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Best hikes in Yosemite National Park

a photo of a man walking in yosemite national park
(Image credit: Getty/Artur Debat)

A trip to Yosemite National Park is a chance to take in the natural wonders of the American West. This beloved park in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California is known for incredible views of mountains and waterfalls, awe-inspiring flora and fauna, such as giant sequoia trees, and plenty of dynamic and challenging hikes. 

Whether you’re planning your first trip to the park or you’re returning in search of an entirely new adventure, it’s helpful to have a bit of background information about the best hikes in Yosemite. We spoke with park expert Barabara Boast, Regional Manager of the US West Coast Division of the Backroads (opens in new tab) tour company, to get the inside scoop on the best hikes for every skill level and curiosity. 

Before you lace up your best hiking boots and hit the trails, Boast suggests that park-goers get the lay of the land from their car. “To get the best views as you enter the valley,” says Boast, “Enter the park from the south. Follow highway 41 towards the Wawona entrance.” Then, for the most spectacular views, she recommends “stopping on the highway to see the Big Trees in Mariposa Grove.”

Valley Loop Trail 

Start point: Lower Yosemite Fall
End point: Lower Yosemite Fall
Walking time 5 to 7 hours for full loop
Trail difficulty: Easy to Moderate

This year-round loop trail picks up some of the park’s oldest roads, which at times can be difficult to navigate, so be sure to pack a GPS or map. With moderate elevation changes, this is one of Yosemite's more steady trails, taking you past iconic sites like El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall. The trail offers a full- or half-loop option. The full is 11.5 miles and takes at least five hours, while the 7.2-mile half loop is a good half-day hike, taking just two to three and a half hours. 

Pohono Trail

Start point: Glacier Point
End point: Tunnel View
Walking time: 5 to 10 hours
Trail difficulty: High

You can hop on this trail from a few different trailheads, but however you get there, this is a strenuous hike. Of course, it comes with a major pay-off in terms of views. If you’re up for a challenge, Boast recommends starting your trip to Yosemite here. After entering the park from the south, she points visitors to the Pohono Trail from the Glacier Point trailhead. “This entry will make your first view of the valley by foot (not car) and it will truly take your breath away. Most people see this view from their car for the first time — be one of the few that earn the view!”

Yosemite National Park

(Image credit: Getty/Matteo Colombo)

Panorama Trail

Start point: Glacier Point
End point: Happy Isles
Walking time: 6 hours
Trail difficulty: High

This is Boast’s favorite hike, and she visits the park every year. It offers challenging terrain, especially during a snowy winter, and covers 8.5 miles of trail with plenty of elevation change “The trail has 1,000 feet of climbing and almost 3,000 feet of descending, so watch your knees!” says Boast. The highlight for her is a “Stop at the top of Nevada Falls, where you’ll have stunning views of Half Dome and the entire valley.”

Soda Springs Trail

Start point: Lembert Dome
End point: Lembert Dome
Walking time: 1 hour
Trail difficulty: Easy

For hikers looking for a flat, leisurely morning hike, this is a great loop option. The path follows a gravel road past Soda Springs, where fresh effervescent water comes straight from the Earth. You can follow the trail in a loop back to where you parked or continue on to the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center for further hiking. 

a photo of a couple in Yosemite National Park

(Image credit: Getty/Steve Smith)

Four Mile Trail

Start point: Four Mile Trailhead
End point: Glacier Point
Walking time: 3 to 4 hours one way
Trail difficulty: High

You’ll get stunning valley views at the top of this strenuous hike, which takes you to the peak of Glacier Point. After a steady climb of over four miles, sit back and take in everything Yosemite has to offer, including a breathtaking view of El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Half Dome. Once you’ve summited, you can head back down or extend your trek along Panorama Trail to the Happy Isles Trailhead 8.5 miles further on. 

Yosemite Falls Trail 

Start point: Camp 4
End point: Camp 4
Walking time: 2 to 3 hours
Trail difficulty: Moderate

This climb takes you up 2,425 feet to the top of Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America. The first mile (and 1,00 feet of elevation) brings you to Columbia Rock, which in itself is quite the viewpoint, including a panorama of the valley, Half Dome and Sentinel Rock. You can keep climbing for increasingly clearer views of the waterfall, culminating in a difficult climb to the top of the falls. 

Yosemite half dome

(Image credit: Getty/SusanGaryPhotography)

Half Dome Trail

Start point: Happy Isles Trailhead
End point: Happy Isles Trailhead
Walking time: 10 to 12 hours
Trail difficulty: High

This is one of the most strenuous, and possibly infamous trails in Yosemite. It consists of a 14- to 16-mile roundtrip loop that ascends 4,800 feet. Because the trail is mostly exposed, you’ll have regular views of waterfalls, the valley, and the High Sierra mountains. Note that this hike takes serious planning and preparation, so be sure to check sunrise and sunset times and bring plenty of water and fuel. You’ll finish your ascent of Half Dome using a set of metal cables affixed to the rock. The cables are only installed between late May and early October. 

Mirror Lake Trail

Start point: Mirror Lake Trailhead
End point: Mirror Lake Trailhead
Walking time: 2 to 3 hours
Trail difficulty: Easy

This mostly flat loop trail takes you past Tenaya Creek and over bridges, offering beautiful views of the flat, quiet lake, and peaks surrounding. The park has installed informative exhibits along the trail that explain the cultural and geological history of the area. The hike has a moderate 100-foot elevation, making it the perfect mild half-day hike for visitors weary of climbing. 

Before setting out on a hike, whether in Yosemite or on the best hikes in Yellowstone National Park, it’s important to get your kit right. Here’s the best hiking boots to invest in, and a guide to how hiking boots should fit. We’ve also got advice on how to stay safe when hiking alone. 

Lizzy Briskin is a food and health writer and editor, chef, runner, recipe developer, and photographer. A Boston native, she now lives in New York, where she can be found exploring, tasting and enjoying all that the city has to offer, that is when she’s not chasing the sun in Los Angeles.