9 Yosemite Day Hikes Fit for Beginner or Expert Hikers
Hiking in Yosemite transports you back to a time when California’s Sierra Nevada range was in a (nearly) pristine state. There is so much to see in Yosemite, you would need to devote weeks to hiking and camping, only to glimpse a portion of the park’s beauty. Luckily, you don’t have to dedicate all of your vacation time to experience some of the best views Yosemite has to offer. With a little planning, you can discover amazing Yosemite day hikes that will redefine your appreciation of North America’s most majestic landscape.
Day Hike Yosemite for the Win!
Understanding Yosemite’s geography greatly expands your scope when planning a day trip to the park. Many tourists equate Yosemite Valley — which offers some of the best day-hiking and day-trip experiences anywhere — with the park itself. No doubt, the Valley is iconic for its towering granite walls, but there is much more to see throughout the park, even on a day hike. Start in Yosemite Valley and venture to the east and south to find many more rewarding day-hike experiences.
These hikes are mostly easy to moderate, coming in around 4 miles round-trip on average — some more, some less — with between roughly 400 to 1,000 feet of elevation gain, so even inexperienced hikers should be able to get the most out of their trip. Stay safe and bring along the right gear, and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views and an unforgettable experience. With a little planning, you might even have time to take two or more of these hikes in a day, without breaking too much of a sweat!
You can’t beat this iconic scenery. When people think of Yosemite National Park, this is what they picture in their heads. The Valley is popular and crowded, so plan ahead before you leave.
Lower Yosemite Falls Trail Loop
Location: Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead, just north of Yosemite Valley Lodge
Length/Elevation/Time: 1.2 miles round-trip; 59 ft.; roughly 30 minutes
What to Expect: Taking the loop to the lower portion of Yosemite Falls is not very difficult, but highly rewarding. Once you reach Vista Point, you’ll have a view of North America’s tallest waterfall. During the hike, you can see both the upper and lower portions of the falls, and the Middle Cascade. This flat, even hike is among the least challenging in the Valley.
Escape the Crowd: During peak season (Memorial Day to Labor Day), this is a heavily trafficked trail. The loop is open year-round, so visit in the off season to beat the traffic.
Mirror Lake Loop
Location: Mirror Lake Trailhead, just east of North Pines Campground
Length/Elevation/Time: 2 miles to Mirror Lake, 5 miles to walk the Loop; 100 ft.; 1 hour round-trip to the lake/2 to 3 hours to walk the full loop
What to Expect: Mirror Lake isn’t huge, and after the spring and summer season, the water level may be low. However, the stunning backdrop with views of Half Dome is worth the hike. This isn’t a strenuous trail, but if you decide to make your way around the lake, you are looking at a 2- to 3-hour trip. The first part of the trail is paved, and if you continue past Mirror Lake, you will cross two bridges over Tenaya Creek to complete the loop.
Escape the Crowd: This hike is busy during peak season, but it is open year-round. Expect to see a lot of visitors if you arrive during the spring or summer.
Location: John Muir Trailhead to Mist Trail, starting at Happy Isles just past Upper Pines Campground
Length/Elevation/Time: 1.6 miles round trip to Vernal Fall Footbridge, 2.4 miles round trip to top of Vernal Fall; 400 ft./1,000 ft.; 1 hour/3 hours
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
What to Expect: If you want an easier adventure, plan to head for the footbridge and turn around once you’ve seen the falls. There is still some elevation gain on this first part of the hike, but it isn’t crazy. If you’re up for it, you might try to hike to the top of Vernal Fall. It’s not the length of the trail, but the elevation gain that will get you.
The path up Mist Trail splits off from the John Muir Trail, and continues up stone stairs to the falls. It’s incredibly beautiful, but be sure you are healthy enough for some serious stair climbing action. Be careful here; the rocks along the Mist Trail, next to the Merced River, are constantly wet and slippery.
Escape the Crowd: Technically, a route to Vernal Fall is open all year, but the more direct, easier section along the Mist Trail section closes in the winter. The alternative takes you up the John Muir Trail, and is considerably more strenuous. Visit in spring (after the snow melts), summer, or fall, where you’ll find more hikers, but easier access.
Eastern Yosemite Near Tuolumne Meadows
While everyone is crowding together down in the Valley, take a trip east along Tioga Rd. in the direction of the Tioga Pass entrance. You’ll find yourself in Tuolumne Meadows, a less-traveled portion of the park that isn’t accessible all year.
Location: Dog Lake Trailhead, northeast of Tuolumne Meadows Campground near Lembert Dome
Length/Elevation/Time: 2.8 miles round trip, 3.7 miles if you circle the lake; 620 ft.; 2 to 3 hours
What to Expect: If you only go by the elevation gain along the trail to Dog Lake, you might think this hike is harder than it is. Luckily, the trail starts out on relatively even terrain, and there are no switchbacks along the route. Children and older hikers have completed the trail with relative ease.
Overall, conditions require mild exertion, but if you are in decent shape, this hike should be a snap. You’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of the surrounding meadows, the north face of Lembert Dome, and a picturesque lake at the top. It is possible to continue on and take the spur trail to the top of the dome, but this is much more strenuous and takes quite a bit more time.
Escape the Crowd: Tioga Rd. closes immediately after the first significant snowfall event in Yosemite, and remains closed until the thaw in the spring. Crowd sizes vary throughout the open season, but Tuolumne Meadows is typically less busy than the Valley. Get up early for a dawn hike to Dog Lake, and you might beat the rush.
Parsons Memorial Lodge/Soda Springs
Location: Soda Springs and Parsons Memorial Lodge Trailhead, just east of the Yosemite Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center
Length/Elevation/Time: 1.5 miles; 50 ft.; 1 to 1½ hours
What to Expect: The hike to the lodge and Soda Springs is very low-key and relaxing. You will enjoy sweeping views of the meadow landscape and surrounding mountains. Lembert Dome is visible to the east, and nearby Soda Springs produces cold, carbonated water. You used to be able to drink from the springs — and adding the natural mineral water to a cup with some powdered lemonade was an exceptional treat in the summer heat — but the Park Service does not encourage this anymore because of possible surface contamination. Whatever you do, either bring your own water or only drink treated or filtered water in Yosemite.
Escape the Crowd: Because Tioga Rd. closes after the first snowfall, Tuolumne Meadows is inaccessible for a good portion of the year. During the peak open season in the summer months, crowding on this trail varies, so read the lay of the land and enjoy a hike when others seem preoccupied.
Upper and Lower Cathedral Lakes
Location: Cathedral Lakes Trailhead, roughly half-a-mile west of the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center
Length/Elevation/Time: 7 miles round trip to Lower Cathedral Lake, 8 miles round trip to Upper Cathedral Lake; 800 ft./1,100 ft.; 3 to 6 hours
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
What to Expect: This out-and-back day hike is among the more strenuous on this list. The trail to the Cathedral Lakes is definitely doable, however, as long as you are in decent shape. Just don’t leave the trailhead too late in the day, and plan to give yourself plenty of time to see the sights.
Once you make your way up the John Muir Trail from the trailhead, you’ll come to a split. The path to the right leads to Lower Cathedral, and the left path leads further up to Upper Cathedral. The climb is relatively challenging, but the elevation gain is spread out enough that it isn’t too bad. The reward is a visit to some of Yosemite’s most stunning lakes surrounded by incredible granite faces and peaks.
Escape the Crowd: The John Muir Trail is always busy, and this portion of the park closes in the winter with the arrival of snow. Backpackers, rock climbers, and other visitors love this scenic hike, but you will still enjoy smaller crowds than you would find in the Valley.
Southern Yosemite Near Wawona
Formerly home to the Native American Miwok people, the area of Wawona later became home to a ranch and small settlement. The basin was added to the national park in 1932. This part of Yosemite can be very crowded (though sometimes less so than the Valley), but it offers easier access if you are coming up the 41 out of Fresno into the park just for the day.
Location: Mariposa Grove Trailhead, accessible via shuttle from Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza
Length/Elevation/Time: Multiple trails lead from the trailhead — Big Trees Loop Trail, .3 miles round trip; 25 ft.; 30 minutes — Grizzly Giant Loop Trail, 2 miles round trip; 350 ft.; 1 hour — Mariposa Grove Trail, 7 miles round trip; 1,200 ft.; 4 to 6 hours or more
What to Expect: This area is home to the largest grove of Giant Sequoia trees in Yosemite. The Big Trees Loop is very easy to complete and gives decent views of trees near the Grove Arrival Area. The Grizzly Giant Loop takes you near the California Tunnel Tree and the Grizzly Giant (for which the loop is named), but it is slightly more strenuous. The Mariposa Grove Trail is by far the most strenuous of the three trails, but it does take you through the main accumulation of Sequoias on the way up to Wawona Point.
Escape the Crowd: The road from the Welcome Plaza is closed to traffic, except those vehicles displaying a disability placard. Visitors must park at the Welcome Plaza and take the shuttle bus service to the trailhead. Mariposa Grove can become exceptionally crowded, though the more difficult hikes along the Grizzly Giant Loop and Mariposa Grove Trail become progressively less crowded the further away you are from the trailhead.
Wawona Meadow Loop
Location: Wawona Meadow Loop Trailhead, beginning at the Wawona Hotel
Length/Elevation/Time: 3.5 miles; 25 ft.; 1 to 1½ hours
What to Expect: This scenic hike around the meadow is leisurely and offers beautiful views of the Wawona Basin area and surrounding forest. The trail is not difficult, with very little change in elevation. This is a great hike for kids or those who are tired from more strenuous efforts elsewhere in the park.
Escape the Crowd: Typically, the loop isn’t very crowded. There is no show-stopping end-point to the hike (unless you count the nearby golf course), and you are likely to see fewer hikers along this route.
Swinging Bridge Trail/Swimming Hole
Location: Swinging Bridge Trailhead, just east of North Wawona at the end of Chilnualna Falls Rd.
Length/Elevation/Time: 1.2 miles; 60 ft.; 30 minutes
What to Expect: The trail to the swinging bridge and swimming pools is very easy and not particularly scenic. However, the attraction is the swinging bridge itself and the potential for a dip in the swimming hole when water is present along the South Fork of the Merced River. Of course, water flow varies significantly depending on the time of year you choose to visit. Swim at your own risk. Also, watch out for wildlife — including snakes — on the trail and in the water.
Escape the Crowd: This trail is not heavily traveled, relative to the show-stopping marque trails in Yosemite Valley. Locals know about it, and it’s a favored spot during the hot summer months, but you can typically sneak in for a dip or just a gentle hike with the family whenever it suits you (weather and conditions permitting, of course).
Know Before You Go
Yosemite National Park is incredibly popular, and it is no longer possible to access the park at any time for a drive through or day-hike excursion. You must make a reservation to enter the Park during the peak season from May 20th through September 30th, from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Also, various sections of the park are open all year, but others close during the winter. Check again with park officials to find out if the hike you planned for your day trip is accessible.
Get Out and Hike It In
Yosemite is a treasured jewel in the National Park System. Although it is very crowded during the peak summer months — especially in the Valley — and gaining entry into the park is no longer available on a first-come, first-served basis, you can still find tremendous day-hike opportunities within. Just be sure to plan ahead, take all the necessary supplies, and discover some hidden gem hikes for the day.
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