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Yosemite Hiking Tips

Yosemite Hiking Tips

In This Guide
  • Planning Your Hikes in Yosemite NP
  • Dangers & What to Watch Out For
  • How To Navigate Yosemite Trails
  • Suggested Hiking Itineraries

Most people only experience Yosemite National Park from their car, but the majority of Yosemite is backcountry, which is best explored by hiking. There are hikes for all levels, and these Yosemite hiking tips will help you pick the perfect one and have a great time experiencing it. It’s time to leave the car and crowds behind and enjoy Yosemite the way it was meant to be.

Yosemite is pronounced  YO-SEM-IT-TEE, not YO-SEM-IGHT.

Yosemite Hiking Tips Video

Planning Hikes in Yosemite

It’s important to understand the geography of Yosemite National Park before you start picking hikes to do. For example, if you wanted to hike the Mariposa Grove them Clouds Rest, and then stay in the Yosemite Valley, you’ll probably be in the car for about 5 hours. Plan your hikes wisely to minimize driving and maximize outdoor time.

I recommend picking one area per day. Arrive early (like sunrise) to beat the traffic. Do your longest hike first and then add some optional shorter hikes or roadside attractions after that. If you are staying in the Yosemite Valley and want to hike there, you can use the shuttle bus (more later).

Main Areas in Yosemite

It helps to divide Yosemite up into three main areas: Wawona in the south, Yosemite Valley in the center, and Tioga Road to the north. Now there are other areas of the park and you can sub-divide these areas, but for planning your trip as a beginner or intermediate hiker, these are good chunks to start with.

Here are the areas on a map.

Click To View Map

Area Color Known For Signature Hike
Yosemite ValleyRedClassic Yosemite experience and viewsHalf Dome
WawonaYellowLush forest with giant sequoia trees and great views from Glacier RoadMariposa Grove
Tioga Road BlueAlpine terrain with snow-capped peaks and alpine lakesClouds Rest

Traveling Between Areas

Traffic In Yosemite
Driving in Yosemite can feel more like midtown Manhattan if you don’t time it right.

Driving around Yosemite is never quick, even if you have the road to yourself. Most roads are twisty, have a lower speed limit, and are jam-packed with scenery. So just accept it and plan accordingly. Two main culprits make things worse: traffic and slow drivers.

You can read about most road work on the Yosemite road work and Yosemite alerts webpages. Usually road work means that a lane is shut down and you will have to wait for traffic to pass in the other direction.  And when there is snow, main roads like Tioga and Glacier can be closed completely.

Most of the time you will be stuck behind other tourists just driving slow and soaking in the scenery. For a majority of people, Yosemite is an experience that revolves around driving and roadside attractions. If you’re stuck behind a slow driver, be patient. Most slow drivers get the message when they see a line of cars behind them and then pull over. It’s just all part of the deal.

Here’s the rough travel times between sections.

Yosemite Driving Tips

Snowy Roads In Yosemite
Check the weather and alerts page before you go. It can be hot in Fresno, while Glacier Point and Tioga Roads can be getting clobbered with snow.

Want to really get off the beaten path and escape the crowds? Check out the day hikes in the Hetch Hetchy area, in the northwest corner of the park.

Yosemite Valley Shuttle Bus

Yosemite Shuttle Bus
If you are in the Yosemite Valley, the free shuttle bus is your friend. It even has it’s own bus lane to beat the traffic.

If you are staying in the Yosemite Valley, the free loop shuttle bus is a great asset. It basically does a continuous loop around the Valley, stopping at some major trailheads. With the shuttle you can hit the Mist Trail, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake, and many others. There are also other shuttle busses in the park. The only downside of the shuttle is its limited hours, but it should be able to get you to a trailhead early enough to beat most crowds.

Yosemite Shuttle Map
If you’re not staying in the Yosemite Valley, you can still use the free shuttle to take you from the bigger parking lots to the trailheads.

Picking a Place to Stay

Wawona Hotel
Accommodation varies from camping, to historic hotels, to luxury lodges within the parks. There are also options such as chain hotels outside of the park, but the drive in and out can be a drag.

I’m not going to talk about all the hotels here; you can check out the reviews on other sites. What I will do is give you some general recommendations for staying somewhere convenient for hiking.

Yosemite Weather

Yosemite Seasons
Yosemite gets a wide variation of weather and you should plan accordingly for hiking.

To start, Yosemite has seasons. In the summer it can be 100F (not very nice) and in the winter it can be well below freezing. And then there’s also the different sections of the park, which sit at different elevations and can also feature micro-climates because of their location. Finally, add the fact that you are in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and you can have quickly changing conditions. So always check the forecast of the area that you  are hiking in before heading out.

In general, here’s the hiking lowdown for reach season.

SeasonTempsConditions Gear
Winter20 to 60FCold and wet with many roads and trails closed – open trails can have ice and snow microspikes – trekking poles – winter hiking gear
Spring32 to 75FMelting snowpack – raging streams – some trails and roads still closed – wildflowers hiking footwear for muddy conditions – microspikes – trekking poles –  outerwear for changing conditions 
Summer40 to 100Fideal conditions but crowded – can get very hot at lower elevations – low-to-no rain in most sections – occasional afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains summer hiking gear – rain shell – hydration pack
Fall 45 to 85Fideal conditions – streams drying up – can be early snowstorms closing roads and trails hydration backpack – clothes for changing conditions

In the winter it’s not uncommon for Wawona and the Yosemite Valley to be open with pleasant temperatures, while Tioga Road is closed and covered in snow.

Wildfires

Yosemite Wiildfire
Wildfires, even if not very close, can cover Yosemite in smoke and haze. Photo Yosemite NP Twitter

There’s not much you can do about wildfires and the conditions they cause, but I mention it because it’s worth checking out before you go. More and more wildfires are a part of California’s summer and fall seasons. If there are wildfires and haze, it’s not going to be fun hiking and could also be bad for your health. If you’ve traveled a long way to visit Yosemite and the conditions are like this, you might want to consider accepting a loss on your accommodation costs and heading somewhere else like the Central Coast of CA, Oregon, or Utah.

Some good resources are:

Hiking In Yosemite

Yosemite Trail Sign
Thousands of people hike on Yosemite’s trails every year; they are well-maintained and well marked. Here’s an example of the iconic “knock-out” metal trail signs that you will see.

I highly recommend watching the Ken Burns National Parks documentary before you arrive. Yosemite plays a big part in the series and having an understanding of the history of the area makes the experience much richer.

Gear Recommendations

Yosemite Gear Store
There’s a gear store in the Yosemite Valley, but the selection is limited. You are much better off buying hiking gear from REI or another gear shop before you get to Yosemite. Even if you have to stop at a Walmart or Target on your way in, you’ll save money.

Try your gear out on hikes near home before using it at Yosemite. The trailhead is not the place to figure out how something works or deal with something that doesn’t fit correctly.

An Easy Way to Say Thank You For This Guide

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Yosemite Hiking Itineraries

1 Day

2 Days

3 Days

Hikes Away From Crowds

Easy Hikes for Beginners

Trying to get a Half Dome permit without any luck?  Try North Dome or Clouds Rest instead.

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