Published on July 3, 2018

Right around the autumn equinox, dependable as your trusty compass, Yosemite Mariposa County spins into a lower gear. Peak Yosemite National Park visitation has passed, vehicle traffic lightens and animal traffic heightens and hiking trails — even in Yosemite Valley — are far less traveled. Fall is known by Yosemite insiders as prime time to be outside, and in this cooler, peaceful season Yosemite Mariposa County trails hold best-of-year appeal.

Continuing on this contrarian vibe, it’s a local secret that the weather actually gets better after summer. The sky goes a deeper shade of blue, temperatures trend lower, and photographers rave over a golden range of Sierra sunlight. Magic all around.

Whether you’re coming from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, cross-country or “across the pond”, here are the best fall hikes in Yosemite Mariposa County to share with your favorite trailmates. Get ready for that satisfying, sandy crunch of crushed granite under your boots!

The High Country Offers Yosemite’s Best Hikes in the Fall

As the hub of the Northern Yosemite region, Tioga Road (Highway 120 East) crosses the Sierra Nevada crest with its stunning 47-mile ribbon of alpine roadway. Indeed, the region is beautiful from the dashboard and even better from a hiking trail — especially when the kaleidoscope of fall colors takes hold.

May Lake

Yosemite Fall Hikes: May Lake with Mt Hoffmann behind
Hike up the May Lake Trail for gorgeous scenery and an up-close view of Mount Hoffmann which towers above May Lake.

Distance: 2.4 mi (3.9 km) out & back

Elevation Gain: 485 ft (150 m)

Difficulty: Easy

Trailhead: May Lake Parking Area

In addition to the popular backpackers’ High Sierra Camp located here, is a short & sweet high country day hike that leads to crystalline shores at the foot of Yosemite’s geographical center, Mt. Hoffman. From above, May Lake looks like a pine-ringed thumbprint on a high granite shelf, and at 9,270 feet (2,825 m) this “easy” hike can prove more challenging due to the thin mountain air.

Lembert Dome (With Dog Lake Bonus Hike)

Dog Lake scenery
When hiking to Lembert Dome, consider taking the short side-spur trail to Dog Lake for some extra-special scenery.

Distance: 3.4 mi (5.5 km) out & back from Lembert Dome parking area, or 1.8 mi (2.9 km) out & back from Dog Lake parking area (just west of Tuolumne Meadows Lodge).

Elevation Gain: 855 ft (261 m)

Difficulty: Moderate

Trailheads: Lembert Dome Parking Area & Dog Lake Parking Area

Looking like a granite wave rising from the pine forest, gazes across one of the largest and most beautiful High Sierra plateaus — Tuolumne Meadows. The long & steady shuffle lends itself to grippy sneakers, and for hikers who want a nice add-on continue to the supremely wadeable Dog Lake, which was named in 1898 by topographer Robert Marshall for his discovery of a sheepdog and her pups chilling by its shores.

Clouds Rest

Hiker standing at Clouds Rest, one of the best hikes in the fall
The summit of Clouds Rest feels wild and airy and boasts incredible views over Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.

Distance: 14.5 mi (23.3 km) out & back

Elevation Gain: 1,775 ft (541 m)

Difficulty: Strenuous

Trailhead: Sunrise Lakes Trailhead (near Tenaya Lake)

A knife’s edge of granite that resembles a breaching orca, Clouds Rest is one of the most spectacular fall hikes in Yosemite National Park. As trekkers make their careful way along this rocky promontory, they will be rewarded with 360-degree views that include Tenaya Canyon on one side, Little Yosemite Valley on the other, and Half Dome directly ahead (and below!). The biggest considerations when undertaking Clouds Rest are time and water. Set aside plenty of both!

Yosemite Valley Hikes

Fall trail hikes in Yosemite Valley are unforgettable. With landmark peaks soaring above, warm days followed by cooler evening temperatures and a less hurried pace, hiking this time of year is a winner on multiple fronts. Peak Fall colors peak later here at the moderate 4,000 foot elevation valley, as late as mid-November.

Mirror Lake/Meadow Trail

From the Mirror Lake/Meadow Trail
The shallow waters at Mirror Lake create a perfect looking glass in spring and fall after the first rains, and is a scenic meadow with views of Half Dome during the dryer months.

Distance: 2 mi (3.2 km) out & back, or 5 mi (8 km) loop

Elevation Gain: 100 ft (30 m)

Difficulty: Easy

Trailhead: Mirror Lake Trailhead (shuttle stop #17)

As fall in the Sierra takes hold, Mirror Lake becomes almost beach-like with sandy washes surrounded by stands of trees displaying their autumn colors. It’s a peaceful time, perfect for a picnic and easily accessible due the flat terrain and partially paved trail. Bonus points for spotting shy wildlife (coyotes, bobcats and the infrequent black bear) and the educational plaques that describe the local fauna, history of tourism (yes, we’ve evolved) and the Native American presence (including the Ahwahneechee name for Mirror Lake: Ahwiyah, meaning “quiet water”).

Valley Loop Trail

Yosemite Hikes: Valley Loop Trail in November
In fall, a casual stroll along the Valley Loop Trail reveals many Yosemite icons, and golden fall colors, like the sun shining through the elm tree in Cook’s Meadow
Photo: Raja Ramakrish

Distance: Your choosing, up to 13 mi (20.9 km) for full loop

Elevation Gain: Minimal

Difficulty: Easy to Moderate (depending on distance)

Trailhead: Shuttle stops and parking at multiple spots throughout Yosemite Valley.

The Yosemite Valley Loop Trail offers 13 modular miles where you can jump on and off at multiple points for a grand tour with skyward panoramic views of Yosemite’s monumental geology from the valley floor such as Cathedral Rock, Sentinel Rock and El Capitan. Though the waterfalls are a trickle by summer’s end, the fall foliage is an arboreal delight that more than make up for it.

Four Mile Trail

View of Sentinel Rock from the Four Mile Trail
Wind your way up to Glacier Point along the Four-Mile Trail – which is ironically 4.7 miles long one-way. Fortunately, you’ll have spectacular views of Sentinel Rock to take your mind off that extra 0.7 mile.

Distance: 9.6 mi (15.5 km) up & back

Elevation Gain: 3,200 ft (975 m)

Difficulty: Strenuous

Trailhead: Four Mile Trailhead

The mega-climb (and descent) of the Four Mile Trail begins in the shadow of Yosemite Valley’s Sentinel Rock along Southside Drive. It’s all switchbacks from here, following the route of a historic toll trail originally cut in 1871 by pioneer James McCauley, originator of the Yosemite Firefall. About two-thirds of the way up is Union Point — and a good spot to take a breather — until you reach one of the best vistas in Yosemite National Park — Glacier Point. Note: Though most people hike this as a one-way trip and shuttle back, Glacier Point Road is closed for rehabilitation through spring 2023 and only accessible by foot as an out & back from Yosemite Valley.

Southern Yosemite Hikes

Autumn treks in the Southern Yosemite region display a special kind of tranquility. Accessed from historic Fish Camp, these hikes feature rare trees and plummeting H2O making them an essential stop on your fall itinerary.

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

California tunnel tree in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
Autumn’s golden light filters through magnificent giant sequoia trees in the Mariposa Grove (pictured) or any of the other smaller Yosemite sequoia groves.

Distance: multiple routes, from .3 mi (.5 km) Big Trees Loop to 7 miles (11.3 km) Mariposa Grove Trail

Elevation Gain: minimal to 1,200 ft (366 m) for Wawona Point

Difficulty: Easy to Strenuous

Trailhead: Mariposa Grove Arrival Area

If your fall hike needs that special hook and you want lots of options when it comes to different trails, then how about some 3,000 year-old trees with names like Grizzly Giant, Fallen Monarch and Faithful Couple? The massive specimens in the   are simply exquisite post-summer when visitation to Yosemite lightens, making this a key part of the Yosemite Mariposa Sequoia Tour that hits all our magical groves.

Chilnualna Falls

Cascades along Chilnualna Falls Trail
The hike to Chilnualna Falls leads past several gorgeous cascades that flow year-round.

Distance: 8.2 mi (13.2 km) out & back

Elevation Gain: 2,400 ft (732 m)

Difficulty: Strenuous

Trailhead: Chilnualna Falls Trailhead

Beginning at 4,200 ft (1,280 m), the   plays hide-and-seek with a series of cascades and cataracts ranging from 50 to 240 feet in height. Though it peaks in May, Chilnualna Falls flows year-round, while the steady climb is guaranteed to get your heart pumping. After your hike stop by the Yosemite History Center for some local sagas, or grab some grub & grog at the historic Wawona Hotel.

Central Mariposa County Hikes

In the Central Mariposa region, the warm temperatures hold out later into fall making for some perfect hiking weather at a time when the higher elevations are getting downright chilly. What’s even better? All are close to the hotels, restaurants and shops of the charming Gold Rush town of Mariposa.

Stockton Creek Preserve Trail

Hiking trails through Stockton Creek Preserve
No need to go far for a hike if you’re staying close to the town of Mariposa. Stockton Creek Preserve’s trails provide a fulfilling dose of nature in a convenient location. Photo: Tony McDaniel

Distance: 4.4 mi (7 km) round trip (can be customized)

Elevation Gain: 500 ft (152 m)

Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

Trailheads: Trabucco Street Trailhead, or Hwy 140 Trailhead (just past intersection with Old Highway N)

The dog-friendly Stockton Creek Preserve Trail features several different routes that wind through a classic California oak and chaparral setting surrounding Stockton Creek Reservoir. It’s the perfect walk after enjoying a tasty meal just a few blocks away in the town of Mariposa, not to mention binocular-ready for birdwatching the fall migration.

Merced River Trail

Woman hiking the Merced River Trail
Enjoy the sounds of flowing water on a hike along the Merced River Trail.

Distance: 5.5 mi (8.9 km) out & back

Elevation Gain: 482 ft (147 m)

Difficulty: Moderate
Trailhead: Merced River Trailhead (Railroad Flat Campground)

Starting near the BLM-operated Railroad Flat Campground , the Merced River Trail follows the historic Yosemite Valley Railroad line above and along the Wild & Scenic Merced River. In fall when the flow is light, it’s fun to scramble down for some river rock-hopping and marvel at the transformation from spring torrent to autumn trickle. Dog-friendly (on leash) and great for kids, just remember to bring a hat and plenty of water as there is little cover.

Tips To Make the Best Out of Your Yosemite Fall Hike

Want to hike like a local? Here are some pointers on how to best enjoy your fall hikes in Yosemite Mariposa County.

  • Daytime temperatures in Mariposa County can remain high during the fall, especially at lower elevations. Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water, a hat and eco-friendly sunblock.
  • Consider hiking early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid peak heat.
  • Nighttimes can cool down so bring layers and a waterproof shell for that occasional sprinkle.
  • Plan your hike to coincide with the color wheel of fall leaf peeping. Autumnal bliss.
  • Always check road conditions, especially in Yosemite’s High Country where Tioga Road closes seasonally late fall thru spring.
  • Ditto on checking weather conditions — High Country fall snowstorms and late summer to early fall thunderstorms can move in fast so be prepared.
  • Consider Yosemite Mariposa County public transportation and let someone else take the wheel as you take in the sights!

Even More Yosemite Hikes

Be sure to check out our hiking page for even more of the best hikes in Yosemite.

Categories: Autumn and Fall, Hiking, Outdoor Activities