I've been to Yosemite more times than I can count and I've always been awe-struck and inspired. There's at least one ("holy shit") moment in each trip where I am stunned looking at the raw beauty of nature.
Here are my list of top things to do in Yosemite:
This is obvious, isn't it :)
My favorite hike was the most-recent loop I did, hiking to the top of Vernal Falls and then following Emerald Pool taking the cutoff trail to Clark Point, and then hiking down via the John Muir Trail. This hike offered up-close views of Vernal Falls and far-away views of Nevada Falls.
The hike to top of Vernal Falls is via Mist Trail (although I'd argue that is a misnomer today - Rain Trail is a better name :D). We got drenched in the waterfall mist, but the feeling you get as you stare at these falls is irreplaceable. The thundering sound of these falls makes it impossible to hear anything else. It was exhilarating and gratifying to see the force of nature through these falls.
It is also incredible to observe how these falls change every time I see them. In one of my previous hikes to the top of Vernal Falls, the falls felt pretty and beautiful (because it was a mild-winter that year). This time it was strong and powerful. While the falls might have changed, the presence of rainbows did not. Both my hikes to Vernal Falls included gorgeous double rainbows!
Waterfalls and Rainbows, Pine Trees and Mountains. What is this, if not Paradise? :)
The best time for any waterfall hikes in Yosemite is late spring and early summer. This is when all the winter snow is melting and water is in swell.If strenuous hikes are not your thing, there are a couple of smaller waterfall hikes, the Lower Yosemite Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. If you enjoy more strenuous hikes, try the Upper Yosemite Falls or Top of Vernal Falls or the Top of Half Dome, if you win the lottery for the cables. For non-waterfall hikes, check out the hike to Mirror Lake.
The two best views of Yosemite are from Tunnel view and Glacier Point.
Tunnel view presents the picture-postcard perfect view of Yosemite. The mighty El Capitan stands across the gorgeous Bridal Veil Falls, and the tip of Half Dome peeks out from behind the mountains. Pine trees form a green carpet along the Valley floor, making it a sight to remember.
The best time for Glacier Point is at sunset. The colors on Half Dome during golden hour are quite extraordinary. Even during non-sunset hours, the views from here are out of the world. It's a king's view of the best of Yosemite. The huge Nevada and Vernal Falls look tiny next to the Half Dome. One of the tallest waterfalls in North America, the Yosemite Falls, looks like a mere blip in this granite rock world. The pine trees which look so tall from Yosemite Valley, seem to become little needles. All the cars around the Valley look like tiny insects from up-top. Everything is on a different scale here. This place is a must-visit, and you can hike, take the shuttle bus or drive your own car. So no reason to miss it.
Yosemite was the first place where I saw the Milky Way with my naked eyes. Here's a picture taken by my friend on that day.
Although the camera can't completely capture what the eye can see, this picture does a good job of representing what our view looked like. It was way beyond my wildest imagination that I would see something so beautiful in my lifetime. It's a surreal experience to say the least. This experience made me believe in the existence of Milky Way :)
For best views of the Milky Way, check out Yosemite skies on a no-moon, cloudless night from a high-altitude place like Glacier Point or Tuolumne Meadows.
PS - Since then, I've seen better views of Milky Way from Hawaii.
You don't need to go out of the way to check out wild-life at Yosemite.
It's impossible to not see squirrels all over the park, especially on the Vernal Falls trail. Likewise with deer, a lot of them all around Yosemite Valley - in particular near Half Dome Village.
Despite not having a lot of interest in birds, I spotted some Stellar's Jays with their bright blue feathers. There are more birds to see in this region, if you enjoy bird-watching.
I'll admit the Black Bear is more elusive and harder to spot. If you spend some time away from the touristy area, you're bound to spot one soon. I saw one near the meadows close to Crane Flat Gas Station this year.
As with any wild-life, do not feed them if you want them to live. This applies to all animals and birds, from ducks to bears.
A visit to Yosemite is not considered complete until you check out a giant sequoia. Mariposa Grove is the most popular one (and more crowded and also currently closed for restoration until late 2017), but you can also venture out to Merced or Tuolumne Groves to see these trees.
We visited Nelder Grove and explored the Shadow of Giants Trail. It was less crowded with similar views of sequoias.
It's a humbling feeling when you stand next to a giant sequoia tree. These trees are "giants" for a reason.
Giant sequoias are the world's largest single trees and largest living thing by volume. They are among the oldest living things on Earth.
Having seen and felt the sequoias many times, I can assure you that the feeling of wonder that one experiences with these trees never disappears.
Other things to note
- If this is going to be your only trip to Yosemite, avoid coming for the weekend, it's when most of the tourists are here. It deserves and needs more than two days.
- If all you can do is a weekend trip, come into the park before 9 am. You'll avoid peak-hour traffic by coming in early.
Getting around the park
- Bicycles are the easiest and fastest way to cover most areas in the park, so if you can do get them. You can also rent bicycles inside the park.
- The park offers free shuttle buses that take you to popular spots, so that's the second-best option.
- It's also possible to drive around the park. Prepare to wait for long periods of time in traffic if you're going this way (especially on a weekend).
Staying in the park
- There are many options that suit every budget, but you need to plan early (or hope to get lucky).
- You need to book camp-sites six months in advance, especially for centrally located campgrounds like Lower Pines or Upper Pines.
- You can also show-up super early to the park to book first-come first-serve campgrounds (like Camp 4).
- Cabins (heated and non-heated) also have a similar reservation queues. Prepare to book around six months in advance.
All in all, Yosemite is one of the best places I've seen in my life so far. I have some amazing memories on the time I've spent here. Yosemite is a shining example of one of the best things about America, it's national parks. If you do visit it (good choice!), make sure you leave no traces, allowing our future generations to enjoy it as we did.