Yosemite's 10 Best Hikes

From secret hikes to date hikes to cave hikes, San Francisco holds its own pretty well in the hiking department. Yosemite though? Yosemite owns the whole damn department with more than 800 miles' worth of hiking trails, glacier-cut rock formations, unlimited panoramic vistas, and too many waterfalls to count.

For whenever you make the three-hour drive to one of the West Coast’s 16 most iconic road trip destinations (right... now?), here are 10 hikes you won’t want to miss.

Half dome
Flickr/Yi-Liang (Lucas) Liu

Yosemite Valley
Distance: 14.2 miles, round-trip
Elevation gain: 4,800ft
Difficulty: Moderate/Difficult
Best time of year: Visit when Half Dome’s cables are up, generally May through October. Earlier is better for the waterfalls.
You can combine two fantastic hikes by taking the Mist Trail to the top of Half Dome -- Yosemite’s most iconic rock face. The Mist Trail brings you in close proximity to two major waterfalls: Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls (hence the mist). Then you climb to Half Dome’s 8,842ft summit. The last 400 vertical feet of the hike are so steep that cables have been installed to help with the ascent/descent. Despite Backpacker Magazine naming this route among its 10 most dangerous hikes in America, this hike is still so popular that the park limits visitors with a permit process. Note: entry for 2015's main permit lottery is over (it took place in March), but throughout the summer the park service will be conducting additional lotteries of 50 or so permits per day two days in advance. Boom boom pow.


Yosemite Valley
Distance: 9.6 miles, round-trip
Elevation gain: 3,200ft
Difficulty: Difficult
Best time of year: Spring and early summer, when the waterfall is at its best.
This hike has you on a switchback-filled journey from the valley floor to the Glacier Point visitor center -- and back. The views pick up after a mile when you climb out of the trees on the valley floor. After that, you’ll get a head-on shot of Yosemite Falls, plus views of Sentinel Dome, El Capitan, and Half Dome. There’s ice cream at the visitor center, which basically everyone who likes ice cream (so... everyone) uses as motivation for reaching the summit. And, if this uphill hike gets you down, you can always take the Glacier Point shuttle bus back to the valley, cutting the total distance in half.


Yosemite Valley
Distance: 7.2 miles/8.4 miles with Yosemite Point, round-trip
Elevation gain: 2,600ft to Yosemite Falls; 2,900ft to Yosemite Point
Difficulty: Difficult
Best time of year: Spring and early summer when the waterfall is at its best.
One of the oldest trails in Yosemite (built from 1873 to 1877), this hike leads to the top of the continent’s tallest waterfall (!!!), which measures in at 2,425ft. At one mile (and weaving through dozens of switchbacks), you’ll reach Columbia Rock. Then continue on to reach Yosemite Falls. For just another 1.6 miles, roundtrip, you can visit Yosemite Point for views of Half Dome and Eagle Peak, the highest point on the North Rim of the valley.

Panorama Trail

Glacier Point Rd
Distance: 8.5 miles, one-way
Elevation gain: 3,700ft with Sentinel Dome; 3,400ft without
Difficulty: Difficult
Best time of year: Whenever Glacier Point Rd is open, typically mid-May through early November. Waterfalls are best in spring and early summer.
What would you say if we gave you a downhill hike that includes Glacier Point and the Mist Trail -- plus Panorama Point, Illilouette Falls, and views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls? But yes, there is a catch -- there are 800ft of switchbacks after Illilouette Falls, as well as a lot of stone steps between Nevada and Vernal Falls. If can handle those two small obstacles, you’re golden.

Flickr/Andrew Davidoff

Glacier Point Rd
Distance: 13.8 miles, one-way
Elevation gain: -3,400ft
Difficulty: Difficult
Best time of year: Whenever Glacier Point Rd is open, typically mid-May through early November. Waterfalls are best in spring and early summer, but watch out for snow at that time.
Take a journey along Yosemite’s South Rim, feasting your eyes on Dewey, Crocker, Stanford, and Inspiration Point -- paired with the usual suspects: Vernal, Nevada, Yosemite, and Bridalveil Falls; Half Dome, El Cap, and more. For a hard hike, start at Glacier Point and lose 3,400ft over the course of your hike. For a really hard hike, start at Tunnel View and do the opposite. Even harder yet is figuring out how to get yourself to and from this hike. Three (complicated) options are laid out here.

Flickr/Brandon Levinger

Tioga Rd
Distance: 7 miles round-trip for Lower or Upper Cathedral Lakes; 8 miles for both
Elevation gain: 1,000-1,300ft
Difficulty: Moderate
Best time of year: Whenever Tioga Rd is open (generally June through October).
Cathedral Lakes are made up of Lower and Upper Cathedral Lake, which both provide views of Cathedral Peak (so named for its steeple-like formations). You’ll climb an aggressive 1,000ft in the first mile and then the trail becomes much more moderate. At three miles, it’s decision time. You can conquer Lower Lake or Upper Lake for 7 miles or both lakes for 8 miles. This hike starts at 8,600ft, so brace yourself for some serious altitude.

Flickr/Tom Hilton

Tioga Rd
Distance: 8 miles, round-trip
Elevation gain: 1,000ft
Difficulty: Moderate
Best time of year: Whenever Tioga Rd is open (generally June through October). In early summer, some creeks may be hard to pass without getting wet.
This hike starts at a lung-busting 9,700ft and climbs even higher to 10,599ft. This trail sits at the edge of the park between Mt. Gibbs and Mt. Lewis and actually exits the park toward its end. After an easy 2.4 miles, you start your climb toward the summit. Log cabins in ruins remain from Tioga Pass’ 1879 gold and silver boom. Toward the end of the trail, you reach Summit Lake and Sardine Lake, where you’ll take in views of massive Mono Lake 4,000ft below.

Flickr/Grant Montgomery

Tioga Rd
Distance: 11 miles, round-trip
Elevation gain: 800ft
Difficulty: Moderate
Best time of year:  Whenever Tioga Rd is open (generally June through October). Waterfalls are best in spring and early summer.
With this hike, the farther you go, the more waterfalls you see, which seems like a pretty fair deal to us. You’ll follow the Tuolumne River to Glen Aulin, crossing Tuolumne Falls and White Cascade four miles into the hike (and then California Falls, LeConte Falls, and Waterwheel Falls if you decide to make up to an 18-mile round-trip). At just 800ft of elevation gain, this hike should be a breeze. Oh, and White Cascade is a great place to take a swim in June and July, so pack a bathing suit.

Flickr/Esther Lee

Tioga Rd
Distance: 14.5 miles, round-trip
Elevation gain: 1,775ft
Difficulty: Difficult
Best time of year: Whenever Tioga Rd is open (generally June through October).
Don’t sign up for your Half Dome permit too fast, hikers. Clouds Rest is less crowded and boasts some of the best views of Half Dome (and North Dome and El Capitan and Glacier Point and lots of other stuff for hundreds of miles around you). The hike starts at picturesque Tenaya Lake and ends with some easy rock scrambling before reaching Clouds Rest. From there, look closely to watch hikers climbing the Half Dome cables.

Flickr/Laura Evans

Tioga Rd
Distance: 8.8 miles, round-trip
Elevation gain: -560ft
Difficulty: Difficult
Best time of year: Whenever Tioga Rd is open (generally June through October). You may have to cross a few springs if you’re hiking early in the summer.
This is a hike with a slow build and a big finish. For the first four miles, you may find yourself underwhelmed, but your journey will be well worth it when you reach North Dome and are greeted with views of Half Dome and Clouds Rest (which look huge from this vantage point). For a fun detour, don’t miss Indian Rock -- a rare granite arch -- just 0.6 miles off the trail.

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Alexandra Kenin is the founder of Urban Hiker SF. She's writing a book on hiking in San Francisco that will come out in fall 2016. You can sign up for book updates and special offers here.