Yosemite is one of the oldest and most popular US National Parks. Established in 1890, the 748,000-acre stretch in the western Sierra Nevadas is known for its dramatic granite formations and towering sequoia forests, though it houses some equally magnificent glaciers, waterfalls, lakes, and meadows. Since its official recognition as protected land, Yosemite has become iconic for California’s striking natural landscape.
Before it was an international attraction, explorers have shown curiosity in the valley. Environmentalist John Muir adored the area and helped pass the bill for Yosemite National Park, which led to pressure on the people in charge to establish future national parks and the preservation of extraordinary US landscapes. Soon after, in the early 20th century, the park was famously photographed by Ansel Adams, whose pictures still remain popular today.
The valley is a perfect retreat for adventurers, families, or those just looking for a retreat from the stress of daily life. According to the National Park Foundation, Yosemite attracts four million visitors annually, and for good reason. The way we take photos has come a long way in the century since Adams’ photographs, but Yosemite has changed little. From the towering monolith El Capitan to North America’s tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls, these 20 photos will have you instantly planning your trip, whether it’s your first time or your hundredth.
20 The Back Country Hiking At Half Dome
Yosemite boasts some of the most famous hiking and climbing spots in America, and one of the most infamous—Half Dome. The hike requires a permit to attempt and includes a section of steep incline that entails crawling up a set of cables. But if you do make to the top, you’ll be rewarded with a view over the Valley unlike any other.
If high intensity adrenaline isn’t your thing, Half Dome is visible from Sentinel Bridge, Glacier Point, and other viewpoints in the park and is perfect for rock enthusiasts and artists who want to capture its magnificence.
19 Views From Glacier Point
Glacier Point is a popular overlook above Yosemite Valley, presenting a brilliant view of Half Dome and the High Sierras. Nearing the end of your day, take the 30 mile drive up Glacier Point Road to catch one of the park’s iconic sunsets and you can stay late after the crowds have left to stargaze, free from light pollution.
The hikes near Glacier Point are relatively mild and are great for children or those who just want a peaceful forest hike. For winter visitors, the trail is enjoyed by snowshoers and cross-country skiers.
18 Yosemite Falls' Breathtaking Drop
Find this famous waterfall along Yosemite’s oldest trail, built during the 1870s. Hikers to the top of the trail can feel the mist off the falls, if they come during the spring season. The snow melt feeds the falls, so this is peak time to see it at its fullest.
The trail ends at Lower Yosemite Falls, more than 3000 feet down, which provides the best view to the Upper Falls. At a total of about 2,500 feet, it is among the highest waterfalls in the world. Check out Merced River afterwards, which is fed by Yosemite Falls.
17 Vistas Overlooking Tunnel View
Ansel Adams made this view famous, and it has remained the most famous representation of Yosemite since. It was designated as an overlook in 1933, inspiring millions of visitors throughout the decades. From Tunnel View, you can see El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall.
Each season offers a different view; lush forests in summer, a rainbow of colors in autumn, monoliths partially masked by snow in winter, and a full waterfall in spring. It’s situated near the western entrance to Yosemite and sets a wonderful precedent for visitors just entering the park.
16 Visitors Are Greeted By Bridalveil Fall
Yosemite has no shortage of waterfalls, many of which tumble dramatically off vertigo-inducing bluffs. Bridalveil is located near the main entrance to the park and is often one of the first features visitors see. Yosemite’s website estimates these falls to be second in popularity to Yosemite Falls, also providing awe-inspiring views up the waterfall.
Bridalveil Fall is less likely to dry up than Yosemite Falls, and its dry season extends only from late summer to early fall.
This trail’s popularity has grown so much in recent years that the Yosemite Conservancy is planning a $13 million upgrade to improve sections of the trail and replace signage, increasing the safety of visitors and preserving the natural beauty of the waterfall area.
15 Surround Yourself With Giants
Many people are under the impression that Yosemite Valley is the segment of the park where the scenic features are, which is incorrect. You’ll find the major waterfalls and granite formations within the Valley, but venture outside to find Mariposa Grove, the giant sequoia grove.
The grove was designated in 1864 by Abraham Lincoln and was the first area to be protected for the preservation of the habitat and use by the public, even before the creation of any national park.
Sequoias can grow to almost 300 feet and in Mariposa Grove, you will truly be surrounded by giants. The grove’s short trail leads you to one sequoia that you can stand inside.
14 El Capitan - A Climber's Paradise
Climbing El Capitan is best left to the professionals. At 3,000 feet and a sheer vertical ascent, this formation is the world’s largest granite monolith, and you’d want to be well trained before attempting to scale its face. If you get close enough, you might see some of the dozens of climbers who ascend the wall each day.
Luckily, those who aren’t rock climbers can see the massiveness of El Capitan from multiple points in the Valley, notably El Capitan Meadows or Tunnel View. This is a must-see on any trip to Yosemite, and due to its scale, it’s hard to miss.
13 The Home Of Nature's "Giant Staircase"
Like Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall lie along the Merced River. The former is known for its powerful, light-reflecting mist that often produces rainbows, especially in spring. While Yosemite has a number of staggeringly tall waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada Falls are comparatively smaller and more easily accessible (still at an impressive height) via the Mist Trail.
Start at the base of Vernal Fall, along the “Giant Staircase,” and at the top is Emerald Pool, a spot to relax and cool off before hiking up to Nevada Fall, the larger of the two. When the falls are roaring at top speed, you’ll get sprayed heavily with mist, but that can be welcomed on a hot day!
12 Kayaking In Merced River
The Merced River is the main waterway flowing within Yosemite, through a canyon carved by glaciers millions of years ago. Natives and Western settlers have both revered these waters; its name comes from the Spanish “mercy.”
Just about any water-based activity can be done on this river—swimming, tubing, kayaking, white water rafting, fishing—even gold panning.
Depending on the conditions and location, the river might be thrilling rapids or crystal clear and perfect for swimming or lounging on the banks. Either way, since it’s protected as a Wild and Scenic River, you’re assured the water is as clean as fresh glacial melt.
11 Chill Out At Tenaya Lake
Who knew a trip to Yosemite would also include a beach vacation? Swap palm trees for mountains and you have the scenery at Tenaya Lake. There is a trail heading toward the west end of the lake, but without all the hardcore adrenaline-seekers around, it is quieter than other areas of the park, perhaps from the serenity radiating from the cold blue water.
It’s known as the “Jewel of the High Country,” where “jewel” could refer to the color of the water or the fact that it’s truly a hidden gem.
10 Olmsted Point's Dazzling Sunsets
Olmsted Point is yet another of Yosemite’s beautiful and expansive viewpoints. Less famous than Glacier Point or Tunnel View, it shows formations Clouds Rest and Half Dome, and Tenaya Lake across from them. You’ll feel like you’re resting in the clouds from here, at an elevation of 8,400 feet.
This is arguably the location for some of the best Yosemite sunsets as there is nothing to block your view to the west, where the sun lowers over Clouds Rest. The sky even lights up with cotton-candy colors towards the east over Tenaya Valley.
9 Cathedral Rocks Rival Europe's Oldest Churches
You may love traveling Europe and seeing its marvellous cathedrals, like Westminster, Florence, and Notre-Dame. In Yosemite, you’ll see nature’s own cathedral, complete with spires. Cathedral Rocks and Spires face El Capitan and rise 2,000 feet up over El Capitan Meadows. Their jagged peaks resemble buttresses and tower pinnacles carved over many millennia.
With such close vicinity to El Capitan, these rocks are often overlooked, but hike the trail to the base (or scale them, if you’re brave enough), and you might find they’re even more spectacular than their famous neighbor.
8 Gorgeous Landscapes In All Seasons
Yosemite is beautiful all year round, in fact, being there in winter is a totally different experience than in the warmer months. Of course, the park is suited to outdoor winter activities like skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and ice climbing as much as it is to summer ones. For an alternate experience, go during the winter and see the rock formations draped in snow and fog, and the ground softly blanketed.
The Three Brothers, pictured, look incredible with each layer highlighted with bright snow and a reflection thanks to the stillness of Eagle Creek. Yosemite Falls usually flows at least a little too, so have a look at that, and hope its set against an icy blue backdrop.
7 The Best Camping In The Valley And Meadows
Some say you cannot truly experience Yosemite if you don’t camp out at least one night. Thankfully, the park is very accommodating when it comes to campers and backpackers, offering 13 campgrounds, accommodating different camping styles, such as RVs, tents, even horses. And if you’re not a seasoned camper, Yosemite has cabins available for rent.
Who wouldn’t want to wake up with a view like this next door? Each campground is centrally located near different park attractions. Make sure to check out at a map while planning your trip so you can choose the right campground depending on the sights you want to see.
6 Where The Sky Could Be A Watercolor Painting
The skies in Yosemite are arguably a feature of the landscape as grand as the granite mountains. The right atmosphere (literally) can help a photo of your trip stand out against thousands of others of the same location. Seek out the best sunsets at one of the many viewpoints or at Tuolumne Meadows, the picture-perfect alpine meadow in the eastern portion of the park.
Though it’s a farther distance than most park features, the meadow is surrounded by mountains, and includes access to a campground, hiking, and different water features.
5 See Why Valley View Got Its Name
Before you leave Yosemite Valley, stop along Northside Drive at Valley View and take in the expansive vista of the valley from ground level. You’ll see El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks and Spires framing the Merced River.
Valley View is sometimes compared with Tunnel View, although the viewpoints offer different angles of El Capitan and its surroundings. For a slightly less photographed perspective, yet with equal beauty, try Valley View. And it’s easy to get to, with car access you can stop here on your way to another destination, like Mariposa Grove or Glacier Point.
4 The Sunrises Are Just As Beautiful As The Sunsets
Sentinel Bridge is part of the Cook’s Loop hike and is famous for its view of Half Dome’s reflection in the Merced River. This hike is perfect for exploring the floor of the Valley and feeling especially small in the presence of the stone skyscrapers that encircle it.
If you get here at dawn, the sunrise is especially bright due to the reflection in the undisturbed water, where the ground turns orange, pink, and purple. The hike is only one mile on flat land and has many other extraordinary views of the valley.
3 Snowy Mountains And Glaciers Along John Muir Trail
Although Yosemite is known for its massive granite formations, don’t forget that’s it’s located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Some peaks rise to 14,000 feet, the largest being Mt. Lyell, which is recognized for Yosemite’s largest glacier creeping across its northern side. You can see these peaks, sometimes snow-covered year-round, best from Tuolumne Meadows.
Or, if you want to get up close and personal, the arduous John Muir Trail takes you up and through the mountains, though you don’t have to hike the full 215 miles of trail, which covers a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Alternatively, you can drive through Tioga Pass, which leads straight through the Sierras.
2 It Has Waterfalls And "Firefalls"
This is one of those photos you might catch once in a lifetime. Yosemite is home to its very own “firefall,” or so it seems. Horsetail Fall is really an average waterfall, flowing off its cliff at just the right angle so that in mid-February at sunset, the fall turns into a glowing orange cascade.
This is an incredible phenomenon quite unlike any other, and it naturally pays homage to the synthetic firefalls that occurred at Glacier Point. During summer, from the 1870s to the 1960s, burning embers were poured off Glacier Point each night, resembling a waterfall of fire. The National Park Service ended it over concerns for the environment, but you can still see nature’s version every year.
1 Every Corner Of The Park Deserves To Be Photographed
So it seems every point in Yosemite is postcard-worthy. Who wouldn’t dream of scaling one of its bluffs, or frolicking through its meadows, or cooling off in the spray of a waterfall? If you’re hesitating to head off to Yosemite, don’t, because the park has a bit of something for everyone, even those who aren’t the fondest of nature getaways will love it.
Though Yosemite is within reasonable distance from cities, especially San Francisco, it displays the country's natural landscape at its very finest. So pack your hiking boots, sunscreen, and bug spray and make Yosemite your next destination.
References: nationalparks.org, nps.gov, yosemite.com, yosemiteconservancy.org