I’ve partnered with Hotels.com to share some of my favorite hikes and waterfalls in Yosemite that allow for safe travel and proper physical distancing.
Yosemite’s Natural Beauty: Nature in its Glory
Yosemite is filled with breathtaking nature from the time you pass through the iconic Tunnel View which then unveils the gorgeous views of Bridalveil Fall, and the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome.
Yosemite became a National Park in 1890, making it the third national park in the United States. Located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range means there are lots of waterfalls and unbelievable hiking trails, giant ancient sequoia trees and unparalleled natural beauty.
Although the park is open year-round, nearly 75 percent of visitors come to the park May through October, and most of them only visit the six-square miles that make up Yosemite Valley.
If crowds aren’t your thing and you are trying to social distance, consider visiting Yosemite during the early spring, late fall, or winter. If you can only travel to Yosemite in summer, it is also quite easy to see many of Yosemite’s beautiful and famous landmarks by car.
Another option is to explore some of the additional 1,100 square miles of the Yosemite Wilderness outside of the main tourist area of the valley.
If you haven’t already booked your family-friendly hotel for Yosemite, I suggest looking for a hotel in the park, especially if it’s a first-time visit. There are also multiple hotels and resorts just outside of the park entrance and in nearby quaint mountain towns.
5 Beautiful Waterfalls in Yosemite
Yosemite is world-famous for its waterfalls and the rainbows that can appear in them. It is also a pilgrimage for serious climbers and offers some of the most beautiful hiking trails in California.
Yosemite’s waterfalls vary by season as they are fed by the waters from melting snow. Many of Yosemite’s waterfalls can be viewed from the road or by taking a short walking path.
In general, the best time to see the waterfalls in Yosemite is April through June, and the peak flow is May. Many waterfalls will have some flow in July, November, December, and January through March. August and September tend to be the two months that offer less of a chance of seeing the waters flowing.
The wonderful thing about seeing the different falls in Yosemite is that it is quite easy to social distance and still get a beautiful vantage point of each location.
It’s hard to visit Yosemite and not see the towering 2,425 foot Yosemite Falls. It’s visible when flowing from numerous spots in Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Falls is the largest waterfall in Yosemite and one of the world’s tallest falls. It is actually made up of three separate falls and one of the quintessential places for visitors when coming to this national park for the first time.
Not as tall as some of the other waterfalls at only 620 feet, but it is often the first waterfall you’ll see when driving into Yosemite Valley making it a lasting Yosemite memory. You can see Bridalveil Fall after you pass through Tunnel View on the Wawona Road (Highway 41). It’s also viewable from Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120) and there are additional viewpoints you can stop at as you drive into the valley.
An impressive 2,000 feet, Sentinel falls can start to cascade in early March and well into June. The highest single drop of this fall is an impressive 500 feet. It doesn’t get as much attention as the popular Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall. It is located by the nearby towering Sentinel Rock and visible from the valley. Nearby you will also find Sentinel Beach Picnic Area.
The huge upside to Vernal Fall is that it flows year-round, with its peak flow at the end of May. An interesting fact about Vernal Fall is after the peak of its flow, it splits into two or three separate falls.
You can hike to this 317-foot waterfall on the Mist Trail, but it is fairly steep. The easier hike to the fall is along a well-marked path that begins near the Happy Isles Nature Center. Simply follow the trailhead to Vernal Fall footbridge (about 1 mile) or continue on to the top of the waterfall. Another plus to visiting this fall is you can see Glacier Point in the distance.
Another waterfall that can be seen year-round is Tuolumne Falls and is about 45 feet in height. Seeing this waterfall is more of an adventure as it does require a hike. The trailhead is on Tioga Road east of the visitor center, about 10 miles west of the Tioga Pass entrance. One thing to note is that you will be heading downhill as you hike to the waterfalls, and uphill on the way back.
4 Great Hikes in Yosemite
There are hundreds of trails in Yosemite National Park ranging from 0.5 to 211 miles. Trails can be found throughout the park including Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Road, Wawona, and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and Tuolumne Meadows to name just a few.
From short, easy walks to waterfalls or a viewpoint or an epic all-day hike, this is truly one of the best ways to see more of Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite Falls Trail
This hike is just over 7 miles with an elevation gain of 2,600 feet at Yosemite Falls. It is considered a strenuous and difficult hike, but it is one of the oldest trails in Yosemite. The trail began construction in 1873 and has one of the best payoffs for hikers as it takes you to the highest waterfall in North America (measuring 2,425 feet).
Mirror Lake Hike
This 2-mile round trip hike to Mirror Lake starts at 4,000 feet and has a mild 100 foot elevation gain. The trailhead is located at Shuttle Stop #17.
Mirror Lake is a shallow pool that has its peak water fill in the spring and early summer. Because of the short distance, this is a great hike for families and gets you fairly close to the base of Half Dome. If you are looking for something a bit more challenging, you can continue hiking the 4-mile Mirror Lake loop trail around the lake.
Chilnualna Falls Trail
This 8.25-mile round trip hike is in the quieter southern part of Yosemite National Park near Wawona. Not only is it a beautiful hike, but the reward is seeing yet another of the gorgeous waterfalls; Chilnualna Falls!
Chilnualna Falls Trail is considered a moderate hike. The trail starts around 4,000 feet and you will hike up 2,200 feet to 6,200 feet by the time you reach the top of the falls.
Tip: this trail can also be accessed on horseback.
One of the most beautiful hikes with multiple waterfalls is Tuolumne Meadows. This hike along the Tuolumne River takes you to four falls: Tuolumne, California, LeConte, and Waterwheel. The trailhead is on Tioga Pass Road near Lembert Dome and Soda Springs. The trail tends to open in July and is dependent on the amount of snow from the previous winter.
This is truly an epic and long hike at 16 miles round-trip. It’s long, but not too steep considering some of the elevation gains with other hikes within Yosemite. Tuolumne Meadows hike has only a 1,900 feet elevation change. Of course, you don’t have to hike the entire 16 miles to see your first waterfall and the beautiful scenery! The first waterfall is Tuolumne Falls and only 4.5 miles from the trailhead.
Where to Stay in Yosemite
Yosemite lodging ranges from luxury hotels, to historic inns to tents and cabins. Whether you are looking for luxury and fine dining or a cabin and cooking over a fire, there are options for all types of budgets and experiences.
The Ahwahnee, Yosemite View Lodge, and Wawona Hotel are some of the most popular hotels for visitors who want to stay near Yosemite Valley. House and cabin rentals are available as well as tent camping.
8 FUN FACTS ABOUT YOSEMITE
- President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant in 1864, protecting the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley. It was the first time the government protected land because of its natural beauty.
- Yosemite is United State’s 3rd national park.
- There are more than 400 species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals in Yosemite.
- Camp 4, famous as the base camp for climbers earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
- The Buffalo Soldiers, an African-American Army of soldiers were assigned to patrol Yosemite and other protected areas in the West in 1899.
- At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls is one of tallest waterfalls on the planet. It’s actually made up of three separate falls!
- The Ahwahnee Hotel, a luxury hotel in the park was leased by the U.S. Navy to serve as a naval hospital during World War II.
- Yosemite has rare lunar rainbows (also known as moonbows) in the spring and early summer. If the sky is clear and the moon is full, it can create enough light to produce a rainbow from a waterfall’s mist.
As travel today remains uncertain, please keep your safety and the safety of others in mind at all times. If you are comfortable with traveling, please travel responsibly and within regulation as any travel is at your own risk.
If you do decide to travel at this time, here are a few recommendations:
- Wear a face mask.
- Bring hand sanitizer and wash your hands on a regular basis.
- Check official websites before your trip for the latest updates on policies, closures and status of local businesses and Yosemite Travel alerts.
- Book a hotel with free cancellation in case you need to change your plans at the last minute.
Alexa Meisler is the editorial director of 52 Perfect Days. Born in Paris, France she has since lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. She currently resides in San Diego with her husband and son where they enjoy exploring California and Mexico.
Travel has always been a part of her life; traveling to such places as Morocco, Tangiers and Spain as a young child as well as taking many road trips to Mexico with her grandparents as a young girl. Since then, she has traveled abroad to locations such as Russia, Taiwan and throughout Europe.
Prior to working at 52 Perfect Days she was a freelance travel writer; focusing on family and women’s adventure experiences.