The Best Things to Do in Yosemite National Park, USA

The view of the Half Dome from Glacier Point is unforgettable
The view of the Half Dome from Glacier Point is unforgettable | © Paul Brough / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Judy Cogan
2 September 2021

From the giant sequoia trees in the valley to the granite peaks of El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park is a mecca for adventure lovers and for those seeking to escape into the wilderness of California.

Yosemite National Park is a bucket-list worthy destination. Every year, thousands gravitate towards its awe-inspiring natural beauty. Since 1864, Yosemite has been protected by the government, allowing visitors to explore its undisturbed sequoia groves, granite mountains and waterfalls. While many come for the hiking, climbing and camping, there are more things to do in Yosemite than just explore the great outdoors.

Explore Tuolumne Grove

Hiking Trail, Forest
Tourist in Dead Giant Tunnel Tree, Tuolumne Grove, near Crane Flat, Yosemite National Park, California, USA
E7H148 Tourist in Dead Giant Tunnel Tree, Tuolumne Grove, near Crane Flat, Yosemite National Park, California, USA | © David Wall / Alamy Stock Photo

Enjoy a classic Yosemite hike while feeling like you’ve been shrunk to the size of a bug by spending a morning weaving through the giant sequoia trees in Tuolumne Grove – which you can now do on Culture Trip’s action-packed seven-day Northern California trip, led by our Local Insider. Roughly two dozen fully grown giants stand up to 500ft (152m) tall and 30ft (9m) wide. The 2.4mi (4km) trail will take you downhill first and then back up a steep hill. Look out for the Tunnel Tree, it has a hole cut out of its base that you can walk through.

Peek through Tunnel View

Natural Feature
© Frank Fell / Alamy Stock Photo

Add this spectacular viewpoint to your list of things to do in Yosemite immediately. This is where you can take in much of the valley floor, including the 1,097m (3,600ft) high El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall and Half Dome in one sweeping hit. The view hugely inspired American photographer Ansel Adams. Keep in mind as you take selfies, Half Dome is 87m years old and is the sheerest cliff in the United States.

Marvel at Yosemite Falls

Hiking Trail, Natural Feature
© David Wall / Alamy Stock Photo
Yosemite Falls is considered the tallest waterfall in North America, dropping 740m (2,425ft) in three thunderous tiers. If you prefer a solitary challenge, clamber up the Yosemite Falls Trail. The reward after a 3.4mi (5.4km) hike (one of the most gruelling, but worthwhile Yosemite trails) is a clear, phenomenal viewpoint atop the falls.

Follow the Mist Trail

Hiking Trail, Forest

This is one of the best hikes in Yosemite. The trail is 7.3mi (11.7km) long and follows the Merced River, starting at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, past Vernal Fall and Emerald Pool and on to Nevada Fall. It’ll take roughly between five and six hours. Be prepared for slippery footing and waterfall spray. There is a steep granite stairway of over 600 steps, but just as with all the Yosemite trails, the natural beauty makes the leg burn worth it.

Watch the sunset at Sentinel Point

Hiking Trail, Forest

If you want a short and sweet option, hike to Sentinel’s summit (2,475m/8,122ft). It may not sound easy but this 2.2mi (3.5km) hike offers huge rewards, especially at sunset, thanks to the 360 degree panorama of Yosemite National Park from the top of its granite dome. Sip a glass of champagne while you’re up there and pinch yourself.

Hike up Pothole Dome

Natural Feature, Hiking Trail
Tioga Pass from Mono basin to Yosemite, Route 120 - Tuolumne Meadows, Pothole Dome.
CY9DWA Tioga Pass from Mono basin to Yosemite, Route 120 - Tuolumne Meadows, Pothole Dome. | © Shirley Kilpatrick / Alamy Stock Photo

This is an often overlooked but spectacular pocket of high country in Yosemite National Park. From the top of Pothole Dome, via the less-steep east side, you will enjoy expansive views across Tuolumne Meadows, while the lower section of the hike traverses a series of cascades in the Tuolumne River. The entire loop is only 2.4mi (4km) and a section of the trail has no marked path. You will be walking on slick rock, but that’s all part of the heady Cali adventure.

Swim in Tenaya Lake

Natural Feature
Yosemite National Park, View of Lake Tenaya (Tioga Pass), California
DH58NJ Yosemite National Park, View of Lake Tenaya (Tioga Pass), California | © Robert Zehetmayer / Alamy Stock Photo

With plenty of scenic Yosemite hikes under your belt, a leisurely afternoon swim in the cool mountain waters of Tenaya Lake will ease your limbs. The glassy blue surface is flanked by pines and granite cliff faces, providing a dramatic backdrop to your dip. The lake was originally named Pywiack meaning Lake of Shining Rocks by Indigenous Americans as a nod to the polished granite domes surrounding it. Sound appealing? You can swim in Tenaya Lake on Culture Trip’s specially curated small-group Northern California adventure.

Visit Ansel Adams Gallery

Art Gallery

Few know about it, but original Ansel Adams prints are shown at Yosemite Valley’s Ansel Adams Gallery. The American landscape photographer and environmentalist is known for his black-and-white images of the American West. A number of walks and classes centring around his work are offered here, including the “In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams” guided tour that will take you along the Yosemite trails looking through Adams’ eyes (and lens).

Stop by the Iron Door Saloon

Bar, American, $$$
Iron Door Saloon 1852 in Groveland, a pioneer gold rush town on Route 120 near  Yosemite National Park, California, USA. JMH5267
C728RX Iron Door Saloon 1852 in Groveland, a pioneer gold rush town on Route 120 near Yosemite National Park, California, USA. JMH5267 | © John Henshall / Alamy Stock Photo

Lunch at the Iron Door Saloon is a must on any trip to Yosemite National Park for a slice of history alone. It’s the longest continuously operating bar in California; it first opened in 1852 and was called the Granite Store. While it looks like a rickety old bar from a Western on the outside, inside, friendly staff mix seasonal cocktails (the Bloody Mary is a legendary mainstay) and serve delicious food, breakfast to dusk. The chicken fried steak is a hearty bite of America.

Go wine-tasting in Sonoma

Natural Feature, Winery
Step outside the falls and trails of Yosemite National Park to visit Sonoma County. It’s home to Napa Valley’s lesser-known neighbour, the Sonoma Valley wine region. Enjoy wine-tasting and a vineyard tour; there are 250 wineries in the area producing everything from delicate pinot noirs to zesty California chardonnays. Make a day of it and take a worthwhile detour along the coast to Goat Rock Beach and stop off at the Russian River Valley.
These recommendations were updated on September 2, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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