Off the Beaten Path in One of America’s Most Beloved National Parks

Cathedral Beach in Yosemite National Park
Cathedral Beach in Yosemite National Park (Flickr: Todd Petrie)

Yosemite Valley is a spectacular place to visit at least once in your life. It’s surrounded by California’s most majestic sights – the imposing granite monolith that is the El Capitan, the coveted summit of the Half Dome, the iconic vista at Tunnel View, and of course, Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest in North America.

All these will astound just about anyone and yet, they don’t even begin to cover half of one of America’s greatest and oldest national parks.

Baptized a national park in 1890 almost two decades after Yellowstone, Yosemite National Park is a stunning collection of impressive pieces of natural art, from its granite peaks and thundering waterfalls to its beautiful meadows and icy cool streams. It’s a 747,956-acre of glorious land, and most of it ventures beyond what people see from the valley floor.

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Inspiration Point. Skip the often-crowded Tunnel View, take a steep but short 1.3-mile hike through the woods onto Inspiration Point and you’ll be rewarded with incomparable views of the Valley from 5,390 feet. Without the (shutter) trigger happy tourists competing for the best photo spot, you’ll be able to just breathe it all in.

Tenaya Lake (Flickr: Frank Kovalchek)
Tenaya Lake (Flickr: Frank Kovalchek)

Tenaya Lake. While easily accessible and fairly popular, being on State Route 120 (Tioga Road) north of the 140 where Yosemite Valley is located, alpine lake Tenaya doesn’t get as much foot traffic as Sentinel Beach and Merced Valley. It’s cool, clear water surrounded by granite slopes and tree-lined shores is a terrific place for a cool swim during those hot summer days in the park, as well as for canoeing or just a nice quiet picnic.

Tuolumne Meadows (Flickr: Jesse! S?)
Tuolumne Meadows (Flickr: Jesse! S?)

Tuolumne Meadows. Those who venture out of Yosemite Valley onto Tioga Road in the north are rewarded with the golden sub-alpine fields of Tuolumne. This sweeping part of the park offers a plethora of attractions – from wildlife sightings, cool creeks and granite domes. Like nearby Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows are easily accessible but less crowded than the meadows in the valley.

Upper Cathedral Lakes (Flickr: Brandon Levinger)
Upper Cathedral Lakes (Flickr: Brandon Levinger)

Cathedral Lakes. The extraordinary pair (Upper Cathedral Lake, Lower Cathedral Lake) take a little bit of effort to see, one that involves a 7-mile round trip hike with a 1,000-foot elevation gain from Tuolumne Meadows, but definitely more than worth your while. Go on a day hike or make it a stop during your wilderness trip on the historic John Muir Trail – whatever you do, make sure to take a dip in the refreshing water.

Waterfalls at Hetch Hetchy (Flickr: Anita Ritenour)
Waterfalls at Hetch Hetchy (Flickr: Anita Ritenour)

Hetch Hetchy. Nestled in the Yosemite wilderness even farther from the valley is Hetch Hetchy Valley. It’s like a mini Yosemite, smaller but just as grand. In fact, John Muir called it “a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite.” It is home to two gorgeous waterfalls that are among the tallest in North America, challenging hikes for the more adventurous – including a spectacular 29-mile one, more high Sierra lakes, and the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Reservior.

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