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3. What to Do (The Yosemite FAQ)

Part 3: What to Do

WHAT TO DO: Hiking and Backpacking

Since some of the most frequently-asked questions deal with what hikes to do, this section will be the most detailed. Without question, the best reference for hiking and backpacking in Yosemite is:

Schaffer, Jeffrey P., 1999, Yosemite National Park: A Natural History Guide To Yosemite and Its Trails. Berkeley, Wilderness press, 274 p. (includes updated, plasticized topographic map of Yosemite National Park and Vicinity, scale: 1:125,000. Cost of book in 2002: $18.95, $13.27 on Amazon)

This and other hiking and backpacking books are at http://www.yosemite.ca.us/bookstore/


A few things to keep in mind (in addition to the rules in the Rules section):

Popular Yosemite Valley Hikes

Since most people ask about what hikes to do in Yosemite Valley, I will write a bit about these hikes. However, there are many, many hikes to do elsewhere in Yosemite. These include a few hikes in the Wawona area, along the Glacier Point Road, the Hetch Hetchy area, through the Mariposa, Tuolumne, and Merced Groves; and a variety of hikes along the Tioga Road, especially a great many in the Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass areas. Short descriptions of some of these hikes may be added to this FAQ, at my leisure.

My trail descriptions are not a substitute for a topographic map or for a hiking guide to Yosemite. ALL of the trails going out of Yosemite Valley gain elevation quickly, so know how to interpret a topographic map so you can see for yourself what the elevation gain will be like. I included these trail descriptions only to provide a sense of what the hike involves. You must judge for yourself whether or not any of these hikes are appropriate for you. To do any of these hikes, you should be in good shape and should think twice if you have heart or respiratory problems.

MIST TRAIL (Happy Isles to Nevada Fall) and the trail to HALF DOME

Vernal Fall Bridge (All year; but it may be icy in winter)
The most popular hike in Yosemite is the hike to the Vernal Fall Bridge. This hike begins at Happy Isles. The hike to the bridge and back to Happy Isles is only a few miles, but it is is quite strenuous. If you want to hike to the bridge, I recommend that you continue a few more minutes to the place marked "Vernal Fall view." This view is at Lady Franklin Rock, and has a much better view of Vernal Fall than you get from the bridge.

Top of Vernal Fall (April-October; closed in winter, due to ice)
Many people choose to continue up all the way to the top of Vernal Fall. The round trip distance for this hike is about 3 miles (5 km) and the elevation gain is about 1,000 ft (330 m). This is a short hike, but even more strenuous overall than the hike just to the bridge. During late spring and early summer, you will get drenched by the spray of the waterfall (which you will look forward to, since you will be hot). The latter part of the trail consists of granitic blocks stacked in such a way as to resemble a crude staircase. A staircase with very steep steps. This trail should be ascended and, in particular, descended with great caution.

Top of Nevada Fall (May-October)
Some people continue all the way to the top of Nevada Fall. The round trip distance of this hike (from Happy Isles) is about 5 mi (8 km), though the actual distance varies depending upon the trail you take. After you pass Vernal Fall, the trail is mostly flat for a distance, after which you begin a long ascent of switchbacks comprised of another granitic staircase (with a view of Nevada Fall). Before you reach the granitic staircase, you will pass the Emerald Pool and Silver Apron. You will probably notice people playing in the water. DO NOT BE TEMPTED! This area has a very high occurrence of injuries and deaths. It is now illegal to enter the water in this area: you will be fined and charged for the rescue. There are much safer areas to play in the river. After you reach the top of Nevada Fall, be sure to climb down to the overlook. I recommend that you return to Happy Isles via the John Muir Trail, since it is much safer and easier to descend (not to mention that it's easier on your knees). This trail starts south of the river (other side of the bridge of the trail from which you ascended). This trail consists mostly of switchbacks. Be sure to continue all the way to the end of the trail if you want to avoid the Mist Trail. Be sure, also, to stop at Clark Point, which has a nice view of Vernal and Nevada Falls. A winter route is generally open year-round and uses the lower portion of the John Muir trail and the upper portion of the Mist Trail.

Half Dome (June-September)
I'd recommend starting this hike as early as you possibly can, even if it's just as the sun is rising (~6 am), or even before sunrise. Don't start too late... Starting early has several advantages: 1) you reduce the likelyhood of getting killed by thunderstorms, 2) you are more likely to finish your hike before it gets dark, 3) you do the hard hiking in the morning, when it isn't as hot, and 4) you get to Half Dome before everyone else (hopefully). During mid- to late-afternoon there is literally a traffic jam on the cables. It can be quite scary, especially for a first-timer. If, when you arrive at the base of Half Dome, there are thunderclouds, DO NOT ASCEND Half Dome! People are killed by lightening strikes on top of Half Dome! The length of the hike is about 15 miles. You should undertake this hike only if you are in good physical condition. If you never, or rarely, exercise it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to finish this hike. A summary of the trail: read the above descriptions of the hikes up to Vernal and Nevada Falls. Eventually, you reach the top of Nevada Fall, and continue to the left past the new outhouses into Little Yosemite Valley. This part of the hike is flat. Eventually, you begin the long ascent to the base of Half Dome (make sure you don't miss the junction to Half Dome- turn left at the junction), and finally you reach the base of the cables. At the bottom is a box containing used work gloves (I recommend bringing your own)- the gloves help some people (bother others) on the cables.

YOSEMITE FALLS (All year, depending on conditions)

Another popular trail is the one to the top of Yosemite Falls. This hike is about 6.8 mi (10.9 km) round trip, elevation gain is nearly 3,000 ft (900 m). I recommend starting this hike early because the most difficult part of the hike (the last two-thirds of it) is completely unshaded, and in summer can be quite hot. This hike is a strenuous hike. If you don't feel up to hiking all the way to the top, a good place to hike to is to Columbia Rock, only about 2 miles round trip. If you make it to Columbia Rock, I recommend that you continue up a few more steep switchbacks, down a few more, and around a corner to a view of Upper Yosemite Fall. The trailhead is behind the Sunnyside Walk-in Campground, just north of the Yosemite Lodge and next to the Chevron Station. (The trailhead, though well marked, can be difficult to find, so if you can't find it, ask.) The first part of the trail consists of short switchbacks through a well shaded oak forest. Eventually you will reach Columbia Rock, a railed-in viewpoint with one of the best views of Yosemite Valley. Just above Columbia Rock are three steep gravelly switchbacks, after which you descend a few and come upon a view of Upper Yosemite Fall. After catching your breath on a relatively flat part of the trail, you begin to ascend a series of switchbacks that may seem to go on for ever. Most of these switchbacks are completely unshaded. Finally, you'll reach to top of the trail. Be sure to (*carefully*) descend to the Yosemite Falls overlook. During times of low flow, you are likely to see people playing in Yosemite Creek, if you decide to join them, use extreme caution as the rocks are slippery (even when not wet), and almost every year people have the fatal experience of falling over Upper Yosemite Fall. If you want an even better view of Yosemite Valley, continue the extra mile (1.6 km) east to Yosemite Point.


Most of the people who get to Glacier Point do it the easy way: they drive. For a much more fulfilling experience, hike to it. My favorite way to do this is to start early and ascend the Four Mile Trail and to descend via the Panorama Trail to Happy Isles. The hike to Glacier Point via the Four Mile Trail is actually 4.6 mi (7.4 km). The hike from Glacier Point to Happy Isles via the Panorama and John Muir Trails is 9.1 mi (14.5 km). (You can also descend via the Mist Trail, which will make the distance a little less.) This hike is strenuous. If you have trouble ascending the Four Mile Trail, I recommend returning down it, instead of taking the Panorama Trail. The Four Mile Trail consists almost completely of switchbacks (many of which are shaded). When it's time to leave, you can return via the Four Mile Trail, or you can descend via the Panorama Trail. From the Panorama Trail, you get various, and oft times unfamiliar, views of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Nevada and Vernal Falls, and many other peaks. You also get the best (and basically, only) view of Illilouette Fall-- a treat. You'll descend the Panorama Trail via switchbacks until you reach Illilouette Creek (if you reach Illilouette Creek and you haven't seen the waterfall, return up the trail a short distance to the viewpoint). After you pass Illilouette Creek (use extreme caution around the stream), you will ascend sunny switchbacks. Eventually you will begin a descent in a well shaded portion of the trail and reach the top of Nevada Fall. From here you can choose to descend via the John Muir Trail or via the Mist Trail (for descriptions of both, read the "Mist Trail" section above).


These are two relatively easy and very rewarding short hikes. To reach the trailhead, drive 13.2 mi (21.2 km) on the Glacier Point Road from its junction with the Wawona Road (or, if driving back towards the Wawona Road from Glacier Point, 2.3 mi (3.7 km)) to the signed parking area on the north side of the road. Both trails start at this trailhead and both are approximately 2 mi (3.2 km) round trip. Unlike many trails in Yosemite, these are also relatively flat. The Sentinel Dome trail has a bit of steep climbing just before you reach Sentinel Dome, and the Taft Point trail descends a little bit right before Taft Point. You may see wildflowers (especially along the Taft Point Trail) and though the views rival that from Glacier Point, you will see relatively few people.

Popular Wawona-Area Hikes


This is the only waterfall in the Wawona area, but it's quite different than those found in Yosemite Valley in that it's really a series of cascades. In order to see the largest of these, it is necessary to hike. The signed trailhead is on the Chilnualna Falls Road in Wawona. The hike is 4.1 mi (6.6 km) one way and gains about 2,000 ft (600 m). It is a fairly pleasant hike with nice views. Late in the summer, many people enjoy swimming near the top (and bottom)... do this at your own risk.


The Mariposa Grove contains the largest Giant Sequoias in Yosemite and is the only grove containing a living tunnel tree. The trailhead is in the upper end of the Mariposa Grove parking lot (consider taking the shuttle during the summer). Most people walk 0.8 mi (1.3 km) one way to the Grizzly Giant and the California Tunnel Tree. This takes about 45 minutes to an hour (round trip). However, if you have a few hours, continue up the trail (straight through the tunnel tree) to the Upper Portion of the Mariposa Grove. There are a few ways to go (see a map), but whichever way you go you'll notice few Giant Sequoias past the Lower Grove due to the steep, dry slopes. Once you reach the Upper Grove, you'll see many Sequoias (of all ages). You'll also notice that the forest is more open. The presence of young Sequoias (many more than in the Lower Grove) and the openness of the forest is a result of the return of fire to the Upper Grove, which is a natural part of the ecosystem. The Upper Grove has a small museum, bathrooms, and a water fountain, in addition to some famous Sequoias, including the Fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree (see the appendix), the Telescope Tree, and the Galen Clark Tree. Allow about 3 hours to return to the trailhead.


Rules for backpackers:

Wilderness permits are now available from the Yosemite Association. About 50% of the trailhead's quota is reserved in advance ($3 fee), and the other 50% is available on a first come, first served basis. Reserved permits are available 24 weeks (though no less than 2 days) in advance. For recorded permit information, call 209-372-0310; for permit reservations, call 209-372-0740 between 8am and 5pm Pacific Time.

PROPER FOOD STORAGE is required. You MUST use a bear-proof bear canister! You may rent a bear canister for $3/per TRIP (not per day) from any permit station in the park (pick it up when you get your permit!) Bear boxes are available at all High Sierra Camps and at the campground in Little Yosemite Valley.

Popular backpacks are in the Tuolumne Meadows area, in the Tenaya Lake/Clouds Rest area, and around Little Yosemite Valley. Permits for these areas are most difficult to obtain. There are many areas in Yosemite's backcountry that equal the beauty of the popular places, but are much more remote, and therefore less crowded and easier to obtain permits for.

WHAT TO DO: Visitor Centers and Museums

Yosemite Valley

The main visitor center in Yosemite is located in Yosemite Village. The Valley Visitor Center has various natural history exhibits and the Yosemite Bookstore. Rangers or volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have.

Also in Yosemite Village is the Yosemite Museum, which includes an art gallery (summer), and the Indian Cultural Museum. Behind the museum is a reconstructed Miwok Indian Village.

The LeConte Memorial is a small structure near Housekeeping Camp staffed by Sierra Club volunteers. Various presentations occur during summer.

The Happy Isles Nature Center, located near the end of the John Muir Trail at Happy Isles, houses a variety of excellent natural history exhibits. Great for kids (and adults). There is a small Yosemite Bookstore here. Open May-September.

Tuolumne Meadows

The Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center offers a small, but impressive, collection of preserved plants and animals. Rangers are available for questions. There is a small Yosemite Bookstore here. Open summer.

Parsons Lodge, built in 1915 by the Sierra Club, has a focus on human history in the Tuolumne Meadows area. Open summer.

Wawona and The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

The Pioneer Yosemite History Center has relocated historic buildings and horse drawn wagons. During summer, volunteers portray pioneers and occupy the historic buildings. Wagon rides are offered (for a small fee) that take visitors across the historic covered bridge. During the rest of the year, a self-guided tour is available. There is a small Yosemite Bookstore here (during summer and early fall).

The Mariposa Grove Museum is located in a small log cabin in the Mariposa Grove and has various exhibits interpreting the natural history of the giant sequoia, and a Yosemite Bookstore. Open summer to early fall.

WHAT TO DO: Interpretive Activities

The Park Service, concessionnaire (DNC), and other organizations offer interpretive activities year-round in Yosemite. These activities include campfire talks, ranger walks emphasizing various subjects, and slide shows. The Yosemite Theater in Yosemite Village offers live stage-theater and film programs, including Lee Stetson's famous portrayals of John Muir. Tickets may be bought in advance to ensure seating (available at the Valley Visitor Center, or at the Theater's door, if seating is available). For complete information and schedules, look in the Yosemite Guide.

During the summer, interpretive walks and talks are offered in Yosemite Valley, at Glacier Point, Wawona, Mariposa Grove, Crane Flat and Big Oak Flat, White Wolf, and Tuolumne Meadows. During winter, activities are offered in Yosemite Valley and Badger Pass Ski Area. Schedules are posted and are published in the Yosemite Guide.

The Yosemite Association offers a variety of natural history and other outdoors seminars throughout the year. Most of the seminars involve short hikes or backpacks. A free catalog describing the seminars, their requirements, and the costs is available from the Yosemite Association. For information call 209-379-2321.

The Yosemite Institute offers excellent week-long outdoor education programs, mostly for junior high school and high school classes. For more information, call 209-372-4441.

The National Park Service Branch of Education offers junior ranger programs (July through early September) and school programs. For more information, call 209-375-9505.

WHAT TO DO: Biking, River activities, Climbing, Tours

For information on winter activities, see the winter section of this FAQ.

Bicycles can be rented from Curry Village during the summer and Yosemite Lodge year round (weather permitting). Bicycles, whether rented or your own, may only be ridden on roads and designated paved bike paths (a designated bike path has a yellow stripe down the middle). Bicycles are NEVER allowed on poorly paved or unpaved trails. Pedestrians always have the right of way: keep in mind that bike paths are not reserved only for bicyclists, but that pedestrians frequently use them. Please use appropriate lighting when riding bicycles at night.

The rivers of Yosemite offer many recreational activities. During early summer, many people enjoy calm-water rafting in eastern Yosemite Valley. The rivers may be off-limits when the water level is too high and rafting may be prohibited when discharge is too low. ALL rafters are required to have life preservers. Catch-and-release fishing for native rainbow trout is allowed, but a valid California fishing license is required for adults. Swimming is allowed when the river's discharge is not too high (usually by mid or late summer). Try to avoid walking and climbing on the riverbanks, as this results in a large amount of bank erosion. The best place to enter or exit the river is at sand bars, not at steep banks. DO NOT ENTER OR EXIT THE RIVER via steep banks! Please stay out of closed areas along the river.

During winter, Badger Pass ski area is open for downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing (no sledding). Rentals are available at Badger Pass. Most of the park is open for cross-country skiing during winter (wilderness permit is required for overnight trips), though only Badger Pass/Glacier Point, Crane Flat, and the Mariposa Grove areas have marked trails.

Yosemite has downhill and cross-country ski schools, for more information, call: Cross-country ski school: 209-372-1244 Downhill ski school: 209-372-1000

Curry Village has an ice-rink (winter only). Rental skates are available.

Yosemite is world-renowned for its rock climbing opportunities. Climbs within the park range from grade I through grade VI. Backcountry permits are required for overnight climbs. The Yosemite Mountaineering School offers instruction in rock climbing. For more information, call 209-372-8344.

Horse, mule, burro, and llama riding are permitted in the park. The Yosemite Stables offers mule rides in Yosemite Valley and Wawona in spring through fall, and in Tuolumne Meadows in summer. Horses and other such animals are not permitted in the Mariposa Grove (except on the Outer Loop Trail) and on steep trails. Ask about restrictions at the nearest visitor center.

The concessionnaire (DNC) offers, for a fee, various sightseeing tours in different parts of the park. Tours are offered in Yosemite Valley (year round), Mariposa Grove (spring-fall), Tioga Road/Tuolumne Meadows (summer), and Glacier Point (summer-fall). For more information, call 209-372-1240.


Winter Driving

Snow chains may be required on any park road AT ANY TIME. Winter storms can occur any time from September through May. Therefore, you MUST carry snow chains that fit on the tires of the vehicle you're driving and know how to use them between November 1st and March 31st. After winter storms, roads that are normally open may be closed temporarily.

For up-to-date recorded road and weather information in Yosemite, call 209-372-0200 or go to http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo/do10map.htm and http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo/do9map.htm for road information for roads leading into Yosemite (and sometimes in Yosemite). Visit http://www.nps.gov/yose/roads.htm for road information inside Yosemite; call 209-372-0200 for the most current conditions.

Skiing and Ice-skating

During winter, Badger Pass ski area is open for downhill skiing and cross-country skiing (no sledding). Most of the park is open for cross-country skiing during winter (wilderness permit is required for overnight trips), though only Badger Pass, Crane Flat, and the Mariposa Grove areas have marked trails.

Yosemite has downhill and cross-country ski schools, for more information, call: Cross-country ski school: 209-372-1244, Downhill ski school: 209-372-1000

Curry Village has an ice-rink. Rental skates are available.

River Activities

Water temperatures in streams are near or at freezing during winter. Thin ice may exist. Therefore, extreme caution should be exercised near rivers.


Even with relatively warm daytime temperatures around 50°F (10°C) in Yosemite Valley, it is easy to become affected by hypothermia. To avoid hypothermia, keep yourself and your clothes dry. Physical exhaustion and lack of food increase your susceptibility to hypothermia. Synthetic fabrics, silk, or wool should be worn in place of cotton fabrics. Additionally, do not exercise to the point of exhaustion and be sure to eat plenty of food (especially carbohydrates) and drink plenty of water. Be familiar with the symptoms and treatments for hypothermia. Hypothermia is a potentially fatal injury.

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