Yosemite attracts three million annual visitors for good reason. With its gushing waterfalls, incomparable granite walls, alpine lakes and jagged peaks, the park boasts a grander landscape than perhaps any other on Earth.
Yet those who venture outside Yosemite Valley can still find solitude as well as scenery. Try these summer day hikes on your next visit to the mountainous mecca.
Taft Point: This 2.2 mile hike through a pine forest delivers a dramatic look at El Capitan. Park at the Sentinel Dome/Taft Point Trailhead on Glacier Point Road. Follow the signs west from the parking area. Look straight down 3,500 feet from behind a railing and marvel at the Taft Fissures. On the return, hikers can ascend Sentinel Dome and return to the trailhead on a signed loop that adds three miles.
Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias: Okay, this one does not quality as a crowd-beater, but it's outside Yosemite Valley and brings visitors up close with the world's largest trees. Park in the grove's lot or take a free shuttle from Wawona. Many hiking variations are possible, and hikers can visit the popular Grizzly Giant, Bachelor and Three Graces and the California Tunnel Tree by walking just a few miles. Giant sequoias can live longer than 3,000 years and walking amongst them feels like traveling back in time. It's a journey worth taking.
Elizabeth Lake: Visit a tranquil glacier-carved lake in the shadow of Unicorn Peak on this 4.8 mile outing. Park at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground, by the restrooms on B loop. Hike south through the forest. The first mile climbs most of the 800-foot elevation gain. A use path that surrounds the lake is worth a lap and adds about a mile. The ambitious can scramble onto 10,823-foot Unicorn Peak. The return is all downhill.
Lembert Dome: Take a gentle two-mile hike to a novel perch atop a granite giant that commands an inspiring view of Tuolumne Meadows. Though the slanted traverse across granite may feel awkward, it requires no climbing expertise. Park at Dog Lake Trailhead, hike northeast, cross Tioga Road and climb up the switchbacks beyond it. Turn left at the trail junction to ascend the east slope of Lembert Dome. The view quickly becomes grand as hikers climb above the trees, but it's just a preview of the glory to come. Still ahead is the summit, which looks like a rounded knob. Hike west across the sloped granite towards its left side. To avoid its steep eastern face, aim slightly left to circle clockwise around the knob. Pass by the southern slope and instead ascend the gentler west face. Cathedral Peak, Mount Conness, Ragged Peak and Mount Lyell are a few of the summits you can see on a clear day.
Four Mile Trail: If you've hiked the other hikes, you earned a classic trek in Yosemite Valley. This one is less crowded than some, more rewarding than most and, though difficult, offers an optional short cut. The aptly-named trail actually spans 4.6 miles from the Four Mile Trailhead along Southside Drive to Glacier Point, more than 3,200 feet above. Hikers will admire Sentinel Rock, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and much more incomparable scenery. The ambitious make this an out-and-back trip of about nine miles, though most hike up or down and catch a ride to or from Glacier Point. The park's concessionaire runs several buses between Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point each day from late spring to early fall; visit yosemitepark.com for details.
Parting advice: Bring water, hats, sunscreen and cameras. Carry a map and learn to use it; the best discoveries may be your own. Visit midweek if possible and avoid holiday weekends. Campers should plan six months in advance; seriously, the campgrounds book up that early. But visiting Yosemite is worth it. This writer's number one suggestion is, “Go!”— Matt Johanson is a high school journalism teacher and a freelance outdoor and travel writer. He is a lifelong outdoors enthusiast with more than 20 years experience in the Yosemite area and the author of "Yosemite Epics: Tales of Adventure from America’s Greatest Playground" and "Yosemite Adventures: 50 Spectacular Hikes, Climbs, and Winter Treks."