Yosemite Valley is truly the heart of Yosemite National Park in California. The majority of the parks most popular attractions lie within the seven mile stretch of the Yosemite Valley.
When most people think of Yosemite National Park, they have visions of epic waterfalls, lodges, massive granite cliffs, and the Merced River flowing through the valley.
Others think of hiking one of Yosemite's epic trails or perhaps bring their camera and take a photography class from the Ansel Adams Gallery.
It is best to plan your trip ahead of time to Yosemite as it is one of the most visited National Parks in the United States. More than 4 million visitors come to the park annually.
Visitors that show up unprepared in the middle of the day in the summer oftentimes find themselves spending more time in a car than in the park.
The majority of the park's visitors head directly to the valley! You will need to be prepared for crowds! Parking lots fill up early.
One thing to know is the valley is only seven miles long and less than a mile wide! This small space packs a punch of natural beauty!
The valley was made famous by John Muir and continues to attract millions of visitors each year.
Yosemite Valley Hotels
There are four hotels located within Yosemite Valley. Each of the hotels offers a different experience ranging from canvas tents to luxury stays.
Yosemite Lodge is located across from Yosemite Falls. The lodge is spread out over multiple buildings and has a pool, dining area, and gift store.
We really enjoyed our stay in this lodge. The room was comfortable and perfect for exploring the valley.
The Ahwahnee Hotel is the most luxurious lodging within Yosemite. It is actually one of the most luxurious lodges in the National Park System and is one of only four Class 1 (Criterion) lodges according to the National Park Lodge Architecture Society.
The four-class 1 Lodges are the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park, Crater Lake Lodge at Crater Lake National Park, and the El Tovar at Grand Canyon National Park.
The Bracebridge Dinner is held every winter in Bracebridge Hall in the Ahwahnee Hotel. the first Bracebridge Dinner was held in December of 1927 right after the hotels opening in July. Yosemite Park and Curry Company President, Donald Tresidder, envisioned a Yuletide celebration in the hotel’s dining room. Little did he know that this would become a true Christmas Tradition in Yosemite known worldwide.
Curry Village Cabins offer an amazing opportunity to wake up near a view of Half Dome. The best thing about the cabins is they have private bathrooms and super comfortable beds.
Curry Village Canvas Tents
Curry Village has a ton of canvas tents that can accommodate two to five guests. During the winter some of the canvas tents have heat. During the summer none of the tents have heat so you will want to be prepared for the weather.
Housekeeping Camp is a complex of partially concrete and canvas tents. They have picnic tables, bear boxes, and great access to exploring the valley.
Check out our epic Yosemite Lodging Guide to learn more about the lodges in the park.
Yosemite Valley Map
For a full-size map check out this topographic map.
Yosemite Valley Camping
There are four Yosemite Campgrounds located in the valley. These campgrounds total over 400 campsites with Upper Pines being the largest campground.
You will need to make a Yosemite camping reservation as soon as you know when you want to camp.
Reservations can be made up to five months in advance on the 15th of each month at 7:00 a.m. (PT) or 10:00 a.m (ET).
Camp 4 is located near Yosemite Valley Lodge. This campground is historically a climbers campground for climbing El Capitan and the other great climbs in Yosemite.
This walk-in campground has a small parking lot for registered campers.
Check out our entire Yosemite Camping guide to learn more about the campgrounds outside of the valley.
Yosemite Valley Elevation
3,966 feet above sea level
Yosemite Valleys elevation means the temperatures can be a lot different from Tuolumne Meadows or nearby Oakhurst, California.
Yosemite Valley Visitor Center
The valley visitor center is the main visitor center in Yosemite. You will find rangers available to answer questions, a movie theater, museum, and outdoor Indian village.
Yosemite Village is home to the grocery store/gift store and restaurants. The village is near the visitor center and easy to reach.
Yosemite Valley Parking
Parking in Yosemite can be one of the biggest challenges you face when visiting the park.
There is a large parking lot near the visitor center that offers easy access to the YARTS Shuttle Buses. There is also a nice size parking lot next to Curry Village with easy access to the free shuttle buses.
There is also parking along the main road but this can get packed quickly.
If you are visiting on a summer weekend, holiday or really most days you will want to be in the park as early as you can to find parking. We have seen the visitor center large parking lot packed before 9am on weekends.
Driving in the Valley
Driving in Yosemite Valley is amazing but can also feel like you are in a movie. You never know what is going to jump out in front of the car.
From busloads of tourists trying to get a photo and forgetting they are next to a road to wildlife, you will want to be very focused while driving in the valley.
Staying focused can be hard when around every corner is a new thing to see and gasp in awe of. We highly suggest enjoying the Yosemite Valley Shuttle so you do not have to worry about who or what is jumping out in the road.
None of us want to be the one to hit a bear, deer, or even a chipmunk. This is not the memory you want to bring home from your Yosemite vacation.
There are now red bear signs around the valley showing were bears have been hit! Please if you are driving make sure you slow down and take your time.
Yosemite Valley Shuttle
One of the best ways to get around the valley is to hop a ride on the free valley shuttle buses.
There are bus stops all over the valley making it easy to visit the main attractions.
They run continuously so you do not have to stress you are going to have to wait for hours.
Things to do in Yosemite Valley
Tunnel View kicks off the start of the valley as you travel into the park on Highway 41 from Oakhurst to the park.
The view from Tunnel View over the valley is spectacular and not to be missed! Trust me this is the postcard photo you want from your vacation.
This is truly one of the most amazing views of Yosemite you will see while in the park.
As you travel from Tunnel View down into the valley you pass right by Bridalveil Fall.
Bridalveil Fall is 620 feet of roaring water in the spring. The falls definitely slow down in the summer but are still absolutely gorgeous.
There is a great walking trail that leads you to the base of the falls. If you are visiting in the spring be prepared to get wet!
Did you know there are 6 waterfalls in Yosemite Valley that are over 1,000 feet tall!
You can grab an amazing photo of Yosemite Falls from the Swinging Bridge area. One thing to know is the bridge doesn't really swing but it does have a bit of a bounce to it. If you are shooting a photo with a tripod or slow exposure you will want to try and get there early before it is crowded.
The boardwalks through Cook's Meadow offer the opportunity to stretch your legs and get amazing photos of the valley and Yosemite Falls.
Be careful if it has been raining! The boardwalks can get a bit slippery.
Yosemite Valley Chapel
Yosemite Valley Chapel has been an operating church for more than 135 years. The chapel continues to offer Sunday services.
The Yosemite Valley Chapel is the oldest building open for public use in Yosemite. The chapel was built in 1879.
The church was moved to its current site in 1901. In 1973 the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Yosemite Valley Church is one of the most popular Yosemite wedding destinations.
You can get an amazing photo of Yosemite Falls from the Yosemite Valley Church. The view of the falls is truly spectacular.
Curry Village is home to a large canvas tent village, cabins, and the Stoneman hotel.
The village offers great views of Half Dome and easy access to the Mist Trail.
Sentinel Bridge was made famous by Ansel Adams. The bridge offers the opportunity to photograph Half Dome reflected in the Merced River.
There is a parking lot just down from the Sentinel Bridge that offers easy access to not only the bridge but gorgeous views of Yosemite Falls.
Half Dome is truly one of Yosemite's most recognizable icons. Rising 4,800 feet over the eastern end of the valley floor. Half Dome's full height is 8,842 feet.
Every year thousands of people apply for permits to hike Half Dome. This 8.5-mile challenging hike to the top starts in the valley and passes by Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall before climbing to the base of Half Dome's steep backside.
Once hikers reach the backside of Half Dome they have to climb up a par of metal cables that are drilled into the rock. The final 700-foot ascent is inclined between 45 to 60 degrees. The Half Dome Cables are set up to help hikers reach the top though it is definitely not an easy hike.
A permit is required to hike to the top of Half Dome.
Yosemite Falls is one of the highlights of the valley. Falling a total of 2,425 Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America.
Yosemite Falls is actually three separate sections, Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet).
The trail is a loop but only one way is ADA Accessible. If you are looking for an easier walk take the trail to the right and work your way to the left when facing Yosemite Falls.
Horse Tail Fall
Horse Tail Fall is more popularly known as fire falls. This is because for a short time each year approximately mid- to late February, it can glow orange when this waterfall is back-lit by the setting sun. This unique lighting effect happens only on evenings with a clear sky and when the waterfall is flowing. Horse Tail Fall typically only flows during the winter and is easy to miss.
El Capitan rises 3, 593 feet above the valley floor. It is the world's largest chunk of exposed, unbroken granite and a sight to behold.
Thousands of climbers from around the world come to climb this world-famous peak.
You can park along the road and watch for climbers taking one of the 70 routes to the top. Binoculars will help make it easier to find climbers.
It is crazy to think that it can take 4 to 6 days to reach the top and climbers must bring all of their food and water with them. Imagine climbing with 50 pounds of water when you start the climb.
1903 Campsite location for Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir
Take a step where two champions for the outdoors camped in 1903. The historic visit of President Theodore Roosevelt to Yosemite included three nights; May 15 in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, May 16 in the vicinity of Sentinel Dome (.8 miles southwest of Glacier Point) and May 17 on the edge of Bridalveil Meadow in Yosemite Valley.
It was on the third night sitting by a campfire where President Roosevelt was Muir's captive audience. Roosevelt heard a convincing plea for Yosemite wilderness and for setting aside other areas in the United States for park purposes.
Roosevelt is known as the conservationist president as he protected approximately 230 million acres of public land during his presidency. He established the Forest Service and 150 forest service locations, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 National Game Preserves, 5 National Parks and 18 National Monuments. He also established the 1906 American Antiquities Act.
The Merced River meanders through Yosemite Valley. During the summer rafts can be rented at Curry Village so guests can spend the day floating down the river. Floating three miles down the Merced River is a great way to see the spectacular views of Yosemite.
Wildlife abounds in the valley you just may have to look for it a bit. We have seen bears, coyotes, deer, and more while exploring Yosemite Valley.
Park Ranger John Pro Tip:
Watch your speed limit within the park. Park Rangers strictly enforce the speed limits because of the number of people in the park and for protection of wildlife.
Several Black Bears are hit each year by speeding motorists. You will see signs marking areas known to have bears crossing. If you see a bear crossing sign in red, this is a location where a black bear lost their life after being hit by a car.
Trust me when I say this, nothing ruins a great time outdoors like getting a speeding ticket or hitting wildlife on the road. The biggest crying fit I saw in 20 years in parks was from a young girl that watcher her dad hit a deer.
Yosemite Valley Floor Tour
There are currently no tours in 2020
If you want to skip the driving and still see the valley of Yosemite you can sign up for a Yosemite Valley Floor Tour. These guided tours are offered multiple times during the day and also on full moon nights.
The Moonlight Yosemite Floor Tour is a great way to learn more about the park after dark.
Winter in Yosemite truly feels like you are exploring inside of a snow globe. There are so many great winter activities that can be done within the valley.
Most winters an ice skating rink is built near Curry Village with an epic view of Half Dome. The Ahwahnee hosts the Bracebridge Dinner each year.
Crowds are significantly less in the winter making it easier to explore the valley.
Additional Yosemite Resources
Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias - The grove is outside of the valley on Highway 41 next to the southern entrance to the park.
California National Parks - Check out all of the National Park sites you can visit while in California.
National Park Passport Books - Find out about this great way to track all of the national park sites you have visited.
Visit Yosemite Madera - The Yosemite Madera visitor center is located in the heart of Oakhurst, California. They have great volunteers that can answer a ton of questions for you before you get to the park.