14 Epic Things to do in Yosemite National Park, California

July 6, 2021


14 epic things to do in Yosemite National Park, California!

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Towering sequoias. Raging waterfalls. Soaring granite cliffs. Yosemite is one of the oldest National Parks in the country, and in our very biased opinion as Yosemite’s Bay Area-based neighbors, it’s also the best. And the most beautiful. But hey, don’t take our word for it – just ask John Muir or Ansel Adams.

In this post, we’re laying out 14 truly epic things to do in Yosemite National Park. Whether you want to summit Half Dome, hike through an ancient Giant Sequoia forest, climb up a sheer granite cliff face with absolutely no supports (lookin’ at you, Alex Honnold, who I occasionally see at my rock climbing gym but have never actually met), or maybe just spend a nice relaxing day painting and then going for a dip in a crystalline lake (I will see you there), Yosemite is a wonderland.

We tapped Suzie Dundas, a northern California-based travel writer and a frequent Yosemite visitor, to give us the scoop on the best things to do in Yosemite National Park. Take it away, Suzie!

Yosemite National Park At-a-Glance ✍

Here’s a bite-sized snapshot of everything you need to know to plan your trip!

  • When to Go: Summer is most popular …& most crowded. Visit during fall and winter to see a much quieter side of Yosemite!
  • Where to Stay: Rush Creek Lodge is our #1 pick for where to stay near Yosemite National Park, just minutes from the Big Oak Flat entrance.
  • How to Get Around: You can get to and around Yosemite on public transit, but we recommend having your own car. Use Kayak to browse rental car deals, or rent an RV on RVShare.
  • Top 3 Highlights: Watching the sunset at Glacier Point, hiking around the perimeter of Yosemite Valley, and taking a dip in Mirror Lake. This tour is an excellent introduction to Yosemite, and this tour hits all the major landmarks and highlights and departs from El Portal or Oakhurst.
  • Before You Go: Be sure to book your day use pass in advance. We also recommend the Annual Parks Pass. And if you’re low-key morbid, read this book on Deaths in Yosemite to know what NOT to do during your trip!

Psst: Exploring Northern California? We have a ton of travel guides for our home! Browse them all or take a look at these:

We have also have several USA National Parks travel guides! Browse them all or take a look at these:

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The Tioga Pass entrance station in Yosemite, CA.
The high-elevation Tioga Pass entrance station is the best way to enter the park coming from the east, like from Lake Tahoe or Nevada. But it’s closed in the winter due to snow! Photo Credit

Yosemite National Park FAQ’s

Here are a few things you should know before planning your trip to Yosemite National Park!

2021 Update: Note that COVID-19 health and safety regulations will impact much of the park programming and offerings in 2021. Park shuttles will not be running in 2021 and many events are canceled or operating infrequently. Check the park website in advance of your trip for the most current COVID-19 regulations. Most important to know is that reservations are required to enter the park.

How do I get to Yosemite National Park?

Yosemite isn’t hard to reach – as long as you have a car, and depending on the season (and the amount of snow in the Sierra Nevadas). Yosemite is about 3 hours east of San Francisco and about 4.5 hours north of Los Angeles by car – assuming you don’t hit any traffic.

Yosemite has four major entrances. If you’re coming from San Francisco, the Big Oak Flat entrance will be the closest. Visitors coming from Los Angeles and Southern California will enter via the Southern entrance.

If you’re coming from the east, like from Reno or Lake Tahoe, you’ll enter via the high-elevation Tioga Pass, which is about an hour above Yosemite Valley. (Note that Tioga Pass Road closes in the winter around the end of November through late May, depending on snowfall.) 

If you don’t have a car, you can take the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation Shuttles (YARTS), which brings guests to the park from nearby towns like Mammoth Lakes, Fresno, and Merced. But because of Yosemite’s size and windy, scenic roads, nearly everyone who visits the park has their own car and makes use of the shuttles while in the park.

If you don’t have a car or you only have one day in the park, a fantastic option is to take a guided tour from El Portal. You can sit back and relax as you’re driven to most of the major sites in one day, including Tunnel View, Glacier Point, and Yosemite Falls, plus lunch and a hike.

You can also choose to visit the park on a guided tour with transportation provided from San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, or even Los Angeles (this option even includes 2 nights of camping in the park!). If you’re concerned about transportation, wanting to add Yosemite to an existing California trip, or don’t want to mess with the hassle of planning, these tours are a fantastic option.

How do I get around Yosemite National Park?

Your best bet is to drive – the park is enormous and the roads running through the park are incredibly scenic!

But if you’d rather not worry about parking or don’t have a car, Yosemite NP does have a few free shuttles. Which to take depends on what part of the park you want to see. That said, moving between Yosemite’s various regions on free park transportation is difficult and slow, so plan to spend a whole day in each spot. 

Within the park, you can get around using the free Yosemite Valley Shuttle, which makes 20 stops throughout the Yosemite Valley. The free shuttle runs year-round during daytime hours. The shuttle’s schedule changes throughout the year – as do the stops – depending on the weather and crowds, so be sure to look at the bus schedule every guest is given when entering the park.

There’s also a free shuttle in the Tuolumne meadows area which moves visitors between Tioga Pass and Olmsted Point, and runs from early June to mid-September.  

How long should my trip to Yosemite be?

I recommend at least two nights per visit. If you’re hiking, you’ll appreciate waking up near the park to get an early start on the trails and having a short commute back to your tent or hotel at night. 

What’s the best time of the year to visit Yosemite National Park?

Though most people visit during the summer months (which means crowds), Yosemite is absolutely gorgeous during all four seasons.

Most people visit in late spring and early summer, when higher-elevation trails are free of snow and it’s still warm enough at night to camp. The park’s waterfalls peak in late spring as snow melts, and summer offers the most attractive weather for backpacking (as well as the most hours of daylight). But crowds will be at an all-time high at this time.

While I’ve visited in all seasons, fall is my favorite. There’s something about the leaves erupting with shades of orange and red in the Valley, the crisp autumn air, and a roaring campfire (and maybe a small bottle of whiskey from the Yosemite Camp store) that just screams “perfect autumn weekend” to me. Just be mindful that it can dip below freezing temperatures at night and snow can fall at higher elevations as early as October. 

In the winter, expect nearly everything in the park to be covered in snow, as well as smaller crowds. It’s arguably the best time for photographers, though most trails and Tioga Pass will be inaccessible. There is something magical about the stillness of the park during this season, and it almost seems like an entirely different world.

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Is Yosemite National Park crowded?

You should expect large crowds in peak season, between May to late September. During those months, campsite and hotel reservations can fill up a year in advance, so make your plans as soon as possible.

To avoid crowds in the Valley and more popular areas of the park, visit in the off-season, between October and April. During Yosemite’s fall and winter, parking is easier to find, hotels are more affordable, and you may even find space entirely to yourself – especially once you get a few miles past the trailheads.

Anything else I should know before visiting Yosemite National Park?

Here are a few key things to know before you plan your trip to Yosemite NP:

  • Yosemite National Park is huge. The park covers 1,189 square miles, making it the same size as Rhode Island. The Valley alone is 8 miles long! For comparison, the park is twice as large as Zion National Park and more than 20 times the size of Manhattan. It’s big. Plan ample time to drive from section to section – expect it to take several hours to drive from one part of the park to another, and try to plan your activities within the same park areas as much as possible.
  • The key to visiting Yosemite is one mantra: “leave it better than you found it.” Heavy foot traffic damages natural landscapes, so knowledgeable visitors need to do their part. Yosemite even has a volunteer park-wide clean-up day each September. If you see trash, pick it up. Don’t step on small plants off-trail. And always follow Leave No Trace principles. 
  • Never leave food or anything with a scent (like lip balm) in your car. Bears are smart and are more than capable of opening car doors and smashing windows. Bears that associate humans with food can become dangerous to humans, and bears that are dangerous to humans are often euthanized. It’s every visitors’ responsibility to keep wildlife wild. Every campground and parking lot will have dozens of metal bear bins – outdoor lockers where guests can safely store their food for the day instead of leaving it in their car. They’re free and unlocked, so just find one with space and toss anything with a scent inside rather than leaving it in your car. 
  • Re-think that selfie. Yosemite has no shortage of beautiful vistas, but there are several deaths in the park each year from people getting too close to cliffs to capture a photo. Be extremely careful, especially around popular lookout points like Taft Point and Vernal Falls
  • Slow down. Everything from bears to squirrels to deer and even the occasional mountain lion may run in front of your car without warning. Don’t let your negligence cause an animal’s death.

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