7 experiences to have in Yosemite National Park

From its waterfall-striped granite peaks to its giant forests, Yosemite National Park is a wild canvas laden with memorable experiences…

Team Wanderlust
26 July 2023
Promoted by
Audley California

“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of nature.” If John Muir, father of the States’ 400-plus national parks, says that of Yosemite, then you know it’s something special. And with some of California’s best waterfalls, lakes and adventures, it pays to plan ahead. Here are USA specialists Audley’s favourites…

1. Get your bearings on a guided hike

Hiking in Yosemite Park can lead you to some spectacular waterfalls (Visit California)

This is a great approach to kick off your time in Yosemite. Not only will you learn all about the park’s wildlife, history, and geology, but you will quickly discover the best trails to hit during your stay, and what hidden gems you simply should not miss. It is a sure-fire way to find your feet: quite literally.

Most treks begin around the Yosemite Visitor Center on the Valley Floor, with a slightly more forgiving (see: flatter) terrain. Having a guide on hand means your hiking experience will be tailored to what scenery or animals you would like to see, your experience level, and how long you’re planning to stay in the park. Crucially, a guide will ensure that you don’t waste a single second of your precious time.

2. Walk among the sequoias of Mariposa Grove

The towering redwoods of Mariposa Grove (Shutterstock)

Nothing quite prepares you for seeing a behemoth giant sequoia up close – let alone 500 of them! In Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove, located near the park’s South Entrance, you can make the hike via various routes, or jump aboard the free shuttle that departs from the Visitor Center. Once here, stand in awe amid some of the largest living things on Earth, several of which are thought to be around 3,000 years old.

While every tree here is undeniably impressive, be sure to seek out Grizzly Giant – one of the largest and oldest – as well as the Bachelor and Three Graces, a photo favourite. For something a bit different, the hollowed-out Fallen Monarch in Grant Grove fell 300 years ago, and is one of the park’s most iconic sights.

3. Take the trail to Artist Point

The view from Artist Point (Shutterstock)

Packing in two jaw-dropping vantage points, the 3.2km out-and-back route to Artist Point is a must. It starts at Tunnel View, a popular and accessible pitstop just after the Wawona Tunnel off Highway 41. From here, you can expect expansive views of Yosemite’s Valley and its key players – El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall and Half Dome – not to mention a fair few people joining you for a photo. To the comparatively secluded Artist Point, it’s around a 90-minute round trip. Make the effort and reap the rewards: camera-worthy vistas of some of Yosemite’s lesser-known sights, including Royal Arches, North Dome, and Ribbon Fall.

An easy to moderate hike, this trail is best seen at sunset, and can be tackled any season – just be sure to pack your snowshoes in winter!

4. Learn to climb with an expert

Climbing in Yosemite National Park is accessible to all abilities (Visit California)

Known for the looming 2,464m-above–sea-level granite giant that is El Capitan – not to mention 230 world-class rock climbing routes – it is no surprise that climbing is a huge part of Yosemite’s appeal. And while the average Joe won’t be re-enacting scenes from edge-of-your-seat movie Free Solo, there are plenty of routes for beginner, competent and expert scramblers, including the likes of Bishop’s Terrace, Ranger Rock and Half Dome. For the latter, you will need to apply for a day hiker permit in advance of your trip if you want to tackle the whole thing – chat with your Audley specialist to get this arranged. Or, to really get a feel for the peaks here, learn to climb with an expert and quickly differentiate your bashies from your bent-gate carabiners.

5. Spend time in the indigenous village of Ahwahnee

The trail to the village of Ahwahnee starts behind the Yosemite Museum (Shutterstock)

Travel back in time to learn about the Miwok and Paiute people – some of Yosemite’s earliest inhabitants, believed to have first lived here some eight millennia ago. There is limited information about their ancient history, but small stones tools and weapons have been uncovered by archaeologists seeking deeper insights into the ‘Ahwahneechee’.

Today, follow the trail hidden behind the Yosemite Museum to find the the Miwok Village of Ahwahnee – not to be confused with the hotel of the same name. It provides a reconstruction if what the village looked like in the 1870s and before the Gold Rush, when the arrival of prospectors decimated this small community. Explore bark houses and ceremonial structures known as ‘hanni’, some of which are still in use by remaining members of the tribe.

6. Walk around Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Waterfalls seep from the side of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (Visit California)

The glacier-sculpted Hetch Hetchy Valley and its Reservoir are perhaps some of the most picturesque in Yosemite – but they are often missed. The valley’s far-flung location, tucked away in the park’s northwest corner, explains why it’s easy to overlook the area; indeed, according to the National Park Service, less than 1% of visitors make it here. That means, if you make the trip, you’ll not only be rewarded with the 131m-tall O’Shaughnessy Dam, the thundering Wapama Falls and unrivalled views from atop Smith Peak, but you’ll have it all without the crowds too.

Hetch Hetchy is almost separate from the rest of Yosemite, and even has its own entrance. You will need to exit the park at Big Oak Flat and head north, for California State Route 120.

7. Soak up the view from Glacier Point

Soak up the panorama from Glacier Point (Visit California)

Glacier Point is here to give Tunnel View a run for its money as the best viewpoint in Yosemite. While Tunnel View’s outlook is immortalised in many a watercolour and photo, Glacier is all about the panorama. The overlook is famous for the Yosemite Firefall event, from 1872 to 1968, but, these days, it’s the spot to appreciate Yosemite in its all glory: think 360 degrees of mountains and forest. Indeed, the scale of the park from here is unbelievable, almost indigestible, and one that no painting or picture can do justice. If you’re short on time and can do little else, make space in your schedule for this. Just an hour’s drive from the Valley Floor, you’ll see the Valley, the Falls, Half Dome and the high country.

About the experts

Yosemite is one of the USA’s most visited parks. Don’t be daunted, though. Audley’s specialists have not only seen, tried and tested all of Yosemite National Park but wider Mariposa County, too, where stargazing experiences, the wild Sierra National Forest and a fascinating Gold Rush history await. They’re passionate, extensively travelled experts, who can help you make the most of your time and beat the hordes.

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