Half Dome from Glacier Point Area

My 4 Favorite Yosemite Valley Day Hikes – Moderate to Strenuous

Adventures

Yosemite Valley is just a tiny part of the total National Park (seriously, it’s like 1% of the area) and yet it’s where the vast majority of visitors head. Crowded as this can make things, there’s a good reason for all the attention: the place is incredible. But unless you’ve totally missed about a billion photos, you already know this. The question is not should you hike Yosemite Valley but rather what trail to head to first. Growing up just a few hours away from the park, I’ve had plenty of chances to explore and have put together a list 4 favorite hikes for those looking at a moderate (to difficult) adventure from the valley on up!

As a quick reality check, unless you’re heading to the park in winter (and even then), don’t expect to have any of these trails to yourself. I suggest a real early start (like sunrise or before) for a little more peace on the way up — and a healthy dose of patience on the way back. For a less crowded experience, leave the valley where the views are also incredible!

Yosemite Falls Trailhead in Winter

The trailehad information sign after a winter snowstorm blanketed the valley.

 

The best way to see the valley: Hike it

1 – Glacier Point via 4 Mile Trail

Why this hike: Sweeping landscapes, a view straight across to the mighty Half Dome, and down to just about every valley waterfall; in the off season, the only ways to reach the iconic Glacier Point is by walking up the long road or hiking straight on up from the valley (note: 4 mile trail may close part way up in winter) making it an obvious favorite. Even in summer when the road opens to take you straight to the point, I still suggest this hike for the views of the valley, El Captain and Yosemite Falls along the way. 

El Captain from 4 Mile Trail

Details: 9.6 miles (r/t) with approx. 3,200′ of elevation gain taking about 5-8 hours end to end

Bonus: Extend the hike 2.2 more miles (r/t) and about 400 vert to the top of Sentinel Dome for an even grander view. In summer you can shuttle back down to the valley using two cars or booking a shuttle bus spot in advance.

More info @ my trail guide.

2 – Upper Yosemite Falls via its own trail

Why this hike: If you think looking up at the 2,425′ wonder that is Yosemite Falls, just imagine looking down from the top of it. The trail up takes you right to the mid falls pool before winding around to the top with views of Half Dome and the valley on the way. After hiking down a steep and rather exposed staircase, you’ll find yourself standing just a few feet shy of the falls drop off (with well placed guard rails.) Just mind the up and down along the way which adds considerably to the official distance. 

Yosemite Falls View from the Top

Details: 7.2 miles (r/t) with approx. 3,600′ of effective elevation gain (2,700′ change) taking 5-7 hours end to end.

Bonus: Hike one mile and just a few hundred vert to Yosemite Point for a much better view down into the valley or backpack it and keep going to many other spots above the valley.

More info @ my trail guide.

3 – Vernal and Nevada Falls via The Mist Trail

Why this hike: Like Yosemite Falls, this trail lets you look right on down from the top of a waterfall, actually you get to look down from the top of two waterfalls plus you get to basically walk right under one of them. The mist name is well earned as well and the hike up can get you seriously drenched early on though you’ll likely dry out on the steep climb up to the second. This is the easiest hike on the list but also has to be one of the most popular trails on the planet which is all the more reason to hike it real early.

Vernal Falls Rainbow

Details: 5.4 miles (r/t) with approx. 2,000′ of elevation gain taking 3-5 hours end to end. 

Bonus: Get an overnight permit and spend the night at Little Yosemite Valley just a short ways above.

4 – The Top of Half Dome via the Mist Trail / JMT

Why this hike: No Yosemite trail list would be complete without mentioning Half Dome. The view from the top is nice though that’s less of the draw than the experience of getting there as you hike the Mist Trail, pass by Little Yosemite Valley, and end up well out of the valley floor before scaling 400′ of steel cables to the top. Access to the subdome and summit are restricted by permits in summer when the cables are up and demand is high with both an early season main lottery and last chance lottery 2 days in advance. 

Half Dome Cables at Sunrise

Details: 14 – 16.5 miles (r/t by route choice) with approx. 4,800′ of elevation gain taking 10-14 hours end to end.

Bonus: As if you need one? But sure, backpack up, camp the night after the hike and take on Cloud Cap the next morning.

More info @ my trail guide.

Next up: Explore outside the valley

As I said early on, the valley is where the crowds are at but not the only places for views, not even close. So when you’ve had your fill of these great sights, don’t leave the park, leave the area. Head on up to Crane Flat, White Wolf, Tuolumne Meadows or one of the other campgrounds in the northern part of the park and explore the wonders around highway 120. Or head south to Wawona and wander around there. If you’re more adventurous, grab the backpack, bear canister and an overnight permit and wander into the practically endless wild.

You can find more info on Yosemite Park hikes on the following sites:

As always, if you have suggestions of your own, a fact check, or just a question, please leave a comment below.