Yosemite Valley is the perfect place to take a day hike, no matter how energetic you feel. Valley hiking maps are available at the valley visitors center (Yosemite Valley at Valley Village, Northside Dr.). Read your map and talk to the rangers. Though the hikes described here provide a good sample of what’s available in the valley, plenty of other trails wind through this gorgeous area.
Be aware that many people love the valley trails, so you likely won’t be alone in the wilderness.
If you’re staying at Yosemite Lodge and want a gentle walk with a great view, take the one-mile Lower Yosemite Fall loop. Enjoy the wondrous views of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, complete with lots of cooling spray! If you can, hike this trail in the springtime or early summer, when the flow of the falls is at its peak. This easy trail works well for families with kids who love the water.
Quintessential Yosemite Valley views are visible from the Cook’s Meadow Loop, a one-mile walk through the heart of the valley. The point of this hike is to observe Ansel Adams’ famous view of Half Dome from the Sentinel Bridge, then go on to gaze up at the Royal Arches and Glacier Point.
For walkers with a little more stamina, several trails in the valley are flat, but longer. To see Mirror Lake (end of Southside Dr., four miles, moderate), first take the short, wheelchair-accessible paved path. For a longer walk, take the connected loop trail two miles following Tenaya Creek. Read the exhibits around the lake to learn how and why Mirror Lake is transforming from a lake into a meadow (a natural process).
If you’ve got several hours and a desire to extend your visit to the valley floor, take the Valley Floor Loop (Northside Dr. and Southside Dr., paved path alongside road). For visitors who want a mid-length hike, the half loop runs 6.5 miles and takes about three hours to traverse, going over the El Capitan Bridge and following the path of many old wagon roads and historic trails.
The full loop is 13 miles long and takes all day (about six hours) to hike. But it’s worth it, since you’ll see all the most beautiful parts of the valley while escaping the crowds on the roads. If you want to hike the Valley Floor Loop, it’s a good idea to talk to the rangers at the visitors center; the route is not entirely clear on the trail map and getting lost in the meadows or forests is a distinct possibility.
Some of the more challenging hikes in Yosemite Valley are also the most rewarding. One of these is the trek up to Upper Yosemite Fall (trailhead at Camp 4). You can take the shuttle (Stop #7) to the Upper Yosemite Fall trailhead rather than walking up from Lower Yosemite Fall. From the trailhead, it gets steep—you’ll climb 2,700 feet in three miles (seven miles round-trip) to reach the top of America’s tallest waterfall.
Your reward for the work will be some of the most astonishing aerial views to be had anywhere in the world. You can look down over the fall and out over the valley, with its grassy meadows so tiny far below. Plan all day (6–8 hours) for this hike, and bring plenty of water and snacks to replenish your energy for the tricky climb down.
Perhaps the most famous hardcore climb in Yosemite Valley takes you to the top of the monumental Half Dome (Mist Trail to Half Dome Trail, trail parking at the east end of Northside Dr.). This hike can be dangerous! Attempt this climb only in the summer and early fall, when the cables are up (which you hold onto for balance and use to help pull yourself up the steep granite of the last 400 feet to the top of the dome).
At a round-trip distance of 17 miles and with a 4,800-foot ascent, this arduous, all-day hike (10–12 hours) is not for small children, the elderly, or the out-of-shape. Take your pack with water, food, and essentials for safety. Once you stagger to the top, you’ll find a restful expanse of stone on which to sit and rest and enjoy the scenery.
Starting at the Happy Isles Nature Center, the Mist Trail takes you first to Vernal Fall, then on to Nevada Fall over much steep, slick granite—including over 600 stair-steps up to the top of Vernal Fall.
The total distance from Happy Isles to Nevada Fall and back is seven miles, with a 2,000-foot elevation rise and fall. Plan 5–6 hours for this hike, and consider taking a lightweight parka since this aptly named trail gets intrepid visitors very wet in the spring and early summer months.
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition