Yosemite National Park
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Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park (Pronounced YO-SEH-MIT-TEA) is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California about 200 miles (300 km) east of San Francisco. From the San Francisco Bay area and the northern part of California, it is a pleasant 4-hour drive eastward over the coastal range, across the Central Valley and through the foothills of the Sierras to Yosemite. From Southern California and the Los Angeles area, it is a six hour drive northward through the fertile farmlands of the Central Valley along interstate 5 and highway 99 to Merced then eastward along route 140 into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Yosemite.

Yosemite Falls © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Nine magnificent waterfalls cascade into the valley. Five of them are over 1000 feet (300 meters) high including the 2425 feet (800 meters) Yosemite Falls.

Yosemite Valley offers incredible beauty

Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the USA. This is partly because of its proximity to the population centers of Los Angeles and San Francisco but is mostly due to the incredible natural beauty of Yosemite Valley. The glacially eroded alpine valley is just 8 miles long and less than one mile wide with sheer granite walls rising vertically over 3000 feet (1000 meters) on either side. Nine magnificent waterfalls cascade into the valley. Five of them are over 1000 feet (300 meters) high including the 2425 feet (800 meters) Yosemite Falls. Yosemite Park actually encompasses about 1200 square miles (3000 sq. km) and includes many other natural attractions, but most tourists visit only Yosemite Valley or the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees near Wawona at the southern entry.

Due to its immense popularity, Yosemite Valley frequently becomes very crowded in the summer months and on weekends throughout the year. The single loop road that circles the valley floor often becomes choked with traffic on popular summer weekends. The National Park Service provides a free shuttle bus around the loop from various parking areas outside of the valley. They are considering a ban on automobile traffic within the valley; but so far, the shuttle bus is just voluntary. It is possible to visit Yosemite by taking the Amtrak train to Merced and then boarding a bus to Yosemite, but automobile travel is the most convenient method of exploring this vast natural wonder.

Facilities and Accommodations in Yosemite National Park

The National Park Service has provided a nice selection of facilities within Yosemite Valley and throughout the park. There are several hotels in the valley ranging in price from the luxurious but rather expensive Ahwahnee and the moderately priced Yosemite Lodge to the budget priced cabins and tents at Curry Village. There are also several camping facilities in the valley. Unfortunately, many of the accommodations are completely booked during the busy summer months, so you must make reservations far in advance. It is often easier to find accommodations outside of the valley. Fortunately, the park service provides accommodations and camping in other parts of the park, and a selection of private motels and campgrounds are located near the park. Within Yosemite Valley, the Park Service aslo maintains a museum, a visitor's information center, several restaurants and snack bars, a small convenience store, a gift shop, a riding stable and tour guides. For more information about accommodations in Yosemite check our Yosemite Accommodations and Camping page.

El Capitan © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Near the entry to Yosemite Valley, the granite walls of El Capitan rise for nearly 3000 feet (1000 meters) in sheer vertical splendor.

Yosemite Valley is situated at about 4000 feet (1300 meters) with some other parts of the park at much higher elevations. The weather can be quite warm and dry during the summer, but nights may be cool. In the winter, it can be quite cold with frequent snowfalls that sometimes create hazardous driving conditions. Tioga Pass and the higher elevations of the park are normally closed from November through May due to heavy snow accummulation. Spring and Fall are transition periods that alternate between nice weather and wet or snowy conditions. Summer offers the warmest weather but is the busiest tourist season. Spring, with its heavy runoff of snow melt, offers the most spectacular waterfall show. Fall, with its multicolored foliage and usually pleasant weather, is a scenic time to visit, although Winter often produces some beautiful snow covered landscapes. Whatever season you choose to visit Yosemite, it is wise to take a variety of clothing that can be layered to match changing weather conditions.

Easy walks or strenuous hikes in Yosemite

Entry to Yosemite Park now costs $10 per person or $20 per vehicle for a 7-day permit. Yosemite Valley is the gem of the park and you should certainly visit this exquisitely beautiful natural attraction. Whether you take the shuttle bus or drive the loop yourself, you can stop frequently and walk to various vista points that display the magnificent scenery. There are a number of short easy trails that lead to spectacular viewpoints and scenic attractions. Some of them are wheel-chair accessible. There are also many more strenuous trails that lead up the sides of the valley to high points offering panaramic vistas of the valley. Stop at the information center and obtain a trail map before you begin.

Near the entry to Yosemite Valley, the granite walls of El Capitan rise for nearly 3000 feet (1000 meters) in sheer vertical splendor. El Cap attracts mountain climbers from all around the world for the epitome of "big-wall" climbing. From the parking lot on the valley floor, you can just barely see the tiny figures of the climbers on the face, yet you can hear their echoed shouts to each other from a mile distance. At night, lights twinkle like stars on the cliff face from the cacooned climbers as they bivouac while suspended on delicate strands of rope affixed to bolts in the wall.

Giant Sequoia trees and alpine meadows in Yosemite National Park

Mariposa Grove near Wawona at the southern entry to Yosemite National Park contains a magnificent stand of giant Sequoia trees. These 300 feet (100 meter) tall trees with trunks up to 30 feet (10 meters) in diameter are well worth visiting.

Giant Sequoia Tree © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Mariposa Grove near Wawona at the southern entry to Yosemite National Park contains a magnificent stand of giant Sequoia trees.

Tioga Pass Road wends its way up to the high country north and east of the valley. It leads to beautiful alpine meadows and panoramic vistas of the valley and the surrounding mountain peaks. The park service maintains two lodges and a number of High Sierra Camps along this road. It is a great starting point for backpackers heading into the vast wilderness areas of the park. The road eventually crosses Tioga Pass at 9945 feet (3300 meters) and leads to the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Range. Mono Lake with its unusual limestone formations and the well-preserved ghost town of Bodie are located just east of Yosemite Park. Tioga Pass and most of the high country roads are normally closed from November until the end of May.

Yosemite offers more than 800 miles of hiking trails

Yosemite National Park has less than 200 miles of paved roads, but more than 800 miles of hiking trails. Over 95% of the park is designated as wilderness area. It is a fantastic place for hiking, backpacking and wilderness camping. If you wish to try some adventuresome exploration, you can obtain a wilderness permit from the Park Service and trek into the seldom-seen areas of Yosemite via foot or on horseback. For more information about Camping and Wilderness Permits in Yosemite, see our Yosemite Accommodations and Camping page.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © Guy Cazalet
Photo Description: Yosemite Valley