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Yosemite National Park, CA

Best Attractions in Yosemite National ParkIn a national park with dozens of points of interest, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”

While Yosemite Valley and the resort town of Wawona are all-year destinations, the seasons determine what can be seen in Yosemite National Park—and when. Summer (basically June through September) offers the most accessibility and therefore has the most visitors. Weekends in particular can be very crowded, especially in the valley, so take advantage of shuttle transportation and bus tours for sightseeing excursions. In fall (October and November) many areas are still open, days are still mild and the crowds have thinned out somewhat.

Yosemite is quietest December through March. While the wintry weather curtails a number of summertime outdoor activities, the park has a frozen beauty as well as an appealing lack of visitors. Popular drives like the Glacier Point and Tioga Pass roads are closed, while skiers head to Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area. Spring (April and May) is prime time for waterfall watching; as winter snows begin to melt every creek rushes with water, and small waterfalls and cascades pop up in delightfully unexpected places.

The park has five entrances. The south entrance is via SR 41 from Fresno; Wawona Road continues into Yosemite Valley. The Arch Rock entrance is from the west via SR 140; El Portal Road continues into Yosemite Valley. The Big Oak Flat entrance also is from the west via SR 120; Big Oak Flat Road continues into Yosemite Valley. The access road to the Hetch Hetchy Valley branches off SR 120 just west of this entrance. From the east, the Tioga Pass entrance is via US 395 and SR 120 from Lee Vining; Tioga Pass Road traverses the backcountry north of Yosemite Valley.

Note: Tire chains are often required when driving on park roads from October through April, and you must carry and use them when conditions warrant, regardless of the type of vehicle. Check with the park regarding road conditions and anticipated weather if planning your visit outside of the summer season.

Most visitors spend all of their time in Yosemite Valley , and while we would argue that some of the park's most magical places are elsewhere, the valley does have its share of awesome sights, plus loads of tours and fun things to do to take advantage of. The park headquarters and many of its facilities—overnight accommodations, restaurants, a couple of museums, stables, a medical clinic, a chapel—are concentrated in Yosemite Village.

At Yosemite Valley Visitor Center and Wilderness Center next to park headquarters you can sign up for organized tours or ranger-led activities and learn about Yosemite's geologic and human history. High-country hikers and campers can obtain those all-important trail maps, as well as camping permits and other information.

A guided tour lets you see the sights without the hassle of driving. Sightseeing excursions hit the park's high points, including Glacier Point, Mariposa Grove and Tuolumne Meadows. The 2-hour Valley Floor Tour, departing from the Yosemite Valley Lodge , is a good first-time introduction to Yosemite landmarks. It's also fun to take an evening tour under a full moon, when the canyon walls hemming in the valley are eerily illuminated. (Bring a jacket; nights can be nippy even in summer.)

Backpackers and day hikers can use the tour buses to get to specific trailheads (but purchase tickets in advance to guarantee seating). Once inside the park, reservations for tours and ranger-led activities can be made at the Half Dome Village tour kiosk or the tour desks at Yosemite Lodge and the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. For general information phone (209) 372-1240.

Major roads in Yosemite Valley are one way and also clogged with traffic in summer, so getting around aboard the free Yosemite Valley shuttle bus is a good idea. The route includes 21 stops; buses arrive at approximate 10-minute intervals. Bus transportation also is available to Yosemite Valley Ski & Snowboard Area (normally mid-December through mid-March) and to points within Tuolumne Meadows (mid-June through early September).

In a park famous for waterfalls, Yosemite Falls stands head and shoulders, so to speak, above the rest of the pack. The upper fall alone plunges some 1,430 feet, and the sight is awesome indeed by May or June, when the waters are at their furious peak. Many visitors walk to the base of the lower fall, where there is an accessible viewing area. In between these two falls is a succession of smaller plunges often referred to as “the cascades.” Even though the middle fall drops some 675 feet, it is not easily seen from most valley viewpoints.

One of the most intriguing things to see at Yosemite Falls is the huge pile of ice that forms from a winter-long accumulation of frozen spray at the base of the upper fall. Shaped like an upside-down ice cream cone, it can reach the height of a 25-story building.

Glacier-sculpted granite formations abound in this U-shaped valley, itself gouged over time by the movement of masses of ice. The two most famous are Half Dome and El Capitan. Half Dome is a monolith that looks exactly like what its name implies—a dome cleaved in two—that soars to an improbable height of 8,842 feet, some 5,000 feet above the valley floor. The sheer face of El Capitan, or “El Cap,” is not only an incredible sight but an irresistible challenge for climbers the world over seeking adventurous things to do. There are more than 75 different ways to get to the top of this monumental rock, but the vast majority of visitors are inclined to photograph rather than scale it.

It takes a pretty grand hotel to compete with the valley's grandeur, but The Ahwahnee fills the bill. “Comfortably luxurious” basically describes the ambience at this stone-and-timber lodge, which has one of the most impressive backdrops of any hotel in the country. The main dining room, with its lofty beamed ceiling, huge windows, warm woods and candlelit chandeliers, provides an elegant setting for a special occasion. The big fireplaces and comfy armchairs in the public sitting areas are perfect for snuggling up with a good book on a blustery day.

Ansel Adams is celebrated for his depictions of the West's rugged beauty, and many of his visionary photographs captured the Yosemite Valley. Adams first visited Yosemite in 1916 at the age of 14, taking pictures with a Box Brownie camera given to him by his parents. The prints and other gifts at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village (next to the visitor center) make lovely souvenirs. Works by contemporary photographers and artists are on display as well.

A good place to take kids is the Happy Isles Nature Center, a short walk from Yosemite Valley shuttle bus stop #16. It has interactive natural history exhibits focusing on wildlife and the park's different environments. Nearby are a couple of easy walking trails. It's open late May through September.

Of course Yosemite is much more than its namesake valley, although the far-flung areas are harder to reach. A couple of attractions are en route if you access the park from Fresno via SR 41 (a AAA Scenic Byway beginning north of Oakhurst). Just south of Fish Camp, board the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad for a scenic trip through the Sierra National Forest. During the first 3 decades of the 20th century the locomotives that now carry passengers hauled massive loads of logs over miles of narrow-gauge track operated by the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Co.

Put the Mariposa Grove, also in the southern part of the park, near the top of your must-see list. Neither the oldest living thing (that would be the bristlecone pine) nor the tallest (the related coast redwood soars higher), Sequoiadendron giganteum is considered the world's largest tree based on total volume. The tallest giant sequoia in this grove stands at about 290 feet, and the oldest specimens may have sprouted more than 3,000 years ago.

Notable trees include the Fallen Monarch (on the right at the beginning of the grove's main trail), which biologists estimate toppled more than 500 years ago; the Grizzly Giant, one of Mariposa's biggest and oldest sequoias; and the Faithful Couple, two large trees that have fused together at the base but otherwise grow separately.

The Pioneer Yosemite History Center in Wawona offers a look at what early Yosemite life was like. The jail, blacksmith shop, barns and other buildings were relocated to the center from various sites in the park. Wawona was the largest stop in the Yosemite region during the late 19th-century days of stagecoach travel, and barns and corrals—used for harnessing and repairing coaches and shoeing horses—were a common sight back then.

Glacier Point just might be the most spectacular vantage point in the continental United States. It can be reached via 16-mile Glacier Point Road. Branching east off SR 41 at Chinquapin, the road climbs quickly to Yosemite Valley Ski & Snowboard Area and then continues to Washburn Point, where the view east across Illilouette Gorge to the Merced River Canyon—with Vernal and Nevada falls tumbling over what seem like giant steps—is nothing short of awesome.

About a mile farther north the road ends at Glacier Point, at an elevation of 7,214 feet. Hike the short trail to the point and take in the mesmerizing views of the Yosemite Valley below. One guardrail and a stone wall at the edge of a precipice are the only things holding you back from a free fall of more than 3,000 feet. The valley's forests and meadows are a checkerboard of green shades, nestled between canyon walls soaring a couple of thousand feet skyward. El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite, Nevada and Vernal falls are all absolutely stunning from this lofty perspective.

Note: Glacier Point Road is open seasonally from late May until the end of October, weather permitting. During the busy summer season it's more convenient to take this trip by bus rather than drive your own vehicle. But take our advice: If you're afraid of heights, the vertigo-inducing views may well be too unnerving.

Relatively few travelers head to Yosemite from the east (via US 395 and SR 120, both AAA Scenic Byways), which automatically makes it a nice alternative to the busier approaches. The town of Lee Vining is the eastern gateway to Yosemite. It overlooks Mono Lake, a salty, cobalt-blue body of water known for the stark white salt flats and tufa deposits (curious-looking pillars of calcium carbonate) that rim its southwestern shoreline. The lake's water level has dropped nearly 45 feet since 1941, exposing these previously submerged formations. Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve protects the lake and its natural features.

Just south of Lee Vining, SR 120 branches west toward the towering east flank of the Sierra Nevada. Also known as the Tioga Pass Road, it crosses the park's remote central uplands. Starting out on this journey you can look back and still see Mono Lake, but tall granite peaks soon block the view; the route gains 3,000 feet in elevation in a little over 10 miles. You'll want to stop at every roadside pullout and take in the monumental vistas, and when you do note the distinct chill in the air. In the vicinity of glacier-carved Ellery Lake the mountains on the horizon are in the 12,000-foot-plus range.

Note: The park entrance station is at Tioga Pass—elevation 9,941 feet. Tioga Pass Road is normally open from late May to the end of October. Tire chains should be carried, as weather conditions can change quickly even when the road is open.

Seven miles west of Tioga Pass is Tuolumne Meadows, one of Yosemite's loveliest spots. The largest sub-alpine meadow complex in the Sierras is surrounded by granite domes and peaks, all carved by glaciers. The rolling countryside (dotted with wildflowers in early summer) and jewel-like lakes are the perfect backdrop for a picnic or a day hike, but you'll need to acclimate to the high altitude. Many hiking trails into the high country begin at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, open from Memorial Day through late October.

A few miles west of Tuolumne Meadows is exceptionally scenic Tenaya Lake, named for an Ahwahneechee Indian chief; the pursuit of the Ahwahneechee by a United States Army battalion inadvertently led to the discovery of the Yosemite Valley in 1851. The granite rock formations rising from the eastern shore bear the distinctive shiny surface of a type of glacial erosion known as polishing. The lake's sandy beach is a delightful picnic spot.

Continuing west, Tioga Pass Road passes Olmsted Point. You can pull off here and take a short stroll to a sublime viewing area that overlooks Tenaya Canyon, with the profile of Half Dome in the distance. Looking down on Yosemite Valley from the east, as you do here, provides quite a different perspective than the view from Glacier Point.

The area to the north of Tioga Pass Road is The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, a smaller-scale version of Yosemite Valley that once rivaled it in scenic spectacle. The Tuolumne River was dammed in the early 20th century, creating the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to supply San Francisco with a source of water. The project was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson after years of national debate; it flooded some 300 feet of the lower canyon and was a bitter defeat to John Muir and other conservationists who opposed the measure.

As Tioga Pass Road continues west it winds through forests of sugar pine, mountain hemlock and fir, with maples, oaks, Pacific dogwoods and other deciduous trees taking over as the elevation drops. At the town of Crane Flat is the junction with Big Oak Flat Road, where a 1-mile hiking trail leads downhill to Tuolumne Grove, one of three giant sequoia groves in Yosemite. This one has a half-mile nature trail that winds among the 25 or so trees. Keep in mind that it's an uphill trek back to Crane Flat.

See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.

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Yosemite National Park, CA

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