Yosemite National Park: The Complete Guide for 2020

Nicole Jordan

California, USA

Massive granite cliffs, majestic waterfalls, and abundant wildlife: Yosemite’s U-shaped valley features profound natural wonders, earning its spot as the most-visited California national park. With more than 1,200 square miles of protected land within its borders, there’s opportunity for endless adventure. Walk amongst Giant Sequoias, explore the high country, swim in alpine lakes, hike up domes, and be on the lookout for wild black bears, mule deer and bobcats. Whether you fancy a long day of hiking followed by camping under the stars or prefer a mellow meadow stroll and comfortable bed at night, you won’t be disappointed by the beauty of Yosemite National Park.

Where is Yosemite National Park?

Yosemite National Park,
Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Yosemite National Park is located in central California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Surrounded by three national forests (Sierra, Stanislaus, and Inyo), it’s about 180 miles from San Francisco or California’s pacific coast.

Yosemite National Park Facts

Yosemite National Park,
Yosemite National Park, California, US.
  • At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls are the tallest in North America.
  • In 1864, the Yosemite Grant Act was signed by President Lincoln. This was the first time in the history of the United States that any public land would be protected by the government. This was prior to the National Park system being developed and later led to Yosemite being signed as the 3rd national park in 1890.
  • With an elevation range from about 2,000 ft to 13,114 ft, there are five major vegetation zones in the park: the foothills, lower montane, upper montane, sub-alpine, and alpine. These varying vegetation zones are home to over 400 different species of plant and animal life.
  • The U-shaped valley, surrounded by massive granite cliffs, was carved out by glaciers as they receded since the end of the Ice Age. Today, there are only 4 remaining ice caps on some of the highest peaks in the park.

Getting to Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park,
Yosemite National Park, California, US.

San Francisco to Yosemite is about a four hour drive. Cross the bay bridge and take I-580 E to I-205 E. From here there are two options: continue on Route 120 to the northwestern entrance of the park. For an alternative route, continue on I-99 then Route 140. From Fresno, Yosemite is about a two hour drive. Take highway 41 from Fresno all the way into the park.

Embarking on a California national park road trip? Check out moonscape-like Death Valley, which is about 3 hours south, or fiery Lassen Volcanic National Park, a quick 5 hours north.

Yosemite National Park Weather

Yosemite National Park,
Yosemite National Park, California, US.

All four seasons feature wonderful, yet decidedly different experiences in Yosemite National Park. Spring is the best time to see the roaring waterfalls; however, due to snow, the high country may not be accessible. Summer temperatures allow access to the whole park and give way to plenty of warm days perfect for swimming in the Merced River and alpine lakes. The fall features leaves changing colors, lighting up the valley. Cooler temperatures make hiking more enjoyable at this time of year and all park roads are open until the first snowfall. In autumn, waterfalls are very low to nonexistent. Winter is the least crowded season to visit Yosemite. Although many roads close at higher elevations, the valley is incredible to enjoy covered in snow. Temperatures usually range from the mid 20s to low 40s.

Yosemite National Park Hours

Yosemite National Park,
Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Yosemite Valley is generally open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (weather permitting). Glacier Point Road and Tioga Pass (Hwy 120 East) close for winter. The road to Hetch Hetchy is open from 8am to 5pm in the summer with limited hours in the winter. In addition, snow and other weather conditions can impact the valley hours and road closures.

The park is currently under limited operations due to COVID-19. For recent COVID status and frequent updates, check out Yosemite National Park’s current conditions.

Yosemite National Park Entrance Fee

Yosemite National Park,
Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Yosemite’s entrance fees are $35 per car, $30 per motorcycle, and $15 per person on foot. The entrance fee is valid for 7 days upon arrival. An annual Yosemite park pass is $70. The America the Beautiful Pass for all US National Parks is $80 a year.

Hiking in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park,
Yosemite National Park, California, US.

If you’re ready to stretch your legs (but not sure where to start), here’s a list of some of our favorite hiking trails in Yosemite National Park:

Easy, perfect for families:

  1. Lower Yosemite Falls Trail (1.2 mile loop, 40ft gain)
  2. Cooks Meadow Trail (1 mile loop, flat)
  3. Mirror Lake Trail (2 mile out-and-back, 100ft gain)
  4. Tuolumne Meadows Trail-Soda Springs and Parsons Lodge (1.6 mile out-and-back, flat)
  5. Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias-Big Trees Trail (0.3mile loop, flat)

Moderate, fairly strenuous:

  1. Columbia Rock (1.3 mile out-and-back, 1000ft gain)
  2. Sentinel Dome (2.1 mile out-and-back, 450ft gain)
  3. Taft Point Trail (2.3 mile out-and-back, 375ft gain)
  4. Lembert Dome (2.8 mile out-and-back, 900ft gain)
  5. Grizzly Giant Loop (2 mile loop, 350ft gain)

Difficult, experience recommended:

  1. Half Dome (14-16 mile out-and-back, 4,800ft gain, requires permits)
  2. Clouds Rest via Tenaya Lake (13 mile out-and-back, 3,100ft gain)
  3. Upper Yosemite Falls (7.2 mile out-and-back, 3,200ft gain)
  4. 4 Mile Trail (9.4 mile out-and-back, 3,200ft gain)
  5. The Mist Trail- Vernal and Nevada Falls (7 mile out-and-back, 2000ft gain)

Yosemite National Park Lodging

Yosemite National Park Camping

Half Dome Village, Yosemite Valley
Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Planning a night under the stars? Here are some of the best campgrounds and campsites inside and outside of Yosemite National Park:

  1. Upper Pines Campgrounds
  2. Lower Pines Campground
  3. North Pines Campground
  4. Camp 4
  5. Tuolumne Meadows Campground
  6. Wawona Campground
  7. Curry Village (Yosemite Tent Cabins)
  8. Indian Flat Campground
  9. Yosemite Lakes RV Resort
  10. Autocamp Yosemite

Pro tip: Many of these campgrounds are open seasonally. All campgrounds in Yosemite require reservations in advance with bookings that open about 6 months out. Book early to secure a spot in the park!

Yosemite National Park Hotels

Rush Creek Lodge at Yosemite, Groveland
Rush Creek Lodge, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

If camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of resorts, hotels, hostels, inns, cabins and B&Bs within a quick drive of Yosemite. Here are some of our favorites:

  1. The Ahwahnee
  2. Yosemite Valley Lodge
  3. Rush Creek Lodge
  4. Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort
  5. Yosemite View Lodge
  6. Yosemite Cedar Lodge
  7. Tenaya Lodge
  8. Evergreen Lodge at Yosemite
  9. Yosemite Way Station Motel
  10. White Wolf Lodge

Yosemite National Park Airbnb

Yosemite Tiny House with Llamas, Yosemite National Park, California, US. Credit: Airbnb

Yosemite Airbnb stays are a great alternative to hotels. There’s an unincorporated community of resort homes called Yosemite West off of Highway 41. Many of these homes are listed on Airbnb and range in size from 2 guests to large cabins housing 10+ guests. Mariposa, Groveland, and Oakhurst are the nearest spots surrounding Yosemite. All three are historic gold mining towns and feature many Airbnbs stays within a quick hour from the park.

Yosemite National Park Tours

Glacier Point Road,
Yosemite National Park, California, US.

While exploring the park on your own is fun, avoid the driving and enjoy the views while on a tour! To see the Yosemite valley highlights, hop on a two hour Valley Floor Tour in an open air tram (weather dependent) or bus. The Yosemite Conservancy also offers additional tours, listed on their website.

If launching your trip in San Francisco, hop on a tour right from downtown with Incredible Adventures. They offer 1-3 day hiking, walking, and camping trips from the city. Their itineraries vary depending on trip length, but always highlight the best parts of the park.

And last, if you are staying in or near a lodge outside the park, both Tenaya Lodge and Rush Creek Lodge offer van tours. Book on their websites to check out Tunnel View, Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, and more!

Best Things to Do in Yosemite National Park

Soak up the iconic Tunnel View

Tunnel View, View
Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Check out Yosemite’s most iconic view point. Looking over the valley floor, you’ll have incredible views of the park’s most famous features including El Capitan, Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Bridalveil Fall.

Live on the edge at Glacier Point

Glacier Point, Glacier Point
Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

From Glacier Point, you can see about one third of Yosemite National Park. This viewpoint rises over 3,500 feet above the valley floor. Looking down on waterfalls, and at eye level with Half Dome, this spot certainly cannot be missed. Due to rehabilitation, Glacier Point Road will be closed in 2021 and will slowly start to reopen in 2022.

Take a dip in Tenaya Lake

Tenaya Lake, Tenaya
Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

At over 8,000 feet in elevation, Tenaya Lake is the largest in Yosemite. Filled with snowmelt, this lake might be a bit chilly, but it sure is a refreshing place to cool off! And if swimming isn’t your thing, there are a bunch of picnic areas on the shore.

Watch climbers at El Cap Meadow

El Capitan Meadow, Capitan Meadow
El Cap Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

El Cap rises a mighty 3,000 feet above the valley floor and is one of the most famous climbing walls in the world. Don’t forget your binoculars as these climbers look like ants on the side of this wall.

Stop by Camp 4 for some bouldering

Camp 4,
Camp4, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Considered the mecca of rock climbing, Yosemite’s Camp 4 features world class climbing that draws climbers from all over the world.

Take a lunch break at Olmsted Point

Olmsted Point, Yosemite Valley
Olmsted Point, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Located in Yosemite’s high country, Olmsted Point looks out on Half Dome, Tenaya Lake, Clouds Rest, and other high mountain peaks.

Stand in awe under Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Take a short walk from Yosemite Valley Lodge and you’ll be standing under the tallest waterfall in North America, dropping 2,425 feet.

Swim at Cathedral Beach

Cathedral Beach Picnic Area,
Cathedral Beach, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Cathedral Beach is one of the best spots to swim along the Merced River. As the rest of the river levels go low by late summer, this spot remains deep enough to swim in and has a sandy beach to hang out on.

Walk among the largest trees in the world at Mariposa Grove

Mariposa Grove, Mariposa Grove
Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Checkout Mariposa or Tuolumne Grove to see these giants. Some trails even offer the chance to walk under tree tunnels or crawl through fallen trees.

Grab a meal at the Ahwahnee Hotel

The Ahwahnee, Yosemite Valley
The Ahwahnee, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

The Ahwahnee is Yosemite’s most upscale hotel with impressive architecture and design to fit the natural surroundings. Presidents have stayed here, and it can be reserved for special events. While looking out at Half Dome, enjoy a delicious fine meal at the restaurant. Be sure to make reservations early as dinner spots fill up quickly.

Taste the water at Soda Springs

Soda Springs, Soda Springs
Soda Springs, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

This natural spring in Tuolumne Meadows has bubbling water. If you’re daring, give it a try! But be prepared for an iron/mineral taste.

Drive California’s highest mountain pass

Tioga Pass, Tioga Pass
Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Reaching 9,945 feet in elevation, Tioga Pass features incredible views of Yosemite’s high country. Continue over the pass and you’ll see varying geologic features of the Eastern Sierra.

Catch a sunset at Mono Lake in Tufas State Park

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, Lee Vining
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

If you drive over Tioga Pass and drop down into the Eastern Sierra you’ll see the giant, blue lake known as Mono Lake. This alpine saline lake features limestone “tufas” rising out of the water.

Experience The Mobil / Whoa Nellie Deli

Mobil Gas Station, Yosemite National Park, California, US. Credit: Whoa Nellie Deli

At the bottom of Tioga Pass you’ll come upon a Mobil Gas Station. This isn’t any gas station: insideis large gift shop featuring Yosemite gear as well as the famous Whoa Nellie Deli restaurant. At the end of a long day, this is the perfect spot for a delicious, huge meal. Pizza, burgers, fish tacos, salads—it has everything.

Grab a pizza at Curry Village Pizza Patio

Curry Village Pizza Patio, Yosemite Valley
Curry Village Pizza Patio, Yosemite National Park, California, US.

Get a custom made pizza here (they even have gluten free and vegan options!). Curry Village’s pizza deck looks out at Half Dome and is a great sunset dinner spot.