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Lorenzo Tlacaelel

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Yosemite National Park, CA

Yosemite National Park RecreationBiking, swimming, backpacking, fishing, hiking—whatever your interest, make sure you experience these recreational highlights, as chosen by AAA editors.

Yosemite National Park is an absolute paradise for outdoor lovers, and hiking is one of the most rewarding ways of experiencing what it has to offer. There are hiking trails galore, from easy 20-minute walks to strenuous all-day journeys, and they enable you to get up close and personal with some of the park's deservedly famous natural features. If you're interested in a particular hike or backpacking trip, stop at one of the visitor centers to pick up maps and trail guides or speak to a ranger for details.

Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall are two of the coolest waterfalls in Yosemite Valley , and fortunately hikes to each one are easy. The paved trail to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall is a half-mile round trip from the shuttle bus stop for the falls. From the parking area for Bridalveil Fall off Southside Drive (SR 41), the paved trail is another short walk with a slight uphill climb. On a breezy day watch how the wind blows Bridalveil's cascades of water across the rocks.

Another valley hike begins at the Mirror Lake trailhead (shuttle bus stop #17, less than a mile from Half Dome Village). From there it's a 5-mile round trip along an old paved trail around Mirror Lake, named for the way Half Dome and other features are reflected on its glassy surface (best seen in spring). More a pond than a lake, the water dries up to practically nothing by late summer, but it's still a nice walk with impressive views looking up at the dome.

One of the valley's most popular things to do is a hike on the Mist Trail to the top of 594-foot Nevada Falls, climbing beside the Merced River and passing shorter Vernal Fall along the way. The trailhead begins at the Happy Isles Nature Center, about half a mile south of Half Dome Village (Yosemite Valley shuttle bus stop #16). The hike to the top of Nevada Falls and back is about 7 miles.

The uphill trek is fairly strenuous as far as the Vernal Fall footbridge, where you get your first view of the falls. It's even more so from the footbridge to the top of Nevada Falls, the trail paved with a seemingly endless procession of precision-fitted stone steps. They make the journey easier, but it's still quite a taxing climb. The trail above the footbridge is closed November through April. And as the name implies, it can be slick. Watch your step and expect to get wet in spring and early summer, which is also when you'll want to do this hike because both falls are at their spectacularly rushing peak.

Hiking in Tuolumne Meadows can be a challenge due to the high altitude, but the scenery is fantastic. One all-day hike that goes easy on the elevation gain (just 200 feet over 8 miles) is along the John Muir Trail through Lyell Canyon. It begins at the Dog Lake/John Muir Trail parking area off Tioga Pass Road , near Yosemite's eastern entrance and the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. The trail meanders through Lyell Canyon, mostly following a fork of the Tuolumne River.

Two other hikes begin at this trailhead. The trek to Dog Lake is shorter (about 3 miles round trip) but steeper, leading to a high-country lake that's a scenic spot for fishing or picnicking. Even more strenuous is the hike to the top of Lembert Dome, from which there are terrific panoramic views of Tuolumne Meadows and Cathedral and Unicorn peaks. Both can be combined in one 5-mile loop, hiking first to the lake and then the dome; you'll be pooped by the end of the day, but the scenery makes the effort worth it.

Perhaps Yosemite's standout high-country hike is the trek to Cloud's Rest. The trailhead (Sunrise Lakes) is off Tioga Pass Road at the southwestern end of Tenaya Lake. This full-day adventure (14 miles round trip) starts out as a fairly flat and easy hike, but a strenuous mile of uphill switchbacks must be negotiated during the ascent to the summit. Your reward is an astounding view from the top of a granite precipice that takes in Half Dome, El Capitan and the valley below. A small lake at about the halfway point is a good spot to catch your breath both coming and going. Do not attempt this hike if you're afraid of heights or not used to exertion at high altitudes.

Note: Wilderness permits are required for trips into Yosemite's backcountry. Permits are available at the visitor and wilderness centers in Yosemite Valley, the Hetch Hetchy park entrance station on Big Oak Flat Road (SR 120) and in season at the Tuolumne Meadows Ski Hut (at the entrance to Tuolumne Meadows Campground).

One of Yosemite's most adventurous things to do is hike to the top of Half Dome . Wired cables strung along the shoulder of this gigantic granite rock assist climbers up the last 900 feet. The view from the summit is unsurpassed, but it's a grueling and intimidating experience scrambling up the side of the rock wall—albeit one eagerly welcomed by physically fit thrill seekers, who line up on summer weekends for a chance to scale the dome.

The hikes to Sentinel Dome and Taft Point are much easier while offering the same dizzying views. They begin at the Sentinel Dome/Taft Point trailhead parking area off Glacier Point Road. Hikers can scramble up Sentinel Dome's relatively gentle slope for a 360-degree view of the Yosemite Valley. Taft Point provides a similar panoramic vista, with the valley 2,000 feet below. Some of the viewpoints aren't protected by rails, so be very careful.

Acrophobes will definitely want to avoid these two and instead head to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias for great hiking without perilous dropoffs. Uphill trails into the grove begin at the far end of the parking area. From May through September take the free shuttle bus instead of driving, as the lot can fill up quickly.

Some handy hints if embarking on a long and/or challenging hike: Shuttle buses stop at many of the more remote trailheads. Most trails are well marked and easy to follow, but it's a good idea to bring along a map and/or trail guidebook. Carry plenty of water for high-elevation hikes in late summer, when much of the park is dry. Wear sturdy hiking boots with grip soles. In addition to providing stability, trekking or hiking poles help ease the wear and tear on knees, feet, legs and back, especially if you're lugging a backpack.

If you don't relish huffing and puffing in order to appreciate Yosemite's wonders, take advantage of the park's bus and shuttle excursions—and make sure you bring a camera.

flickr/Red Junasun
Our list of “best spots to take pictures” would include Tunnel View (the view from the east end of the Wawona Tunnel reveals Yosemite Valley in all its glory), Glacier Point (the valley from a totally different perspective), Tuolumne Meadows (nature and wildflowers), Sentinel Bridge (just off one-way Southside Drive) for the reflection of Half Dome in the Merced River, and Valley View (off one-way Northside Drive just before the Pohono Bridge) for the vista looking up Yosemite Valley from alongside the river. This last spot is a lovely farewell if you're leaving the park via SR 140.

Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area offers downhill as well as cross-country trails and is known for its gentle slopes and family-friendly atmosphere, making it a good place for beginners to learn the ropes. In addition to the downhill runs, you can snowboard or go snow tubing or snowshoeing. This full-service ski area offers instruction, rental equipment and free shuttle service from Yosemite Valley. It's normally open from late November through mid-April, weather permitting.

More than 12 miles of designated bike paths run through the eastern part of Yosemite Valley; cycling on the often-crowded roads and shuttle bus routes is not recommended. Bicycles can be rented at Half Dome Village or the Yosemite Valley Lodge .

The Merced River flowing through Yosemite Valley and the myriad lakes and streams of the high country provide numerous opportunities for fly-fishing; rainbow and brown trout are the primary catches. A catch-and-release policy is emphasized. Lakes and reservoirs are open to fishing year-round; the season for stream and river fishing runs from late April to mid-November. Anglers 16 years of age and older must have a valid California fishing license. Licenses and supplies can be obtained at the Yosemite Village Sport Shop, the Curry Village Mountain Shop and at the general stores in Wawona, Crane Flat and Tuolumne Meadows.

This is a great park for bird-watching. Yosemite's protected habitats are home to robins, jays, blackbirds, swifts and ravens as well as the seldom-seen Peregrine falcon, great gray owl and pileated woodpecker. Forests and meadows away from developed areas are the best places to observe, and morning is the best time.

Camping allows visitors to enjoy Yosemite's many beautiful wilderness areas. Keep in mind that most Yosemite campgrounds are not open all year; the high-country campgrounds only stay open for 2 or 3 months in the summer. Fishing, hiking, swimming and marveling at the scenery are the main activities.

Rock climbing draws hordes of enthusiasts to Yosemite. The sheer wall of El Capitan is acknowledged to be one of the world's finest—and certainly biggest—climbing surfaces. Some of the climbs to the top of this monster are challenging in the extreme, requiring expert skills, climbing aids such as ropes and cables or even a night spent on the wall. That doesn't stop the dedicated from trying, though. Late spring and early summer is the best time for rock climbing due to tranquil weather and long hours of daylight.

If this kind of adventure travel appeals to you, the Yosemite Mountaineering School conducts rock-climbing classes for every skill level from beginner through advanced. Guided day hike and overnight backpacking jaunts are available as well; phone (209) 372-1000.

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Yosemite National Park, CA

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