The land and waterscapes of Yosemite National Park are simply unforgettable. From jagged peaks to smooth granite domes, and raucous waterfalls to peaceful valleys, these stunning features spark the imaginations of even the most experienced travelers.  Yet with great beauty comes great…popularity.  And let’s face it — sometimes we just need a little more room to roam.

How to spread out and get that breathing space you crave? Here’s a curated itinerary for less traveled places in Yosemite where the bustle gives way to calm, and where the views go on for days.

Day One: Gateway Secrets

Too many visitors make a beeline for Yosemite’s entry gates and ignore the advice of our elders: stop and smell the roses.  Fortunately, there is ample opportunity to slow down in Yosemite Mariposa County where friendly locals, deep Gold Rush history, and a lively arts scene combine to create award-winning culture in our gateway towns.

Located at the junction of Highway 49 and Highway 140, the charming town of Mariposa is often overlooked by visitors making that mad dash to Yosemite. Here you can find three museums, shopping, a variety of bars & restaurants, as well as an array of accommodations for every budget.  For its sheer number of choices, Mariposa stands out as a well-stocked basecamp for visitors staying outside of the Park.

Downtown Mariposa at sunrise
Sunrise in historic downtown Mariposa

Want to feel like you’ve just stepped foot onto the film set of an epic western? Coulterville beckons with its historic Gold Rush buildings and main drag. Situated just off of Highway 49, this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hub of rural Northern Mariposa County is worth seeking out with everything from live music at the Coulter Cafe & General Store to local legends at the Northern Mariposa County History Center and the spirited CoyoteFest.

Tucked in the pine forest just minutes from Yosemite’s South Entrance, the wooded hamlet of Fish Camp makes for another prime basecamp outside the Park. Exploring the fire roads of the surrounding Sierra National Forest is the perfect way to enjoy some solitude, be that hiking, mountain biking or snowshoeing.  Stay at Tenaya at Yosemite and these rustic routes are just outside your door via Big Sandy and Star Lake Roads!

Day Two: Hidden Valley

It may not be less traveled, but no Yosemite trip is complete without a stop in Yosemite Valley and there are ways to see it without all the people.

Maybe not the most obvious “less traveled” choice, but any trip to Yosemite National Park without a visit to Yosemite Valley would likely cause a rip in the time/space continuum. Fortunately, some options skirt the hot spots without sacrificing any of the Valley’s otherworldly beauty.

Clocking in at 11.5 miles and encompassing the western end of Yosemite Valley, the Valley Loop Trail is perfect for those who want to slow down and experience the full monty of waterfalls, iconic rock formations and forest without staring through your windshield.  Yes, there are times that the trail skirts the road and, yes, there are portions that require a map as they crisscross other trails/trailheads, but there are also sections of the trail where you will be fully immersed in the cliffside beauty of Yosemite Valley and rarely see another human being.

Heading to the eastern end of the Valley, a stroll along the Mirror Meadow/Mirror Lake Trail unveils the seasonal changes of the Yosemite unlike any other.  Technically a widening of Tenaya Creek after its 4,000 ft descent from Tenaya Lake, Mirror Lake reaches peak looking glass in spring/early summer as it fills with snowmelt.  Then, as the summer heats up, it dries into Mirror Meadow until the fall colors vivify and the whole cycle starts over again. Note: For those who really want a feather in their cap, the Loop Trail can connect the western and eastern portions of the Valley to include Mirror Lake. Total distance: 20 miles.

Day Three: Rove the Grove

Photographer taking a picture of the Grizzly Giant sequoia tree
The Grizzly Giant is one of the largest, and certainly the most-visited trees in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

With three designated groves of Giant Sequoias, exploring these Yosemite behemoths is the perfect way to play hide & seek with the crowds.

Wait, you say? Doesn’t the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias have its own Welcome Center and play host to tour busses?  Indeed, but with a little effort it’s easy to escape the crowds by hoofing it to the Upper Mariposa Grove. Here, hundreds of lesser-visited trees such as the Faithful Couple and the fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree await, not to mention the Mariposa Grove Cabin which belonged to “Guardian of Yosemite” Galen Clark. Take the 7-mile round-trip Mariposa Grove Trail to Wawona Point for panoramic views, but be prepared for the 1,200 ft elevation gain. Want more privacy? This icon of Southern Yosemite gets downright hush-hush when you visit Yosemite Mariposa County in winter!

For maximum arboreal balance, we now move to Northern Yosemite where two smaller groves of Giant Sequoias provide for a more intimate meet & greet.  Located along one of Yosemite’s earliest wagon routes, the historic Old Big Oak Flat Road, a collection of two-dozen trees can be found in Tuolumne Grove. This 2.5-mile round-trip hike drops 500 ft from the parking lot so be prepared for climb back.

The Tunnel Tree in the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias.

Need to branch out more?  Merced Grove is just 5 miles away and holds the title of Yosemite’s most secluded stand of Giant Sequoias. Featuring 20 mature trees, this 3-mile round-trip hike drops 520 ft down from the parking lot so — like Tuolumne Grove — it’s easy going at first, but be prepared for your return.

Day Four: Splash Money

Boy swimming in the merced river
Clear waters and clear skies make for perfect swimming conditions in Mariposa County.

With pure mountain H2O cascading down the western flank of the Sierra, swimming in Yosemite Mariposa County is a treat and provides several options that range from a lesser-known fork of the Merced River to the lower-elevation lakes the Merced dutifully feeds.

As the hub of the Southern Yosemite region, Wawona has long provided a less-visited option with its waterfalls (Chilnualna Falls), museums (Yosemite History Center) and its freshwater fav — the Wawona Swimming Hole/Swinging Bridge.  Not to be confused with the Swinging Bridge in Yosemite Valley, this locals’ cool-off is situated on the South Fork of the Merced River and can be reached by parking at the end of Forest Drive and hiking one mile round-trip on the south side of the river to the Swinging Bridge, or by parking at the end of Chilnualna Falls Rd and hiking the 1.5 miles (r/t) on the north side of the river. Note:  Spring river flows are fast and ice cold so better to visit in the warm summer months for peak refreshment.

Splash-N-Dash on Lake McSwain
Cool off at the Splash-N-Dash

Okay, Splash-n-Dash Aqua Park may be wildly popular with weekend day-trippers from the Central Valley.  And the giddy laughter of kids of all ages may reverberate heartily off the surrounding Sierra foothills.  But the little-known fact that it pairs perfectly with any visit to Yosemite National Park makes it all the more deserving of less-traveled status.  Located on Lake McSwain in Northwest Mariposa County, this inflatable water-top obstacle course is the largest in North America and offers camping, beach movies and Exchequer Mountain Bike Park. Once word of the Yosemite/McSwain axis gets out, we’ll have to remove this prized entry from our less-traveled list! Better yet, visit midweek for max legroom.

Day Five: Aim High

Tenaya Lake in Yosemite
Tenaya Lake in the high country of Yosemite National Park.

The Yosemite High Country has a mood all its own.  Its distance from the western entry gates and vast openness are in sharp contrast to the shorter drive and sheer verticality of Yosemite Valley. The super-wide angle horizon is studded with peaks and pines, while the dome-dotted meadows create a gilded stage with ample room to roam.

Accessed via Tioga Road (Highway 120 east), the 52-mile drive from Crane Flat to Tioga Pass will forge unforgettable Range of Light memories of Yosemite’s singular beauty. Along the way you’ll experience vistas (Olmsted Point), a sapphire lake (Tenaya Lake) and the shape-shifting beauty of Tuolumne Meadows. If you want even more solitude, try a day hike on one of the fifteen trailheads located along Tioga Road. Note: All overnight stays in the Yosemite backcountry require a Wilderness Permit.

Day Six: Point Taken

Taft Point at sunset
Potentially the best view point in all of Yosemite National Park is Taft Point, a less-traveled vista compared to its nearby neighbors, Glacier Point and Washburn Point.

Yosemite vista points are the stuff of legend.  Whether you’re gazing across the Valley or scanning the horizon to identify the Park’s remote backcountry peaks, the views are perspective-building to say the least.

Washburn Point can get busy, but nothing like nearby Glacier Point and with the same amount of postcard payoff. From here you can see a trifecta of famous Yosemite waterfalls — Nevada Fall, Vernal Fall and Illouette Fall — not to mention smiling brides and grooms snapping inspired pics for their one-of-a-kind Yosemite wedding. The view is to the east, so consider watching the sunrise over the distant backcountry peaks such as Mount Starr King and Mount Clark.

Located just 5 minutes away along Glacier Point Road, Taft Point requires a moderate 2.2 mile round-trip hike which thins the crowd a bit and takes you to a clifftop view unlike any other. 

Along the way you’ll pass through meadow and forest before encountering deep fissures (cracks descending into the granite). Looking north and west from the rim you’ll see Yosemite Falls and El Capitan, leaving the crowds 3,500 feet below in the Valley.

Note: Both vista points are located on Glacier Point Road which closes seasonally (typically November through May) due to snow. Be sure to check road conditions, and for the ultimate “less traveled” experience consider cross-country skiing/snowshoeing to these special destinations.

Less Traveled Pro Tips