Yosemite National Park and Yosemite Valley are world famous for impressive cliffs, waterfalls and rock formations—the result of millions of years of glacial activity.
A Yosemite day tour from San Francisco is a popular way for San Francisco visitors to see Yosemite Valley since the park is only about a three and a half hour drive away.
Refer to my Yosemite National Park Map to help locate and identify the following points of interest most of which can be viewed either from Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point or Tioga Road:
Probably the most recognized symbol of Yosemite, this huge domed granite mountain rises over 4,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and is 8,800 feet high.
Glacial activity trimmed the northwest side of Half Dome leaving a 2,200 foot cliff with the steepest vertical grade in the US. Thought unclimbable for many years, there are now several known routes up the face of Half Dome. Hiking up the southwest side is a much easier way to reach the top of Half Dome.
A hike to the summit of Half Dome can be accomplished in one or two days. From the valley floor you climb past both Nevada and Vernal Falls to Little Yosemite Valley. Camp here or do the complete route in one long 10-14 hour day. Although the climb is steep it is crowded on summer weekends so crowded that permits will be required on weekends in 2010–11 for Half Dome’s top half. The National Park Service has produced an excellent video that you should watch if you are contemplating this very difficult hike.
A 3,000 foot high block of granite on the Northern side of Yosemite Valley is known as El Capitan. The vertical face of “El Cap” is a favorite of experienced rock climbers with dozens of named (and difficult) climbing routes. Hikers can get to the top via a trail that begins at Yosemite Falls.
El Capitan (like Half Dome) was considered impossible to climb until a combination of improved skills, expansion bolts, pitons and rope and a 47 day effort led to the first success in 1958. By 1970 the first free climb was completed. January 14, 2015 two men, who climbed for 19 days, completed the first free ascent of the notoriously difficult Dawn wall—the steepest, tallest, blankest section of El Cap.
Horse Tail Fall — Natural Yosemite Firefall
“Let the Fire Fall!” This shout, by a ranger leading the nightly campfire program at Camp Curry, signaled the event everyone had been waiting for. Glowing embers—all that was left of a large fir bark fire—were carefully raked over the edge of the cliff at Glacier Point, 3,000 feet above, to form what looked like a waterfall of fire.
The Yosemite Firefall tradition, which began as early as 1872, ended in 1968 but in recent years visitors to the valley have discovered a natural phenomenon that some are calling a natural Yosemite Firefall.
For a few days in late February the final rays of the setting sun illuminate the wispy flow of almost invisible Horse Tail Fall, a seasonal waterfall just east of El Capitan, such that it resembles liquid fire illuminating the surrounding cliff.
Cathedral Rocks and Spires
Higher, Middle, and Lower Cathedral Rocks and directly adjacent Higher and Lower Cathedral Spires on the opposite side of the valley from El Capitan, form the canyon through which Bridalveil Creek flows.
These cliffs, buttresses and pinnacles are also popular rock climbing locations with Middle Cathedral Rock being the most popular.
The Three Brothers
Just East of El Capitan, the Three Brothers rock formation includes Eagle Peak, Middle Brother and Lower Brother.
The Three Brothers are said to be named for the three sons of Tenaya, the last chief of the Ahwahneechee tribe of Native American Indians.
This granite peak overlooks Yosemite Valley from a location between Cathedral Rocks and Half Dome on the Southern side of the valley opposite Yosemite Falls.
There are three difficult climbing routes up Sentinel Rock. Those who attempt the climb need to beware of the dangerous descent.
Often the first water fall visitors to Yosemite Valley see, Bridalveil Fall drops 620 feet from a U-shaped hanging valley. Once just a stream flowing down a valley until glacial activity carved away Yosemite Valley leaving this ‘valley that falls off a cliff.’
Bridalveil Fall flows all year transforming from a thunderous torrent in the spring to a light swaying flow later in the season.
An easy one half mile hike on a paved trail will take you to the base of this waterfall. This photo is from the parking area next to it, but Bridalveil is visible from many locations in the valley and from a distance as you enter the park.
Yosemite Falls is actually three separate falls, Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 ft.), Middle Cascades (675 ft.) and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 ft.). The total 2,425 foot drop makes Yosemite Falls the highest in North American and fifth tallest waterfall in the world.
All three sections of Yosemite Falls can be seen from Glacier Point.
Frequently dried up by August, Lower Yosemite Fall is still the most visited landmark in Yosemite because of its easy accessibility. A hike to Upper Yosemite Fall, by contrast, is a strenuous, all-day endeavor.
Each winter an ice cone up to several hundred feet high forms at the base of the waterfall. The ice cone typically completely disappears by early April.
The photo to the left was shot on March 25, 2009 with a telephoto lens from the other side of Yosemite Valley. Winter is a great time to visit the valley, followed closly by early spring when you may have the experience of watching Frazil Ice (video) form.
The beauty and grandeur of Yosemite Falls was instrumental in the preservation of the park motivating key individuals to call for conservation of the valley’s natural wonders and eventually the action by President Abraham Lincoln to set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees for the enjoyment of the public in 1864.
Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall
These two waterfalls are best seen from Glacier Point or by hiking the 7 mile round trip Mist Trail. Nevada Fall (594 foot) is above Vernal Fall (317). Both flow all year.
Be careful to head warning signs and watch your step as the Mist Trail is the most dangerous trail in the valley. Also be prepared to get wet, very wet in spring and early summer. A number of hikers have entered the river to cool off or take pictures and been swept away.
Return to Yosemite Valley via the John Muir Trail for different views.
Ribbon Fall is the seventh highest waterfall in the world at 1,610 feet. President Theodore Roosevelt camped with naturalist John Muir in the meadow below the fall during his historic visit in 1903 where they discussed doing some “forest good.”
Ribbon Fall typically dries up by mid- to late-summer. The waterfall is next to El Capitan on the opposite side of the Valley from Bridalveil Fall.
There are no trails to either the base or the top of Ribbon Fall.
With panoramic views of Yosemite Valley, including Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Nevada and Vernal Falls as well as the High Sierra—Glacier Point is the most spectacular view in Yosemite Park.
The road to Glacier Point is usually closed beyond Badger Pass Ski area from November to May.
Although Base Jumping from El Capitan is no longer allowed in the park. Hang Gliders are able to launch, under strictly controlled conditions, from Glacier Point and land in Yosemite Valley.
An 88 year tradition of a nightly Fire Fall from Glacier Point ended when the Glacier Point Hotel—the owners performed the ritual—burned down in 1968.
One of the most famous views of Yosemite Valley is from a view point on Highway 41 known as Tunnel View. Just after exiting Wawona Tunnel when entering the valley from the south you will see El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall on opposite sides of the valley and Half Dome in the distance.
Pull outs along Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120) near the tunnels provide great views of El Capitan, Half Dome, the Yosemite Valley and, far below, the Merced River. Because the pull outs are on the right side heading toward Yosemite Valley, some near tunnel exits or sharp turns, it is easier and safer to stop at them when traveling in that direction.
The most famous scenic drive in Yosemite Park stretches 39 miles from Crane Flat to Tioga Pass through forests, meadows, lakes and granite domes. Open in summer only, the Tioga Road was originally a wagon road across the Tioga Pass built by the Great Consolidated Silver Company in 1883.
This stunningly picturesque sub alpine region is a great place to camp and hike with many varied trails. Near the Western entrance to Yosemite, the Tuolumne Meadows area is only accessible by car during the summer via Tioga Road.
California’s highest automobile pass, Tioga Pass, is where Tioga Road (Highway 120) enters Yosemite Park’s western edge crossing the Sierra Nevada’s crest at 9,945 feet. Mono Lake is 13 miles east of the park’s boarder. Map
While you may see some pretty large trees scattered throughout Yosemite National Park—such as the one in the photo to the right—they really don’t compare to the trees in three groves of Giant Sequoias in the park which I cover in another illustrated article.
Wawona is not far from the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and the South entrance to Yosemite Park.
The Wawona Hotel, dating form the late nineteenth century, and other historic buildings comprising the Pioneer Yosemite History Center are accessible by car year-round. During the summer you can enter the restored buildings at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center where people in period costumes portraying homesteader, mountaineer and cavalry trooper will share Yosemite Valley history with visitors.