Yosemite’s top day hikes
Hikers cross the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park, California. (Danita Delimont/Getty)
There is no better way – and often no other way – to see California’s Yosemite National Park than by parking the car and hitting the trail. It is also impossible to say one area of the park is better for hiking than another -- all areas of the park are best explored on foot. Really, it depends on the hiker’s ability, interests and the time of year. Here are six picks for unmissable day hikes ranging from easy to challenging, all of which will leave you with dreams of longer treks into Yosemite’s fabled back country.
Vernal and Nevada Falls
If you can only do a single day hike from Yosemite Valley in springtime, make this the one. Not only are Vernal and Nevada Falls two of Yosemite’s most spectacular waterfalls, but Yosemite Falls and Illilouette Fall both make appearances in the distance from select spots on the trail.
There are two ways to hike this 6.5 mile loop: up the Mist Trail and down the John Muir Trail (in a clockwise direction) or vice versa. It is easier on the knees to climb rather than descend the plethora of steep granite steps along the Mist Trail, so it is best to go for the clockwise route. Then you can amble along the John Muir Trail – which has astounding views of both falls – on the way down. The granite slabs atop Nevada Fall make for a superb lunch spot (as close to the edge as you dare), with the 7,057ft-high granite dome of Liberty Cap towering above. If you choose to do this hike in summertime, be sure to hit the trail early to avoid the crowds and afternoon heat. If you prefer a shorter excursion, stop at the top of Vernal Fall.
For many visitors, Half Dome is the ultimate Yosemite hike, an achievement to brag about to the grandkids some day. The stand-alone summit of this glacier-carved chunk of granite offers awesome 360-degree views, and peering down its sheer 2,000ft north face offers a thrill you will remember for the rest of your life. But unless you get a dawn (or earlier) start, you will have plenty of people to deal with. Most importantly, advance permits are now required for day hikers and the cable route to the summit is only open late May to mid-October. Ideally, the 15.7 mile route is best tackled in two days, allowing you more time to rest up and enjoy the gorgeous surroundings, but if you do attempt the hike in a single day -- and many do -- be ready for some serious exertion, get an early start, pack a lot of water and bring a flashlight, because you may wind up hiking home in the dark.
The trail follows the Vernal and Nevada Falls route and continues through Little Yosemite Valley. The twin steel cables are draped from posts bolted into the granite on the final 600ft ascent up an exposed 45-degree rock face. A trip in light crowds takes only 15 minutes, but on crowded cables (or if you are jittery) expect it to take much longer. Sharing the road will be your biggest challenge. The summit itself is fairly flat and about five acres in size. From here, enjoy amazing views of Yosemite Valley, Clouds Rest (9,926ft), Mount Starr King (9,092ft) and the Cathedral Range. As tempting as it is to linger, watch the time to avoid a hazardous descent in the darkness.
Tueeulala and Wapama Falls
Few – if any – trails in Yosemite bring you as close to the shower and roar of a giant waterfall as this one does to Wapama Falls. In springtime, after a good snowmelt, the falls can rage so mightily that the National Park Service occasionally has to close the five-mile long trail as water rolls over the bridges. On your way, you will pass the wispy Tueeulala Falls (twee-la-la), which spring spectacularly from the cliffs from more than 1,000ft above the trail. All the while, Hetch Hetchy Dome (6,165ft), to the north, and the mighty Kolana Rock (5,772ft), to the south shore loom over the entire scene. Kolana Rock’s vertical north face provides nesting sites for peregrine falcons, once close to extinction but now present in healthier numbers.