Yosemite Valley

Millions flock to Yosemite Valley for Natural Treasures and Wholesome Fun


Yosemite Valley floor

Most people, when they think of Yosemite National Park, are really thinking of Yosemite Valley, a concentration of dazzling natural features that makes up just 1 percent of the park but attracts 95 percent of Yosemite visitors.

Yosemite Valley in a Nutshell

Yosemite Valley is a 7 mile-long, half mile-deep depression carved by glaciers during the last ice age. Nature’s handiwork is evident in 3,000-foot-high granite domes, “celebrity” waterfalls, pristine forests, meadows, lakes, and rivers, and abundant wildlife. Since its designation as a national park in 1880 — due in a large part to the efforts of naturalist John Muir — Yosemite, and particularly Yosemite Valley, has grown in popularity to the tune of 4.1 million visitors a year.

What’s Here (and What Isn’t)

Rushing along the Yosemite Valley floor is the Merced River, flanked by two scenic drives providing easy access to many lookout points, picnic areas, and hiking and horseback riding trails. As far as basic needs and creature comforts go, Yosemite Valley is the one area in the entire park where you can camp, lodge, dine, shop, swim in a pool, ice skate, browse at a museum or nature center, mail a postcard, and see a doctor or dentist. The one thing you can’t do here is fill up your car; Yosemite Valley doesn’t have a gas station. The closest ones are in El Portal (11 miles), Crane Flat (14 miles) and Wawona (22 miles).

Getting around Yosemite Valley

On the subject of cars, traffic in Yosemite Valley might be considered its one drawback. During high tourist season in the summer, bumper-to-bumper jams are the norm. Luckily, there’s relief from traffic in the form of the Yosemite Valley shuttle system, a free service that provides convenient access to several points around Yosemite Valley, including stops at or near all overnight accommodations, stores, and major vistas. The shuttle operates year-round from 7 a.m.-10 p.m.

If you’d rather not ride the bus, hop on a bike! Bicycling is a wonderful way to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short period of time, and Yosemite Valley has the most extensive network of bike paths anywhere in the park. If you don’t have your own bike, you can rent one at Curry Village.

When to Visit

Unlike many of Yosemite National Park’s higher-elevation areas that are impassable during the cold-weather months, Yosemite Valley is open all year long, so any time is a good time to visit. We prefer the winter, when it’s much less crowded. Abundant wildlife and beautiful snow-brushed landscapes conspire to create a winter wonderland. In addition, there’s ice skating at Curry Village in the shadows of Half Dome and Glacier Point. It’s been a tradition since the 1930s.

What to See

Waterfalls, waterfalls, waterfalls! Here’s the “star” lineup of some of the most famous waterfalls in the world. Some are plainly visible from the Yosemite Valley floor, others are tucked away.


Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls (Upper 1,430 feet, Middle 675 feet, Lower 320 feet)
It’s one of the tallest in North America and the fifth highest in the world with a total drop of 2,425 feet.

Bridalveil Fall (620 feet)
This fall gets its name from the wind, which often blows the water sideways in a manner that resembles a bride’s veil.

Ribbon Fall (1,612 feet)
The tallest single fall in North America flows off a cliff on the west side of El Capitan.

Illilouette Fall (370 feet)
You can see this fall from below on the John Muir Trail. From Washburn Point, just before you reach Glacier Point, you can get a stunning view of its brink and stony gorge.

Vernal Fall (317 feet) and Nevada Fall (594 feet)
Hikers along the Mist Trail can cool off with a refreshing, rainbow-studded shower on hot spring days.

Horsetail Fall (1,000 feet)
The time to see this waterfall at its best is in late February, when the water is backlit by the sun. This creates an optical illusion in which the falls appears to be on fire as it flows down the eastern cliffs of El Capitan.

What else to See

Yosemite’s mountains and rock formations rival those of any other beautiful place in the world. Some standouts include …


Half Dome

Half Dome
One of the most recognized natural features in Yosemite, Half Dome rises nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level. Its western face is a sheer cliff of granite that challenges intrepid hikers to scale it. But this hike is not for the faint of heart. It’s a 12- to 14-mile round-trip with an elevation climb of 4,800 feet. Part of the trip involves cables, the navigation of which requires extreme care. But most agree that the reward is worth it; you get knockout views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, the Valley, and the high country.

Sentinel Rock
Is it a rock or is it a watchtower? You’ll see the likeness if you look toward the south end of the valley midway between El Capitan and Half Dome. Get the best views from the road near Lower Yosemite Fall or by walking the wheelchair-accessible Cook’s Meadow trails.


El Capitan

El Capitan
Like Half Dome, a climber’s nemesis or paradise, depending on whom you’re talking to. Rising 3,000 feet above the valley floor opposite Bridalveil Fall, “El Cap” is the largest monolith of granite in the world. It’s best seen from roads in western Yosemite Valley, including Tunnel View, the Bridalveil Fall area, and El Capitan Meadow.

Glacier Point
Its claim to fame is the views you get from it, not necessarily the view of it – although they’re pretty spectacular, too. You can see Glacier Point while driving to The Ahwahnee Hotel or from Curry Village.

Make this your First Stop

The Yosemite Valley Visitor Center is a must for anyone wanting to orient themselves to the treasures of Yosemite. There’s a great relief map of the entire park that you can use to plot your itinerary, as well as info about roads, park trails, and camp sites. In addition, you’ll find a gift shop/book store and a building out back that plays the free film, “The Spirit of Yosemite” Take some time to poke around the adjacent Ahwahnee Indian Village, and be sure to strike up a conversation with the Visitor Center staff – they’re a goldmine of information.

Where to Stay

Depending on your threshold for luxury, Yosemite Valley has several overnight options ranging from the $400-plus-per-night Ahwahnee Hotel to cabins and tent cabins at Curry Village to the half-tent, half-cabin hybrids at Housekeeping Camp. Reserve early, especially if you plan to stay during the summer. Another good bet: El Portal, located just outside the park, has two motels worth checking out.

Where to Camp

Camping is a popular way to spend several nights in Yosemite Valley. The Upper Pines, Lower Pines, and North Pines campgrounds can be found at the eastern end of the valley near Curry Village and several well-known trailheads. Campground #4 is located on the north side of the valley where the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail begins. It has 35 walk-in first-come, first-served campsites. but can’t accommodate RVs. As with any Yosemite accommodations, early reservations are a must for all campsites.

Where to Nosh

Yosemite Valley has several spots where you can grab a meal or a snack. In Yosemite Village, you’ll find the Village Store, your one-stop grocery store in the valley that goes way beyond the basics to include things like organic teas and coconut water. Grab a burger at the walk-up Village Grill or pizza and sandwiches at Degnan’s. The other food “hot spot” is Curry Village, which has the Mountain Shop where you can buy groceries, a tacqueria, and a pizza parlor.

Where to get Educated

The Happy Isles Nature Center in the Curry Village Loop is a family-oriented center where you can learn about nature and wildlife through static and interactive displays. (We have the cutest picture taken at the Nature Center of our toddler son Jordan and “Nana” holding deer antlers to their heads.) Nearby are short trails focusing on the area’s four different environments: forest, river, talus, and fen. You can also see the aftermath of the huge 1996 rock fall from the Glacier Point Cliff far above the nature center.

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