You might not think that April would be considered winter, but in parts of Yosemite, it can continue snowing through May. Many of the trails and roads throughout the park, especially those above 6,000 feet or so, don’t open back up until the summer, so it’s important to have a good plan. Don’t be discouraged though, there’s still plenty to see and do in the park in the spring including pretty much all of the most famous sights. The cooler weather also means fewer crowds on the trails and importantly in the parking lots, meaning it’s easier to get a bit more in each day. Spring is the best time to visit for waterfalls though as the rain and melting snow mean the flow is highest.
With two days being the average stay for visits to the park, there’s still more to see than can possibly be done. Thankfully, most of the main landmarks and famous sights like El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls are all visible from much of the park and close enough to drive between. Further sights are also worth trekking out to including Hetch Hetchy reservoir and the ancient sequoias in the Mariposa Grove. As the earliest prototype for the National Parks, Yosemite is massive and crams in a ton of scenery around, so it’s best to mix driving with hiking to see the most.
Yosemite has captured the imagination and attention of millions going all the way back to early enthusiasts like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. While the most captivating section is certainly the small seven mile long, one mile wide Yosemite Valley, just driving around the park is also incredible just for the sheer collection of different but beautiful types of landscape on display. In the north, alpine meadows and forests remain covered until summer. To the west, huge cliffs covered in ancient pines offer stunning vistas over massive green valleys. Parts even approach a pseudo-desert scrubland like the southern part of the state. While the snowier parts like Tioga Road, Badger Pass, and Glacier Point aren’t open, most of the park is accessible by April.
The best introduction to Yosemite is via the drive in along route 140 from Mariposa. There are other ways to arrive, but none offer the same level of jaw-dropping scenery so quickly. Driving along the river as it cuts through green canyons and big rocky cliffs helps build up the anticipation before arriving. It also helps set the pace of a visit while getting stuck behind slow-moving RVs on a one lane road for miles. You’ll quickly learn how to make use of the turnouts.
To get familiar with the park and take in one of the most famous views in the world – actually maybe the most famous thanks to Mac OS desktop backgrounds – head to Tunnel View. Best at sunrise or sunset, it’s just as thrilling and beautiful at any time. From the viewpoint right at the parking lot, nearly the entire Yosemite Valley is visible including El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Falls, and much of the meadow. If possible, arrive at sunset when the last traces of the sun light the top of the mountains and a warm-red afterglow bounces off of the clouds.
Start your hiking exploration of the Yosemite Valley at Bridalveil Falls. The “hike” is probably the easiest in the entire park as it’s entirely paved from the parking lot, only about .25 of a mile, and entirely flat except for a short slope up to the base of the falls. The view from the bottom is incredible and feels like standing right in the fall thanks to strong mist which can make the path a little slick. It’s incredible to see the fall up close and marvel at the size, considering it’s not the largest fall in the park at all.
For another of the big falls, and one less visible from the majority of the Valley, hike out to Vernal Falls. The trailhead is a bit confusing as the road to the parking lot says it’s for authorized vehicles only, but is actually open to regular traffic for parking. At worst, you can park at Half Dome Village like we did which only adds about 1.5 miles. The hike itself is about 2.5 miles round trip and while parts are paved, it’s more strenuous than the flatter tails, especially if taking the steps up from the footbridge to the top of Vernal Falls. The footbridge offers one of the best views of the falls and many visitors turn around there. For the truly adventurous, it’s possible to continue even further to Nevada falls, though this may open later in the spring as it did this year thanks to heavier snow than normal. Along the way are great views of Sentinel Dome and more of the valley walls.
Another great hike from the same trailhead as Vernal Falls is Mirror Lake. At about 4 miles roundtrip, it’s another easy one with pretty little elevation change. It also includes the most traditional wooded trail type hiking if desired, or basically an entirely flat walk along a service road on the other side of the loop if preferred. At the end, the lake is a small area where the river water builds up into a pool. From the clearing there are great views of North Dome and El Capitan which can even be seen reflecting in the water on clear days. Continuing around the lake, the full loop is around 5 miles, but there’s no reason you can’t just turn back at the lake after taking in the view.
After two of the longer and more strenuous hikes, a short break might be in order to recuperate and refuel. The Majestic Yosemite hotel bar is the perfect place for a relaxed refresh. Less formal than the huge, but worth peeking into for the grandeur of it, dining room, the bar has a nice food selection and pretty decent drink menu too. If your idea of getting carbs and electrolytes involves an IPA like mine, you’ll find it here. The cocktails are also very popular. Go for the descendant fries coated in secret spice as well – the saltiness and spice taste incredible after a morning sweating on the trails. There can be a bit of a wait, but it tends to go quicker than anticipated as people either leave before being seated and tables turn over quickly as everyone is looking to get back to the trails quickly.
After a little lunch, to avoid the post food coma, hit the trail at the Lower Yosemite Falls. The easiest spot to park is at the Yosemite Village lot and walk about .5 miles to the trailhead. Like the Bridalveil Falls hike, this is another easy, pretty flat, and mostly paved loop up to the waterfall and back. Halfway up is a nice spot for a good view of the upper and lower falls. Yosemite Falls is the largest fall in the park and actually among the largest in North America. The bottom gives a good idea of the massive scale of the fall and it’s easy to get wet too.
It’s also possible to get closer up to the top of the falls along the Upper Yosemite Falls route, though this is much more strenuous and can take up most of a day thanks to a long series of switchbacks along the route up. It also gets surprisingly crowded for the difficulty, so it’s best to do early. The trailhead is just a short walk from the Lower Falls.
For what must be the absolute flattest section of the park, the trail through Cook’s Meadow provides some awesome views of the park from the valley floor. Boardwalks and trails over the meadow allow hikers to get close to the scenery and often times wildlife like mule deer without impacting it. Along the route are some great views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and El Capitan from lower angles than many of the others. It’s a great hike to end the day when legs are most tired and shaky.
On the way out of the park, Valley View is worth a quick stop for pictures of the park over the river. If the river is relatively calm, you might even get a reflection of the mountains. It’s a nice quieter spot that makes for great pictures without having to take a hike to see the main sights.
If staying north west of the park, Two Brothers Pizza is an excellent option for dinner. The pizzas are delicious, even more so after a day hiking around the park in the fresh air, and even come in plenty of sizes from a personal pie to a family-sized one. The calzones are incredible too, stuffed with your choice of toppings in a chewy and supple crust. There’s even a few local craft brews on tap to aid recovery. There aren’t a ton of decent options anywhere close to the park, so having this great local pizza place where there’s plenty of room inside and even out on the patio, is great when staying outside the park.
For great accommodations, Rush Creek Lodge is the perfect place to stay. Only about 40 minutes from the Valley – closer than it seems in terms of places around Yosemite – it’s a great option for some rest and relaxation. The rooms are a nice and modern take on the classic lodge where you’ll feel more at home than anything resembling a cabin. There’s a massive game room for kids, smores every evening at the big fire pit, plenty of fire pits to hang out at at night, and not only two big hot tubs but a heated pool as well. A warm soak is incredibly perfect after a day on the trails. There’s also a tavern with a good beer selection of tons of CA craft brews. In the main reception lodge there’s also a general store with food and drinks, a pretty good coffee shop, and a gift shop for Yosemite souvenirs.
In a different section of the park, and easily accessible from Rush Creek is Hetch Hetchy. Early visitors to the area described it as a beautiful small valley, essentially a Yosemite-lite. Unfortunately, after the giant San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires that destroyed huge parts of the city in the early 1900s, the river that runs through the valley was dammed and a massive reservoir created. Even still, it’s an incredibly beautiful area and well worth a visit and hike.
The 5.5 mile round trip hike heads out over the dam, offering views of the valley below, the reservoir to the other side, and the numerous waterfalls that run down into it. The end destination is the massive Wapama Falls which must have been even more incredible before the reservoir cut off the bottom 400 feet of it. After the dam, it goes through a tunnel bored through the rock wall, along a fairly easy walk for the first mile, then out past one or two small waterfalls depending on the time of year. In the spring, the crossing past Tueeulala Falls can be quite wet as the water flows over the trail before proceeding down into the reservoir. During our visit, a small rock bridge allowed for an exciting crossing. Further along and after a potentially wet climb down some steps, the footbridge past Wapama Falls marks the turnaround point. In the spring the bridge can be somewhat like standing on the viewing platform at Niagara Falls. Bring a jacket or poncho.
At the complete opposite end of the park, the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias is a must visit stop. The drive down alone is beautiful with sweeping views over another valley, a drive through the sunny green Big Tree Meadows, and temperatures that may change every five minutes. On our way down it went from 55 and sunny to 45 and raining to 38 and snowing briefly before going back to 55 as we drove. The Grove requires parking and taking a short shuttle up, then a pretty easy walk on a paved trail briefly. Along the way, a bunch of the massive trees are along the trail including The Fallen Giant. After it, hikers can either head back or continue along the trail to The Grizzly Giant, passing several more huge trees. The Giant itself is the largest tree in the Grove and believed to be nearly 2000 years old! It’s massive base clearly shows just how huge these trees can be. From the Grove the southern exit is just around the corner, making for a good spot to end a tour of Yosemite.
Yosemite National Park has to be near the top of anyone’s bucket list for amazing sweeping views, unique landscapes, and a huge variety of terrain and scenery. At only four hours from San Francisco, it’s also fairly accessible and perfect for a weekend trip. While spring in the park isn’t as warm and summery as it might be in other parts of California, there’s still a ton to see and do around Yosemite even in the early spring, including all the most famous sights. Don’t skip out on the park just because the summer hasn’t arrived yet. It actually may be the best time to visit thanks to smaller crowds and massive waterfalls that peak during this time.