How to Explore Yosemite’s Waterfalls This Spring

You can practically hear Peter Coyote narrating the Ken Burns’ documentary. It is America’s Third National Park but, thanks to John Muir’s powerful voice from the wilderness and his famed invitation to President Roosevelt in 1903 to camp with him in Yosemite, it was the park that inspired Roosevelt’s fight to preserve Yosemite and lay the groundwork to create the National Park Program. Muir’s lifelong mission to protect Yosemite captured the national imagination and once you visit, you’ll see why. Why go now: Waterfalls. Giant waterfalls. Yosemite’s famous falls are gushing in the spring and although the park is jaw-dropping year-round, the waterfalls are, well, majestic. But wait a sec: Yes. There will be crowds. And, while the park has instituted a reservation system that eases bottlenecks, bring patience and plan ahead. 

1. Basecamp Option No. 1

Tenaya at Yosemite is just 3 miles from the South Entrance (less busy) and is a destination in itself. Beautiful grounds laced with hiking and biking trails feature a full-service lodge, restaurants, bar, pool and spa. But you’ll want to book one of the Explorer Cabins, a group of private two-bedroom tiny homes, in a quiet wooded glade along the creek below the main lodge. Explore the trails with guided hiking tours or rent a mountain bike and get directions to the hidden waterfall. Tenaya also offers guided tour packages from Yosemite 360, with insightful guides who will give you a good orientation tour of the massive park.

Tenaya at Yosemite’s Explorer Cabins offer private quarters amid the forest. Photo courtesy of Tenaya

2. Basecamp Option No. 2

The town of Mariposa is 50 miles from the western (busier) entrance to Yosemite. The southernmost Gold Rush town, founded in 1849 by John C. Fremont has maintained its historical charm with former saloons and rooming houses converted into boutique hotels and upscale cocktail bars. In the historic charm, department try the River Rock Inn (an addition to a home built in 1891) or the Yosemite Plaisance B&B with private rooms and entrances (and meals by chef-owner Hélène Halcrow). For a budget-friendly option, try the newly renovated Mariposa Lodge, a charming motel-style property. For more lodging and dining, choices visit

Hiking and mountain biking trails with on-site bike rentals and guided tours at Tenaya. Photo courtesy of Tenaya

3. The Mighty Yosemite Valley

The big show, as it were, is Yosemite Valley surrounded by massive granite cliffs laced with thundering waterfalls showering rainbow mists from high above. This is inevitably the most crowded area of the park but here’s a trick. Pack your bathing suit and a towel and locate a picnic area along the Merced River, which abounds with wading and swimming holes accessed from rocky (sandals are helpful) put-in beaches off the picnic areas.  

4. Mariposa Grove (of Giant Sequoias)

Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias is a star (and often missed) attraction of Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock

Wow. Often missed by visitors champing at the bit to get to the Valley, the Mariposa Grove area is an example of how easy it is in a national park to ditch the crowds by hiking a mile or so off the beaten path. Make time to take the 7-mile Mariposa Grove Trail to Wawona Point which will take you out of the crowded shuttle area into a series of groves to the base of the Giant Sequoias and a final payoff with the view from Wawona Point. Add on the Guardian’s Trail Loop for even more neck-craning wonder. These trees are BIG!   

5. The Little, Medium, Big and Really Big Hikes

Every national park has the hike, in Yosemite, it is the Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall Trails, also known as the “Mist Trail.” And it comes in easy, medium and hard stops. The easy stop is to the footbridge below Vernal Falls but don’t stop there. Climb the giant staircase and walk through the eponymous mist to the top of Vernal Falls. Keep going and you’ll get to the top of Nevada Falls. For the really hardcore you can make the 10- to 12-hour hike to the famed “cable route” to the summit of Half Dome. To actually climb the cable route and summit, you have to luck out with the daily lottery for permits but the hike to the cables is adventure enough!  

Leaving so soon? 

There’s so much to do in the park but don’t miss these deep dives into the history of the area. 2 More Cool Things:

The Mariposa Museum & History Center

A massive and eclectic collection of artifacts and exhibits interpreting Native American, Spanish Settlement, California Gold Rush, Yosemite and Mariposa County History.

The Yosemite Climbing Museum

Yosemite was where modern climbing was invented. From the famed Camp 4 camping area in Yosemite Valley, a group of rebellious climbers made the first accents of the giant granite walls thought previously unassailable, including Half Dome. Founder Ken Yager was a young climber during some of the most daring portions of this rich history and has dedicated his life to celebrating and honoring “the Dirtbags of Camp 4” with a museum in Mariposa dedicated to their history making accomplishments. 

Yosemite’s tunnel view.

Getting there

Fresno International Yosemite Airport is a quick flight from SLC and a 65-mile drive to Yosemite’s South Entrance. 

Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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