Guide to Yosemite National Park

It is a place of peace, chaos, environmental battles, mountains, waterfalls, rivers, valleys, and now it is viewed as a place of such grand beauty, that everyone wants to experience it. 

If you have ever been to Yosemite, then you know it is more than just a park. It is a place of peace, chaos, environmental battles, mountains, waterfalls, rivers, valleys, and now it is viewed as a place of such grand beauty, that everyone wants to experience it. Since it was first protected in 1864 and later deemed an official national park in 1890, this park has had people fighting for its preservation since long ago.

One of the biggest battles was over Hetch Hetchy Valley. Congress wanted to dam this valley to create a water reservoir for San Fransisco; and John Muir, one of the most famous environmentalists, fought to stop this from happening. Although there was more outcry than ever seen before over an environmental issue, John Muir still lost this battle. This moment in history is seen as the first trial faced in the environmental movement and was successful in opening up the world for discussion on protecting our earth.

Yosemite is full of history, stories, world records, adventure, climbers, hikers, campers, and memories. This is a place of magic and it needs to be protected, especially as the desire to explore it increases.

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Camp

There are 13 main campgrounds in this park and 7 of them can be reserved in advance. Yosemite is a park in high demand by tourists, so its important to book your sites ahead of time. If attempting to secure a walk-in site then it is best to arrive first thing in the morning, as they are known to fill up by noon at the latest.

Most campgrounds have potable water available. The campgrounds that do not have potable water still have water sources which can be boiled and used for drinking/cooking.

There are different sections in the park you can choose to camp in; Yosemite Valley, South of Yosemite Valley, and North of Yosemite Valley. Depending on the hikes or activities you are going to do, you will want to research and pick the area that is best for your trip.

All info and reservations can be found on the NPS website.


Backcountry Camping

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If you are looking to backpack or even stay one night in the backcountry, then there are some steps to be taken to receive a permit.

Pick your trail. This can be done in person at a rangers station or online prior to your trip. I highly recommend making reservations or at least having a few different ideas of what you would like to do. The NPS website has great maps and information. There is also a page which has the backcountry reservations availability listed and this is a great resource to see what you have open to pick from.

Online reservations are done by a lottery system starting 168 days in advance from the hike start date. There are often a few sites available somewhat closer to your start date, but the popular ones get booked up far in advance so do your research.

If you have no luck reserving a site or its not the one you want, then you can attempt for a walk-in site.


Hikes

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Half Dome: ~16 miles RT, strenuous

This is one of the most well known hikes that exist today, especially if you are at all interested in hiking or the outdoors. This is because of its magnificent views, the adventure, thrill, and the challenge it represents. Half Dome is also known for it’s cables. This is a portion of this adventure where you are literally scaling the side of the rock face for 400 feet, without the equipment that you would normally need. This hike provides stunning views of Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, Yosemite Valley, and of Half Dome itself. The sub dome, the portion right before the ascent up the cables, has unbelievable views as well so if the height makes you nervous and you end up not wanting to go all the way up Half Dome know you will still have a beautiful view.

If you plan to do this incredible hike know that you need to secure a permit far in advance, you need to be in great shape physically, and that you may have a total panic moment when faced with the heights and last portion of this climb. It is also important to bring gloves to climb the cables with, but REMEMBER to pack them out. Too many pairs of gloves are left at the base of Half Dome and this is no way to treat such an amazing creation. This hike should take you all day and on average takes around 10 – 12 hours; bring plenty of water and food to get you through this exhilarating experience.

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If you do desire to turn this hike into a backpacking trip there are many sites you can stop and camp at along the way. We chose to backpack in and we camped at Little Yosemite Valley. Remember that there is bear activity here and to be mindful of your actions. The campsite next to us had left soap in their pack and we all woke up to a bear tearing up their packs and campsite, so be mindful to protect yourselves, others, and the wildlife.


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Lower Yosemite Falls Trail: 1 mile loop, easy, wheelchair accessible

Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America. This trail brings you to the lower section, which is still impressive and breathtaking by itself. The lower section of Yosemite Falls is 320 feet tall and often times the flow is so strong that you will get heavily misted on while standing below. This is a great trail if you are doing a drive-through of the park, have elderly or children with you, or if you simply want a more gentle day.


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Top of Yosemite Falls: 7.2 miles RT, strenuous

Full of switchbacks, sweat, oak trees, breathtaking vistas, more sweat, and so much reward at the top. Yosemite Falls sits at 2,425 feet, the tallest waterfall in North America. If you don’t want to make the hike all the way up then Columbia Rock has a beautiful view of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley, and this is found just one mile into the trek. If you decide you want to stop here, I urge you to go .5 mile farther down the trail for the view of Upper Yosemite Falls. Even more, I urge you to go to the top of the falls. Above the falls there is access to the flowing creek as it creates the waterfall, access to woodlands, mountainous overlooks, and you can even continue to Yosemite Point, another phenomenal lookout.

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I highly recommend this trail! We chose to backpack to the top and stay the night in a backcountry site. We quickly realized that not many people chose to do this as we were the only ones staying at the top of the falls and we had many fellow hikers tell us we were nuts for backpacking up the switchbacks and the ascent of 2,700 feet. We thoroughly enjoyed camping alone on the top of the falls and had such an intimate experience with this otherwise bustling park.


Bridalveil Fall Trail: 0.5 RT, easy, paved but not wheelchair accessible

This is another great trail for a rest day. This waterfall sits at 620 feet tall and is normally the first creation you see while entering the park. Bridalveil is known to spray water at such a high volume that often times you won’t be able to finish the trail, so just be mindful as you take this short hike!


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Vernal Fall & Nevada Fall Trail: 1.6 – 5.4 miles, moderate to strenuous

These two falls have a few different options to view and experience them. There is a mileage and difficulty range because you can choose to hike to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, which is 1.6 miles RT, or continue to the top of Vernal Fall. From this point you can choose to turn around or push forward to the top of Nevada Fall. This junction has more options as well, to turn around and go back the same route (Mist Trail) or head down the John Muir Trail. This is most likely confusing so I recommend checking out the NPS website and ranger stations for maps.

While this trail may sound confusing, it is definitely worth your time and effort. This route provides amazing views of multiple waterfalls, the Emerald Pool, Yosemite Valley, and has many more attributes such as stone steps, a misty trail, wildlife, and unforgettable memories to be made.

This map is credited the NPS website. The red line is the Mist Trail. The yellow line is the John Muir Trail.

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Grizzly Giant Loop Trail: 2 mile loop, moderate, located in Mariposa Grove

There is a section of this trail that is wheelchair accessible. This is another gentle day hike that provides a different perspective of the park. The Mariposa Grove is full of old growth giant sequoia trees and this trail highlights many of the historical and recognized trees in this area. There are other trails in this area, some longer, some shorter. Be sure to explore this magical forest and see what fits with your schedule and abilities.


There are so many more trails, vistas, and things to do in this park. Please enjoy it fully while remembering to honor and preserve our parks. Don’t leave trash, food, or anything else that doesn’t belong and don’t take anything that isn’t yours. Places like this need to be protected. As pictured below, be aware of wildlife and do not feed them. We had run-ins with bears, rattlesnakes, squirrels, overly friendly deer, and other small creatures.