18 Amazing Things To Do In Yosemite For First Time Visitors

things to do yosemite national park

I’ve been to Yosemite National Park multiple times over different seasons and it’s a magical place to visit, no matter the time of the year. There is always something new to explore every time I return.

In this post, you’ll find a list of incredible sights to see and things to do in Yosemite for first-time visitors. This includes quick day hikes, picnic areas, viewpoints, and easy to access photography locations.


18 best things to see and do in Yosemite National Park:


Tunnel View

Tunnel View is one of the most popular Yosemite attractions and the first stop after you enter the park through a tunnel.

Tunnel View is located high on a mountain and overlooks the open valley. From this viewpoint, you can see most of Yosemite’s landmarks and famous rock formation such as El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Falls.   

Tunnel View at sunrise

Yosemite was once covered underneath a glacier ice field, but as it receded a large U-shaped valley and granite cliffs formed around it. What we now see as Yosemite Valley is the work of natural forces over millions of years.

Tip: You can’t sleep at Tunnel View but you can drive up there for sunrise.

Location: Yosemite National Park, Wawona Rd, California 95389

Yosemite Village

If it’s your first-time visiting Yosemite National Park, you should start at the Yosemite Village where you will find everything you need including the Visitor Center and Wilderness Center.

The Visitor Center has information on what to do around Yosemite including trail maps and in-person information booths during the busy seasons. Wilderness Center is where you would go to get walk-in backpacking permits or to rent bear canisters.

Yosemite Village

At Yosemite Village, you’ll also find the Village Store that sells souvenirs and food, a coffee shop, public restrooms, a post office, a museum, and other main buildings.   

My favorite location in Yosemite Village is Degnan’s Kitchen that was established in 1981.

Degnan’s Kitchen

I look forward to stopping by this café in the mornings for a freshly baked croissant and coffee before hitting the trails. They also have an adjacent room with a cozy fireplace and charming modern ambiance for hanging out.

Visitor Center Location: 9035 Village Dr, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389

Ansel Adams Gallery

Two of the most popular names that have originated in Yosemite are John Muir and Ansel Adams. While John Muir is recognized for his writing and descriptions of Yosemite, Ansel Adams is known for his stunning photography.

Visitors can enjoy seeing his best work of Yosemite at the Ansel Adams Gallery located in the heart of Yosemite Village.

Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village

The Ansel Adams family photography business goes back as far as 1902. The gallery was started by a couple whose daughter married an aspiring photographer – Ansel Adams. The gallery still operates in Yosemite Valley every day of the week.

Hours: 10 am – 3 pm

Location: Yosemite National Park, 9031 Village Dr, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389

Lower Yosemite Falls

Yosemite National Park offers trails for any type of outdoor enthusiast – from short day hikes to long multi-day backpacking trips.

If it’s your first-time visiting Yosemite National Park, there are a few great day hikes to choose from that will take you to jaw-dropping views for very little work.

One of the best hikes to do in Yosemite is the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. This is an easy 1-mile long loop that takes you to multiple vista points of the stunning Yosemite Waterfall.

Lower Yosemite Falls Trail

You can see the scale of the waterfall peeking through the trees as you start the hike. The trail continues along a wide pathway that leads up close to the waterfall base and then loops around back to the starting point.

Yosemite Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the United States so you don’t want to miss this one!

The best time to hike Lower Yosemite Falls Trail is in spring or early summer when the waterfall is in full force from fresh snowmelt. Seeing Yosemite Falls rush down the cliff in spring is quite the sight!

Yosemite Falls in the spring season

Yosemite Falls is a seasonal waterfall so usually by late summer it’s down to a few trickles. I’ve been to Yosemite in October when it’s completely dry and the only remains of the waterfall are the shadows cast into the rock in its place.  

Trail Highlights:

Upper Yosemite Falls

If you’re looking for a challenging day hike, you can also hike to the top of Yosemite Falls where the waterfall plunges down the cliff.

The trail to Upper Yosemite Falls is 3.6 miles long, each way, and gains over 2700 feet in elevation. It’s not an easy trail to do, but it is a popular one especially in the summer.

The Upper Yosemite Falls trail follows an old river path carved along the slope of the mountain until it reaches the top.

We hiked the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail as part of our Eagle Peak backpacking trip and calling it difficult would be an understatement. My husband’s legs started cramping up halfway through and we somehow managed to (basically) crawl to the top.

Upper Yosemite Falls Trail

There is a great viewpoint along the way called Columbia Rock that offers sweeping panoramic views of the park. Many people just hike to the Columbia Rock vista point and then turn around.

Hiking the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail is an all-day adventure so if you plan to attempt it, make sure to bring along plenty of water and snacks.

Cook’s Meadow Loop

One of our favorite trails at Yosemite National Park is the Cook’s Meadow Loop. This is a picturesque hike that features lush meadows, scenic walkways, and towering granite domes.

Cook’s Meadow Loop is a 2-mile-long trail that goes through some of the best parts of the park.

If you have the time, you can hike the entire trail, or just do a portion of it.

Cook’s Meadow Loop

The first section of the trail goes through Cook’s Meadow, a grass field at the center of Yosemite Valley that is an essential part of the park’s ecosystem. The second part of the trail loops around Lower Yosemite Falls and its vista points.

Cook’s Meadow Trail is flat and is an especially great hike to do with kids. There are plenty of places to park along Cook’s Meadow and it can also be accessed from the Yosemite Valley Visitors Center within a short walk.  

The grass field that is considered Cook’s Meadow was once the location of Old Yosemite Village. While now it mostly consists of grass, trees, and shrubs, back in the eighteen hundreds this meadow was full of cottages, hotels, saloons, farm animals, and other amenities for Yosemite travelers.

Eventually, these buildings and farms were relocated. The meadow still keeps its original name in honor of a local businessman J.J. Cook who owned a hotel and a farm in the early days of Yosemite.

Along this trail, you will find lots of great information about Yosemite National Park history, how this meadow was once almost destroyed, and the restoration projects over the years to bring it back to its original state.

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake is another popular day hike that starts in Yosemite Valley. This 3-mile round trip hike leads to Mirror Lake, a pond that earned its name for the perfect reflections in the water. From this trail, you can also see Half Dome up close from its base.

Mirror Lake trail starts on the far east part of Yosemite Valley, just past the Pines campgrounds.

This trail goes along the Tenaya Creek and you can do the hike from either side of the river. The trail on the left of the creek is wide and paved while the trail on the right is narrow and rugged. You can also hike it as a loop – taking one way up and the other way down.

Mirror Lake in October

I do want to note that if you hike Mirror Lake Trail in late summer or fall, expect the lake to be completely dry and empty. Instead of being greeted with glassy reflections, you will arrive to see dry white sand beaches.  

Technically Mirror Lake is just a shallow pond that disappears in the summer/fall months. This mini-lake formed a few hundred years ago after a rockfall dumped boulders into the creek creating a natural dam that stops the water flow.

Mirror Lake has been admired for its reflections even by early park visitors but it has also been used for practical reasons. In the 1800s and 1900s, Mirror Lake ice was cut out in the winter months and used to store food for park visitors. Its sand was also dug up and used to cover roads as visitor traffic started to increase. 

Sentinel Beach Picnic Area

Sentinel Beach Picnic Area is one of the top places to visit in Yosemite for photography.

Sentinel Beach

The picnic area itself has large tables and BBQ grills, but if you keep walking down towards the river, you will come across incredible views of Merced River and Yosemite Valley.

I love to come here in the mornings before Yosemite Valley gets busy with tourists to capture sunrise photography. You might even spot deer crossing the river or a cub roaming through the meadow – both that I’ve witnessed during the quiet morning hours.

View of the Swinging Bridge

The beach itself has white sand that looks almost like snow against the dark evergreen trees. If you walk along the river you will eventually come across the Swinging Bridge – another picturesque location in Yosemite.

Location: Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, Yosemite National Park, Wawona, CA 95389

Sentinel Bridge

Yosemite has a few historic bridges but no bridge in Yosemite comes even close in its popularity as the Sentinel Bridge.

The Sentinel Bridge is one of the most iconic photography locations in all of Yosemite especially for capturing Half Dome at sunset. This is a classic spot, depicted in photos and postcards since 1940 as a symbol of Yosemite.

View from Sentinel Bridge at sunset

I remember driving through Yosemite on my first visit and seeing this bridge packed full with landscape photographers. Now I’m one of them – and I still get excited every time I come to this location for sunset!

Sentinel Bridge is a sought-after location because it offers one of the best views of Half Dome in the Valley met by its perfect reflection in the still river water.

Location: Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389

Yosemite Valley Chapel

It’s not every day that you come across a chapel at the center of a National Park. We recommend making a quick stop by this historic church as you drive through the park.

Yosemite Valley Chapel

Yosemite Valley Chapel is the only original building left from the Old Yosemite Village.

This chapel was built in 1879 and is still an operating church with Sunday Service and wedding events. All other buildings from Old Yosemite Village have been removed or relocated for the restoration of the natural landscape.

With granite peaks and Yosemite Falls as its backdrop, this is also a great location for photography. You can walk around the chapel on side trails for different dramatic perspectives of the Valley behind it.

Location: 9000 Southside Dr, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389

The Ahwahnee Hotel

The Ahwahnee Hotel is a wonderful Yosemite stop that often gets skipped on visits. The Ahwahnee is located in the east part of the park and is a luxury hotel with top-rated rooms and dining.

If you’re not staying at the hotel, you can still visit it, walk around the gardens and enjoy lunch at their restaurant.

The Ahwahnee Hotel

The Ahwahnee Hotel is recognized as a National Historic Landmark. Over the years it has been visited by presidents, movie stars, and celebrities.

It was built in 1927 and cost over 1.5 million with the hope to attract wealthy park patrons and donors. With rooms starting at $500 per night the Ahwahnee Hotel is a world-class resort and an architectural marvel.

Location: Yosemite National Park, 1 Ahwahnee Drive, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389

Cathedral Beach Picnic Area

From all the lunch stops at Yosemite, the Cathedral Beach Picnic Area is one of the most scenic ones. At this location, you can set up a picnic and BBQ or enjoy water activities in the glacier-carved Merced River that flows next to it.

The water level by Cathedra Picnic Area is shallow so it’s a great spot to access the river and come hang out with the family and kids.

View of El Capitan from Cathedral Beach

If you walk down the river to the left, you can also catch a direct view of El Capitan – something I highly recommend to witness at sunrise when the morning light illuminates this enormous rock surface.

Location: Cathedral Beach Picnic Area, California 95389

Boardwalks

Yosemite has a few scenic boardwalks that you’ll spot in the meadows as you drive through the park. These boardwalks are great for photography, especially in spring with the Yosemite Waterfall as the backdrop.

Scenic boardwalk along the Southside Drive

Originally the park walkways were made of asphalt but in recent years they were replaced with wooden boardwalks to help with the water flow. Not only the boardwalks are very scenic, but they also help keep the park lush and green. And we’re here for it!

Bridalveil Falls

Bridalveil Falls is one of the first waterfalls that you will see upon entering Yosemite. There is a short pathway that goes up to a viewpoint of it but you can also spot this waterfall from Tunnel View or while driving through Yosemite Valley.

Unlike most Yosemite waterfalls, Bridalveil Fall is a year-round waterfall. Even in fall months, this waterfall has some water flow while all other waterfalls in Yosemite are completely dry or down to a few trickles. In spring months Bridalveil Falls is in full force so if you plan to visit it, expect to get soaked from the waterfall mist.

Location: Brideveil Falls, Yosemite Village, CA 95389

Tioga Road

If you’re spending a few days at Yosemite National Park, you may want to set aside a day to explore the back part of Yosemite along Tioga Road.

Tioga Road is the only road in this region that cuts across the Sierra Nevada mountain range and connects Yosemite with Mammoth.

Some of the most popular stops along the Tioga Road are:

  • Tuolumne Meadows
  • Olmsted Point
  • Tenaya Lake

Here you can also find a lot of great backpacking trails like the North Dome Trail.

Camping on the North Dome Trail

The North Dome Trail is one of my favorite multi-day hikes to do in Yosemite because it leads to a direct view of Half Dome from it. The best part about hiking in this region is that you’re already starting at the highest point in the mountains and the trails mostly go downwards towards the valley.

Yosemite Valley View

Every time we exit Yosemite National Park we try to stop by Yosemite Valley View. This viewpoint offers an open vista of El Capitan, Merced River, and the valley. This river section is especially scenic because it’s full of giant rocks that were left behind from ancient glaciers as they moved through the valley carrying the boulders with them.

Yosemite Valley View in November

Yosemite Valley Viewpoint only has a handful of parking spots so parking can be pretty limited. In winter this area can also flood when water flows outside of the river boundaries.

Car traffic in most of Yosemite National Park travels one way so keep an eye out for this location as you exit the park. If you miss the turn, you’ll have to drive back through the entire park to get back here.

Location: Northside Dr, Wawona, CA 95389

Glacier Point

Glacier Point is one of the highest viewpoints within Yosemite National Park sitting at 7200 feet in elevation.

Glacier Point is located about an hour outside of Yosemite Village but is well worth the drive.

Here visitors can enjoy a ¼ mile-long trail that goes along the edge of the cliffs offering panoramic views of sheer granite domes, winding rivers, and waterfalls. From here you can also take the Four Mile Trail that goes from Glacier Point to the bottom of Yosemite Valley descending 3200 feet in elevation.

View of Half Dome from Glacier Point

The road that leads to Glacier Point is very narrow and slow. It was first built in 1872 and since then over a million people a year travel up this road to visit Glacier Point.

Glacier Point is very popular because it overlooks a quarter of Yosemite National Park. At one point there was even a hotel built on top of Glacier Point but after it burned down the park decided to keep this area natural.

Before you leave Glacier Point, stop by the Geology Hut that was created to observe Yosemite and it’s always changing landscape.

Location: Glacier Point Rd, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389

Mariposa Grove

Mariposa Grove is a region in the southern part of Yosemite National Park that is home to giant sequoia trees. This area is a bit different than the rest of the park which mostly consists of granite mountains.

At Mariposa Grove, visitors can hike amongst some of the largest and oldest trees in the world. This grove was established in 1864 to protect giant sequoias from being logged.

Mariposa Grove has multiple trails that range from 0.3 to 7 miles in length.

Note: The main Mariposa Grove Road that leads to the trailhead is often closed requiring visitors to hike extra 2 miles each way from the welcome center to the trail starting point. You should plan to set aside a few hours to half a day if you plan to visit the Mariposa Grove.

The Trail Of 100 Giants is another great trail in Central California that features giant sequoia trees (and is free to visit).

Location: Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza, California 95389

Fall colors in Yosemite

We hope we have inspired you to add a few new trails and stops to your Yosemite National Park travel plans!

Looking for other great things to do around California? Check out some of our other popular California blog posts below:

  1. 5 Amazing Day Hikes At Big Basin Redwoods State Park
  2. 7 Best Beaches To Visit In Southern California
  3. 6 Incredible Day Hikes At Kings Canyon National Park
  4. Backpacking The Trans-Catalina Trail: All You Need To Know
  5. Review Of The Honey Bear Cabin: Cozy Airbnb In Big Bear

Interested in how I capture amazing photos on my trips? Here is the camera gear that I use to create my photos:

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