Explore the Top 10 Best Hikes in Yosemite National Park: A Hiking Bucket List

Best Hikes in Yosemite with Lakes

Yosemite National Park is renowned worldwide for its stunning natural beauty and abundance of hiking trails. While the valleys and waterfalls may get most of the attention, there are also countless hidden gem lakes tucked away in the High Sierra backcountry.

These icy alpine lakes provide the perfect destination at the end of a demanding yet rewarding hike. Their still turquoise waters reflect the soaring granite domes and spires of the Yosemite high country, creating picture-perfect scenes unlike anywhere else on Earth.

In this guide to the top best hikes in Yosemite National Park, you’ll discover ten trails leading to some of the most spectacular subalpine lakes. From easy day hikes to challenging backpacking routes, a high country lake reward is waiting at the end of every trail on this list.

You Will  Love these hikes:

Table of Contents

Cathedral Lakes Trail ─ moderate hike in Yosemite

Cathedral Lakes Trail Yosemite

Trail Distance: 15.3 km Out & back

Elevation Gain: 507 m

Terrain Rating: Moderate

Hike Time: 4 h 28 min 

Dog Friendly: No

Recommended Seasons: July – September

Trailhead Location: Get directions via Google Maps

Features: Backpacking | Hiking | Horseback riding | Forest | Lake | Views | Wildflowers | Wildlife | Fee 

Nestled high above Yosemite Valley lies Cathedral Lake, one of the park’s most accessible and family-friendly alpine lakes. Surrounded by towering evergreens and granite domes, these two shimmering lakes make a perfect introduction to Yosemite’s high country.

The well-maintained trail climbs gently through flower-filled meadows and refreshing pine forest before ending in an open granite basin. Here the smaller upper lake appears ahead while the larger lower lake sits just beneath, allowing you to choose which one (or both) to visit. Spend a few hours picnicking on the shores, swimming in the bracing water, and soaking in spectacular views of the Cathedral Range.

Clouds Rest Trail ─ top hike in Yosemite National Park

Clouds Rest Trail Yosemite

Trail Distance: 21.7 km Out & back

Elevation Gain: 961 m

Terrain Rating: Difficult

Hike Time: 6-8 hours

Dog Friendly: No

Recommended Seasons: July – September

Trailhead Location: Get directions via Google Maps

Features: Backpacking | Camping | Hiking | Forest | Lake | Views | Wildflowers | Wildlife | Rocky | Scramble | Fee

While not home to a lake itself, the iconic Clouds Rest summit trail passes several remote gems on the way. The demanding hike first climbs through forests and granite slabs up to Sunrise Lakes. Take a break alongside these two lovely lakes tucked beneath Sunrise Mountain’s glaciated southeast face.

Continuing along the well-defined trail over a rocky saddle, more lakes soon come into view in the drainage below. Marvel at the incredible contrast of green waters and reddish-gold granite all around. Push further to tackle the final heart-pumping ascent and you’ll be rewarded with what many consider Yosemite’s best summit panorama. After celebrating atop Clouds Rest’s airy perch, trace your steps back to appreciate the lakes from different angles.

Little Yosemite Valley ─ difficult hikes in Yosemite

Little Yosemite Valley Yosemite

Trail Distance: 12.2 km Out & back

Elevation Gain: 714 m

Terrain Rating: Difficult

Hike Time: 4 h 39 min

Dog Friendly: No

Recommended Seasons: June – September

Trailhead Location: Get directions via Google Maps

Features: Backpacking | Camping | Hiking | Running | Forest | Lake | Partially paved | River | Views | Waterfall | Wildflowers | Wildlife | Fee

Nestled deep within Yosemite’s wilderness lies Little Yosemite Valley, one of the park’s most spectacular easily accessible backcountry spots. The lengthy hike first climbs above the Merced River, passing through peaceful evergreen forests and granite slabs. Keep trekking along the valley floor and soon you’ll reach Little Yosemite.

This smaller version of the iconic valley gives you an intimate experience without the crowds. Massive Half Dome and Liberty Cap tower above while the Merced tumbles through green meadow lined with lodgepole pines. Two lovely alpine lakes here provide excellent swimming and camping spots as well. Spend a night alongside stunning Sunrise Lake gazing up at the stars before heading back.

Lower Yosemite Falls Trail ─ stunning but easy hike

Lower Yosemite Falls Trail Yosemite

Trail Distance: 1.9 km Loop

Elevation Gain: 17 m

Terrain Rating: Easy

Hike Time: 24 min 

Dog Friendly: Yes

Recommended Seasons: April – July

Trailhead Location: Get directions via Google Maps

Features: Dogs on leash | Wheelchair friendly | Kid friendly | Stroller friendly | Walking | Cave | Forest | Lake | Paved | River | Views | Waterfall | Wildflowers | Wildlife | Fee

Boasting a towering 2,425-foot drop, Lower Yosemite Fall ranks among the tallest on the continent. While legions flock to see this thundering giant each summer, far fewer realize there’s a shimmering lake at its base. Starting along paved paths near Yosemite Village, a relaxing ramble takes you alongside the tumbling cascade.

As the crowds fade, continue across footbridges spanning the churning falls until you reach its base. Here a brisk uphill jaunt leads through boulder fields to the Emerald Pool, an oval-shaped lake nestled directly beneath Lower Yosemite’s final plunge. Gaze upward in awe before finding a sunny granite perch along the lake to enjoy a well-deserved picnic.

May Lake ─ Panorama Trail in Yosemite

May Lake Yosemite

Trail Distance: 3.7 km Out & back

Elevation Gain: 148 m

Terrain Rating: Moderate

Hike Time: 1 h 10 min

Dog Friendly: No

Recommended Seasons: July – September

Trailhead Location: Get directions via Google Maps

Features: Kid-friendly | Backpacking | Camping | Hiking | Running | Forest | Lake | Views | Wildflowers | Wildlife | Fee 

While one of Yosemite’s shortest hikes to an alpine lake, the trail to picture-perfect May Lake packs quite a punch. Starting high along Tioga Pass Road, the route first traverses Hetch Hetchy Reservoir’s shimmering blue expanse. Next comes a demanding series of switchbacks ascending granite terraces dotted with flowering Western azaleas in summer.

Catch your breath once atop the lip, as heavenly May Lake finally emerges. This relatively tiny gem shimmers an unreal turquoise, beautifully framed by soaring granite domes and lodgepole pine. Spend a quiet afternoon picnicking and swimming along its pristine shores before the return hike facing those switchbacks.

Mirror Lake Loop Trail ─ easy hikes in Yosemite

Mirror Lake Loop Yosemite

Trail Distance: 8.0 km Loop

Elevation Gain: 92 m

Terrain Rating: Easy

Hike Time: 1 h 44 min

Recommended Seasons: April – July

Trailhead Location: Get directions via Google Maps

Features: Hiking | Running | Beach | Forest | Lake | Partially paved | Views | Wildflowers | Wildlife | Historic site | Fee | No dogs

Despite its name, Mirror Lake offers more creek than lake for much of the year. But in spring when snowmelt torrents down nearby North America’s tallest waterfall, this small lake fills to beautifully reflect Half Dome’s sheer granite face.

Starting along a paved path just minutes from Yosemite Village, a relaxing stroll leads you around the lake’s perimeter. Pick out the best spot and frame that perfect Half Dome reflection shot before joining groups picnicking and wading out along Mirror Lake’s sandy shores.

Early summer is the best time to experience this seasonal lake, as supplies slow by late July leaving only a meadow-( still lovely without the reflection).

Mount Dana Summit Hiking Trail

Mount Dana Summit Trail Yosemite

Trail Distance: 8.5 km Out & back

Elevation Gain: 942 m

Terrain Rating: Very Difficult

Hike Time: 5-7 hours

Dog Friendly: No

Recommended Seasons: July – September

Trailhead Location: Get directions via Google Maps

Features: Hiking | Running | Forest | Lake | Views | Wildflowers | Wildlife | Rocky | Scramble | Fee 

The demanding hike up 13,053-foot Mount Dana rewards the effort with stunning Yosemite panoramas from one of its highest peaks. The tough trail gains over 3,000 feet climbing endlessly through sledding switchbacks. Reaching scenic but windswept Dana Plateau first offers reprieve before the final exposed ascent to the barren summit.

Here unparalleled 360° vistas stretch from the colorful Dana Fork lakes below and across Yosemite’s entire high country region. Witness craggy gray peaks punctuated by green meadows dotted with glistening alpine lakes. After celebrating atop the Sierra crest, make the knee-pounding descent back to Dana Fork to camp lakeside and rest weary legs.

Rancheria Falls Trail

Rancheria Falls Trail Yosemite

Trail Distance: 20.6 km Out & back

Elevation Gain: 800 m

Terrain Rating: Moderate

Hike Time: 6 h 26 min 

Recommended Seasons: April – October

Trailhead Location: Get directions via Google Maps

Features: Backpacking | Camping | Hiking | Running | Forest | Lake | River | Views | Waterfall | Wildflowers | Wildlife | Rocky | Fee | No dogs

This lesser-known long trail follows the wild and scenic Tuolumne River deep into Yosemite’s northwest corner to towering Rancheria Falls. Starting along the river’s quiet waters, the path first passes broad meadows bustling with wildlife like deer, black bears, and river otters. Further in, the glacially-carved Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne reveals itself as the water picks up speed.

Over 6 miles from the busy trailhead leads to thunderous Rancheria Falls, where the river plunges nearly 100 feet over a sheer granite wall. Flowing right below the falls sits emerald green Rancheria Lake, making an ideal (and less-crowded) summer swimming hole. Picnic lakeside before retracing your steps.

Vernal Falls ─ Four mile trail to Glacier Point

Vernal Falls Yosemite

Trail Distance: 5.0 km Out & back

Elevation Gain: 345 m

Terrain Rating: Difficult

Hike Time: 2 h 5 min

Dog Friendly: No

Recommended Seasons: May – July

Trailhead Location: Get directions via Google Maps

Features: Hiking | Forest | Lake | Partially paved | River | Views | Waterfall | Wildflowers | Wildlife | Fee | No dogs

Arguably the most popular hike in Yosemite Valley, the classic Mist Trail trail to Vernal Falls offers thrills and refreshment in equal measure. Starting along the Mirror Lake loop, adventurous hikers can continue 1.5 miles uphill following the Merced’s roaring cascade. Granite steps and railing assist the steep climb, while avoiding the constant spray proves nearly impossible.

Topping out at 317 feet, Vernal Fall drenches the viewing area with the river’s full springtime power on display. Cross the famous footbridge placing you in line for a glacial shower. Then trek further up the Mist Trail to emerald Emerald Pool, a swirling green lake offering stellar Half Dome reflections from below its south face.

Wapama Falls Trail ─ Upper Yosemite Falls Trail

Wapama Falls Trail Yosemite

Trail Distance: 7.6 km Out & back

Elevation Gain: 338 m

Terrain Rating: Difficult

Hike Time:  2 h 32 min

Recommended Seasons: May – October

Trailhead Location: Get directions via Google Maps

Features: Kid-friendly | Hiking | Running | Forest | Lake | Views | Waterfall | Wildflowers | Wildlife | Rocky | Fee | No dogs

Of the many trails branching off Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the hike to Wapama Falls stands out as a must-do. As the 5-mile trail departs across the dam, it wastes no time gaining elevation up seemingly endless stair-stepping switchbacks. Take the pace slowly while keeping eyes peeled for wildlife like mule deer and black bears.

Soon the terrain levels out, allowing for a more relaxed walk through peaceful oak and pine forests alongside the crashing Tuolumne River. Just before you expect the trail to end stand Wapama Falls, dynamically spraying 1,080 feet over a sheer granite wall directly into emerald Hetch Hetchy far below. After admiring from a safe distance, follow the trail across two footbridges placing you just behind the thundering giant for a real sense of its immense power.

TrailDistance (km)Elevation Gain (m)DifficultyEst. Time
Cathedral Lakes15.3507Moderate4 h 28 min
Clouds Rest21.7961Difficult6-8 hours
Little Yosemite Valley12.2714Difficult4 h 39 min
Lower Yosemite Falls1.917Easy24 min
May Lake3.7148Moderate1 h 10 min
Mirror Lake Loop8.092Easy1 h 44 min
Mount Dana Summit8.5942Very Difficult5-7 hours
Rancheria Falls20.6800Moderate6 h 26 min
Vernal Falls5.0345Difficult2 h 5 min
Wapama Falls7.6338Difficult2 h 32 min

What To Bring While Hiking The Best Hikes In Yosemite With Lakes?

Here are some recommended items to bring when hiking the best hikes in Yosemite with lakes:

Navigation:

  • Trail map/GPS to avoid getting lost
  • Compass to help find your bearings

Clothing & Footwear:

  • Lightweight, quick-dry hiking pants and shirts
  • Fleece jacket and rain jacket for changing weather
  • Sturdy hiking boots with good traction
  • Extra wool hiking socks
  • Gloves and winter hat even in summer (it gets cold in the high country!)

Water & Food:

  • At least 2 liters of water per person
  • Electrolyte tablets to add to your water
  • High protein snacks like nuts, jerky, protein bars
  • Sandwiches and fruits

Safety:

  • Bear spray
  • First aid kit with bandages, ointments, gauze
  • Pocket knife or multi-tool
  • Fire starter kit (lighter, matches, tinder)
  • Headlamp with extra batteries

Overnight Essentials:

If backpacking into camp near the lakes, be sure to also pack:

  • Backpacking tent and sleeping bags
  • Sleeping pad for insulation
  • Backpacking stove and fuel
  • Dehydrated camping meals
  • Toilet paper and trowel for burying waste

Being prepared with layered, synthetic clothing, plenty of food/water, and emergency items will help ensure an epic adventure in Yosemite’s stunning backcountry! Let someone know your planned route and return time for extra safety.

FAQs about the best hikes in yosemite with Lakes

What is the most popular hike in Yosemite?

The hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls is one of the most popular trails in Yosemite. This strenuous 8-mile hike takes you to incredible views of both waterfalls and amazing views of Yosemite Valley along the way. It’s a favorite hike for many visitors to Yosemite National Park.

What is the most challenging hike in Yosemite?

The hike up Half Dome is considered one of the most challenging day hikes in Yosemite. This strenuous 14-16 mile hike gains over 4,800 feet in elevation on the way to iconic views on top of Half Dome overlooking Yosemite Valley. It takes advance permits and cables to reach the top of Half Dome.

Is Yosemite good for hiking?

Yes, Yosemite National Park has some of the best hiking trails in the country ranging from easy valley walks to challenging climbs up Half Dome. No matter if you’re looking for the best easy hikes or the most scenic views, Yosemite has amazing trails for hikers of all levels.

How hard is Half Dome?

The Half Dome hike is extremely strenuous, gaining over 4,800 feet in elevation over 14-16 miles. Reaching the top requires holding onto cables on very steep granite faces. Permits are required for this challenging hike up one of Yosemite’s most iconic formations.

Which 2 trails in Yosemite are most popular?

The hikes to Vernal and Nevada Falls and the Mist Trail to the top of Yosemite Falls are two of the most popular trails in Yosemite due to their spectacular views and more moderate difficulty levels compared to Half Dome.

What is the most scenic place in Yosemite?

Glacier Point in Yosemite offers some of the most breathtaking panoramic views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Yosemite’s high country. Visitors can hike there or drive when Glacier Point Road is open in summer.

What is the easiest climb in Yosemite?

The hike to the top of Sentinel Dome offers the easiest summit climb in Yosemite. A 2.2-mile round trip hike along a gradual uphill trail leads to the top with expansive 360-degree views of Yosemite Valley and famous sights like Half Dome.

What is an easy hike at Yosemite?

Lower Yosemite Falls Trail is one of the best easy hikes in Yosemite, especially for beginners. This short and mostly flat 1.4-mile paved loop trail takes you to scenic views right at the base of the tallest waterfall in North America – Lower Yosemite Falls.

Can a beginner hike in Yosemite?

Yes, Yosemite National Park offers plenty of easy hiking trails perfect for beginners like the 1-mile trail to Yosemite Falls Overlook or the 1.4-mile Lower Yosemite Falls loop. More experienced beginners can also tackle moderate hikes like Yosemite Point or Sentinel Dome.

What is the easiest waterfall hike in Yosemite?

The Lower Yosemite Falls trail is the easiest hike to a waterfall in Yosemite. It’s a short, paved 1.4 mile loop that is mostly flat and takes beginners and families right to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls, North America’s tallest waterfall.

Conclusion

Yosemite’s high country is filled with gorgeous alpine lakes and streams deserving of their own dedicated trips. From family-friendly jaunts like May Lake to hardcore adventures like summiting Mount Dana, crossing even just one off your list rewards with memories (and photos!) to last a lifetime. Just be sure to confirm seasonal access, plan adequate time, and prepare for rapidly changing mountain conditions.

Embark on any of these top 10 best hikes in Yosemite with lakes and enjoy a view John Muir would be proud of. Let us know in the comments which lake hike you’re eyeing for your next Yosemite adventure!

SARAH LEE

SARAH LEE

Sarah has been hiking for over five years and is passionate about promoting the mental and emotional benefits of spending time in nature. She has written several articles on the topic and strongly advocates hiking as a form of therapy. Sarah is also a certified yoga instructor, often incorporating yoga and mindfulness practices into her hiking trips. She is dedicated to providing accurate and up-to-date information on trail conditions, difficulty levels, and must-see sights.

SARAH LEE

SARAH LEE

Sarah has been hiking for over five years and is passionate about promoting the mental and emotional benefits of spending time in nature. She has written several articles on the topic and strongly advocates hiking as a form of therapy. Sarah is also a certified yoga instructor, often incorporating yoga and mindfulness practices into her hiking trips. She is dedicated to providing accurate and up-to-date information on trail conditions, difficulty levels, and must-see sights.

19 thoughts on “Explore the Top 10 Best Hikes in Yosemite National Park: A Hiking Bucket List”

  1. Hi there to all, for the reason that I am genuinely keen of reading this website’s post to be updated on a regular basis. It carries pleasant stuff.

  2. This is an invaluable guide to Yosemite’s top scenic trails, from the iconic views along Glacier Point to the epic Nevada Falls hike. The maps make planning my trip easy. I can’t wait to experience these breathtaking vistas and giant sequoia groves in person!

  3. What a fantastic blog highlighting the top treks for exploring Yosemite’s awe-inspiring wilderness! As an avid nature lover and hiker, I enjoy reading the tips on the prime trails for taking in views of the park’s iconic forests, waterfalls, and valleys. This guide will help me plan an exciting trip to Yosemite Valley, particularly the Nevada and Vernal Fall hike which looks thrilling!
    Thanks for spotlighting the most stunning elevations across this magnificent national park. The panoramic vistas of El Capitan and epic sequoia groves you recommend promise some of the most spectacular hiking I’ll ever experience.
    I appreciate the maps and difficulty ratings to find the perfect trail for all skill levels. Whether it’s the epic views along Glacier Point or river-side strolls through Hetch Hetchy, this post captures the diversity and grandeur of Yosemite’s landscapes. What a handy reference before embarking on an unforgettable adventure!

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  6. After exploring the Top 10 Best Hikes in Yosemite National Park, I must say that this list truly captures the beauty and diversity of the park’s hiking trails. Each hike offers a unique experience, from the serene alpine lakes to the breathtaking panoramic views. Personally, I can’t wait to embark on the Clouds Rest Trail and witness Yosemite’s best summit panorama. The detailed trail descriptions and helpful information provided in this post make it an excellent resource for anyone planning a hiking adventure in Yosemite. Happy trails!

  7. Wow, this article about the best hikes in Yosemite National Park is absolutely breathtaking! I’ve always been fascinated by the natural beauty of Yosemite, and this post has given me some incredible hiking bucket list ideas. The descriptions of the trails and the stunning lakes along the way make me want to pack my bags and head straight to the park. I can’t wait to explore Cathedral Lake and witness the picturesque views of the Cathedral Range. And the Clouds Rest Trail sounds like a challenging yet rewarding adventure with its panoramic summit panorama. This article has definitely fueled my wanderlust and inspired me to plan a hiking trip to Yosemite National Park soon!

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  11. From mighty El Capitan to thundering Yosemite Falls, iconic vistas astonish with every step. America’s treasured park offers both casual strolls and storied climbs for adventurers of every age.

  12. Matthew Harrison

    From mighty El Capitan to thundering Yosemite Falls, iconic vistas astonish with every step. America’s treasured park offers both casual strolls and storied climbs for adventurers of every age.

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  14. Yosemite’s soaring cliffs and thundering waterfalls astound from every angle. No backpack required to revel in the majesty of this crown jewel of the Sierras!

  15. Wow, these hikes in Yosemite National Park look absolutely breathtaking! I can’t wait to explore Cathedral Lake and be surrounded by the towering evergreens and granite domes. The beauty of the subalpine lakes and panoramic vistas is truly captivating. Yosemite’s natural wonders are calling my name, and I’m ready for an unforgettable hiking adventure!

  16. Matthew Thompson

    Wow, Yosemite National Park truly is a hiker’s paradise!
    As I explore the top 10 best hikes in Yosemite, I am captivated by the breathtaking beauty of the subalpine lakes nestled amidst granite domes and lush forests. From the family-friendly Cathedral Lakes to the challenging Clouds Rest Trail, each hike offers a rewarding adventure and awe-inspiring views.
    Embarking on these trails is like stepping into a postcard-perfect world where nature’s wonders unfold at every turn. Join me on this unforgettable journey through Yosemite’s hiking bucket list and let your wanderlust soar.

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