It’s no secret that we loved Yosemite.
The soaring granite facades that make you feel teeny tiny. The blushing light of the setting sun as it creeps up the face of Half Dome. The warm tones of the forests transitioning into autumn. The perfect reflections that play on the glassy rivers and lakes. The climbers ascending El Capitan at night like ants with torches in the darkness.
Yosemite National Park is filled with unforgettable moments and beautiful places to visit. It is no surprise then that it is one of America’s favourite national parks garnering nearly 4 million visits per year.
While this means it can sometimes feel a little too crowded, with an endless line of tour buses emptying their load of camera-wielding tourists at the best Yosemite attractions, there are certainly places where you’ll find yourself completely alone in the wilderness.
For sunrise at Glacier Point, it was just us in our van watching the light trickle into the valley in silence. In Tuolumne Meadows, we watched the sunset over the gurgling river after following a solitary coyote across the golden plains without another soul in sight.
We didn’t spend nearly enough time in this gorgeous national park, but it’s somewhere we know we’ll come back to, eventually. Whether you choose to hike, camp or, like us, while away the hours photographing our favourite spots, Yosemite will not disappoint.
Though the park is full of spectacular sights, these are some of the most beautiful places to visit in Yosemite National Park.
Glacier Point offers the quintessential Yosemite view with Half Dome front and centre.
Only from way up here can you appreciate the enormous size of the valley flanked by sheer rock faces carved out by glacial activity. If you’re here at the right time of year, the powerful Yosemite Falls can be seen, and most likely heard, from the opposite face. Unfortunately, we were in autumn which is a little late in the season so a pathetic trickle of water was all that managed to spill over the cliff.
Glacier Point is one of the ‘must-see’ Yosemite attractions, and so, unsurprisingly, it can get rather busy. The best time to visit Glacier Point is late afternoon or in the wee hours of the morning when few others are about.
The early wakeup call may be a little rough, but basking in the silence of the expansive valley and witnessing the first rays of light tickling the distant peaks is definitely worthwhile.
Tuolumne Meadows undergoes a dramatic transformation over the course of the year; from lush green pastures reminiscent of the Swiss countryside to dry golden grasses much like the African savannah.
Scramble up the precariously steep Lembert Dome for spectacular panoramas over the entire meadows, track a wild coyote across the terrain or follow the curves of the river jumping between bank and stone.
The meadows are a great place to explore and are one of the few places where the crowds don’t seem to linger. Visit at sunset to see the dry grasses change from brown to gold and all without a soul in sight.
Tunnel View is undeniably one of the best in Yosemite National Park, with a vantage point looking straight down the valley with El Capitan on the left and the face of Half Dome peaking out on the right.
As a favourite spot for photographers at sunset though, the bustling line up of tripods, oversized filters and cameras bigger than your head can detract slightly from the peaceful setting.
Regardless, seeing the rocks tickled pink as the last light melts through the valley is a sight you won’t want to miss in Yosemite.
Though not strictly inside Yosemite National Park, the beauty of Tioga Lake definitely warrants a mention.
Leading out of Yosemite, the incredibly scenic Tioga Pass winds upwards past mirror-like lakes and snow-capped peaks. While many visitors rush through on their way to the next destination, this beautiful stretch of road is worth spending some time exploring.
After reaching the pass at dusk on our beeline to Lee Vining, we found ourselves squinting at reflections of peaks and the star-studded night sky in barely visible lakes and the dim outline of a steep gulley falling away from the roadside.
Though we were now on our way to Death Valley National Park, we decided to return the following morning to see what we had missed in the dark.
Come sunrise, the clouds turned a cotton candy pink over the distant snowy mountains which were reflected in the perfectly still Tioga Lake. Though we were conscious of the hours ticking by, we were glad we had returned to see this beautiful place in the daylight.
The Merced River that runs through Yosemite Valley is the perfect place for some waterside contemplation.
Along the river, you’ll find some of the most secluded and beautiful spots in Yosemite National Park with the huge granite facades soaring overhead.
From almost anywhere you’ll find perfect reflections of the forest and the cliffs. Many pass by here briefly, but we easily lost hours sitting here peacefully beside the river.
Olmsted Point offers a slightly different perspective of the valley with Half Dome still peaking out in the distance.
On a clear blue day, the glistening mounds of rock stretch towards the horizon, interspersed with clumps of deep forest green. Hop, skip and jump your way across the granite for views across the wilderness and back to Tenaya Lake.
Yosemite Valley is really the heart of the national park.
It’s undoubtedly the busiest area with a handy shuttle service to key Yosemite attractions and with some prime accommodation options. This is also where many of the best hiking trails either start or end.
Along the main road which loops through Yosemite Valley, a number of small walkways peel off an lead right beneath the enormous stone edifices. Crane your head back to take in the full glory of El Capitan, look up the sheer face of Half Dome and explore the forests, rivers and waterfalls fo the valley.
Glacier Point itself may be one of the most beautiful places to visit in Yosemite National Park, but on the way there you’ll also find a number of turnoff bays which also have spectacular views on offer.
Some may not look like much from the road, but wandering through the first layer of trees will lead you to panoramas of forested hills rolling into the distance. With many of these spots facing west, this is a prime spot to catch the sunset.
You’ll find a number of accommodation options within Yosemite National Park, but often snagging one in high season can be a little tricky. You are after all competing with half the population of California for a highly coveted spot.
One of the most popular options, and if you’re on a tight budget the only option, is to camp.
The four highly sought after campgrounds in Yosemite Valley book up extremely quickly and months in advance. These are an ideal base with easy access to the majority of hiking trails and the Yosemite Valley viewpoints. There are nine more camping grounds outside of the valley, some of which do not allocate bookings and operate on a first come first serve basis. The campgrounds are basic, often providing just a toilet block (no showers) and a locker to safeguard your food from inquisitive bears.
After a few days in the park, you’ll most likely be craving a hot shower. There are only two options in the valley, both of which charge an entrance fee. Luckily the doors are often left unmanned. These are in the Housekeeping Camp and Half Dome Village (head to the shower block next to the swimming pool, not the standard ablution block which requires a password).
Camping not your thing? You’ll also find a few accommodation options with four walls within Yosemite Valley.
Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village) offers rooms varying from beautiful private cabins to fixed tents while Housekeeping Camp is set alongside the Merced River and has similar cabin-style tent accommodation. Prices start at around $100 per night.
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel arguably is the most beautiful property with comfortable rooms and a dramatic mountain backdrop. Prices start at around $400 per night.
For more accommodation options within the park, and rates and reservations, check here.
Accommodation Outside Of Yosemite National Park
If you’re unable to make a reservation, and unless you’re organising your trip several months at least 6 months in advance, this is probably most people, you’ll need to stay somewhere outside of Yosemite.
Villages surrounding the park have a decent selection of accommodation available. For rates and reservations, search here.
Entrance fees apply for vehicles entering Yosemite National Park. If you’re doing an extensive trip between America’s many national parks, an all-access annual pass may also be worth considering.
If like us you missed out on a coveted spot at one of the valley campgrounds, you’ll most likely be doing a lot of driving in and out of the valley and to the viewpoints and fuel costs can quickly add up. Petrol stations are located outside the park so if you’re visiting for more than a few day, you’ll definitely need to take an extra trip outside the park.
Tioga Pass and the road to Glacier Point, both highlights of our visit to Yosemite National Park, are closed during the winter months between November and May.
This is the quietest time to visit the park when even the valley campgrounds have only a hand full of visitors at a time. The bare forests lining the river are shrouded in snow and the valley is transformed into a magical winter wonderland. This may attract some but it means your options for visiting the park are severely limited. Many hiking trails are also off limits due to heavy snow fall.