The tram tour of Yosemite Valley is fine, but to really appreciate the valley, hit the trail. On this heart of the valley walkabout, you’ll enjoy vistas of many of its most famed attractions.
Veteran valley hikers all have their favorite loops: long and short, Village Loop or Lodge Loop. Hiking options are limited only by the finite number of bridges over the Merced River.
This is The Trailmaster’s favorite middle-distance Yosemite Valley jaunt. Lengthen the described loop by continuing west to Bridalveil Meadow and Bridalveil Fall or by meandering east via the network of paths connecting The Ahwanee, Curry Village and Yosemite Village.
In spring, segments of the trail can be under¬water. Be careful walking along Northside Drive.
Day-use parking is available at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. Or take the valley shuttle bus to stop #8 right in front of the lodge. Walk to the eastern end of the lodge complex and parking area and curve up to Northside Drive.
Cross Northside Drive to meet the east-west trending footpath near its junction with Lower Yosemite Fall Trail and hike west (left) on the path. The wide path soon leads to the major Yosemite Falls trailhead and the wide paths that lead to the falls. Enjoy vistas of the three-tiered wonder as you continue south¬west to the busy parking lot of Camp 4.
Camp 4, by far the least expensive place to sleep in the park, attracts at least four kinds of visitors: Europeans (mostly young), Americans (mostly young), budget travelers of all ages and rock climbers.
Some of the best rock climbers in the world came to the valley to challenge Yosemite’s walls in the years after World War II. They gathered at Camp 4 to share their ideas about routes and gear.
Follow the path southwest through camp and surrounding woodland to Northside Drive. A crosswalk beckons you to cross the road and check out Leidig Meadow. The meadow, named for hoteliers Isabella and George Leidig who constructed an inn situated below Sentinel Rock in 1869, offers grand views of Half Dome, Clouds Rest and much more.
After admiring the meadow, double-back across Northside Drive and continue on the path a short distance to the actual crossing of the road and a trail sign indicating it’s 2.3 miles to El Capitan and 5.9 miles to Bridalveil Fall.
The path meanders between Northside Road and the willow- and cottonwood-cloaked north bank of the Merced River. Cross Northside Road to El Capitan Picnic Area or pick your own picnic spot along the Merced.
While hikers can’t help spending a lot of time looking up at the majestic walls of the valley, the valley floor is worth a close look as well. Yellow pine forest is the dominant environment, though tree-lovers will find other pines, including Ponderosa, lodgepole and sugar, as well as oaks, willows and dogwood. The valley’s large meadows are seasonally sprinkled with such wild¬flowers as Chinese Houses, California poppy, Western buttercup, Indian pink and star flower.
Continue another 0.5 mile west along the Merced to Devil’s Elbow, which doesn’t sound named for fun, but actually is kind of Yosemite’s Riviera—a sandy beach with plenty of flat rocks for sunbathing. The view of El Capitan from Devil’s Elbow was one of the great photographer Ansel Adams’ favorites.
Cross the river via the road over El Capitan Bridge, a great place from which to observe mighty El Capitan, towering 3,593 feet above the Merced River. Rock climbers are frequently seen ascending the monolith, one of the largest blocks of exposed granite in the world.
From the bridge, pick up the signed bridle path (“Curry Village 4.1 miles”) heading southeast. Admire the Cathedral Rocks and Cathedral Spires on the eastern side of the valley; some hikers think these rocks are as impressive as El Capitan. One of the most famous works of art inspired by Yosemite, Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite Valley, Winter, was created in 1872 by the renowned landscape painter Albert Bierstadt.
Cross Southside Drive, head briefly south, then east, on a two-mile stretch of trail in the shadow of the valley’s south wall. Savor magnificent views of the valley’s north wall, including Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls.
Hiking this stretch of Yosemite Valley’s floor delivers a view lost to most motorists. When you get away from what John Muir termed “blunt-nosed mechanical beetles,” and set out afoot, the scale and grandeur of all that stone meeting sky—Royal Arches, North Dome, Clouds Rest, Half Dome and more—increases exponentially.
Isn’t it romantic?
Well, a lot of people think so. Yellow Pine Beach and Sentinel Beach along the Merced River are favorite sites for weddings. Cross Southside Drive to visit the fine facilities and check out the nuptials-friendly scene: a pretty part of the river, lovely meadows and views of Yosemite Falls.
Back on the trail, cross Sentinel Creek and after another 0.25 mile passes a junction with Four-Mile Trail that ascends to Glacier Point. Continue another 0.25 mile and cross Southside Drive to Swinging Bridge Picnic Area. Hike over the bridge and return to Yosemite Lodge via the paved bike path that skirts Leidig Meadow.
Interested in more hikes in Yosemite? Check out my HIKE Yosemite Pocket Guide.