“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” – John Muir
Yosemite. Just hearing the name relaxes mind and body. Yosemite’s dramatic granite rock faces, lush valleys, enchanted forests, and majestic waterfalls attract visitors from across the globe. This incredible place is undoubtedly one of our planet’s crown jewels. Simply driving through Yosemite Valley is enough to awe even the most cynical curmudgeon. But venturing outside of the valley, into the backcountry, has the power to transform the curmudgeon into an eternal optimist. If you’re physically able and willing to get a little mud on your hiking shoes, I recommend ditching the crowds and rising above the valley. It’s the best way to experience Yosemite’s magnificent depth and diversity. With over 750 miles of trails, there’s no shortage of hiking options in Yosemite. Here are a few of my favorites:
The Pohono Trail offers some of the park’s best valley views. Hitchhike from the Yosemite Valley parking lot (completely normal) to Tunnel View, in the western side of the park. Admire Tunnel View’s valley vista before starting the Pohono Trail. The first couple hours of the trail consist of a significant ascent of a few thousand feet. Push through the initial climb by reminding yourself that higher elevation simply means better views. Plus, views are much more beautiful knowing you’ve earned them.
Dewey Point, Taft Point, Sentinel Dome, and Glacier Point…to name a few. Try not to miss any of these vistas, as they all offer breathtaking scenery. Needless to say, they make for great photo opportunities. Take a lot of pictures: do your favorite yoga pose, snap that pensive photo looking out into the valley, etc. Just be careful up there…it’s a long way down. If you’re really brave, bring your slackline and test death with a thousand foot drop.
Okay, I said earlier that you didn’t want to miss any of the viewpoints. But, if you happen to be strapped for time, my two favorites are Taft Point and Sentinel Dome. Taft Point offers great views of El Capitan and the surrounding valley. Bonus points for Taft Point at sunset. I can’t remember exactly, but I think my jaw literally dropped as I stood atop Sentinel Dome. With 360 degree panoramic views of the valley and snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Finish (or start) the Pohono Trail at Glacier Point (which offers incredible views of half-dome and several waterfalls) before continuing your journey on the Panorama Trail…
Though offering fewer clifftop viewpoints than the Pohono Trail, the Panorama Trail presents a different perspective. And in my opinion, a more enjoyable and diverse hiking experience. Maybe that’s just because I love waterfalls, and this trail is waterfall paradise. The descent from Glacier Point provides distant views of Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls, both of which will refresh you with mist further down the trail. Watching the sunset on the bridge over Nevada Falls is incredible, just be cautious in this area. I heard Nevada Falls takes more lives than any other spot in the park. Overconfident people swim in the river that feeds into the massive waterfall, underestimate the current, and get swept over the falls. Respect the signs that say don’t swim, they’re looking out for your safety.
Little Yosemite Valley is a wonderful campground and also popular for those scaling Half-Dome, one of Yosemite’s most recognizable icons. Opportunistic coyotes scavenge this campground searching for scraps, so be sure to utilize the (required) bear canister given to you at the ranger station. There are also these beautiful blue birds that peck at your Ziploc bags with trail mix or whatever another snack you pack. Don’t be deceived by their attractive feathers, these birds are ruthless.
The Panorama Trail connects to the Mist Trail, which I would argue is a must see. The Mist Trail is extremely popular for good reason. You get up close and personal to Vernal Falls (my favorite waterfall), which is refreshing on a hot day. The trail can be crowded, wet, and for lack of a better word…misty, so be careful with your footing. Keep an eye out for 360 degree rainbows. Surreal.
The end of the Mist Trail leaves you back in the Valley, where you can fuel up on food and supplies before taking on your next challenge. Which brings us to…
Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
Over three miles of consistent uphill hiking makes the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail a formidable challenge. Note to the reader: it becomes even more difficult after gorging an entire pizza an hour before (I wish I didn’t know that was the case…). Nonetheless, the hike is totally worth it. Run Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” on repeat and conquer the granite stairs. Fellow hikers descending the trail will offer words of encouragement too. When you reach the peak, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible view of Yosemite Falls – the biggest waterfall in the park – and the surrounding valley.
After catching your breath, forge ahead a bit further to Yosemite Point. Try to arrive at Yosemite Point just before sunset to see Half-Dome at Golden Hour. Consider camping at the site by the bridge (between Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Point) to rest and relax your sore muscles by the campfire. The next day, you can either return from where you came (descending Upper Yosemite Falls Trail), or proceed onwards to El Capitan (recommended). Before arriving at El Capitan, take the short detour to Eagle’s Point. One of my favorites and certainly in the same category as the top vistas from the Pohono Trail.
El Capitan is a barren moonscape that shouldn’t be missed. Just don’t forget your windbreaker. As you’re hiking out onto El Capitan, look to your right (west) and admire the rolling mountains reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Range. Then look to your left (east) towards the rugged, snow-capped Sierra Nevada Range. The contrast is stark, yet both are beautiful. Two worlds divided, and you’re standing in the middle, accompanied by your new friend – El Capitan.
After enjoying El Capitan, it’s another 5 miles of slightly less scenic (but really, it’s all beautiful) terrain to Big Old Flat Road. You can also camp at Tamarack Flat Campground if you’re short on daylight. Hitch a ride from Big Old Flat Road back into the valley, order a beer, and recount the awesomeness that you just shared with your crew.
The bottom line is: you can’t go wrong at Yosemite. The trails discussed in this post are just a sample of the hundreds of miles of expansive wilderness that can and should be explored. Your trail choices should be based on timing, fitness, nature preferences, and customized trip logistics. To maximize time in the backcountry, I would recommend visiting for 4-7 days (at least). But don’t fret if you have less time, pick a few day hikes or simply enjoy cruising around the valley. Yosemite is a win-win situation.