Yosemite National Park’s Civilized Wilderness

Enjoy nature at its finest along with cultural amenities you might not expect in a national park.

Located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range about three hours east of San Francisco, Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful natural environments in the world. Home to stunning glacier-carved valleys, sculptural granite cliffs, dramatic waterfalls and groves of ancient sequoias, this 1,200-square-mile paradise has been protected as a national park by the United States government since 1890. Yosemite attracts more than 3.5 million visitors annually—a vast majority of whom see only the seven-square-mile Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite Valley

Compact Yosemite Valley boasts the must-see icons of the park, and for this reason is heavily trafficked, especially in summertime. The one-way loop road around the Valley is often jammed with cars, especially during “rush hour,” at sunset when day-trippers leave. (Avoid adding to the stream of cars while in the Valley by using the Yosemite Hybrid Shuttle. It's free, makes frequent stops, and the routes are easy to understand.) Don’t miss these highlights in the Valley:

Mariposa Grove and Wawona

Mariposa Grove, in the southernmost portion of the park, is an enchanting and expansive forest of Giant Sequoia trees. Come to this less-visited spot to see black bears, which scramble over the trails at dawn and dusk. But don’t get too close: A few summers ago on the grove trails, my family ran into a tagged black bear—indicating that he’d shown over familiarity with humans in the past. When we stopped to take a photo (from what we judged was a safe distance!), the bear decided he would cross the ravine that separated us to get a closer look. We left the trails (quickly) after this encounter.

The tiny town of Wawona is four miles north, anchored by the historic Wawona Hotel (Read our article about where to stay and eat in Yosemite). Adjacent is the Pioneer History Center, where you’ll find a collection of restored historical buildings and information signs posted to allow for self-guided tours. Buildings are generally open Wednesdays through Sundays in the summer. Catch a hair-raising 10-minute wagon ride from the Wells Fargo Building here on weekends.

Glacier Point and Badger Pass

About 30 miles south of Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point is accessible via a winding mountain road that is closed in mid-November through early May. Expect the drive to take close to an hour, even with good road conditions. High elevations make for spectacular panoramic views of the valley and a near eye-level vista of Half Dome. From December through early April, the same road in is plowed up to Badger Pass, a popular ski resort.

Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows is a wildflower-strewn sub-Alpine area with jaw-dropping views of the surrounding granite cliffs, small lakes and ponds and miles of easy, flat hiking trails. Again, because of high elevation and heavy snow fall, Highway or SR 120 (also called Tioga Road) to Tuolumne Meadows is open only from late May through early November. When visiting in season, don’t miss the 39-mile stretch of scenic roadway from Crane Flat to Tuolumne—one of the most scenic drives in California.

Hetch Hetchy

In the early 1900s, Hetch Hetchy Valley—described at the time as being as uniquely lovely as Yosemite Valley—was the center of a clash between politicians and preservationists led by Yosemite champion John Muir: The growing city of San Francisco needed additional water sources and hydroelectric power, and turned to the Tuolumne River to find it. After a drawn out, bitter fight, the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam, which resulted in the flooding—some would argue the destruction—of Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Although the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that resulted from damming the river is privately owned and thus off-limits to boaters and swimmers, hikers can catch a glimpse of two lovely waterfalls. Tueeulala Falls is visible about two miles from the trailhead near the reservoir; Wapama Falls is another half-mile beyond.


Although it is hard to have a true wilderness experience in crowded Yosemite Valley—especially in the summer—this overabundance of civilization has its upside: The park has innumerable activities for visitors throughout the year and there’s even a (limited) nightlife—something I’ve never found at any other national park.

• Art Classes. The Yosemite Art and Education Center offers free drawing and painting classes for adults and children from spring through till fall. (Some classes are even designed so that parents and kids can create together.) You can also buy supplies here.

• Biking. There are more than 12 miles of paved bike paths through Yosemite Valley, and these are ideal for bypassing the clotted roadway. Off-road biking is not permitted in the park. Pathways are level and easily navigable for young children.

• Fishing. Lakes are open for fishing year-round, and rivers and streams from late April through mid-November. Individuals 16 and older must have a valid California fishing license. If you forget your rod and reel or any other angling supplies, you can find what you need at the Yosemite Village Sport Shop.

• Galleries. The Ansel Adams Gallery displays original signed works by the noted Yosemite photographer. You’ll also find artwork by other contemporary photographers and a good collection of art books and handmade jewelry.

• Theater. Live theater programs are available in the summer evenings. Purchase tickets for a modest cost at the box office near the Valley Visitor Center. In past seasons, a talented actor has staged a series of moving one-man shows about John Muir. The content of these dramas is appropriate for children of all ages, but best suited for kids 8 and older.

• Winter Sports. Although many roads and trails are closed during the cold seasons, Yosemite offers numerous possibilities for winter sports, including cross-country skiing and snowshoeing throughout the park; downhill skiing and snowboarding at the Badger Pass Ski Area; and ice skating at one of the world’s most romantic outdoor rinks in Curry Village. 

[A previous version of this article was originally published in March, during our Alpha phase. It has since been updated.]

Destinations: Yosemite National Park

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Arts and Entertainment, Cycling, Skiing, Snowboarding, Snowshoeing

User Comments

Absolutely, you can't miss the Halfdome mountain and the epic El Capitan! Truly amazing...Indeed watching the bears in wild is a treat!! :-) Thanks for sharing the post!

OK, I'm ready to go back to Yosemite! We're camping in Tuolumne Meadows with another family in August. Can't wait. Last time we went it was sans kids and we did the Vernal Falls (see cover photo on article) - Nevada Falls hike. It's probably my favorite hike of all time. Haven't done Half Dome yet, but it's on the list!

Watch out for Bears! The last time I was in Yosemite the people I was traveling with saw 3 bears. Just my luck though, I didn't see any! Seeing a bear in the wild is really a treat though.

Before you die, hike Half-Dome! Hiking Half Dome was one of the highlights of my "hiking resume". It was challenging, but extremely rewarding! I will reiterate what I am sure all the guidebooks tell you: bring lots of water, and begin the trek early. Also, while there is a collection of very threadbare gloves at the base of the cables, I would recommend bringing your own. For good karma, you could leave them for a later hiker. :) Happy Hiking!