Yosemite and Beyond

Bejeweled with cliffs, domes, meadows, lakes, and waterfalls -- the legacy of bygone glaciers -- Yosemite National Park offers visitors a degree of beauty and variety that is truly mesmerizing.

  from The Most Scenic Drives in America

7. Glacier Point
For its last two miles, Glacier Point Road leads steeply down to Glacier Point, where the vistas are among the park’s most spectacular. From a dizzying granite precipice, the overlook takes in the floor of the Yosemite Valley some 3,200 feet below, Half Dome, numerous waterfalls (Vernal, Nevada, Yosemite), and the High Sierra in the background.

8. Wawona Tunnel View
Backtracking to Chinquapin and heading north, the drive winds through forests to Wawona Tunnel, a passageway nearly a mile long that was dynamited through solid granite in 1933. Emerging from the tunnel, visitors are treated to a classic panorama as they enter Yosemite Valley. An interpretive sign in the parking area identifies by outline the valley’s major features: Sentinel Dome, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and astonishing El Capitan.

9. Bridalveil Fall
Plunging more than 600 feet down a sheer rock face, the waters of Bridalveil Fall are blown by breezes into a fine mist that descends as a gentle rainbow-forming shower on spectators below.

10. Yosemite Valley
Just past the Bridalveil Fall parking area is Southside Drive, a one-way road that ushers visitors into awesome Yosemite Valley. Formed about a million years ago, the U-shaped valley was scooped from the Sierra Nevada by massive glaciers. Following the swift Merced River, the route leads through the valley to the Curry Village parking area, where visitors can board free shuttle buses that tour the valley floor, including stops at several places in the park where cars are not allowed — among them the Happy Isle Nature Center.

11. Happy Isle Nature Center
Here the Merced River branches into several channels, creating small islands in the river that are linked by footbridges. The nature center, which features exhibits on ecology and natural history, also serves as the trailhead for hikes to a number of Yosemite treasures. A 1 1/2-mile trail leads to Vernal Fall and continues another two miles to the top of 594-foot Nevada Fall. Happy Isle became a distinctly unhappy place in 2001, when a massive quarter-mile-long rockfall decimated its forest and structures. Fallen boulders and trees can be seen there where they came to rest.

12. Yosemite Falls
Be sure to stop at Yosemite Village (located on Northside Drive, the westward-running part of the one-way road that loops through the valley), where a visitor center offers information and exhibits. From the visitor center one can hike (about 3/4 mile) or drive to Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America. At 2,425 feet, this regal ribbon of white water (actually three waterfalls in one, with upper, middle, and lower tiers) is more than a dozen times higher than Niagara Falls and twice the height of the Empire State Building. A footbridge at the base of the falls leads to a seldom-traveled path through the forest that skirts the site of John Muir’s cabin.

13. El Capitan
Among the best known and most revered of Yosemite’s wonders, this sheer granite monolith rises to a height of 3,593 feet above El Capitan Meadow.

14. Ribbon Fall
Just to the west of El Capitan, Ribbon Fall plummets some 1,612 feet to the valley floor. The park’s highest single waterfall (that is, the longest uninterrupted stream of water), Ribbon Fall is also the first to dry up in the summer. The reason: it drains only four square miles of land. Nevada Fall, in contrast, drains 118 square miles and flows year-round.

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