. And just a little further from there is Olmstead Point, which provides a different perspective with its panoramic views that include looking across a plateau of undulating granite from which Yosemite Valley was carved by glaciers. Tioga Road closes down at first snowfall making Tuolumne inaccessible during winter.
Entering Yosemite Valley can be awe-inspiring. The most impressive way to enter the Valley is via Highway 41 from the south through the Wawona Tunnel. At the exit of the tunnel is a parking lot with a viewing area where you’ll have an unimpeded view of the Valley. From there, you’ll see El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Dome, the Three Brothers, Bridalveil Falls and the lush pine forest that blankets the Valley. The Valley is the hub of Yosemite with hotels, shops, restaurants, tours and so much more. Roads and bike paths weave through the meadows and forests of the Valley connecting all there is to see. An army of buses shuttles visitors back and forth to all the attractions in the Valley including popular hiking trails.
Activities in the Valley include hiking, biking, horseback riding, swimming, fishing, inner-tubing in the Merced River and ice skating during the winter. Most equipment rentals, such as bikes and inner-tubes, are available in Curry Village at the far end of the Valley. The Yosemite Lodge also rents bikes. Accommodation choices include the very upscale and exclusive Ahwahnee Hotel and the more affordable Yosemite Lodge. Or, you can reserve a tent cabin in Curry Village, a housekeeping cabin, or a campsite at one of several campgrounds. Restaurants, cafeterias and eateries are located in Curry Village, Yosemite Village and the Yosemite Lodge.
Groceries, supplies and fishing tackle are available at the general stores in Yosemite and Curry Villages. There are no gas stations for public use in Yosemite Valley, so fill up before entering. Showers are available in Curry Village for those staying in the tent cabins and adjacent campgrounds. Laundry and shower facilities are available at Housekeeping Camp. An RV dump station is available at the entrance to Upper Pines Campground near Curry Village. Many popular hikes start from the Valley floor, some being wheelchair accessible, including Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls and Mirror Lake. Horseback riding tours start from the stables next to North Pines Campground in Curry Village. The outdoor ice rink in Curry Village is our top pick for most beautiful rink in all of California and is only available in the winter.
South of Yosemite Valley and another 3,000+ feet in elevation is Glacier Point. Take Glacier Point Road from Highway 41 for approximately 18 miles. Along the way are Bridalveil Creek Campground and several popular hiking trails to very unique destinations. Stand on an overhanging rock at Taft Point and dare a look straight down into the Valley over 3,000 feet below. On the way to Taft Point are The Fissures, where one wrong step could instantly plunge you several hundred feet. Head the other direction on the trail and climb to the top of Sentinel Dome for the best views of Half Dome and the entire Valley.
In the winter, Badger Pass Ski Resort opens up offering downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and lots of other snow play. Continue to the end of the road to Glacier Point where you’ll find some of the best views in the park. To the north you’ll see El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, North Dome and beyond. You can’t miss Half Dome to the east and Vernal & Nevada Falls cascading down the granite cliffs below. Glacier Point provides restrooms and a small deli restaurant to visitors. Glacier Point Road is closed in the winter other than to the ski resort.
Further south on Highway 41 is Wawona. There you will find a campground, hotel, cabins, history center, general store and Yosemite’s only golf course. The campground is situated next to the South Fork Merced River and offers opportunities for fishing and swimming. Across the road from the campground and a short distance south is the Wawona Hotel & Restaurant. This historic hotel was built in 1879 and possesses much charm and sophistication. A trail leads directly from the hotel to the golf course across the road. The golf course is a magnet for local deer and other wildlife where it’s not uncommon to see bucks with 10-point antlers.
Next to the hotel is the general store that provides supplies, groceries, snacks, souvenirs, fishing tackle and a gas station. Follow the road back from the store to the Pioneer History Center which documents Yosemite’s early days and contains a buggy collection, covered bridge and early structures such as homes, a bakery and jail. Stables provide the opportunity for exploring Wawona on a guided horseback tour. An RV dump station and cabins are accessible off the nearby service roads, just north of the general store. Back at the general store is a shuttle stop where you can catch a ride further south to one of Yosemite’s most treasured attractions.
Further south on Highway 41 and at the southern entrance to the park is the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. This sheltered forest contains some of California’s largest specimens of Giant Sequoias. Choose to take a one-hour tram ride through the grove or hike more than 3 miles of self-guided trails. At the top of the trail is a historic cabin turned museum and Visitor Center that also sells souvenirs. This a great place to find shade and cooler temperatures on hot summer days. The parking lot is small, so we recommend catching the shuttle from in front of the Wawona general store.