Yosemite National Park

5 Best hikes in Yosemite National Park for first-time visitors

4.5 million annual visitors can’t be wrong. Yosemite National Park is one of the greatest outdoor spaces to be found worldwide! Its dramatic landscapes are a huge pull for hiking enthusiasts eager to experience the amazing vistas and try their hand at new challenges. A trip to Yosemite can be daunting for first-timers, so check out our guide to the 5 best hikes in the park, with routes for all abilities.

Yosemite National Park earned its status in 1890, 18 years after Yellowstone became the first of its kind. It actually earned protected status in 1864 under the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. The park’s immense grandeur, huge granite rock faces, ancient sequoia trees and year-long waterfalls make it one of the greatest natural playgrounds in the whole of the United States.

Feats achieved within Yosemite make international headlines on a regular basis, with the rock face of El Capitan often in the news. In 2012, climber Alex Honnold free climbed the gigantic slab in a solo feat that’s terrifying to watch, let alone achieve. Thankfully, the park has routes to reach the summits and waterfalls that even us non-professionals can achieve.

Where is Yosemite National Park?

America’s Yosemite National Park sits in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in east-central California.

Fun facts about Yosemite National Park

  • Yosemite gets its name from a Native American Indian word ‘uzumate’, meaning grizzly bear
  • Ahwahneechee Indians still live in the park all year round
  • Yosemite contains over 1,400 different species of plants
  • Star Trek fans will recognize Yosemite from the movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which featured Captain Kirk climbing El Capitan
  • Keen hikers should note that the park contains over 800 miles of trails, so there’s plenty to do!
  • You can see over 400 animal species in Yosemite, including the rare Sierra Nevada fox
  • On a clear night with a full moon, lunar rainbows can be seen in the park’s waterfalls
  • Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel was used as a hospital during the Second World War
Half dome and Yosemite Valley
Image by Venti Views via Unsplash

Top 5 hikes at Yosemite National Park

1. Yosemite Falls

One of Yosemite’s most famous sights, Yosemite Falls is a must-climb for anyone visiting the national park. The falls can be split into three: Upper Yosemite Fall, Middle Cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall.

The route is very steep in places, with hairpin bends making for a quick gain in elevation. Some of the trail is also exposed, coming close to the edge of the cliffs and leading to a long dropdown. However, many of these have handholds to minimize danger. The reward is a miraculous vista of both the falls in all their finery and the river they run into.

Beginners can opt for a shorter, easier route, with a glorious view of its own. This takes you to Colombia Rock in a little over a mile. Bear in mind that this climb itself should be classed as moderate given its steepness, but its overall length means it’s a much simpler hike when compared to the main falls’ route.

Difficulty: Moderate

Round-trip distance: 7.5 miles, or 2 miles to Columbia Rock

Nearby accommodation: Yosemite Valley Lodge

2. Mirror Lake Trail

Mirror Lake Trail, Yosemite
Image by Kelly Repreza on Unsplash

The Mirror Lake Trail offers fabulous views of Half Dome (see below), so if you’re contemplating that fabulous but strenuous hike, this little gem may help make your mind up! You’ll have a few options when it comes to Mirror Lake, from simply walking to the lake itself along a flat path in dramatic scenery, to circling the lake including Tenaya Canyon. Whatever your choice, don’t forget your camera. The lake itself is an oasis of calm amid all that granite rock, and the views of Half Dome from here are simply breathtaking.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Round-trip distance: 4.5 miles

Nearby accommodation: The Ahwahnee

3. The Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls

Nevada Falls is one of the best hikes in Yosemite for those who like it rough, and the reward is a magnificent view from the top. There are 600 stairs to climb to reach it, and these are not just steep but often slippery, so care is needed. You’ll also cop some spray from the falls, no matter what the time of year — they run regardless of the season.

For a less challenging hike, take the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls. It’s still a moderate-to-strenuous route, but less than half the distance of its bigger neighbor. Vernal Falls is popular for its swimming hole in the summer.

Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous

Round-trip distance: 4 miles to Vernal Falls, 11 miles to Nevada Falls

Nearby accommodation: The Ahwahnee

4. Half Dome

The first recorded summit of Half Dome was achieved in 1875 by George G. Anderson. Its photographic appeal combined with a challenging hike have seen countless adventurers attempt to scale it since. It’s a long trek considering its steepness, with a gain of 5000 feet by the time you reach the top. It’s also exposed to the elements so be sure to wear a hat to ward off the sun’s glare — you definitely want to avoid dehydration on Half Dome!

The final stretch involves some steep scrambling, and it’s worth giving yourself a whole day to get up and down. Although not a place for those who dislike sharp drops or those who get queasy with heights, it’s a truly rewarding climb for more advanced hikers who want to test their mettle.

Difficulty: Strenuous

Round-trip distance: 16 miles

Nearby accommodation: Yosemite Valley Lodge

5. Bridalveil Falls

Of all the Yosemite hikes featured here, this is by far the easiest. Bridalveil Falls is one of the most beautiful in Yosemite National Park and is suitable for hikers of all ability. In fact, the closest parking spot to the falls turns the round trip into a half-mile hike. The trail is paved from start to finish, although you’ll experience all the thrills of waterfall-hiking in miniature, with spray and the potential for slippery sections. It’s also in spate all year round. Avoid the crowds and head off at dawn for a gentle hike with some of the best views you’ll see in Yosemite.

Difficulty: Easy

Round-trip distance: 2 miles

Nearby accommodation: Yosemite View Lodge

We hope you’ve enjoyed our journey through the best hikes in Yosemite and wish you good luck on your adventures! For a taste of another of America’s national parks, read our guide on Yellowstone’s 10 best natural wonders.

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