Yosemite National Park is a treasure trove of natural beauty in the High Sierra. Yosemite Valley is the beating (albeit often congested) heart of this 1,200 square miles national park. One look at the valley and you can see why this is such a popular tourist destination not just amongst Americans but also among international visitors.
The sweeping views of towering granite cliffs with intriguing shapes from large meadows are nothing short of breathtaking. If that wasn’t enough, there are silvery waterfalls plunging over hundreds of feet plus lush greenery of incense cedars, ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, and giant sequoias.
Needless to say that some of the country’s best hikes are in Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite Valley may be most popular for rock climbers and hardcore hikers that strap onto cables to scale Half Dome. But beginner hikers or non-hikers need not be discouraged at all.
Yosemite Valley is made up of several open meadows and some accessible waterfalls which offer ample easy hiking opportunities without compromising on the views. In fact, the towering granite cliffs are perhaps best appreciated from the valley floor.
I’ve compiled a list of the 5 best hikes in Yosemite Valley based on my recent trip in the fall of this year. I’ve tried to break down the 21.1-mile Yosemite Valley Loop Trail into smaller, manageable chunks. These hikes are great for everyone including kids and elders.
My husband and I are avid hikers and have hiked in several places from the desert landscape of Sabino Canyon to the tropical escape of St. John. We had avoided Yosemite National Park due to fears of large crowds. But if you have the flexibility to visit from late fall to early spring and stay on weekdays, you can really enjoy the natural wonder in relative peace.
1. West Valley Loop
Distance: 6.6 miles
Elevation gain: 429 ft
Start: Stop 9 – El Capitan Meadow
This is the longest hike on this list but offers a great view of Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and possibly the best areas to relax along Merced River. You can start the trail at the parking lot near Bridalveil Falls or begin at the El Capitan Meadow Stop #9 of the Yosemite Valley Shuttle and walk counterclockwise.
That way the hike starts off with simply breathtaking views of El Capitan at the onset. You’ll cross the bridge and subsequently Northside Drive to find the El Capitan views accompanying you for a large portion of the hike. Carry your binoculars or zoom lenses and you might even be able to spot a climber or two on that staggering cliff face.
Take a left after crossing Northside Drive to get on the Valley Loop Trail. The trail will continue in the southwest direction, keeping close to the road. The trail also passes close to one of the iconic photo spots called Valley View which captures El Capitan, Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Falls all in one frame.
Further ahead lies the Pohono Bridge which is your cue to cross over and start going back eastward. As you cross the Merced, you will find one or two nice spots to get close to the river, dip your toes and soak in the relaxing vibe. The surrounding greenery reflected in the clear water makes it a tempting pit spot. Check out the cool red water measurement tower on this side of the river with markers for the levels.
On the way back, you’ll come across the trail highlight. The wispy Bridalveil Falls flow like a stream of silver against the black granite mountain. There is currently a restoration project going on near the falls. So we couldn’t get too close to the falls but you can still have a pretty solid view of them.
The work was set to finish later this year. Keep a tab on the National Park Service website before your visit about the completion of the project. After admiring the falls, you’ll continue eastward along the Valley Loop Trail and return to the shuttle stop near the El Capitan Bridge.
2. Leidig Meadow & Swinging Bridge
Distance: 5.8 miles
Elevation gain: 200 ft
Start: Stop 7 – Yosemite Valley Lodge/Yosemite Falls Parking
This was my favorite hike in Yosemite Valley given the incredible view of El Capitan as you approach it from the meadow on the opposite side. The trail starts from the shuttle stop 7 or the Yosemite Falls parking area. It passes through Camp 4 and initially shares about 150 feet of the Upper Yosemite Falls trail.
Stay to the left and continue on the Valley Loop Trail at the fork which separates the valley trail from the Upper Yosemite Falls steep ascent.
The trail crosses Northside Drive at about 0.7 miles The trail continues between the paved road and Merced River. It eventually brings you to the old El Capitan Picnic Area followed by the Cathedral Beach Picnic Area.
The trail crosses Southside Drive and merges again with the Valley Loop Trail at 3.5 miles. Besides El Capitan, you will also see spectacular views of Three Brothers and Cathedral Rocks along the way. This trail is a gem if you are looking for some solitude in the otherwise bustling valley of Yosemite National Park.
3. Lower Yosemite Falls
Distance: 1.2 miles
Elevation gain: 59 ft
Start: Stop 6 – Lower Yosemite Fall
This is one of the most populated and popular hikes in Yosemite National Park and for good reason. It’s only 1.2 miles long with hardly any elevation gain and gets you close to the lower section of the dazzling Yosemite Falls.
You can start this loop in the clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Start at stop 6 of the Yosemite Valley Shuttle or you could walk back from Stop 7 which has Yosemite Falls Parking and Yosemite Valley Lodge.
I’d suggest walking this loop in the counter-clockwise direction. It gives you a nice view of the falls from a distance at the 0.4-mile mark before bringing you closer. The first view is beautiful even if distant and showcases the upper and lower falls on either side of the nice rounded rock formations.
Continue northwards after that view and take the left at the T intersection towards the falls instead of joining the North Valley Trail on the right. Further ahead, you will come across an informational placard marking the area where John Muir worked in a sawmill in 1869.
The Lower Yosemite Falls lies just a few steps ahead on your right-hand side as you cross the street. Please be mindful and don’t stray away from the trail to get close to the falls. The falls may look gorgeous but the rocks around them can be really slippery.
Hopefully, you can find a tiny spot or angle that minimizes the crowd and captures your picture with the rushing water before circling back to arrive at the same bus stop from the other side.
4. Cooks Meadow & Ahwahnee Meadow Loop
Distance: 3.2 miles
Elevation gain: 262 ft
Start: Stop 6 – Lower Yosemite Fall
Starting at the same stop #6 of Lower Yosemite Falls, you can take a longer hike that offers more solitude than the Lower Yosemite Falls trail in most sections. This hike offers incredible views of the prominent attractions on the eastern side of Yosemite Valley – Sentinel Rock, Yosemite Falls, North Dome, Half Dome, and Glacier Point.
You will also pass Yosemite Valley Chapel, and Housekeeping Camp crossing the nearby bridge on Merced River.
The trail takes you really close to the National Historic Landmark Hotel – Ahwahnee. I highly recommend a detour for checking out the elegant architecture and artistic interiors of the place.
You can hang around in the lounge, grab a drink at the bar and check out any ongoing exhibits. The Yosemite Women exhibit was running at the time of our visit. It was so touching to watch the display of resilience, strength, and courage by trailblazers over the years.
5. Mirror Lake and Tenaya Canyon
Distance: 4.54 miles
Elevation gain: 282 ft
Start: Stop 17 – Mirror Lake or Stop 18 – North Pines Campground
Mirror Lake along Tenaya Creek creates an impressive reflection of the surrounding granite cliffs and mountains when filled with water. However, for much of the year except late spring to early summer, the lake is a misnomer.
If you can leave behind the expectations of an Instagrammable reflective lake, you can truly enjoy the hike for the beautiful views it offers. Half Dome, Ahwiyah Point, and Mt. Watkins tower around the lake area. Further along, you will also be greeted by striking views of the North Dome and Basket Dome.
You will also get to learn about the history of Ahwiyah, the original name of Mirror Lake, from information placards. It is endearing to learn how a place of natural wonder was once commoditized and is now returning to its original sublime state.
The Mirror Lake hike is quite popular so expect to see crowds in this section of the trail. However, most people will circle around Mirror Lake and make their way back. Walking further along to Tenaya Canyon offers many rewards like meadow fields of yellow wildflowers, brings you up close to jarred rock faces, and takes you around rocks that have fallen from those very towering mountains that you are admiring.
That’s a wrap
That concludes my list of 5 easy, best hikes in Yosemite Valley. There are of course other easy hikes in the region like Mariposa Grove or Tuolumne Meadow but that’s probably a topic for another post 🙂
The valley and its beauty are perhaps best enjoyed by staying multiple days during the low season. There are great lodging options like Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Lodge, and the tent cabins of Curry Village that cater to all budgets.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also try a couple of moderately strenuous hikes in Yosemite Valley like the trail leading to the footbridge of Vernal Falls (or even as far as the Falls if you’re super pumped) and the Four Mile Trail to Union Point. The Vernal Falls hike was quite populated for our liking but we definitely relished the challenge of the Four Mile Trail.
Keep in mind that Glacier Point Road is closed for renovation in 2022 and delays are expected even in 2023. So if you decide to do the Four Mile Trail, it will be an out-and-back trail instead of just one-way descent from Glacier Point Road. My recommendation would be to try and get as far as Union Point at least. There are gorgeous views of Three Brothers, Cathedral Rocks, Half Dome, and much more along the way.
I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments if you’ve hiked any of these trails. And if you are a first-time visitor to Yosemite, I hope this information was helpful in planning your visit!