Encompassing almost 750,000 acres and 1,169 square miles, the majority of Yosemite National Park is designated as wilderness area. Yet most visitors will find themselves in three relatively developed areas of the park: Yosemite Valley, Southern Yosemite, and Northern Yosemite.
Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Village
The true center of the park is Yosemite Valley. This is where busloads of visitors gawk at the world-famous views of the massive granite monoliths carved from the Valley's walls. The Valley is also home to Yosemite Village, where the bulk of Yosemite's services and facilities are found.
The first stop for most visitors is Yosemite Village, nestled along both sides of the Merced River. Driving into the Valley by car is acceptable, but once you are there, park staff encourages you to leave your car in the day parking lot (no charge) and hop on one of the free shuttles. In fact, many roads in the east end of the valley banned private traffic to create a system of one-way roads for the shuttles and allow for extensive biking and walking trails.
A natural starting place on any visit to the park is the Valley Visitor Center, located in Yosemite Village. Explore the shops, the Yosemite Museum and the Indian Village. Medical services and National Park Service headquarters are located here as well. From this point, you can take the shuttles to The Ahwahnee, Yosemite Lodge, Curry Village, Happy Isles and Lower and North Pines campgrounds.
While it may be tempting to spend your time exploring the buildings and lodges, remember that you are in one of the most spectacular natural settings in the world. Easy walks, short hikes and more strenuous climbs open up breathtaking sights including Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake and Vernal Falls. There are excellent guidebooks available in the Valley Visitor Center, which detail hikes for every level of experience.
Wawona and Southern Yosemite
Visitors are often pleasantly surprised at the relative quiet in the southern end of Yosemite National Park. From the amazing views at Glacier Point, to the charming historical village of Wawona, to the magnificence of Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, the Wawona district is not to be missed.
Glacier Point, atop the sheer granite cliffs towering 3,200 feet above the Valley floor, offers breathtaking views of the entire Valley, and is especially popular at sunset. Check with the ranger about evening stargazing programs, and be sure to ask about the 'fire fall' tradition. The 16-mile drive up Glacier Point Road, past Badger Pass Ski Area, is somewhat hair-raising, but the views from the top never fail to impress.
The village of Wawona drips old-fashioned delights. The historic Wawona Hotel, built on the site of Galen Clark's original cabin, offers food and lodging with yesterday's charm. Duffers will enjoy the nearby gold course, originally built in 1917 and now the only links within the boundaries of a national park. Step back to an earlier time at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center, where park staff creates a living account of Yosemite's fascinating past. One of the true jewels in Yosemite's impressive crown is the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. You can take an open-air tram through the Grove, or hike on your own. Some of the massive trees date back 3,000 years. Tuolumne Meadows and the High Country
The Yosemite High Country comprises almost two-thirds of the total area of the park, much of it wilderness. Access to this remarkable area is via the Tioga Road, which crosses the backbone of the Sierra Nevadas. The road reaches almost 10,000 in feet in elevation at its crest at Tioga Pass.
Not far from the park entrance on Highway 120 West is the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and O'Shaughnessy Dam. Sparking an environmental controversy when built in the early 1900s, the dam and resulting reservoir continue to slake the thirst of the city of San Francisco. The area provides fishing, hiking and backpacking opportunities year round.
Tioga Road bisects the park's rugged high county, and takes visitors to Tuolumne Meadows, a spectacular sub-alpine meadow ringed by peaks and granite domes, and the Sierra High Camps, a rustic enclave for adventurers that offers hot meals and warm beds for backpackers, rock climbers and hikers in season.