The 18 Best Hikes in Yosemite for Fitness, Photos, & Unforgettable Memories!
The beauty of Yosemite is legendary, attested to by the fact that over 4 million visitors make their way to this national treasure every year, rain or shine. It’s one of our favorite places, to both hike and to take some amazing photographs. When people ask me what to do in Yosemite, my automatic response is: HIKE!
I’ve written about our visits to Yosemite several times on this blog (read about what see in Yosemite to have an unforgettable Yosemite day trip) and thought it was time to share with you some of the best hikes in Yosemite! Whether you’re looking for a hike to get your heartbeat racing or want to test your mettle against some of the best photographers in the world at one of the most photographed parklands of California, these are some of the best Yosemite day hikes that you will find.
Without further ado, let’s start with those hikes that will get the blood flowing and allow you to see some of the best that Yosemite has to offer.
Best Hikes in Yosemite for Fitness
I realize that not everyone is a marathon hiker, ready to set out for a 12-hour hike up and down a mountain. The following are the best Yosemite day hikes for fitness that I’ve categorized as Easy, Moderate, and Difficult.
You should have no trouble finding one or more Yosemite hikes that will suit your feet and satisfy your need to explore the forest, streams, rock faces, waterfalls, and the rest of the geologic landscape that Yosemite offers.
Easy Hikes in Yosemite
These are some of the best day hikes in Yosemite, easy enough for families, beginning hikers, anyone who doesn’t want too strenuous a hike, or if you are pressed for time.
Bridalveil Fall Trail
It’s almost not fair to call this a hike, as it is only a half-mile round trip and only gains 80 feet in elevation, but it is something that everyone should see at least once which is why it made this list of best hikes in Yosemite. And the best time is late spring or early summer when it is running at full strength. You can get completely drenched from the water pouring over the 620-foot cliff if you linger too long. The trail begins at the Bridalveil Falls parking area and is paved the whole way. Do wear good shoes, as that water also makes the trail slippery.
We went on this hike during winter and as you can see from the photo the waterfall is not gushing. We also went on to the rock area that is usually filled with water to get this photo. So depending on the time of year, the Bridalveil Fall Trail will look very different.
Tuolumne Meadows/Soda Springs
This day hike is perfect for a family excursion. While it is only about 1.5 miles and takes about an hour, there are places of interest to stop along the way to stretch it out. In fact, bring lunch and make this a half-day Yosemite hike.
If you start at the Lembert Dome parking area, it’s a short walk along the gravel road to Soda Springs, where carbonated water can be seen bubbling out of the ground. Stop off at Parsons Memorial Lodge and visit the exhibits and then head to the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center for a look around and your picnic.
This 1.2-mile trail (round trip) only gains about 360 feet in elevation, making it a pretty easy hike in Yosemite. It allows you to see Turtleback Dome and El Capitan, and maybe get a glimpse of Clouds Rest and Bridalveil Fall. If you happen to be here after a storm, the scenery is breathtaking as the mist rolls in, turning it into a magical movie set.
Moderate Yosemite Hikes
Valley Loop Trail
What I like about this Yosemite day hike is that it’s fairly flat and takes you all through the Valley—and, it’s not crowded like so many of the other trails. You can choose to do the half loop at 7.2 miles or the full loop at 11.5 miles. So, depending on your time constraints, you can plan for about 3 or 6 hours.
The length, along with the trail surface, takes it from the easy to the moderate category. The trail has some old pavement and while there are some portions that are smoother, expect sand, dirt, and rocks for at least part of the duration. Oh, and no water availability. The scenery is varied, from lush meadows to thicker forests, and you’ll pass by the Merced River, fields of wildflowers, and might even get a glimpse of the local wildlife.
This iconic trail takes you to Vernal and Nevada falls, both of which are spectacular, particularly during peak runoff (April through June). That being said, it is also one of the most popular day hikes in Yosemite, so expect crowds of up to 800 people during the late spring and summer months. We recommend that you go early to avoid the crowds and the heat of the day.
The trail itself is 8.2 miles round trip from Curry Village and will take about 5 hours. You’ll gain almost 2,000 feet in elevation during your ascent. The latter part of the trail is the most strenuous, bordering on difficult, and the last 1,000 feet or so will require you to scamper upstairs that have been carved out of the cliffside. Along the way, you will get to see both of the falls, as well as Liberty Cap and the back of Half Dome. That’s four iconic Yosemite landmarks in one fell swoop which explains why it’s so popular and why it’s one of the best hikes in Yosemite.
Panorama Trail Yosemite
I consider this a tweener trail—it’s in between medium and difficult. It’s a total of 8.5 miles from the top to the bottom (one way) with a total elevation change of 3,200 feet, and pretty rocky in a few places. Expect it to take 5 to 6 hours.
You’ll need to buy a one-way ticket for the Glacier Point Bus in advance, which departs from Yosemite Lodge at 8:30 a.m. It will drop you at the top after an hour’s ride and then you can make your way down. The trail will merge with the Mist Trail (see above), and you’ll pass by Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, and Vernal Falls on your way back to the valley floor.
Tip: Take a detour to Panorama Point, located about a quarter of the way down the trail. It’s not marked, but if you can find it you’ll only walk about 100 yards and be rewarded with some great views from Glacier Point to Half Dome, with Royal Arches and North Dome in between.
Difficult Yosemite Hikes
Yosemite Half Dome Hike
Half Dome is one of the most iconic places in Yosemite and also one of the best hikes in Yosemite! To stand below its soaring 5,000-foot rockface is jaw-dropping. And to think that people actually scale that face is an unimaginable feat to most of us. But for the hearty among you, the trail up to the top is also a feat, and one that requires an advance permit, given its difficulty and the narrowness of the trail. (Hiking the Half Dome Trail is only allowed from May through mid-October, so plan accordingly.)
The Yosemite half dome hike can be made in a day if you start early and are fond of extremes. It is about a 15-mile round trip, requiring an upward climb of 4,800 feet. Expect to take about 10 to 12 hours, depending on your fitness level, the crowds, and how long you linger at the top. The scariest part of the whole climb is probably the final 600 feet. It’s up a sheer rock and requires that you hold on to twin steel cables. Once you reach the top though, you can explore much of the 5 acres at the summit, time permitting. You’ll have a 360-degree view of the Valley that will take your breath away. It is advised that you reach the top by 3-3:30 p.m., in order to be able to make it down the steepest part before nightfall.
Peter and I have not had a chance to do complete this iconic Yosemite hike but it’s on our bucket list! We need to plan accordingly and make the application deadline so hopefully, we’ll schedule to do this next time we’re in California.
This Yosemite day hike takes you along the Valley’s southern rim and spans from Glacier Point all the way to the Tunnel View. You will have views of the whole Valley and be able to see Half Dome, El Capitan, and four of the famed waterfalls (Vernal, Nevada, Yosemite, and Bridalveil). The elevation gain is a strenuous 3,700 feet over its 13 miles (one way), but you will pass Inspiration Point, Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, and half a dozen other famed Yosemite sights.
Clouds Rest Hike
For a 360-degree view of Yosemite, this is the hike to take. It’s a long round trip of 14.5 miles, but you’ll only need to climb about 1,800 feet over the course of the trail. The trail gets its name from the fact that clouds often are low enough to actually rest on the high points along the trail. This makes for some dramatic tableaus, but can also obscure some of the sites on the route. Along the way, you can look down at the Valley, see Merced Lake, Half Dome, North Dome, Tenaya Lake, and so much more.
Best Hikes in Yosemite for Photo Ops
For those of you who love to capture their journey on film (or digital memory card), there is a wealth of day hikes throughout Yosemite. From misty waterfalls to dramatic rock faces, reflective lakes to giant Sequoias, these hikes have it all.
Easy Yosemite Hikes
Lower Mariposa Grove Trail
This day hike in Yosemite is a fairly easy 2.2 miles with some mild ascents. But what you will see and can photograph is the world’s oldest Sequoia (Grizzly giant), which has been around an estimated 2,700 years. There’s also the California Tunnel Tree and the Bachelor, which stands next to the Three Graces, as well as a huge grove of ancient Sequoias. The enormity of the trees will astound you, and to be among living things so old is a privilege. (Note: This area has been undergoing restoration and will reopen on June 15, 2018.)
Lower Yosemite Falls Trail
If you don’t mind battling the crowds, this half-mile hike is worthy of your time and camera lens. Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America. This Yosemite day hike will take you to the lower part of the falls, which tumble down 320 feet during the spring and early summer. (They are just a dribble during the fall.) You can catch the spray as they hit bottom and, if you’re lucky, you might just catch a hat blowing in the wind caused by the spray. Now that would be a unique photo!
Sentinel & Cook’s Meadow Loop
For a bit longer day hike in Yosemite, think about trying the Sentinel & Cook’s Meadow Loop. It’s a flat 2.25-mile round trip that will take you across the Merced River and the oft-photographed Swinging Bridge. You can capture Yosemite Falls and Half Dome from this trail, as well as the fields of wildflowers—if you time your visit right (spring and early summer).
Moderate Yosemite Hikes
Mirror Lake and Tenaya Canyon Trail
This 4-mile loop takes you to Mirror Lake, which is more of a wide spot in the flow of Tenaya Creek. But the glassy water reflects the surrounding landscape—including 8,500-foot Mt. Watkins—with such clarity and brilliance that it is worthy of your time. Crowds can get heavy, so it’s best to go early in the day before everyone makes their way to Mirror Lake for their daily dip in the waters. There’s only a very slight elevation gain of about 100 feet on this hike, so you can do it in less than 3 hours.
Cathedral Lakes Hike
The wow factor on this Yosemite hike is Lower Cathedral Lake. Surrounded by three 10,000+-foot peaks, this peaceful lake gives you plenty of photo ops. You’ll have to hike 8 miles to see both upper and lower Cathedral lakes, but it can be done is about 4-5 hours.
You’ll ford little streams, cross lush meadows, walk through forests, but all those landscapes provide plenty of opportunities for your lens to do some work. Oh, and did I mention that part of this loop takes you on the historic John Muir Trail, something everyone should walk a part of at least once.
North Dome Hike
For a spectacular view of Half Dome, this is the hike you want to take. It’s 8.8 miles round trip, so it will take around 5 hours of your time. The first two-thirds of the hike is fairly nondescript, but once you reach the end you’ll be high atop North Dome (7,540 feet) and have a direct view of the Valley to Half Dome. Perfect overlook to set up a camera and take not only photos of the Dome, but of the gorgeous Valley you see below you.
Difficult Yosemite Hikes
Four Mile Trail
The name alone is a bit misleading. Yes, it is 4+ miles…one way. To make the round trip, it’s actually 9.6 miles, with an elevation gain of 3,200 feet, and it requires 6 to 8 hours to complete. Due to weather conditions, the trail does not open until May and closes again in late November or early December.
The hike takes you to the top of Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point. It is from here that you will have commanding views of the whole valley, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Half Dome. If you carry a telephoto lens, head over to the east rim and you can photograph Vernal and Nevada falls as well.
Peter and I did this trail in January with my little sister and at first, it might seem very difficult but once you get going it’s not that bad depending on how aggressive you want to take it. We actually started very late on this trail, after having lunch at the iconic The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly The Ahwahnee Hotel), we decided to challenge ourselves with a hike.
I researched one and found the Four Mile Trail, I thought oh let’s do that one, it’s only four miles. We reached the top at sunset and quickly realized that the photos will need to be snappy because hiking back down in the dark and sure enough halfway down we used the flashlights from our phones to light the trail.
Since we did the Four Mile Trail in the winter, Glacier Point is closed and that means we don’t have the option to take the bus at the top of Glacier Point down to the valley. You have to take the Four Mile Trail back down there is no other option. But if you do this hike when Glacier Point is open you don’t need to hike back down.
Upper Yosemite Falls Hike
While the trail to Lower Yosemite Falls is an easy half-mile hike, the one to Upper Yosemite Falls is considerably longer and more difficult. It’s a total of 9.4 miles with an elevation gain of almost 3,000 feet. Plan for at least 8 hours plus ogling and photo time—and you’ll get plenty of opportunity for both. In the spring and early summer, the falls are in full force, allowing you to walk through the spray on your way to the top and Yosemite Point. You can capture all of Yosemite Falls, and include Half Dome in the frame if you so choose. Then there’s the breathtaking view from the top, with a full view and photo op of Half Dome.
I would say this hike is similar in difficulty to the Four Mile Trail.
Dewey, Crocker & Stanford Points
This hike has no shortage of photographable scenery along its 10.5 miles. It’s fairly flat with gentle inclines, so it’s the length you have to worry about, not the elevation gain. So what do you get to witness along this Yosemite trek? How about the whole Valley, El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Tunnel View and McGurk Meadow. A little something for everyone—mountains, cliffs, waterfalls, meadows…. Better yet, you won’t find huge crowds on this hike, making it easier to set up equipment without jostling for space.
Which Best hikes in Yosemite Will You Conquer?
There you have it, these are some of the best hikes in Yosemite and they each are special and unique. From easy to difficult these Yosemite hikes will present you with plenty of photo opportunities and thousands of steps for your 10,000 per day step count.
There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails in Yosemite, I’ve just highlighted some of the best hikes in Yosemite that offer the best photos and unforgettable memories! To view more information on additional trails and trailhead information check out the National Park Service website for trail inforamtion. I’ve also found this pdf that you can download that offers a list of a lot more trails and trailhead information!
Have you done any of these day hikes in Yosemite? Let me know which one is your favorite in the comments below! Or if you have a hike you would like to add to the list to share with others to enjoy please share and we’ll update our list of the best hikes in Yosemite!
P.S. If you’re reading this post you probaly love visiting national and state parks! Here are a couple other park guides that you might enjoy! The Perfect Day Trip to the Gran Canyon South Rim, You Can’t Miss Visiting Arches National Park, and Don’t Leave Colorado without Driving through Colorado National Monument