This post is part of Just Ahead’s Yosemite Trip Planner—our guide to what you need to know to plan your trip to Yosemite National Park. Click here to see the complete series. And be sure to download our Just Ahead smartphone audio tour of Yosemite before you head to the park.
Yosemite has too many amazing sights to distill them down into a handful, but we’ve done our best here to highlight our Top 10 Best Sights in Yosemite that you absolutely should not miss during a visit to the park, plus a bonus 5 Sights in Yosemite You Shouldn’t Overlook. Any one of them, in either category, is alone worth a visit. Naturally, our Just Ahead audio guide to Yosemite steers you to all of them
Top 10 Best Sights in Yosemite
If you’ve never ventured out to Glacier Point, you’ve missed one of the world’s most sublime views. You might pick out your campsite in Yosemite Valley, more than 3,000 feet below. Across the way looms Half Dome, and off to the right are Nevada and Vernal Falls. The tall peaks of the Clark Range and Yosemite’s high country form an inspiring backdrop. Hint: In peak season, try to start the 16-mile side trip before 10 a.m. or after 4:30 p.m. We point out all the highlights along this extraordinarily beautiful drive, which is closed in winter.
Bridalveil is the Old Faithful of Yosemite waterfalls. When other waterfalls slow to a trickle in late summer or early fall, Bridalveil maintains a semblance of its fully flowing beauty. Hint: Don’t just view it from afar. Make the walk to its base—620 feet of wind-whipped mist will spritz you as you approach on the half-mile walk.
You can get great visuals of the falls—Upper Fall, Middle Cascade, and Lower Fall—from a number of places in Yosemite Valley. Our favorite pulled-back perspective on the falls is from the Swinging Bridge area. There you can see their full 2,425-foot drop—10 times the height of Niagara. But when the falls are in peak flow—spring into early summer, or after summer rains—they are as much about sound as beauty. To appreciate their thunder, their roaring songs, park near their base and walk to the foot of Lower Fall. You’ll be awed by what John Muir called “one harmonious storm of mountain love.” Hint: You can hike to the base of Upper Fall from a trailhead in Camp Four. It’s a toughie: 7.6 miles round-trip, 2,600 feet of elevation gain.
It’s been called the world’s most-photographed view, and on some days it seems like the entire world is there to photograph this vista overlooking Yosemite Valley. But it’s undeniably glorious. All you need do is wave your camera in the general direction of the valley, and you can capture one of Ansel Adams’s favorite perspectives on the forests, meadows, and towering monoliths that virtually define Yosemite National Park. Hint: Walk across the road from the main parking area to the smaller parking area, and walk a ways up the stone steps to get a higher, less-populated view.
You’ll see El Capitan, 3,000 feet high, towering to your left as you enter Yosemite Valley. But the monolith deserves a viewing session of its own, and the best place for that is in El Capitan Meadow. The meadow is near the base of El Cap between Northside Drive and the Merced River, set far enough back from the rock that you can easily admire the full beauty of the formation. Take binoculars and a picnic blanket and relax while you watch some of the world’s finest rock climbers take on one of the world’s most challenging climbs. Hint: A ranger is sometimes on duty at El Capitan bridge, interpreting the mysteries of big-wall climbing.
We describe the Ahwahnee in our Yosemite Trip Planner Lodging Guide, but the historic inn also qualifies as a must-see attraction in Yosemite. Though the Ahwahnee seems exclusive, it’s really a place where anyone is free to kick the mud off their boots, rest in an armchair before a fire, enjoy a drink or afternoon tea, and soak up the dignified ambience—and any visitor in Yosemite would be crazy not to. Hint: The casual Ahwahnee bar serves excellent meals for somewhat less money than the main dining room.
Olmsted Point on Tioga Road (which is closed in winter) serves up a jaw-dropping view of Tenaya Canyon and such a different perspective on Half Dome that you may not even recognize it at first. As you ogle the view, pay attention to what’s right in front of you: a glacially scoured dome with a number of huge boulders atop it, as if a giant had left his marbles there. The rocks are called erratics; they were transported by a glacier and left behind when the river of ice melted. Hint: Be sure to take the stone steps down and the 0.2-mile trail across solid granite to reach the main viewpoint.
One of the largest subalpine meadows in the Sierra Nevada, Tuolumne Meadows stretches for about two miles alongside Tioga Road (closed in winter) in the park’s high country. You can admire it from the roadside or wander on trails that cross the grassy expanse, which is frequently spangled with wildflowers. Hint: For an elevated perspective, hike up one of the domes that border it: Pothole Dome on the west side, Lembert Dome on the east.
Normally we’d steer you to Mariposa Grove to see examples of giant sequoia trees—the biggest trees in the world in terms of volume (coast redwoods grow a bit taller). But the National Park Service is in the process of an extensive restoration project at Mariposa Grove, so we suggest visiting Tuolumne Grove, near the west end of Tioga Road, to behold these massive marvels. The grove entails a one-mile walk that drops 400 feet. Hint: Look for the 60-foot stump with a tunnel cut through it just large enough to fit the average stagecoach. It’s a favorite place to pose for pictures.
Wawona is a slower, gentler version of Yosemite that is generally far less crowded than Yosemite Valley, but has much to offer. The Wawona Hotel is grand, and evocative of its 19th-century heritage. Across the street, Wawona Meadow offers a superb walk around a vast, quiet meadow, and nearby, the Pioneer Yosemite History Center preserves a number of cabins and shops that also suggest what life was like here before four million visitors a year started coming to Yosemite. Hint: Check out the covered bridge on the way to the Pioneer Center—a rarity for this area.
5 Sights in Yosemite You Shouldn’t Overlook
Sentinel Dome and Taft Point
Two short hikes from the same trailhead on Glacier Point Rd. lead to jaw-dropping views of Yosemite Valley that rival or transcend the view from far more famous Glacier Point. The 1.1-mile hike to Sentinel Dome is a bit more adventurous than the Taft Point hike, because it culminates with a march straight up the bald granite dome. Don’t worry; the traction is superb. The trail to Taft Point, also 1.1 miles, passes by sheer fractures in a granite precipice that plunge 2,000 feet straight down. Then you arrive at the point and a sweeping view of El Capitan Meadow, bisected by the serpentine Merced River, and the 3,000-foot monolith of El Cap itself. Truly awesome.
Cathedral Picnic Area
Don’t assume Yosemite’s picnic areas are only for picnickers. This one, in the middle of Yosemite Valley, is an exceptionally serene spot that lets you dangle your feet in the Merced River while you gaze upward at El Capitan in one direction and the Cathedral Spires in the other. Picture yourself scaling either of these lofty heights—while you reach for another chicken leg and a frosty root beer.
Dana Meadows and the Kettles
Kettles are ponds that are glacial remnants where huge chunks of ice broke off from a retreating glacier, forming depressions that later filled with water. Yosemite’s Kettles punctuate Dana Meadows in the high country, just inside the park’s Tioga Pass entrance, where everything feels alien and wild. It’s a very different feeling from the lower, lusher Tuolumne Meadows. There’s a ghostly feeling to Dana Meadows, enhanced by the presence of austere 13,000-foot peaks. It’s a place for quiet reflection.
The best place to see this slender, thousand-foot waterfall is from El Capitan Picnic Area on Northside Drive—which, incidentally, isn’t really a great place to see El Cap itself. Horsetail, which generally flows from December through April, appears to be on fire when it reflects late-day sunlight in mid- to late February.
Rarely is a campground a top park attraction—especially a walk-in campground for tent campers only—but Camp Four is unique. As the longtime heart of Yosemite’s climbing culture, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Here world-class climbers come to eat, sleep, train, socialize, and share beta on climbs and conditions. You’ll notice some huge boulders in and around camp on which climbers hone their skills, and you’ll see where they’ve strung slacklines (like tightropes) where they focus on balance. And show off a bit. If you’re interested in camping here or anywhere in Yosemite, check out our Yosemite Trip Planner Camping Guide.