Yosemite National Park —one of the most popular outdoor meccas in the country—was created over 125 years ago. On October 1, 1890, President Benjamin Harris signed the legislation that made it the third national park in the country, behind Yellowstone and Mackinac, paving the way for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy Yosemite's majestic landscapes for centuries.
The wonders of Yosemite started to spread in the 1850s, when sketches and writings from artist Thomas Ayres were published in 1855. Stagecoaches started arriving with visitors from all over the country, and by the mid-1860s, people were living in the valley year-round; hotels eventually started springing up. Nowadays, Yosemite sees upwards of 4 million visitors annually.
Here are 10 things to see and do in Yosemite —though we could probably come up with hundreds at this 1,169-square-mile wilderness wonderland that's beloved by so many.
1. Hike Half Dome.
Yes, securing a permit to hike this iconic landmark takes planning, a permit (issued via a lottery system), and patience. Yes, it’s a haul to even get there: 12-15 miles round-trip. Yes, you’ll be tromping up the rock with dozens of other people. But hiking Half Dome is well worth all of the hassle. The elevation (4,800 feet at the summit), the grade and the slipperiness of the rock up the adrenaline, and the views from the top are as stunning as you can imagine. And, every time you see the rock’s profile on a postcard on a subsequent trip through the park, you can know you conquered it.
2. Camp in the backcountry in style.
Backpacking is great, but when you don't have to worry about schlepping the tent or food and cooking gear, you can concentrate on the amazing wilderness instead. At Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps , you’ll start and end every day with vittles prepared by a chef and bed down in cozy canvas tents. Five camps make up the High Sierra Camps, which are spaced between 6ish and 10 miles apart on a loop through some of the park’s most spectacular backcountry. Not surprisingly, it's a popular excursion, and reservations are issued through a lottery system (applications are being accepted now, so hop to it!)
3. Climb to Yosemite Point.
The dozens of switchbacks (and other hikers) along the lower stretches of this popular trail can be off-putting. But keep at it: Gradually, both will taper off, and you’ll find yourself gazing at increasingly amazing views of the valley floor from the top of the spectacular Yosemite Falls. Along the way, you’ll pass Columbia Rock, a popular turnaround point; another half-mile will put you at a bird's-eye view of the falls. But for the real glory, keep going to the tippy-top of Yosemite Point, with panoramic, brag-worthy views that make all the quad-killing climbs worth it. The entire 7.2-mile round-trip trek takes between six and eight hours, so get an early start.
4. Schuss down the slopes at Badger Pass.
Under a blanket of snow and minus the summer throngs of fannypacked tourists, Yosemite becomes a winter wonderland . But what many visitors don’t know is that winter also means the chance to visit California’s oldest ski area, Badger Pass . With 10 runs serviced by five lifts, the resort doesn't boast hair-raising runs or sphincter-puckering bowls; instead, you'll savor a no-attitude, laid-back day carving turns without breaking your budget on a lift ticket. If you visit in the winter, don't miss it.
5. Catch the action at Camp 4.
This walk-up campsite is ground zero for the sport of rock climbing, and the infectious spirit of community and camaraderie among climbers (and wannabes) remains just as alive as it did when pioneers like Royal Robbins and Warren Harding first started scrambling up El Cap and other sheer rock faces back in the 1960s and '70s, much to the consternation of the rest of the world. You’ll have to arrive early (the ranger station opens at 8:30 am, but a line usually forms long before then) to snag one of the 35 no-reservation sites from spring through fall. But even if you’re not staying at Camp 4 , a visit to this legendary spot—which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places—is a must-do, especially for climbing enthusiasts.
6. Get soaked on the Mist Trail.
This popular trail is like Mother Nature’s version of a Slip ‘N Slide. For a rigorous excursion perfect for families with older kids (younger ones will have trouble with the steep steps), it’s hard to top the delightfully drenched hilarity that ensues when you’re making your way up about 600 ridiculously steep steps while being soaked from the water from Vernal Falls. If you’re not laughing at yourself, you’ll surely be laughing at other ill-prepared hikers, some wearing trash bags, others in flip flops.
In all seriousness, though, when the falls are roaring in spring and early summer, the granite steps are extremely slippery (i.e., wear proper hiking shoes with good grip). And stay on the trail: Sadly, deaths are a regular occurrence among the unwise souls who climb over the rails at the top of Vernal Falls.
7. Stargaze at Glacier Point.
One of the most commanding viewpoints on the continent, Glacier Point , which towers 3,214 feet above Yosemite Valley, also is an ideal spot to soak up sublime views of the night sky. In the summer months, join amateur astronomers who set up telescopes at there on Saturdays. Or sign up for astronomy walks or talks in Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, and Wawona.
8. Pedal through Yosemite Valley.
Yes, Yosemite’s free shuttle is great for getting around the park easily. But it’s still a shuttle. So hop on two wheels instead for the ultimate freedom in exploring the relatively flat valley, which has 12 miles worth of trails. It’s also worth it to check out Yosemite’s programming, which includes bike-centric events like full moon rides.
9. Splurge on a stay at the "Ahwahnee Hotel."
OK, so this hotel is technically called the "Majestic Yosemite Hotel" thanks to a dispute between the park and a former concessionaire . But to us, it will always be the Ahwahnee. Regardless of the name of the hotel, a night at this grand dame will still set you back about $400 (or higher). But trust us, you won’t be thinking about your wallet when you’re sitting on the back patio, cocktail in hand, gazing up at the soaring rock walls. Dating to 1927, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel has recently undergone a renovation that spruced up rooms, and you’re sure to swoon at the soaring ceilings in the knock-your-socks-off dining room. For a less pricey alternative, pop in for brunch.
10. Marvel at the climbers on El Capitan.
After a long day exploring the park, grab your binoculars and some beers (the Village Store is incredibly well stocked) and swing by Yosemite Meadow to watch climbers on the biggest and baddest hunk of rock in the world, which soars some 3,000-plus feet into the sky. Toast to their accomplishments—or dream about the day when you, too, just might be joining them.