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One of the most incredibly scenic national parks, Yosemite is renowned for its soaring mountains with steep granite cliffs that draw rock climbers and hikers from around the world, as well as numerous waterfalls and all sorts of opportunities for other adventures. If you’d like to experience this glorious park at its best, consider taking part in some of these especially unforgettable things to do.
Photograph a natural ‘firefall’
Every year in February, for only a few days, Horsetail Falls in Yosemite bursts into a fiery glow that makes it look as if fire is tumbling down the cliff. This occurs as the sun sets at a certain angle, illuminating the waterfall in fiery red and luminescent orange, making it appear like a fluid fire. The unique phenomenon which few get to see, requires a precise combination of snow melt and sunlight to work its magic. If temperatures are too cold, the snow will stay frozen and the waterfall won’t flow. The western sky also has to be clear at sunset – if it’s raining, snowing or even just cloudy, the rays of the sun will be blocked, which means the falls won’t light up. Some photographers come every year for years, only to see it happen once or twice. When everything comes together and conditions are right, the “firefall” will last for about 10 minutes. If you’d like the chance to experience it in person, plan to be here around the second week of February and hope for the best!
Take a hike
There aren’t many attractions that you can drive to at Yosemite, in fact, vehicles are discouraged to prevent traffic and pollution in the Valley. The best way to see it is to get out of your car and plan at least a full day to explore part of the park’s more than 800 miles of trails. There are hikes for every fitness level, and in every season. If you’re looking for something short and sweet, the Bridalveil Fall is just a half-mile round-trip trek that will bring you to the 620-foot-high waterfall, and by hiking the mile-long paved Cooks Meadow Loop, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point, Half Dome and Royal Arches. The five-mile Wapama Falls hike takes about two hours and passes a series of waterfalls on its way to the base of Wapama, and for a more serious trek, the 12.7-mile Ostrander Lake Trail takes 8-10 hours to complete and will bring you through pine forests, meadows and mountain passes before reaching Ostrander Lake.
Go ice skating
Winter brings the chance to enjoy all sorts of fun activities, like ice skating on the Curry Village Ice Rink. Skaters glide under the shadow of snow-dusted Half Dome and Glacier Point, and can enjoy warming up at the fire pit when they’re ready for a break. During rare years, visitors can even skate on the remote and beautiful Tenaya Lake. Most winters, it’s buried under snow, but occasionally, the ice will be snow-free and exposed, bringing ice skaters and hockey players to enjoy a rare moment in the wilderness that may be a once-in-a-lifetime event. There are no Zambonis, skate rentals, concessions or anything of the kind up there, so you’ll have bring your own gear and be repaired for rough spots in the ice.
Head to the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Ski Area for Alpine Skiing & Snowboarding
Yosemite also offers skiing and snowboarding, generally from mid-December through mid-March, conditions permitting. Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Ski Area, formerly known as Badger Pass Ski Area, is a small, affordable ski and snowboard area that’s ideal for skiers and boarders of all levels, though the very advanced may not be challenged enough. One of only three lift-serviced ski areas operating in a United States National Park, it’s especially family-friendly and a great place for beginners to learn. Snowboards, skis and other necessary equipment are available to rent, and lessons are offered too. If you want to relax, you can hang out on the sundeck and watch your kids, or others, do all the hard work.
Look up and be mesmerized by the giants in Mariposa Grove
Massive, ancient giant sequoias live in three groves at Yosemite: Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne and Merced Groves. The most easily accessible is Mariposa, located near the south entrance of the park off Wawona Road. Many visitors stare up at the trees in awe, asking park rangers just how old they really are. Giant sequoias can be truly ancient, living for over 3,000 years – they are the third longest-lived tree species with the oldest known specimen believed to be 3,266 years old, found in the Converse Basin Grove of Giant Sequoia National Monument. The square-mile Mariposa Grove is home to 500 mature giant sequoias; visitors can take a guided walk, tram ride, or self-guided stroll through the very impressive, awe-inspiring giants.
Watch for wildlife
Yosemite is home to all sorts of animal species, with over 80 species of mammals, like black bears, mule deer, mountain lions and marmots as well as more than 200 species of birds, including great gray owls and bald eagles. It’s also home to over 15 threatened and endangered species, such as the Sierra Nevada red fox, willow flycatcher and peregrine falcon. Of all of the animals that live in the park, most people are hoping to see the bears. The largest mammal in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, a full-grown adult male generally weighs between 300 and 350 pounds, though a bear weighing nearly 700 pounds was once caught inside the park. The animals aren’t necessarily black either, their fur can range from golden blonde, light tan and cinnamon red to a darker brown or coal black.
Take the moonlight tour
If you’d like to see the park lit up under the moonlight, consider taking the Yosemite Valley Moonlight Tour, which features many of the park’s favorite spots like Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall, and seeing the waterfalls under the glow of a full moon not only makes for especially magical photographs, it’s something you won’t soon forget. The two-hour tour takes place during the full moon between May and October, weather permitting, and begins in front of Yosemite Lodge at the Falls.
Watch a meteor shower
Nestled among the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, Yosemite is one of the best places for watching Perseid meteor showers. As they can be predicted, many of the parks accommodations offer packages that come complete with an astronomer, telescope, and transportation to an ideal viewing spot to see the amazing display, as well as hot beverages and snacks. Tenaya Lodge offers packages that include overnight stays and guided stargazing, or you can just take the stargazing tour.
Dance in the wildflowers
If you like wildflowers, visit in the spring and paradise takes on a whole new meaning, though wildflowers bloom all year long. In March, spring blossoms open at the park’s west edge in Merced River canyon, where fields of golden yellow poppies, purple lupines, redbuds, fiddlenecks and owl’s clover can be seen. By mid-May, evening primrose, pine violets, western azalea, baby blue eyes and more are dotted throughout the meadows. Hike the Cook’s Meadow Loop, the trails by Wapama Falls or the Wawona Meadow Loop and you can find your own patch to dance through and even lie down in your very own bed of flowers.
Check out the Ansel Adams Gallery
If inclement weather hits, or you’re just ready for a break from all of the outdoor activities, check out Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village, set between the post office and the visitor center. It showcases the work of this legendary photographer who spent much of his life photographing Yosemite, showcasing its beauty in black-and-white, with haunting images of Vernal Fall and Half Dome that transformed the park into a nationally renowned institution. Not only can you browse through the impressive collections, but you can purchase Ansel Adams prints as well as books, gifts, jewelry and other items. The gallery also offers photo tours through Yosemite, complete with photography and composition tips.
Get wet on the Mist Trail
One of the most popular hiking trails in the park, the Mist Trail will take you to Vernal Fall, which plunges 317 down to the Merced River below. Climbing 500 rocky stairs to the top of the waterfall, you’ll get so close that its mist is likely to leave you rather wet – be prepared by bringing a hooded rain jacket or poncho, you’ll be glad you did. When you reach the top, you’ll not only be able to take in the glory of the falls, but the beautiful surrounding landscape of the park. Best done on a hot day when you need to cool off, this trek is challenging and you’ll need to be cautious of the slippery rock.
Climb Half Dome
Those who are up for a bigger challenge, may want to conquer Half Dome. Rising nearly a mile above Yosemite Valley, this icon of Yosemite is an exhilarating and challenging climb, but well worth the effort to experience the unrivaled views and sense of accomplishment. The Cables Route has been described as unforgettable, and occasionally even life-changing. The route has also transformed what was once declared “unclimbable,” as a destination summited by thousands of visitors every year, thanks to the cables that serve as hand rails as you climb. The entire hike takes at least 12 hours, and the National Park Service recommends leaving just after dawn and bringing all necessary hiking equipment, including high quality hiking boots, a flashlight and a whistle. Generally accessible between late May and October, a maximum of 300 hikers are allowed each day, and permits are required.
See Yosemite on Two Wheels
Exploring the park via bicycle is a great way to see all of its highlights. You can bring your own, or rent one, with bikes (and helmets) available on a first-come, first-served basis at both Half Dome Village and Yosemite Valley Lodge during the warmer months of the year. As Yosemite Valley is flat, it makes for easy, fun riding along the 12 miles of designated pathway. There are small bikes and trailers for children, and tandem and hand crank bikes for the visually or physically impaired, making a ride possible for just about everyone.
Float down the river
Rafting along the Merced River is a popular summertime activity, allowing visitors to keep cool when temperatures are sizzling and the water is blissfully cool. You can spend a sunny afternoon calmly floating down the river by bringing your own raft, or renting a four- or six-person raft, usually in June or July, although it can vary from year to year depending on the water level. Most people start at Stoneman Bridge and float or paddle to the Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, three miles away. The two main beaches, Sentinel and Cathedral, are fun for splashing around in an inner tube or just soaking up the sunshine.
Embark on a Saddle Trip
Beyond hiking and biking, a mule ride or a horseback ride is a great way to explore the park’s trails – or you can take things even farther by reserving a Yosemite High Sierra Camps Pack & Saddle Trip through the lottery. Once you’re confirmed, you can apply for a 4- or 6-day guided trip, which travels from camp to camp on surefooted mules, riding high into the wilderness on century-old Calvary trails and enjoying some of the most breathtaking views in Yosemite. You’ll spend three to five hours riding each day, stopping for photos and picnics along the way. If that’s too much to fit in your itinerary, Big Trees Lodge Stable offers half-day and two-hour rides on mules and horses. No riding experience is necessary for both the longer and shorter excursions, though they are limited to riders who weigh 225 pounds or less.
Glide through a winter wonderland on snowshoes
During the winter months, snowshoeing offers the chance to leave the beaten path behind and glide through a spectacular winter wonderland. It’s an easy, low-impact way to explore the park, and snowshoes can be rented from multiple locations, or you can bring your own. All trails throughout Yosemite are open to snowshoeing as well as cross-country skiing, and maps are available at ranger stations and Cross Country Center. You can also join a guided tour if you don’t want to venture out on your own, where you’ll be shown some of the best the park has to offer in winter. As the yellow blazes that mark the trails can be difficult to see in the snow, having a guide can make the excursion safer and more enjoyable, particularly when it’s snowing.
Another fun and thrilling wintertime activity is snow tubing. The Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Ski Area offers kid-friendly slopes for snow tubing in addition to its skiing and boarding opportunities, and just south of the park, Tenaya Lodge has a snow play area that includes tubing or sledding down its sled run as well as horse-drawn sleigh rides. Leland High Sierra Snow, located west of Yosemite in the heart of Gold Country about 38 miles east of Sonora on Highway 108, is considered the biggest and best snow play facility in the Sierras. It offers 12 acres of terrain and two lifts, bringing tubers to the top of huge tubing hills, and for the little ones, the Kiddie Hills offer a gentler ride to introduce them to all of the fun.