In the middle of the Sierra Nevada Range, Yosemite National Park is not only a magnificent wilderness, but also an outdoor enthusiast’s heaven. Yosemite is considered by many to be the most spectacular place on Earth. Yosemite is a diverse landscape filled with rivers, glacial carved valleys, picturesque alpine meadows and peaks, several of the world’s highest and most spectacular waterfalls and the word’s largest trees and tallest granite walls. There is much to see in Yosemite and for those willing to seek out the paths less traveled, some amazing discoveries and experiences await. Though Yosemite National Park is arguably one of the single greatest natural resources in the United States, the beauty does not end at the park’s borders.
Yosemite’s glacially carved mountains contain extremely diverse habitats ranging from arid deserts to high alpine fields to dense old growth forests. There are three main parts of the Park: Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows and Hetch Hetchy. Yosemite Valley is the showcase of the Park and receives a majority of the visitors and traffic. Towering waterfalls spill into the Valley and the huge granite walls of Half Dome and El Capitan dominate the landscape. The Merced River flows through the Valley, starting in the high country before falling over Nevada and Vernal falls. Tuolumne Meadows is the largest alpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada and the high country elevation provides access to the stunning alpine lakes, serene meadows and glaciated granite peaks and domes that Yosemite is famous for. Hetch Hetchy is a smaller version of Yosemite Valley and was formed by erosion from glaciers and the Tuolumne River. Hetch Hetchy receives a small percentage of all Yosemite traffic, so it remains a relatively peaceful, secret spot.
There are numerous designated National Forests surrounding all sides of Yosemite. The Sierra, Stanislaus and Inyo National Forests may not rival Yosemite in their natural wonders but they surely do in their recreational clout. These areas have seemingly endless miles of hiking trails and a multitude of camping sites.
Yosemite National Park embraces almost 1,200 square miles of scenic wild lands set aside in 1890 to preserve a portion of the central Sierra Nevada Range that stretches along California‘s eastern flank. Ranging from 2,000 feet above sea level to more than 13,000 feet, the park encompasses alpine wilderness, three groves of Giant Sequoias and Yosemite Valley.often called “the Incomparable Valley,” Yosemite Valley may be the world’s best-known example of a glacier-carved canyon. The dramatic scale of its leaping waterfalls, rounded domes, massive monoliths and towering cliffs has inspired painters, poets, photographers and millions of visitors. The Valley is a mosaic of open meadows sprinkled with wildflowers and flowering shrubs, oak woodlands and mixed-conifer forests of ponderosa pine, incense cedar and Douglas fir. Wildlife from monarch butterflies to mule deer and black bears flourishes in these diverse communities.
Waterfalls around the Valley’s perimeter reach their maximum flow in May and June. Most prominent are the Yosemite, Bridalveil, Vernal, Nevada and Illilouette falls, but some have little or no water from mid-August through the early fall. Tuolumne Meadows and the high country offer some of the Sierra Nevada’s most rugged, sublime scenery. In summer the meadows, lakes and exposed granite slopes teem with life. Because the growing season is short, plants and animals maximize the warm days to grow, reproduce and store food for the coming winter.
Glacier Point can overwhelm you with the vast scenery, especially at sunset or when full-moon nights transform the pastel granite landscape into a magical vista. There is a bird’s-eye view of Yosemite Valley from atop the 3,200 foot, sheer cliff. Across the Valley, Yosemite Falls makes its 2,425 foot drop. For much of this century, development and recreational use in Yosemite Valley have conflicted with the protection of the resources. In the words of one outdoor educator, “Yosemite is developed to the max.” Meadows, riverbanks and oak woodlands are sensitive and have been severely damaged by long-term human uses.
The NPS mission, the 1980 General Management Plan (GMP), results from new research and public input are guiding park staff in refining the criteria designed to resolve these conflicts. One of the GMP goals is to allow natural processes to prevail. Using this goal, resource managers agreed that the principal ecological process driving the ecosystem in Yosemite Valley is the Merced River.
Certain natural resources, such as the Merced River and its tributaries, biologically rich wetlands, riparian zones, meadows and California black oak woodlands, have been identified as “highly valued resources” because of their importance in maintaining a healthy river ecosystem and their support of biodiversity. Also, the entire Yosemite Valley is considered a significant cultural landscape. Burial sites and other undisturbed cultural artifacts are highly valued by local Indian tribes.
History & Culture
Miwok speaking peoples inhabited the area around Yosemite for at least 3,500 years and outside of a slight infiltration by Spanish missionaries, were not substantially disturbed by white settlers until Joseph Walker “discovered” Yosemite in 1833. In the earlier 1800’s, the Yosemite Valley Indians were reportedly wiped out by a plague as they were exposed to European diseases against which they had no natural defense. The few survivors joined people in the Eastern Sierra, but eventually returned to the lush land they had once called home. As settlers began significantly encroaching on Indian Territory, they came to view the local people as a nuisance; the Mariposa Battalion was organized to round them up and move them off to reservations on undesirable land. The first tourist excursions came as early as 1855 after word from the Mariposa Battalion had spread to San Francisco about the beautiful Yosemite Valley.
In 1864 Frederick Law Olmsted and I. W. Raymond petitioned to cede the land of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees to the state of California for protection as parkland. That year, President Lincoln signed the bill that made Yosemite an inalienable protected public property. However, a huge task remained in gaining the designation of “National Park.” The Board of Commissioners appointed to manage Yosemite was often critiqued and even sued by homesteaders who lost their land to the Yosemite Grant.
Individuals and businesses had hoped to reap immediate profit from the land; their goals were pushed aside in the interest of the greater good, though tourism did make for a booming business. Through the 1880’s John Muir headed up a group of preservationists who pushed to protect the wilderness that surrounded Yosemite, not only the small designated park area. On October 1, 1890, Congress voted in favor of the preservationists and passed the law that created Yosemite National Park.
Nature & Science
The story of Yosemite’s landscape began about 500 million years ago when the Sierra Nevada region lay beneath an ancient sea. Thick layers of seabed sediments eventually were folded and twisted and thrust above sea level. Simultaneously, molten rock welled up from deep within the Earth and cooled slowly beneath the sediment layers to form granite. Erosion wore away nearly all of the overlying rock, exposing the granite.
Even as uplift continued, first water and then glaciers worked at carving Yosemite’s face. Yosemite Valley’s sheer walls and flat floor evolved as alpine glaciers lumbered through the canyon of what is now the Merced River. The ice carved through weaker sections of granite, plucking and scouring rock but leaving intact harder portions, such as El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks. Glaciers greatly enlarged the canyon that the Merced River had carved through successive uplifts of the Sierra. When the last glacier retreated it left behind a load of sediment it could not longer carry, called a terminal moraine. This pile of debris, left at the glacier’s farthest advance into the valley, dammed up the melting ice to form ancient Lake Yosemite in the newly carved U-shaped valley. Eventually, sediment filled in the lake, forming today’s flat valley floor. Glaciers did not reach the Merced Canyon along Highway 140 outside the park and its river-cut, V-shaped profile contrasts markedly with Yosemite Valley’s sheer walls.
Yosemite is one of the largest and least-fragmented habitat blocks in the Sierra Nevada and it supports a diversity of plants and wildlife. The park has an elevation ranging from 2,000 to 13,123 feet and contains five major vegetation zones: chaparral/oak woodland, lower montane, upper montane, subalpine and alpine. Of California’s 7,000 plant species, about 50% occur in the Sierra Nevada and more than 20% within Yosemite. There is suitable habitat or documented records for more than 160 rare plants in the park, with rare local geologic formations and unique soils characterizing the restricted ranges many of these plants occupy.
Yosemite has more than 300 species of vertebrate animals and 85 of these are native mammals. Black bears are abundant in the park and are often involved in conflicts with humans that result in property damage and, occasionally, injuries to humans. Visitor education and bear management efforts have reduced the bear-human incidents and property damage by 90% in the past few years. Ungulates include large numbers of mule deer. Bighorn sheep formerly populated the Sierra crest, but have been reduced to several remnant populations. There are 17 species of bats, 9 of which are either Federal or California Species of Special Concern. Over 150 species of birds regularly occur in the parks. Great gray owls are of special interest in Yosemite because here they reach the furthest southern extent of their global range and they are isolated by hundreds of miles from the next closest population in far northern California.
Threats to park resources and the integrity of park ecosystems include loss of natural fire regimes, air pollutants and air-borne contaminants, global climate change, direct impacts to resources from high visitation in some areas of the park, habitat fragmentation from both outside and inside park boundaries and the invasion of non-native plant and animal species. The park is actively attempting to control the non-native plant species that pose the most serious threat, such as spotted knapweed, yellow star-thistle, bull thistle and Himalayan blackberry. The presence of wild turkeys, white-tailed ptarmigan, bullfrogs, introduced fish and other non-native animal species in Yosemite threaten the park’s native species.
This filmy fall of 620 feet often diverted as much as 20 feet one way or the other by the breeze is the first view of Yosemite Valley for those who arrive via the Wawona Road. Native Americans called the fall Pohono, meaning “spirit of the puffing wind.” A 1/4 mile trail leads from the parking lot off Wawona Road to the base of the falls.
Rising 3,593 feet above the valley, El Capitan is the largest exposed granite monolith in the world and is almost twice the height of the Rock of Gibraltar.
Glacier Point yields what may be the most spectacular vistas of the valley and the High Sierra especially at sunset that you can get without hiking. The Glacier Point Road leaves Wawona Road (Highway 41) about 23 miles southwest of the valley; then it’s a 16 mile drive, with fine views into higher country. From the parking area, walk a few hundred yards and you’ll be able to see Nevada, Vernal and Yosemite falls as well as Half Dome and other peaks. You can hike to the valley floor (3,214 feet below) via the Panorama or Four Mile trails.
The astounding Half Dome rises 4,733 feet from the valley floor to a height 8,842 feet above sea level. The west side of the dome is fractured vertically and cut away forming a 2,000 foot cliff.
On July 10, 1996 a slab of rock approximately 200 feet high, 30 feet deep and 500 feet long broke loose. The slab weighing more than 80,000 tons slid down a 300 foot slope before it fell 1,800 feet at over than 160 mph. When the slab hit the valley floor the impact created 100 mph winds, blowing down hundreds of trees and destroying the Happy Isles Snack Stand. New exhibits are on display at the Happy Isles Nature Center (open May through October) and tours led by rangers of the area are available.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Tuolemne Meadows
The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which supplies water and hydroelectric power to San Francisco, is about 40 miles from Yosemite Valley. Legend has it, that the naturalist John Muir died of heartbreak when this valley was dammed and flooded beneath 300 feet of water in 1913. Tioga Road (Highway 120) stays open until the first big snow of the year, usually about mid-October. The road is the scenic route to Tuolumne Meadows the largest sub alpine meadow system in the Sierra and the trailhead for many backpack trips into the High Sierra 55 miles from Yosemite Valley.
John Muir Trail
The highly strenuous 16 3/4 mile round-trip John Muir Trail (also incorporating the Mist Trail), leads from Yosemite Valley to the top of Half Dome. Allow 10-12 hours for this hike; start early in the morning and beware of afternoon thunderstorms.
Mariposa Grove of Big Trees
Yosemite’s largest grove of giant sequoias can be visited on foot trails all lead uphill or, during the summer, on one-hour tram rides. The Grizzly Giant, the oldest tree here, is estimated to be 2,700 years old. If the road to the grove is closed (which happens when Yosemite is crowded) park your car in Wawona and take the free shuttle; passengers are picked up near the gas station. The access road to the grove may also be closed by snow for extended periods from November to mid-May. You can still usually walk, snowshoe, or ski in.
Nevada Fall (594 feet) is the first major fall as the Merced River plunges out of the high country toward the eastern end of Yosemite Valley. A strenuous 2-mile section of the Mist Trail leads from Vernal Fall to the top of Nevada Fall. Allow six to eight hours for the full 7 mile round-trip hike.
Pioneer Yosemite History Center
The historic buildings in this enclave were moved to Wawona from their original sites in the park. From Wednesday through Sunday in the summer, costumed park employees re-create life in 19th-century Yosemite in a blacksmith’s shop, a Wells Fargo office, a jail and other structures. Ranger-led walks leave from the covered bridge on Saturday at 10:00 a.m.. Near the center are a post office, a general store and a gas station.
At 1,612 feet, Ribbon Fall is the highest single fall in North America. It is also the first waterfall in the valley to dry up; the rainwater and melted snow that create the slender fall evaporate quickly at this height.
The view from Sentinel Dome is similar to that from Glacier Point, except that you can’t see the valley floor. A 1.1 mile path begins at a parking lot on Glacier Point Road a few miles below Glacier Point. The trail is long and steep enough to keep the crowds and tour buses away, but not overly rugged.
Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
This grove is located near the junction of Big Oak Flat Road and Tioga Road. See the Dead Giant, one of the two remaining trees in Yosemite, which you can walk through. The six mile hiking trail through the grove is especially scenic in the fall and becomes a ski run in the winter.
Valley View Turnout
On Northside Drive past El Capitan you’ll see the turnout which offers some of the best valley level views of El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall and Yosemite Valley.
Fern-covered black rocks frame Vernal Fall (317 feet) and rainbows dance in the spray at its base. The hike on a paved trail from the Happy Isles Nature Center to the bridge at the base of Vernal Fall is only moderately strenuous and less than 1 mile long. It’s another steep (and often wet) 3/4 mile up the mist Trail which is open only from late spring to early fall to the top of Vernal Fall. Allow two to four hours for the 3 mile round-trip hike.
Wawona Tunnel View
At the east end of the Wawona Tunnel see the view encompassing the Yosemite Valley including El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall.
Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America and the fifth highest in the world. The upper fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet) and the lower fall (320 feet) combine for a total of 2,425 feet and, when viewed from the valley, appear as a single waterfall. A 1/4 mile trail leads from the parking lot to the base of the falls. The Upper Yosemite Fall Trail, a strenuous 3 1/2 mile climb rising 2,700 feet, takes you above the top of the falls. It starts at Sunnyside Campground.
Unfortunately, there is no off-road and off bikeway biking in Yosemite National Park.
More than 12 miles of paved bikeways wind through the eastern end of Yosemite Valley. Bikes are allowed on all paved bikeways and park roads (unless the road is marked closed to bicycle use).
In Yosemite Valley, Upper Pines campground is open year-round, Lower Pines Campground is open March to October and North Pines is open April to October. Reservations are required at these Valley campgrounds. Sunnyside Walk-In campground, also known as Camp 4, is open year-round; sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so get there in the morning and get in line. This campsite is pretty popular with climbers because there’s a boulder circuit nearby, by the Yosemite Falls Trail.
Outside Yosemite Valley, Wawona and Hodgdon Meadow campgrounds are open year-round. Reservations are required May through September; sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis October to April. Tuolumne Meadows campground is open July through September. Half of the sites are available by reservation only; half are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Crane Flat campground is open June to September; reservations are required. Bridalveil Creek, Tamarack Flat, White Wolf, Porcupine Flat and Yosemite Creek campgrounds are open during the summer months on a first-come, first-served basis.
Reservations are also required at Group Camps in Wawona, Tuolumne Meadows, Hodgdon Meadow and Bridalveil Creek. Flooding in January 1997 destroyed group Camp, Upper and Lower River campgrounds and a portion of Lower Pines campgrounds in Yosemite Valley. Plans are underway to rebuild the majority of these campsites in Yosemite Valley. If all camping options fail, Yosemite Lodge can be a good resource with beer, food, phones and a place to stay for pretty cheap. It’ll be crunch time here too in the summer.
Yosemite is a rock climbers paradise for granite and big wall climbing. It’s impossible to miss the size of the walls when you drive into the park. The Park is a world-class destination as Yosemite boasts huge granite slabs up to 3000′ (33-34 pitches including traverses).
El Capitan, Half Dome and Tuolumne Meadows are the major points of interest with countless other walls and peaks up to 13,000 feet. The Cookie is good for short crack climbs. Manure Pile is a good multi-pitch climb. Buttress, just east of El Cap has three classic, straightforward routes: after 6, after 7 and Nutcracker. These can get pretty crowded so it’s best to take them on early in the morning.
The Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service offers beginner through advanced classes in Yosemite Valley spring through fall and in Tuolumne Meadows in summer.
Several short trails will get you out of the car and into the park in quick order. For an excellent map and description of many valley hikes, invest in the colorful Map & Guide to Yosemite Valley ($2.50) available at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center.
Tucked behind the Valley Visitor Center, a short loop trail (about 100 yards) circles through a re-creation of an Ahwahneechee village as it might have appeared in 1872, 20 years after the Native Americans’ first contact with Europeans. Markers explain the lifestyle of Yosemite’s first residents. Give yourself at least 30 minutes to view all the buildings and exhibits.
A Changing Yosemite is a self-guided nature trail (pick up a pamphlet at the trailhead or at the Valley Visitor Center) that begins about 75 yards in front of the Valley Visitor Center, following the road, then circling through Cook’s Meadow. The informative pamphlet explains the continually changing geology of the valley. Allow at least 45 minutes for this 1-mile paved loop trail, which is wheelchair-accessible.
Yosemite is known more for the granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome. It is a world-class wall-climbing destination, but for high alpine climbs you’re better off heading south to Mt. Whitney, although you might want to try Yosemite’s Matterhorn. Also, Mount Hoffman’s 10,850′ peak offers outstanding views of the parks high country.
Touted as the most difficult whitewater rafted on a regular commercial basis, the Cherry Creek section of the Tuolumne is located just outside of the park. For those of you who don’t require endless pounding class V rapids but still like a good soaking, the Main “T”, as locals call the Tuolumne, offers an outstanding 2-3 day wilderness trip studded with class III and IV rapids.
The Merced River, the one that flows right through the Yosemite Valley is another fine whitewater trip that requires significantly less overhead than either of the Tuolumne runs. You can rent a raft to float the rivers from Curry Village from whenever the water level recedes to a safe level to whenever it gets to low to raft, generally from the end of May until July or August.
As far as snow sports go, Yosemite has its fair share. You’ll find downhill skiing at Badger Pass in addition to 3 main areas for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing: Badger Pass, Crane Flat and the Mariposa Grove. These areas all have marked winter trails and Badger Pass offers approximately ten miles of groomed track at no charge. Ski trail maps and topographic maps can be purchased at park visitor centers.
There’s plenty of backcountry at Yosemite and only a few trails get officially closed in the winter months. Please use good judgment in assessing your ability to cross-wilderness areas in the winter. You are on Mother Nature’s terms out here and she reigns supreme. Dress in layers of synthetic clothing (polypropylene, Fleece, Gore-Tex, etc.) for warmth and be sure to bring along plenty of water and high-energy foods, as wintertime weather can be brutal.
The following areas are off limits in the winter and you will be fined if you are caught: mist Trail from the footbridge to the top of Vernal Fall and the John Muir Trail from Clark’s Point to the top of Nevada Falls.
For both of these areas a winter route options exist; it’s just not the same path you took last year. Backcountry permits are still required.
In The Area
Devil’s Postpile National Monument
The geologic formation that is “the Postpile” is the world’s finest example of unusual columnar basalt. Its columns of lava, with their four to seven sides, display a honeycomb pattern of order and harmony. Another jewel in the Monument is the San Joaquin River. Along the river corridor, the Monument flourishes with life. Meadows burst forth with flowers that nourish deer, birds and butterflies. This portion of the San Joaquin is a designated Wild Trout River where both novice and expert can play the waters for four species of trout.
Pinnacles National Monument
Pinnacles National Monument is divided into East and West Districts that are connected by trails, but not by a vehicle road. More than 30 miles of trails access geological formations, spectacular vistas and wildland communities. The Pinnacles’ rock formations are a popular destination to challenge technical climbers.
Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks
Sequoia is the second-oldest national park in the United States. It was established in 1890 to protect the Big Trees in Giant Forest, including the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living thing.
Small portion of what is now Kings Canyon was originally set aside in 1890 as General Grant National Park. In 1940, General Grant was absorbed into the new and larger Kings Canyon National Park which eventually grew to include the South Fork of the Kings River and 456,552 acres of backcountry wilderness. Managed as one park, together Sequoia and Kings Canyon total over 863,700 acres.
Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks also contain the mineral King Valley and Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the U. S. outside of Alaska.
Yosemite National Park
P. O. Box 577
Yosemite, CA 95389
Operating Hours & Seasons
Yosemite National Park is open 24 hours a day, year-round.
Yosemite National Park’s major sites can be viewed by automobile. Some trails and facilities are wheelchair accessible. Yosemite offers a Deaf Services Program. A sign language interpreter and park ranger interprets ranger-led activities and provides park information for deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors. You can find this service, currently led by Nan Oswald, at the Valley Visitor Center. She can be reached at 209-372-4726 (TDD)or 209-372-0296 (voice/TDD). The TDD number for lodging reservations is 209-255-8345 and for camping reservations is 888-530-9796.
Normally, Yosemite Valley’s weather is quite mild. During the summer, daytime temperatures typically hit the high 80’s F, but sometimes soar to 100 degrees F, especially on the Valley floor. Nights are normally cool, as are the higher elevations, even in daytime. Plan to dress in layers for maximum comfort.
Winter temperatures range from the high 40’s F to the mid 20’s F. There is the occasional mid 60’s day, plus a few that go as low as 5 -10 degrees above zero. (Record Low: 6 degrees F in 1924).
Precipitation varies greatly, although summers tend to be very dry. Rains often begin in October during the mild fall. The first snowfall usually comes to Yosemite Valley after November 15th and the last during late March or early April. Normally, the snow accumulation is not more than two feet. althought on rare occasions, it has been up to five feet.