It stands to reason that Yosemite National Park, the land of enormous views, is also the land of big hikes.
Spend an evening on the patio of one of the Northern California park’s rustic lodges, and you will hear stories all around you -- of the steep climb on the Panorama Trail, of the infamous cables of the Half Dome Day Hike, and of the hundreds of stairs on the Mist Trail.
Yosemite National Park’s spectacular views seem to motivate visitors to bag some of the park’s legendary hikes; I know they did for me.
As I sat on the patio of the Curry Village Pavilion on my first night in Yosemite, hearing the other hikers compare their day’s adventures inspired me to create some stories of my own. With just a few days to do it, I knew I wanted to take in a sampling of the park’s most iconic sights: Vernal Fall, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Mirror Lake.
Fortunately, Yosemite has a network of trails that offers consistently great views of all of those sights. Of course, some require more effort than others.
My few days didn’t allow me to get to all of the popular trails in Yosemite, but it was enough time to gaze at the vastness of Half Dome, take in the force of the water roaring over the waterfalls, and bask in the beauty of the meadows.
While some of Yosemite’s best-known hikes should be attempted only by the extremely fit and adventurous, plenty of easy and moderate trails are available as well, offering stellar views and wonderful experiences.
Here, listed in order from the easiest to the most extreme, are some of the best trails at Yosemite National Park.
Soda Springs And Parsons Lodge Trail
Located in the lovely Tuolumne Meadows area is the easy 1.5-mile round-trip hike to Soda Springs, where carbonated, cold water bubbles out of the ground. The spring is protected by a log enclosure, and the historic Parsons Memorial Lodge offers exhibits.
The Yosemite National Park website notes that a path winds to the bridge below the spring and continues on to the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center.
Expect to take about an hour to complete the trail.
Bridalveil Fall Trail
For an iconic Yosemite view without a lot of effort, the half-mile round-trip Bridalveil Fall Trail offers a paved surface to a waterfall that cascades 620 feet over a rock wall.
The waterfall thunders in the spring and early summer from snowmelt runoff, but other times of the year, the flow can be inconsistent. When I visited in September, Bridalveil Fall was little more than a mist against the granite wall. The hike should take only about 20 minutes, though, so it’s worth checking out regardless of the season.
Technically it’s not a hiking trail, but Yosemite’s multiuse trail makes for a great walk between attractions and trailheads. More than 12 miles of paved paths are available for cyclists and walkers.
I spent an enjoyable hour or so walking from the Mirror Lake Trailhead to the Ahwahnee Hotel for lunch, and it was a pleasant way to take in the park’s wildlife, rivers, and forestland.
Bikes are available for rent at Curry Village and the Yosemite Valley Lodge.
Lower Yosemite Fall Trail
As the lower half of North America’s tallest waterfall, the Lower Yosemite Fall is another waterfall worth checking out, despite having somewhat inconsistent flows in the late summer and fall.
It can be accessed on an easy mile-long loop trail. The waterfall is said to be deafening in the spring and early summer, and visitors can expect to get sprayed when standing on the footbridge near the base.
The loop trail takes about 30 minutes to complete. Again, it’s worth the trip even if the water flow is minimal.
Vernal Fall And Nevada Fall Trails (Mist Trail)
More than 600 steep granite steps await you on the route to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall via the beautiful tree-and-moss-lined Mist Trail.
The Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall Trails are actually made up of three separate trail sections. The Vernal Fall Footbridge Trail, a moderate 1.6-mile round trip with about 400 feet in elevation gain, offers great views of Vernal Fall and Illilouette Fall in the distance. The trail to the top of Vernal Fall is a strenuous 2.4-mile round trip with a 1,000-foot elevation gain and more than 600 granite steps. Finally, the trail to the top of Nevada Fall is a 5.4-mile strenuous round trip with a 2,000-foot elevation gain.
Any of the segments (or all three!) makes for a great hike. At the top of Vernal Fall, you will experience jaw-dropping views straight down the length of the 317-foot waterfall, and if you continue on to Nevada Fall, you will see a waterfall crashing down 594 feet.
The stairs can present a challenge, however. When I hiked the trail, people of all ages were having difficulty navigating the steep steps up. For an alternative route, hikers can instead take the nearby John Muir Trail, a route that adds about 1.5 miles but is less steep.
The Vernal Fall Footbridge Trail takes an hour to an hour and a half to complete. The Vernal Falls round trip takes about 3 hours, and the Nevada Falls round trip takes 5 to 6 hours.
Mirror Lake Trail
For a unique perspective from the base of the looming Half Dome granite spire, the pretty Mirror Lake can be accessed on the Mirror Lake Trail, which passes through forestland on 2 miles of somewhat rough and rocky trail.
The lake typically has water in the spring and early summer, when the surface mirrors the surrounding cliffs. Other times of the year, the lake is dry, and signs along the trail tell the story of Mirror Lake’s seasonal evolution from lake to meadow.
Although Mirror Lake was dry when I visited, I found the surrounding Tenaya Canyon, Mount Watkins, and Washington Column to be a stunning backdrop for the lush green meadow.
Rated as an easy-to-moderate hike, the round trip to Mirror Lake should take about an hour to complete. The full loop around the lake, which adds about 3 miles, should take 2 to 3 hours.
Panorama And Four-Mile Trails
For close-up views of the magnificent Glacier Point, as well as sweeping views of the entire Yosemite Valley, the Panorama and Four-Mile Trails are hard to beat. The Yosemite Mariposa County website describes the Panorama Trail as “arguably Yosemite’s most scenic trail.”
Experts strongly urge hikers to plan ahead, take a shuttle bus to Glacier Point, and hike down the switchbacks of the Panorama Trail to the valley floor for a one-way trip back to your car.
“Starting at Glacier Point offers sweeping views of the iconic Half Dome and the high peaks of the Clark Range,” says the Yosemite Mariposa County website. “The real highlight is peering down into Yosemite Valley, 2,700 feet below.”
The Panorama Trail is 8.5 miles one way and takes about 6 to 8 hours to complete, starting at Glacier Point. The Four-Mile Trail, which switchbacks down to the Yosemite Valley, takes about 3 to 4 hours to complete.
Yosemite Falls Trail
Getting to the top of North America’s tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls, requires a strenuous 7.2-mile round trip with a 2,700-foot elevation gain.
The Yosemite Falls Trail, which starts along the Valley Loop Trail, immediately begins its climb, “switchback after switchback, through oak woodland,” says the Yosemite National Park website.
It adds that the amazing views at the top are well worth the arduous climb. The hike takes 6 to 8 hours to complete.
Half Dome Day Hike
At 14 to 16 miles round trip with a 4,800-foot elevation gain, the Half Dome Day Hike is a challenge. Not only does the hike feature an extreme climb, but it also includes a 400-foot final ascent requiring metal cables.
Still, thousands of hikers accomplish it every year.
The Yosemite National Park website stresses that hikers should take a number of precautions, including bringing the proper gear, food, water, and information.
“The 14- to 16-mile round-trip hike to Half Dome is not for you if you’re out of shape or unprepared,” it states.
Permits are required, and only 300 are issued each day. The round-trip hike takes 10 to 12 hours to complete.
As of June 11, 2020, visitors need a day-use reservation in order to enter Yosemite. For more information about park guidelines, check out our full list of national parks requiring changes for visitors.