By Michael Lanza
Let’s say it up front: The U.S. National Park System is without equal. The natural beauty, variety, pristine character, and scale of it have no parallel in the world. And everyone should set a lifetime goal of exploring as many of our 59 national parks as possible. But the truth is, a handful of flagship parks rise above the rest—including, unquestionably, Yosemite. Created in 1890, our third national park harbors some of the most breathtaking and inspiring scenery and wild lands in the entire parks system. And you can reach some of Yosemite’s finest views on dayhikes.
Here are 10 of the very best.
May Lake and Mount Hoffmann
From the 10,850-foot summit of Mount Hoffmann (lead photo at top of story) in the geographic center of Yosemite—often described as having “the best 360-degree view in Yosemite”—you’ll look out over virtually the entire park, seeing Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Yosemite Valley, the Clark and Cathedral Ranges, and the sea of peaks sprawling across northern Yosemite. The steep scramble up the final 200 feet to the summit, where you stand at the brink of cliffs with serious exposure (although you don’t have to stand at that dizzying edge), adds excitement to this hike.
May Lake alone is a worthwhile destination, tucked into a bowl ringed by cliffs and forest, and an easy hike of 2.4 miles round-trip with 500 feet of elevation gain; it’s reached on a good trail that begins at the top of a road signed for May Lake, off Tioga Road west of Tenaya Lake. Scaling Hoffmann adds another 3.6 miles and 1,600 vertical feet round-trip (six miles and 2,100 feet total), following a steep, unofficial trail not shown on maps but marked by cairns.
See more photos and a video in my story “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite.”
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One of the most iconic and sought-after dayhikes in the entire National Park System, Half Dome is an incredibly scenic, challenging, long day that will validate every step of effort you put into it—and into getting the permit for this popular dayhike, the lottery for which begins in mid-March. A roughly 16-mile round-trip from the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, with 4,800 feet of elevation gain and loss, the hike ascends the Mist Trail past the shower constantly raining down from 317-foot Vernal Fall and past thunderous, 594-foot Nevada Fall. Climbing the cable route up several hundred feet of very steep granite slab to the summit plateau is the thrilling reason for the hike’s enormous popularity.
The 8,800-foot summit of Half Dome—where many hikers complete the experience by standing on The Visor, a granite brim jutting out over Half Dome’s 2,000-foot Northwest Face—delivers an incomparable view of Yosemite Valley, and a 360-degree panorama of a big swath of the park’s mountains. Descend via the John Muir Trail for a classic look back at Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall (and it’s easier on your knees than descending the Mist Trail). Tip: Start before first light, because it’s a very different experience if you beat the crowds to the top.
See more photos from Half Dome and a video in my stories “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” and “Ask Me: Hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome.” Find info on permits for dayhiking Half Dome at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermits.htm.
Tenaya Lake to Clouds Rest
Of all the hikes on this list, maybe one other begins with a view as soul stirring as the one you get standing on the beach at the southwest corner of Tenaya Lake, gazing across its waters—sometimes mirror-like in the calm of early morning—at a turbulent sea of granite domes and cliffs. This 14-mile, round-trip hike is one of the least busy on this list, partly for the distance, no doubt, but also because Clouds Rest just isn’t as well known as Half Dome—even though its 9,926-foot summit offers an even bigger and more dramatic view than its more famous sibling to the southwest. But it’s not as strenuous as the distance suggests, with just under 1,800 feet of elevation gain and loss.
This ascent culminates in 300 yards of the most gripping hiking you may ever do on a maintained trail, traversing the sidewalk-width summit ridge, with a drop-off of several hundred feet on the left and a cliff on the right that falls away a dizzying 4,000 feet—that’s a thousand feet taller than the face of El Capitan. And you get to walk it a second time on the descent. Start early to get off the summit by midday, to avoid possible thunderstorms.
Bonus: For a really big and spectacular day, link up Clouds Rest and Half Dome on a 21-mile traverse from Tenaya Lake to Yosemite Valley.
See more photos from Clouds Rest and a video in my story “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows.”
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Glacier Point to Happy Isles
This is the one hike on this list whose first steps arguably deliver a finer view even than the one across Tenaya Lake—but that’s thanks to the fact that you drive (or take a shuttle bus) up to Glacier Point at 7,200 feet (which conveniently eliminates the need for a vehicle shuttle if you’re staying in Yosemite Valley). The flat, easy, 20-minute, out-and-back walk to Glacier Point rewards you with some of the best views of Yosemite Valley, taking in a sweep from Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls to a gorgeous vista looking up Tenaya Canyon at Half Dome, North Dome, and several other peaks.
Then backtrack for the 9.1-mile, 3,000-foot descent via the Panorama Trail and Mist Trail (or optionally take the easier John Muir Trail) past 370-foot Illilouette Fall as well as Nevada and Vernal, with almost constant views of the dramatic canyon of the Merced River and the Valley. Bonus: It’s all downhill.
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Upper Yosemite Falls
After climbing this sometimes hot and dusty trail for about 90 minutes, you’ll turn a corner to see Upper Yosemite Falls, a curtain of water plunging a sheer 1,430 feet off a cliff, ripping through the air and showering hikers on the trail below with the mist rising from the rocks at the waterfall’s base (which is not very close to the trail). Yosemite Falls, consisting of the upper falls, the 400-foot-tall Lower Yosemite Falls (reached on a separate, flat, one-mile loop trail), and several hundred feet of cascades in between is the tallest in North America at 2,425 feet. The hike to a ledge at the very brink of Upper Yosemite Falls is 7.2 miles round-trip and ascends 2,700 feet, finishing with an exciting catwalk along a ledge where the trail crosses the face of a cliff.
Tip: If you’re fit and fast, start in the afternoon, when you’ll have shade for much of the hot ascent, and most other hikers will be coming down (bring a headlamp). Bonus: Continue 0.8 mile beyond Upper Yosemite Falls to Yosemite Point, overlooking Yosemite Valley and the Lost Arrow Spire—where, if your timing is right, you may see rock climbers scaling that slender blade of rock, or crawling across a rope strung between its summit and the rim.
See more photos and a video in my story “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls.”
Yearning to backpack in Yosemite? See my e-guides to three amazing multi-day hikes there.
Mist Trail-John Muir Trail Loop
The Half Dome hike without Half Dome—that’s this classic and very popular, 6.3-mile lollipop loop, with 2,000 feet of vertical gain and loss, to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. But that makes it sound like a letdown, and it’s anything but. Fun for kids when you walk through the rain falling from an often-blue sky—created by Vernal Fall pounding the rocks at its base—this beautiful hike passes by slabs at the top of both Vernal and Nevada, either of them a good lunch spot with a great view down the canyon.
Depending on the Merced River’s volume—generally at its peak between late May and late June—Vernal’s “mist” can vary from just that to a fire hose of water slamming into you (which I’ve experienced). A swimsuit on a hot day or a rain jacket is appropriate attire for passing below Vernal Fall. From the Happy Isles Trailhead, ascend the Mist Trail and descend the John Muir Trail from the top of Nevada Fall.
See more photos and a video in my story “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls.”
Climate change threatens Yosemite’s waterfalls. Read my book about family adventures in national parks.
Our son was two when my wife and I hiked with him up Lembert Dome, the major geologic feature lording over the eastern end of Tuolumne Meadows on Tioga Road, and he made it most of the way under his own power—and promptly took a nap as soon as I stuck him in the kid-carrier pack. That’s the kind of hike Lembert is: short and family-friendly at under three miles round-trip, with a decent climb of 850 feet, and a big payoff at the 9,450-foot summit, looking out over Tuolumne Meadows to the granite domes and jagged peaks of the Cathedral Range beyond. I’ve also enjoyed the pleasure of rock climbing Lembert, and either way, its summit feels surprisingly thrilling for such a short outing.
Got a trip coming up? See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and 7 best daypacks.
On a recommendation from a friend who knows the High Sierra well, I hiked Matterhorn Peak by myself and delighted in the wildflowers, creek-fed alpine gardens, and a short, easy scramble to the blocky summit. Unlike Jack Kerouac, who wrote about his failed attempt of Matterhorn Peak in Dharma Bums, I reached the top. My bird’s-eye view spanned much of the park—and from up there, you get a real sense of Yosemite as a vast expanse of jagged peaks and deep, granite-walled canyons.
At 12,264 feet, Matterhorn is the highest peak on the serrated Sawtooth Ridge in northern Yosemite, the northernmost Sierra peaks to exceed 12,000 feet and, according to summitpost.org, the northern terminus of what’s generally referred to as the “High Sierra.” A mecca for technical rock climbers and couloir skiers, Matterhorn can also be climbed on a partly off-trail hike that’s steep but not technically difficult. It gains more than 3,200 feet in elevation over roughly six miles (one-way), most of it not on a maintained trail. Starting at the west end of the Twin Lakes resort area, the route follows a maintained trail partway up the valley of Horse Creek. Beyond it, a rough user trail continues to a saddle between Matterhorn and Twin Peaks, and the route then ascends the mountain’s southeast face.
Be ready for your next hike. See my story “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb.”
Cathedral Peak, at nearly 11,000 feet high, with sheer walls and two summits, cuts a distinctive profile from any direction—but one of the most photogenic spots to view it is the Cathedral Lakes. Reached via the John Muir Trail heading south from Tuolumne (starting at the trailhead 1.5 miles west of the Tuolumne Meadows campground entrance), the seven-mile hike, with 1,000 feet of up and down, follows the JMT south for three miles, through mostly lodgepole pine forest, until reaching open meadows with a view of Cathedral Peak. A half-mile-long spur trail leads to Lower Cathedral Lake, at over 9,300 feet, with its magnificent reflection of its namesake peak and Tresidder and Echo peaks; reach the upper lake by continuing south on the JMT. Visiting either is seven miles round-trip, and combining them makes it eight miles.
Bonus: Taking advantage of the free park shuttle buses that run regularly throughout the Tuolumne Meadows area, hike a traverse of about 13 miles from the JMT Trailhead in Tuolumne south to Cathedral Lakes and Sunrise Lakes and finish at Tenaya Lake.
Dewey, Crocker and Stanford Points
A retired backcountry ranger who hiked all over Yosemite for decades told me this was his favorite dayhike in the park—a pretty solid recommendation, I figure. These three overlooks offer slightly different perspectives on Yosemite Valley features like Bridalveil Fall and the Leaning Tower, Cathedral Rocks, and El Capitan, and beyond to Clouds Rest, Mount Hoffmann, and even distant, 12,590-foot Mount Conness on the park’s northeast boundary. Each point is breathtaking, and you can do part or all of this hike, or go at it from different directions.
From McGurk Meadow Trailhead on Glacier Point Road, it’s 8.2 miles out-and-back to Dewey Point, the first of the three you’ll reach from that direction—and possibly pretty enough to satisfy a lot of hikers by itself. From Dewey, it’s 0.7 mile farther to Crocker Point, and then another half-mile to Stanford Point; tagging all three from McGurk Meadow is 10.6 miles out and back. You can also have someone meet you at the Wawona Tunnel and make it a one-way, mostly downhill hike from McGurk Meadow, of roughly the same distance. The hardest approach is up and down from Wawona Tunnel, about 11 miles out-and-back and about 3,000 vertical feet.
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