Published on May 21, 2023

Yosemite National Park swings its gates wide open during the summer. From hidden waterfalls to high country meadows, Yosemite Valley to Tioga and everything in between, there are countless sights to see and things to do. Maximum enjoyment during your Yosemite summer escape depends on playing your recreational cards just right. Without further ado, here are seven sure-fire ways to keep your Yosemite summer vibing high.

1. Yosemite Valley: Arrive Early

golden sunrise from tunnel view

Carved by glaciers and framed by granite walls and thundering waterfalls, Yosemite Valley is the heart of the Park. When visiting this Sierra masterpiece, timing is everything. We suggest arriving at first light (not a morning person? Check out the next tip.) By getting in and around early, you’ll avoid peak Valley visitation and find parking without delay. Walk the Valley Loop Trail as the Park awakens, and you’re more likely to see mule deer, coyotes or even a black bear wandering around. Bonus points for taking the free Yosemite Valley Shuttle, a great way to go with on/off stops at every major Valley vista. Shuttles run from 7am for early birds.

2. Yosemite Valley: Swing Shift

Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite Valley
Bridalveil Fall greets you as you enter Yosemite Valley, and is particularly brilliant in the afternoon sun.

Shake things up and take the swing shift by finishing your epic Yosemite day in the Valley. Summer daylight extends to around 9pm; try to arrive by 4pm (and congratulate yourself on not being stuck in the line of vehicles leaving the park at this time) and still have lots of time for everything you’ll want to see and do. Bonus rewards of a late afternoon/early evening visit include fewer folks at major vista points, and magic hour lighting as the sunset puts rosy cheeks on the soaring granite faces that surround the Valley floor. There are solid drink and dine options in the Valley, too, including the Ahwahnee, Mountain Room at Yosemite Lodge (reservations recommended), and The Loft at Degnan’s in Yosemite Village. The Yosemite Valley Shuttle keeps on rollin’ until 10pm, too. 

3. Outside In

person at glacier point
Yosemite National Park is so much more than just Yosemite Valley. (Photo: morning at Glacier Point)

Turn your Park itinerary “outside in” by starting your Yosemite day outside of the Valley. Three ways to do this are by visiting Hetch Hetchy Valley, Tioga Road, or Glacier Point Road as your Yosemite first course, leaving Yosemite Valley for later in the day.

Hetch Hetchy is one of Yosemite National Park’s hidden secrets. Tucked into the Park’s peaceful northwest corner, Hetch Hetchy Valley has soaring peaks, steep canyons, and full-size waterfalls, too. Park near O’Shaughnessy Dam at the west end of the valley for vistas of the reservoir and wilderness beyond, including 1,000-foot-plus Wapama Fall.

Tioga Pass, one of California’s highest byways, is only open summer to fall, so it’s the perfect time and place to get your motor running. This alpine pass offers shimmering vistas including Olmsted Point, one of the best places to see Yosemite Valley from above.

Glacier Point Road forks off Highway 41 to follow the contour of Yosemite Valley’s South rim on the way to Glacier Point.  The view from Glacier Point is everything all at once as you gaze down into Yosemite Valley and across to the peaks of the Yosemite backcountry. Bonus: there and back, you’ll be rolling on buttery-smooth fresh pavement thanks to a recent rehab of Glacier Point Road.

4. Get into a Grove

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is home to the California Tunnel Tree
The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is home to many famous mature sequoias like the California Tunnel Tree.

The giant sequoia tree, Sequoiadendron giganteum, is a perspective-bending wonder to behold. These majestic beauties can thrive for 3,000 years, among the oldest living things on Earth. Yosemite is home to three giant sequoia groves. Prepare to be awestruck.

Tucked just inside Yosemite National Park’s South Gate, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is the most expansive of Yosemite’s big tree hubs with some 500 mature titans and a welcome center! Roll over to Highway 120 for two more giant sequoia stands: Merced Grove and Tuolumne Grove. Walking through these groves is like tapping your Calm app, just in real life.

5. Waterworld

A woman standing on a boulder in the middle of a river.
You never seem far from water in Wawona. A confluence of rivers and creeks creates a paradise of scenic riverbanks and fun summer swimming holes.

All these waterfalls must end up somewhere, right? In the summer, Yosemite has places to swim top to bottom. Up high, Tenaya Lake and its sandy beach attracts picnickers, sunbathers and swimmers alike to its location off Tioga Road. Nearby, the Tuolumne River winds through Tuolumne Meadows and interesting granite features including Pothole Dome, where a trail leads to hidden cascades with inviting swimming holes. Best places to safely wade into Merced River during the summer as it meanders through Yosemite Valley are Housekeeping Camp Beach, Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, Cathedral Beach, and the path across from the El Capitan Picnic Area. In Southern Yosemite, the Wawona Swimming Hole takes full advantage of the lazy southern fork of the Merced River. There is lots of room to swim here, a rock waterslide, and even some sandy areas for easy wading. Best in summer or fall when water has slowed down, this is a great spot for kids and picnicking.

6. Sky Full of Stars

Shooting stars over Half Dome
Glacier Point is a great place to gaze up at the night sky. Maybe you’ll even be able to wish on a falling star.

The Yosemite summer sky lights up after dark. Stargazers flock to this corner of the California Sierra for summer’s celestial fireworks. An annual highlight is the Perseid meteor shower, a midsummer night’s marvel as hundreds of streaking cosmic rockets burn bright across Yosemite Mariposa County’s dark midnight sky. The Perseids reach peak intensity by mid-August, when sky gazers can expect to see around 100 meteors per hour! Astronomy programs are offered at Glacier Point and Yosemite Valley. Sierra National Forest service roads around Tenaya Lodge, Glacier Point or Wawona Meadow are also all-star locations. No telescope? No worries. Binoculars come in all powers and are way easier to pack!

7. Follow the Ranger

Join a Ranger-led program for exciting insights and stories about Yosemite.

Yosemite Park Rangers are stewards of this magical realm, and tapping into their insight and experience is always a winning idea. Ranger-led programming reaches its peak in the summer with such open-air productions as the 45-minute naturalist show at Curry Village Amphitheater and guided nature hikes in Yosemite Valley – all free – happening May to October.

A Fresh Perspective on Yosemite Travel

Man collecting trash during the Yosemite Facelift
Help keep Yosemite clean during the annual Yosemite Facelift!

In the summer, High Sierra weather waxes poetic and the kids are out of school, both contributing to Yosemite National Park’s high seasonal visitation. With these seven fresh new perspectives on Yosemite summer travel, you’ll play a winning hand. The confluence of wilderness and tourism can present its challenges. Nature Rules is our guide to traveling safe and responsibly. By visiting with a purposeful perspective on environmental stewardship, we all help to preserve this national treasure and World Heritage Site for generations to come.

Categories: General Travel Tips, Summer