Yosemite NP

Our favorite things to do in Yosemite

Yosemite National Park captured our hearts with its majestic waterfalls, huge sequoias, and towering granite cliffs. It is the kind of national park that’s totally worth the hype, we totally fell in love with this iconic place! In fact, we’d go as far as saying it’s one of our favorite national parks. We always dreamed of visiting Yosemite, and we were so happy when we made that dream a reality! To help you make the most out of your time here, we share our favorite things to do in Yosemite.

Side note
As we mentioned in our “things that went wrong” blog post, our visit to Yosemite (May 2023) did not go without a hitch. Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road were closed, so we couldn’t visit famous spots like Glacier Point, Taft Point, Sentinel Dome, and Half Dome. That’s why we limited this list to the best of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. It also means we have to go back soon to visit all the things we couldn’t before!

Tunnel View

Our favorite things to do in Yosemite: Tunnel View

Let’s start with our absolute favorite viewpoint of Yosemite, and maybe even of all the national parks we’ve visited: Tunnel View. This legendary viewpoint offers some breathtaking views of the Yosemite Valley. On the left you can see El Capitan, on your right Bridalveil Fall, and right in between Half Dome. The whole setting feels so unreal, we thought we were looking at a painting! You can see countless things “moving”, like the fog in between the trees, some waterfalls in the distance, birds flying over the valley… Truly magical! 

The first time we stopped here, we literally couldn’t see anything because of the fog. What a disappointment! We had big expectations and all we could see was a white fog screen. 🙁 We decided to come back that same evening for sunset, this was the best idea ever. The mist cleared up and what we saw was just magnificent. We really had an “otherworldly” feeling because of all that beauty in our surroundings. We stood here for an hour watching the sun set, this was such an enchanting experience.

If you thought this was the highlight of Yosemite, you’re wrong. The next day we returned for sunrise, and this was even more beautiful! We could never have imagined this. Although we had to share the viewpoint with 50 other photographers, it was one of the most magical moments of our road trip. It was -7 °C, neither of us were dressed for it, but we can both agree that this is the most dramatic sunrise we have ever seen. There’s just something so magical about starting your day with the best view ever. 🥹

Tunnel View is definitely one of our favorite things to do in Yosemite, you just can’t get tired of this sight! Best of all, you don’t have to make any effort at all for this viewpoint, since the viewpoint is located just a few steps from the parking lot. There aren’t many parking spaces, but if you arrive early enough you should be fine.

Pro tip
Try to arrive at least half an hour before sunset or sunrise. As mentioned before, there will be countless photographers present and they do take up a lot of space. By arriving early, you ensure you get a good spot. Of course, the earlier you arrive, the better your spot will be, but for us half an hour hits the sweet spot. Still early enough to beat the majority of tourists, and late enough so you don’t have to sacrifice your sleep (sunrise) or half your day (sunset). If you’re a (professional) photographer however, try to arrive at least 1 hour before the event. There’s quite a bit of competition amongst the photographers to get the best spot!

Valley View

Valley View

Another iconic view in Yosemite is Valley View. Chances are you have already seen pictures of Valley View passing by, as this is a much-photographed spot. But, located on Northside Drive in the turn to Southside Road, it is quite hidden. Chances are you’ll miss it if you’re not paying attention! There are only a couple of parking spots available, but whenever we passed by there was no-one there but us. We don’t know whether this was a one off, or if this is a place that most people don’t pay attention to. So chances are you’ll have the whole place to yourself! Again, the whole setting is just gorgeous, and you can admire El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall, among others.

While Valley View didn’t give us the same goosebumps as Tunnel View, we’re still convinced that Valley View is a must-see. It just offers a different perspective on the majestic Yosemite Valley, and will make you feel like you’re standing right in the middle of it! This viewpoint is also located just a few steps from the (small) parking lot, so no hiking required!

El Capitan

El Capitan

El Capitan is Yosemite’s majestic icon. This dramatic rock formation can literally not be missed, that’s because it’s so massive that you can’t miss it! Ever since it became the background of our MacBook, it was a dream of us to see it in real life one day. We’re so happy we finally saw it with our own eyes! For the best views of this giant we recommend heading to El Capitan Meadow. You will feel small next to this huge rock formation!

When we visited, we stayed here for almost an hour. We strolled through the meadow, and we were on the lookout for wildlife. Unfortunately, we didn’t encounter any wildlife other than some birds. Online we saw countless people that spotted stags and deer, or even some bears! Not us, though, but make sure to be on the lookout and hopefully you’ll have better luck.

If you are an experienced climber, you can also choose to climb El Capitan. Since we’re not climbers, we decided to just take in the beauty of El Capitan. On a clear day, it is possible to spot some climbers doing their thing, which is really cool. It is really impressive to be able to admire El Capitan in real life!

Yosemite Falls Trail

Our favorite things to do in Yosemite: Lower Yosemite Fall Trail

We first arrived at the trailhead for the Upper Yosemite Fall Trail, but when we saw that it was a 12 km round trip all the way to the top, we decided not to. This hike would’ve taken us between 6 and 8 hours, and we were not keen on doing that in the rain whilst it was almost freezing. That’s why we decided to just hike the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail.

This 1,6 km round trip is a short and easy hike that offers spectacular views of the Lower Yosemite Fall. Better yet, you can even spot the Upper Yosemite Fall from afar! That’s a win-win for us. 😉 Due to the immense amount of melting snow when we visited, the waterfall was truly magnificent and dramatic. We could even feel drops of water on our faces, such an incredible experience!

If you’re visiting Yosemite for its majestic waterfalls, the best period to do so is definitely springtime. This is when all the snow that accumulated over the winter begins to melt, and it makes for some amazing, strong falls! We know that the summer (or early fall) is the most popular period, but be prepared for some disappointment. Almost all the snow will have melted by then, which has a dry, tiny waterfall as result. The weather will be much better than when we visited, though!

Bridalveil Fall

Our favorite things to do in Yosemite: Bridalveil Fall

The Bridalveil Fall is one of the most recognizable waterfalls in Yosemite. It was on our bucket list for so long so we were really excited to be able to go on this hike. Unfortunately, the Bridalveil Fall Trail was one of the many things that were closed when we visited Yosemite. This was due to the Bridalveil Fall Rehabilitation Project, projected to end in the summer of 2023. We couldn’t hike up to the waterfall itself, but luckily we could still admire the waterfall from a distance!

It would’ve been so nice to go on this hike. 🥺 That’s why we include some information to try and persuade you into going! The hike is an about 2 km round trip with 70m elevation gain. This elevation gain is really gradual, most hikers won’t even notice it’s there! The path is completely paved, which makes it very accessible! And since it’s not a long hike, it shouldn’t take you more than 30 minutes. All these things made it the perfect hike for us, some (not a lot of) effort, and an amazing reward at the end!

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

Since Sequoia National Park was closed during our road trip, we visited Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias instead. This, too, did not come without its challenges. We already told you about the crack in the road on the day we arrived in Yosemite. Because of this there were no shuttle buses running. Normally you can take a shuttle bus from the parking lot at Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza to Mariposa Grove. Not this time! The road closure meant we had to hike 3 km (one way) from the parking lot to arrive at Mariposa Grove. Although the hike wasn’t bad, we didn’t know this in advance and so this was also very unexpected! Along the way we saw a lot of nature’s beauty, but if the hike were 1 (or 2) km shorter, we wouldn’t have complained. 😂

Grizzly Giant Loop Trail

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is home to more than 500 giant sequoias, which is so impressive to see! It was our first time to see these majestic trees in real life (we don’t have them in Belgium), so spectacular! Suddenly we were surrounded by these big, tall trees that had been there for hundreds of years. We really needed a minute to take it all in!

Grizzly Giant Loop Trail

We did the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail, a 3,2 km round trip that is recommended to do as first-timers. Along the way you’ll see some remarkable trees such as the Bachelor and Three Graces, the Fallen Monarch, the largest and oldest sequoia tree Grizzly Giant, and California Tunnel Tree. The Fallen Monarch impressed us greatly. The tree looked like it came from another planet! So big, with the roots visible and everything, it really has something from outer space.

The California Tunnel Tree was definitely fun to see, too! The tree was carved in 1895 and is big enough to let a car drive through. 🤯 Admittedly, it has to be a rather small car, but it is still so cool that they used to do this. An even cooler fact is that the tree heals itself! Sure, there are countless people that have carved their initials in them that you can still see. But for a tree to have such a big gap, the bark has healed quite nicely! If everyone refrained from damaging the tree and bark, this tree would be as good as new. 

Pro tip
The entrance fee per vehicle for Yosemite is little over € 30. If you plan on visiting multiple national parks, we really recommend purchasing the America The Beautiful pass! For € 70, you get access to a lot of national parks, including Yosemite, Bryce Canyon, Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, and so many more!

Where to stay near Yosemite

Cedar Lodge

As you probably know by now, we wanted to stay as close to national parks as possible. The hotels in Yosemite itself were incredibly expensive, so we decided to stay at Cedar Lodge. This hotel is located in El Portal, a less than 30 minutes drive from landmarks like Tunnel View and El Capitan Meadows. We paid € 190 per night, which is quite a lot of money. In return, we stayed in a hotel that is a 5-minute drive from the entrance to Yosemite, so we were definitely willing to pay this! The hotel is also about 20-25 minutes away from Mariposa, a lovely town that really has a lot to offer. Whether you’re looking for fastfood, a diner, souvenir shops,… Mariposa has it!

The hotel has a swimming pool, restaurant, and supermarket. When we were there, there was some construction going on to expand, so business must be booming! Our room was spacious but pretty basic and a little outdated. We really didn’t expect anything fancy, but small things in the room and bathroom needed a little bit of extra love. The electric fireplace was super cozy though, this created some more atmosphere. It was so nice to eat our microwaved noodles under our blanket with the fireplace on!

The only drawback at Cedar Lodge is that there’s no free WiFi here at all. We knew this in advance, and since we had bought a data sim back in San Francisco this was not a problem. At least, that’s what we thought… Turned out we had no coverage in the hotel either! Our hotel in El Portal, in the middle of the mountains, had non-existent coverage from our carrier T-Mobile. That’s why we we paid € 9 per day for WiFi, and this was only valid for 2 devices. We really thought this was way too much money!

For its location, we definitely recommend Cedar Lodge if you want to be close to all the main Yosemite locations. The price was way too high, though, in our opinion, especially when you know that you still have to pay extra for WiFi. In this day and age, asking money for WiFi should be a criminal offense! In addition, they didn’t clean our room during our stay either. We stayed here for 3 nights, and had to ask the front desk for new towels. For a price of € 190 per night, we expected a little more service!

We’ve got hotel recommendations in Yosemite for every budget:

More helpful United States posts:

Unforgettable Zion hiking adventures
Top 5 best things to do in Death Valley 
The ultimate Bryce Canyon guide
The best Grand Canyon views at the South Rim
6 best things to do in Joshua Tree

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