The great thing about visiting the Yosemite Valley is the close proximity to the many amazing hikes. From your campsite, cabin or room you are only a short shuttle ride to the trail head of your choice. The best 8 hikes range from an easy 2 hour hike like Mirror Lake to strenuous all day hikes like Half Dome. A few can be done as one entire hike. Make sure you are in good physical condition and do not have an extreme fear of heights and you should be able to complete most of these. The views from these trails will take your breath away and keep you wanting to come back for more. Be prepared for all of these hikes. Wear the proper boots, layered clothes, have a backpack and plenty of water and snacks.
Mirror Lake – 3.3 miles round trip – Easy
Start at the Valley Stables or take the Valley Shuttle to stop 17 to begin this easy 3.3 mile hike. Not really a lake but a flooded meadow caused by a long ago rock slide, Mirror Lake is a Yosemite favorite. The trail is shaded and peaceful as you follow Tenaya Creek up the hill. The incline is not a problem except for the final 100 yards or so but is still very doable for just about everyone. Those with handicaps can drive to the restroom near the top. We usually will ride our bikes up the trail, parking them at the bicycle stand at the start of the steep section. When you reach the restrooms you may think “this isn’t so great” but that is because you are not there yet. Follow the path, veering left for another 50 yards and you will reach Mirror Lake. Make sure to bring your camera or that your cell phone is charged. you will want to take a bunch of pictures. If taken properly, it is really hard to tell which is the actual landscape and which is the reflection of the lake.
Yosemite Falls – 6.6 miles round trip – Difficult
If Mirror Lake is one of the easier hikes in the Valley floor, then Yosemite Falls is one of the toughest but it is worth every step. You will see Yosemite from a vantage point that few will ever see. It’s magnificence cannot be captured in a photo and you will never find the words to fully describe it. Figure about 3 hours going up and about 2 hours going down. You will want to spend at least an hour enjoying the incredible views. To reach the trailhead get off at Valley Shuttle stop 7 or drive to the Camp 4 parking lot. At Camp 4 you will see all the rock climbers getting ready to scale El Capitan. Look for the trailhead sign near the back of the camp. Elevation is quickly gained as you hike switchback after switchback. After 1 to 1.5 hours you will be at Columbia Rock. Enjoy the view of the valley with Half Dome as the centerpiece. Another 20 minutes will bring you to an awesome view of Yosemite Falls. Get your pictures and catch your breath because the rest of the way is tough. Just keep your head down and keep hiking, you will be at the top before you know it. Drink plenty of fluids. Once you reach the summit keep on the trail to the right and follow it back to the Falls. There is a fenced-in viewpoint that takes you to the brink of the falls as it plunges 2,425 feet down. Soak in the fact that you hiked to the top of the 5th tallest waterfall in the world.
4 Mile Trail – 9.2 round trip – Moderate to Difficult
Glacier Point is worth going to however you get there, but hiking the 4 Mile Trail will give you the most spectacular views of Yosemite Falls in the valley. Only on this hike can you see the entire length of the falls. With each switchback you will stop in awestruck wonder at it’s beauty. Every gain in altitude shows another angle that compels you to take more photos. The trip up is tough but very doable and the trip down is fairly easy. To reach the trailhead which is near the Swinging Bridge parking lot, take the shuttle to stop 7 and walk across Sentinel Bridge or stop 11 near the Chapel and walk down river. There is a snack bar at Glacier Point so reward your hard work with an ice cream. With the amazing views from Glacier Point this may be the most scenic hike from top to bottom.
An easier 4.6 mile option is to take the Glacier Point Tram from the Yosemite Valley Lodge to Glacier Point and hike down. Of course if some in your party do not wish to hike they could drive up and enjoy Glacier Point, which is amazing enough, then drive back while the hikers enjoy the less difficult way down. Now if you are in good enough shape and want to get the most complete hike of the valley then after reaching the top of Glacier Point continue to the valley floor via our next hike, the Panorama Trail, which would add 4.5 miles to the hike making it a 6-7 hour trek.
Panorama Trail 9.1 miles – Moderate
This is one of my favorite hikes and very few people take the time to enjoy it. The trailhead starts at Glacier Point, so again the question is how are you getting there. The options are the same as the 4 mile trail , either hike up the 4 mile trail, take the Glacier Point Tram or catch a ride with someone else. Don’t let the 9 miles scare you. The hike is mostly downhill or level. There are some inclines and switchbacks but not many. The Panorama Trail is the only way to get up close to Illilouette Falls as it plunges 370 feet down. Unobstructed views of the valley looking toward Yosemite Falls lie ahead, Stop and have lunch on a perch thousands of feet above the valley floor. Continue on toward Nevada Falls and then follow the path down past Silver Apron and the Emerald Pool. Take photos at the rail at the brink of Vernal Falls as it roars over the edge. Get wet as you hike down the Mist Trail and continue down to Happy Isles where you can catch the shuttle to take you back to your campsite. When combined with the 4 Mile trail I feel this gives people the best all-around experience of hiking the Yosemite Valley.
Vernal Falls Bridge 1.6 mile roundtrip – Moderate
Maybe the most popular hike in terms of the number of people who hike it. Starting at Happy Isles, shuttle stop 16, follow the Merced River up the trail. Some may need to rest to catch their breath but this hike is done by millions both young and old every year. Restrooms and drinking water are available at the bridge. You will marvel at the power of the river as it roars down the canyon. Be sure to look to the left for a distant view of Illilouette Falls. From the bridge you will feel the strength of the wind created by the falls. Get out your cameras and phones to capture it’s beauty. Consider hiking farther up the trail for closer shots. After taking great photos of Vernal Falls consider continuing up toward the next hike, the Mist Trail.
The Mist Trail +.8 miles – 2.4 roundtrip – Difficult
Looking up the trail toward Vernal Falls you will see what looks like a line of ants. Those are actually fellow hikers making the way up the Mist Trail. This is one of the most famous hikes in Yosemite. It is tough going up a waterfall 1,000 vertical feet, but have no fear you can do it. Hiking up the face of Vernal Falls you will get wet, but the spray also creates incredible rainbows. Often 2 rainbows can be seen. Most hikers wear a cheap plastic raincoat available at any store in the valley. Stop and take pictures as you take a rest. After reaching the top, celebrate your victory with more photos at the point where the falls plunge over. Most will soak up the sun, rest and dry out before heading back down or even better staying on the trail and hiking to Nevada Falls. Spend some time at the Emerald Pool but do not try to swim as every year people slip on the smooth rocks and are swept over the falls.
Nevada Falls +3.0 miles – 5.4 roundtrip – Difficult
After resting and enjoying Vernal Falls start hiking up-stream taking in the Emerald Pool and Silver Apron. When you come to a bridge, cross over to the left side of the river and continue up toward Nevada Falls. Mile for mile this may be the most scenic section in the valley. You will be spurred on by the sight and sound of the falls, drawn closer to their power and beauty. After a series of switchbacks you will reach the summit where the John Muir Trail crosses. Hikers going to Half Dome will continue on that path. Veer right toward Nevada Falls and go to the rail as the river plunges over. Soak in the power and beauty of nature as you recharge for your hike down. I recommend continuing the John Muir Trail back to get great views from a different vantage point. Somewhere near Clark Point, Nevada Falls, Yosemite Falls and the back of Half Dome can be seen from the same spot.
Half Dome +10 miles – 15+ roundtrip – Difficult
A bucket list hike for many outdoors fans. Half Dome is the most challenging of the Valley Floor hikes and not for the faint of heart. After following the same route up to Nevada Falls veer left and continue up the trail toward Little Yosemite Valley. Again stay left and follow the marker to the base of Half Dome. Backpackers with permits will camp here and ascend Half Dome early to catch the sunrise or late to bathe in the sunset. After a series of switchbacks you come to Half Dome’s famous cables. After carefully scaling the 45 degree ascent you will reach the top of the Dome which is large enough to cover 17 football fields. With caution, make your way to the Dome’s high point located at the north end. Work up your nerve to peek over the famous Diving Board or sit with legs dangling off. Scary. Make sure someone gets your picture. It will become your favorite! Enjoy the views and the fact that you have done something incredible. A side note on the ascent, consider taking the John Muir Trail up to conserve energy. It joins the path just before the Mist Trail. The cables for Half Dome typically go up the week before Memorial Day and come down the end of September
So there you have it, the best Hikes in the Yosemite Valley. Be sure to check out our other posts on the Secrets to getting Yosemite Reservations and our recommended hiking and camping gear. Please hit the subscribe button to get all of our outdoor tips.