A Guide to Hiking at Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is a beautiful place to hike year-round. See more national park pictures.
Hemera/Thinkstock

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the first law in history setting aside wilderness land for preservation. The features of what would one day be Yosemite National Park, the law stated, "constitute, perhaps, some of the greatest wonders of the world" [source: Kaiser] For hikers, this spectacular slice of nature is beyond awesome -- walking these mountains can be a life-changing experience.

The park encompasses 1,169 square miles (3,000 square kilometers) of land in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which run down the eastern border of California. Located 195 miles (314 kilometers) east of San Francisco, Yosemite draws tourists and hikers from around the world. More than 4 million visitors showed up in 2010 and popular attractions can be mobbed. But 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) of trails are available and 94 percent of the park is designated wilderness, so finding seclusion is as easy as walking up a path [source: NPS Statistics].

Yosemite is a park for every season. In spring, the waterfalls are at their peak and wildflowers are blooming. The weather at Yosemite during the summer is usually ideal for hiking, with occasional thunderstorms but no prolonged rain. Fall offers cooler weather, perfect for strenuous hiking. In winter, snow can turn the park into a mystical landscape. The attractions are endless: waterfalls, groves of giant sequoia trees, two wild and scenic rivers, an exceptionally wide diversity of plants and animals, and dark night skies swarming with stars.

Many of the high peaks here, including El Capitan, Sentinel Rock and Half Dome, are granite outcroppings. They were pushed up eons ago by the same tectonic activity that gives California its earthquakes. Then they were scoured by massive glaciers, leaving U-shaped valleys and large areas of naked bedrock. Many great hikes ascend into these heights and offer open, ever-shifting panoramas.

Yosemite National Park Hiking: Trail Maps

Who needs a map when you have GPS? Today, many hikers rely on global positioning systems, either on a smart phone or a dedicated device. No doubt, GPS has advantages. It records your movements and shows you where you've been, helping you to backtrack if you get lost. It works at night or in fog when visibility is limited. The devices are compact and versatile, no folding and unfolding a map.

But even if you have a GPS device, you should plan to take along a map on any extended day hike or backpacking journey. Batteries can go dead; devices can malfunction. And not all GPS devices show hiking trails and terrain details.

A topographical map indicates changes in elevation through contour lines and gives details of hiking trails. It lets you orient yourself in relation to landmarks. Reading a topo map and using a compass are basic skills for serious hikers. It's also handy to know how to get your bearings according to star formations, in case you get lost after dark.

The National Park Service offers trail descriptions and topographical maps that you can download from the Internet [source: NPS Trail]. Many commercial versions of topographical maps are also available. Look for a map printed on waterproof, tear-resistant paper that you can fold to a convenient size. Make sure it's been revised recently, as routes and conditions on the hiking trails can change.

A guidebook that describes hiking trails and major sights of the park can also be useful. You could fill a backpack with all the books available. They cover easy hikes, must-do hikes, difficult hikes and everything in between. Some are dedicated to a single hike, some cover the entire park. Choose according to your hiking plans.

Guided hikes are another way to go. You can schedule day hikes or overnight excursions with experienced and knowledgeable guides to show you the ropes and explain what you're seeing [source: Yosemite Conservancy].

If you ever do get lost while hiking, don't assume your cell phone or satellite phone will work in the wilderness. It's critical that you let someone know where you're going and when you'll return. Take warm clothing and rain gear in case you have to spend the night. Remain calm -- panic is a serious danger when you become disoriented. Stay put or try to find the trail you were on; never try to blaze a new path back.

Most hikers cover Yosemite's trails with aplomb. What are the most popular hiking trails in Yosemite? You'll find out in the next section.

Yosemite National Park Hiking: Popular Trails

Lower Yosemite Falls is one of the most beautiful and scenic places in the park. That also makes it one of the most popular to visit.
Lower Yosemite Falls is one of the most beautiful and scenic places in the park. That also makes it one of the most popular to visit.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Yosemite has enough hiking trails to last you a lifetime. Make that two lifetimes. They range from easy strolls to difficult and dangerous treks. Some take an hour, some require days or weeks.

The Mist Trail is one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite. This moderate, 7-mile (11-kilometer) hike takes you near two spectacular waterfalls, Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. You'll ogle a series of wonderful views during the 5-hour walk. It's a great hike for spring when the water's high. Be sure to bring rain gear -- it really can be misty [source: Every Trail].

You won't want to miss the trail to Lower Yosemite Falls. Neither does anyone else -- you can count on crowds here. A half-mile (0.8 kilometer) paved path brings you to the base of a waterfall that's almost a half mile high, dropping in three sections. It's one of the most famous sites in Yosemite. If you're up to it, you can hike to Upper Yosemite Falls. The steep climb will take at least 6 hours [source: Yosemite Hikes].

To get a classic view of Yosemite, try the trail to Artist Point. It's only 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) round trip, but there are some steep sections as you climb 500 feet (150 meters). The trail brings you to the most famous panorama of Yosemite, known as the Tunnel View. You look down the length of Yosemite Valley, with granite peaks and waterfalls on both sides. Artist Point will be less crowded than the traditional spot for taking in this view on State Route 41. You'll definitely want a picture of yourself here with Yosemite in the background [source: Yosemite Hikes].

Don't miss hiking around the Marioposa Grove of giant sequoias. There are several trails that take you on easy to moderate hikes ranging from 2 to 6 miles (3.2 to 9.6 kilometers). In the lower grove, you'll see the Grizzly Giant, the largest sequoia in Yosemite. This tree, more than 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter, had already been growing here for 700 years when Julius Caesar ruled Rome [source: Yosemite Hikes]

For the hiking experience of a lifetime, try the climb to Half Dome. This is the most difficult day hike in Yosemite. You'll climb 4,800 feet (1,460 meters) over the 14-mile (22.5-kilometer) round trip. Some hikers make it a two-day walk. During the last 400 feet (122 meters) of climbing, you'll hold onto cables as you ascend sheer rock. If you have a fear of heights, this is not the hike for you. You'll need to get a permit from the Park Service in advance, and the demand is high -- this is a popular trail [source: Yosemite Hikes].

If you still haven't satisfied your hiking urge, you can do all or part of the John Muir Trail. This 211-mile (340-kilometer) path takes you across Yosemite and all the way to the summit of Mount Whitney. It crosses alpine heights most of the way, affording stupendous views of the Sierras. Truly one of the premier hiking trails in the world [source: NPS].

The wonders of nature and the glorious night sky tempt many Yosemite visitors to camp outside. In the next section, you'll learn about your options.

Yosemite National Park Hiking: Hiking and Camping

If you're really interested in sleeping out in the open at Yosemite National Park, you can – just make sure to get a wilderness permit first.
If you're really interested in sleeping out in the open at Yosemite National Park, you can – just make sure to get a wilderness permit first.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

If having tap water, flush toilets and maybe a soft cot to sleep on is important to you, then you'll probably opt to camp in one of the 13 campgrounds scattered around the park. There are 1,504 sites to pitch your tent or park your RV. Reservations for summer months are available five months in advance and are snapped up almost instantly. A few campgrounds allot spaces on a first-come basis [source: NPS]. You can also find spaces at commercial campgrounds outside Yosemite or at National Forest facilities nearby.

For a true wilderness experience, you should plan to backpack and sleep in the wild. The Park Service limits the number of overnight campers, so you'll need to obtain a wilderness permit. They give out 60 percent of the daily quota of permits in advance. The remainder is available at the various trailheads after 11 a.m. on the day before you plan to hike. Campgrounds set aside for backpackers near the trailhead allow you to get an early start.

With a wilderness permit, you may be limited to a certain site your first night out. After that, you can camp anywhere you can hike to. You have to stay 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) from the trailhead and 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) from any road. If possible, choose a campsite that's already been used and make sure it's at least 100 feet (30 meters) from water or from a trail. Campfires are permitted under certain conditions using dead or down wood [source: NPS].

Conditions at Yosemite mean that you'll need to bring some specific gear in addition to your ordinary camping equipment:

  • Extra water -- Vigorous climbing can dry you out. If you're going to filter water from natural sources, make sure you know where they are on your route.
  • Lip balm -- The dry air can leave you chapped.
  • Insect repellant or netting -- Mosquitoes can be fierce, especially in spring and early summer.
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses -- Many Yosemite trails are exposed.
  • A warm jacket and rain gear -- They let you stay comfortable in case of a sudden downpour or chilly night.

Remember that you must store your food in bear-proof canisters everywhere in Yosemite. Bears are common, and they'll go for anything edible, including your trash. Place canisters at least 100 feet (30 meters) from your camp. If you see a bear in the wild, keep back at least 50 yards (46 meters). If a bear approaches you, make noise to scare it away. Don't panic -- no one has ever been killed by a black bear in Yosemite [source: NPS].

In 1903, four decades after Lincoln signed the law preserving Yosemite, another president, Teddy Roosevelt, came to the park. He actually spent several nights camping in the wilderness. He later told reporters, "I've had the time of my life." Plan a hiking trip to Yosemite and you'll have an unforgettable experience as well [Kaiser].

Author's Note

I have visited National Parks around the country, including Yosemite. I need to give a shout-out to the National Park Service and to the rangers and other employees. They are almost universally friendly, knowledgeable and genuinely concerned about preserving our wilderness resources.

Like others, I've occasionally grumbled about the rules and restrictions that the NPS enforces in the parks. But the effort to keep these places as close to pristine as possible is an ongoing struggle and a difficult balancing act. That's especially true in a place like Yosemite, which could easily be overwhelmed by the flood of visitors. The rangers are working for us, and they deserve a lot of credit.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Everytrail.com. "Hiking in Yosemite National Park." (June 15, 2012) http://www.everytrail.com/best/hiking-yosemite-national-park
  • Kaiser, James. "Yosemite: The Complete Guide." Santa Monica, Calif.: Destination Press. 2007.
  • National Park Service. "Bears & Food Storage While Backpacking." (June 15, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/bearcanisters.htm
  • National Park Service. "Campground & Campsite Information." (June 15, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/campground.htm
  • National Park Service. "John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails." (June 15, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmt.htm
  • National Park Service. "Park Statistics." (June 15, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/yose/naturescience/park-statistics.htm
  • National Park Service. "Wilderness Permits." (June 15, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm
  • Wuerthner, George. "Yosemite: The Grace & Grandeur." Stillwater, Minn.:Voyageur Press. 2002.
  • Yosemite Conservancy. "Custom Adventures." (June 15, 2012) http://www.yosemiteconservancy.org/custom-adventures
  • Yosemitehikes.com. "Yosemite Hiking Trails." (June 15, 2012) http://www.yosemitehikes.com/hikes.htm