Northern California’s Yosemite was the first place to spark the concept of national parks and the first land protected by the government for its natural beauty, back in 1864.
Thanks to Muir and President Lincoln’s foresight, these spectacular landscapes eventually became America’s third national park and Yosemite’s 1,200-square-miles continue to wow visitors from around the world today.
While its granite monoliths and endless waterfalls are Yosemite’s claims to fame, there’s far more to explore beyond the main gate. In fact, my first trip was not to see the famous Firefall or climb Half Dome. Instead, I ventured up Tioga Pass, a seasonal gate on Yosemite’s eastern side, for its spring opening day.
After stopping at Tioga Gas Mart for top-notch fish tacos, I followed the winding road past gasp-inducing waterfalls and vistas of Half Dome from Olmstead Point. This lesser-visited road is also home to Tenaya, Yosemite’s largest natural lake, as well as the hiking/climbing paradise of Lembert Dome. Venturing into the park revealed more natural wonders, but its most picturesque spot is Tuolumne Meadows. High up at 8,600 feet, Tuolumne is one of the Sierra Nevada’s most expansive high-elevation meadows and was a welcome respite from crowds. Here, I hiked around enough folks to quiet my bear encounter worries, while still feeling on my own in this undeveloped natural paradise.
Whether you’re visiting the Valley or exploring Yosemite’s vast wilderness, remember that this park is big and therefore tough to tackle in a single visit. With accommodations ranging from fancy in-the-park boutique hotels to historic lodgings in quaint towns, knowing where to land is a challenge. Consider what you want to see when picking your home base. Here’s the lowdown on park entrance locations and the best spots to stay near each.