America's national parks turn 100 years old this year. And in addition to getting a hearty happy birthday from their favorite overweight TV weatherman, the National Parks Service has launched its Find Your Park program aimed at educating people about the conservation areas we all love to flock to during the summer. Which gave us a novel idea. Since we already write about the world's most beautiful places and our most visited national parks, why not combine the two and showcase some of the most beautiful places IN a specific park. Genius, right? Well, that's what we're doing. And first up, Yosemite.
Though this stretch of water billowing out over granite is a phenomenal site in and of itself, Vernal Fall is almost as much about the journey as it is the destination. The waterfall sits along the famous Mist Trail, a seven-mile jaunt that leads hikers past the Nevada and Vernal Falls to a scenic overlook with views of Liberty Cap and Half Dome. As you might guess from the name, many hikers find themselves completely soaked by the end. A famous emerald pool sits at the top of the waterfall too, and while swimming in it isn't advisable, it's a nice place to cool off after climbing to the top.
Towering, ancient trees are as much a part of visiting California as wine country and the jaw-dropping coastline. And there's no place in Yosemite that tops Mariposa Grove for staring up in bewilderment at the giant sequoias. This one-square-mile grove is home to over 500 of them, most famously the Grizzly Giant, an 1,880-year-old tree that stands nearly 210ft. The hikes through here aren't tough, which means it's often one of the most crowded places in the park. Currently closed, it will be accessible all to visitors year-round when it reopens in 2017.
Perhaps a 3,600ft slab of granite isn't your idea of "beauty," but you absolutely cannot deny the sheer coolness of such a staggering piece of rock. El Capitan -- named by Spanish soldiers after Ahwahneechee Chief Tenaya who was ultimately captured here -- is said to be the single largest piece of granite in the world, and it's a destination climb for thousands every year. The epic monolith rises out of the lush greenery of Yosemite Valley and is the kind of natural wonder that makes you feel incredibly small in the face of its vastness.
These two lakes are probably the grandest of all the High Sierra lakes in Yosemite. In fact, Lower Cathedral is surrounded by Cathedral, Echo, and Tresidder Peaks, and affords visitors the sensation of standing in the middle of an expansive alpine crater. Located along the famed John Muir Trail (named after the naturalist who was first to climb Cathedral Peak), the eight-mile hike from Tuolumne Meadows -- best taken when Tioga Rd is open from June-October -- is almost as scenic as the destination.
The first real sight many visitors encounter is this 620ft waterfall at the entrance to the Yosemite Valley. It is neither the largest nor the most photographed fall in the park, but it's definitely the most accessible -- just a half-mile trip up a paved road from the parking lot. Which is a pretty short distance to breathe in the same mist that the Ahwahneechee believed would help one get married.
This valley in Northwestern Yosemite is kind of like the Casey Affleck of the park. Smaller, better looking, but considerably less famous than its big brother the Yosemite Valley. The area gained notoriety when John Muir led the first noted wilderness conservation movement to block a dam here in the early 1900s. He was unsuccessful, and the waterfalls and reservoir at Hetch Hetchy now serve to power and water much of Northern California. The dam takes nothing away from the scenery though, as tree-covered cliffs fall dramatically toward the blue waters below. The crowds are thinner here too, which makes it one of the easier parts of the park to visit.
This 2,425ft waterfall is the fifth-highest in the world, and the most famous of the thousands of falls within Yosemite. The water comes down with such force that the noise echoes through much of valley in the spring, and the rainbow that surrounds it on sunny days is one of the most magical sights in the park. An all-day, highly strenuous hike will get you to the top, and March is typically when you'll see the most water.
If El Capitan is the father of all Yosemite rock formations, then the Three Brothers are his sons. Like literally -- they're named to honor the three sons of Chief Tenaya. The highest is known as Eagle Peak, while the other two get the leftover-child names of "Middle" and "Lower" brothers. John Muir was said to have thought the best view of Yosemite Valley was from Eagle Peak. If you want to hike to the top, plan for seven miles up and back and an elevation rise of 2,700ft.
This scenic lookout 30 miles by car from Yosemite Valley gives you the most bang for your viewing buck. It sits at the end of Glacier Point Rd and offers a panoramic view over the high country, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls. It's also the starting point for one of the park's most popular hikes, a five-or-eight-mile jaunt down into the valley.
Though Yosemite is chock-full of rock formations, snow-capped mountains, and powerful waterfalls, does anything really beat a pristine alpine meadow for a perfect contrast? Here the raging Tuolumne River -- flanked by grass and towering trees -- slows down just long enough to meander between the peaks and domes. A rafting trip down the river is probably the best way to take it all in. Or, if you're headed on a climb up to Cathedral Lakes, this is your starting point.
One can't talk about the beauty of Yosemite without talking about Half Dome, the white whale of rock hikes that when first viewed by American settlers was deemed unclimbable. This giant towers 5,000ft over the Yosemite Valley, the most famous and visible peak in the park. Thousands of climbers every year brave the 10-to-12-hour hike to the summit, the last 400ft of which requires metal cables. The view from the top is one of America's most spectacular, and the feeling of accomplishment should make the hike down a little bit easier.
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