Experience 9 breathtaking fall hikes in Yosemite National Park. Revel in colorful foliage, serene trails, and iconic landmarks amidst cooler weather.
Yosemite National Park is an American national park located in the western Sierra Nevada of California, bounded on the southeast by Yosemite Valley, famed for its spectacular waterfalls, grand meadows, cliffs, and unusual rock formations.
Autumn also has its own colorful palette of sights to see. Just before the first frosts, there’s a carpet of orange gold from the small poppies. There are still waterfalls in Yosemite Valley running full force but many remain dry, leaving cascades of rock with little or no water. The fall color shows up late in the season in mid to late October, making the Autumn a great time to visit Yosemite.
Cooler temperatures make hiking, climbing and biking more comfortable than in the hotter summer months, and crowds are significantly lighter during this time.
Here are 9 exceptionally stunning hikes in Yosemite that allow for a true fall spectacle!
The less crowded Yosemite Valley
The Yosemite Valley in autumn is a place of wonder and beauty. The changing colors of the leaves, the crisp air, and the changing light all make this one of my favorite times of year.
The valley floor is filled with color, from the yellow aspens to the red and orange maples, to the green pine trees.
Many trails lead through these colorful forests and up into the mountains where you can get spectacular views of Half Dome and other landmarks.
Giant Staircase Loop
The Giant Staircase loop is a popular trail that takes you through the backcountry of Yosemite Valley. This hike will give you stunning views of the Yosemite Falls and Vernal Falls as well as over 1,000 feet of elevation gain along the way.
The trailhead for this hike is located at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. From here, you’ll begin hiking on a well-maintained path that leads past Vernal Fall and up to Nevada Fall. Along the way, there are plenty of places where you can stop and enjoy the view, including Horsetail Fall and Sentinel Dome.
At the top of Nevada Fall, you’ll get an amazing view of Half Dome and Clouds Rest. From here, it’s not too much farther until you reach Camp 4 on your way back to Happy Isles.
Mirror Lake Loop
The Mirror Lake Loop trail is one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite National Park. Located in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, this loop takes you past the iconic Mirror Lake and through two waterfalls that tumble into the lake.
The hike starts with a short climb up to a viewpoint of Half Dome which can be quite crowded. From here it’s a short walk over to May Lake where you will find more solitude. The trail continues around May Lake where you will see some great views of North Dome and Mount Watkins.
From May Lake, the trail descends through the forest before reaching a junction with the Panorama Trail which leads to Half Dome Village or Glacier Point Road (the road is closed in winter).
The Mirror Lake Loop continues downhill until it reaches its namesake destination – Mirror Lake! Here you can take a dip if it’s warm enough or just relax on one of the many benches available.
After visiting Mirror Lake, head back toward May Lake but instead of following that trail, take the Panorama Trail towards Nevada Fall first. This section of trail crosses several bridges over Falls Creek before reaching Nevada Fall itself.
Columbia Rock hike
The Columbia Rock hike is a moderate 5 mile hike that winds through the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite National Park. The trail leads up to Columbia Rock, where you will get beautiful views of the Tuolumne Meadows valley below.
The trailhead for the Columbia Rock hike is located at the far end of the Tuolumne Meadows campground. The first part of this hike is relatively flat and easy as it follows along a dirt road.
Once you reach the end of the dirt road, there are two trails that lead up to Columbia Rock. You can take either one as both lead to the same destination. As you ascend towards Columbia Rock, you will pass through some interesting rock formations and get some great views of Yosemite Valley below.
After about an hour or so, you will reach a saddle between two peaks where there are some great views down into Tuolumne Meadows below. This is also a great spot to stop for lunch if you brought any food along with you on this hike!
From here it’s another 45 minute walk over a rocky trail until you reach Columbia Rock itself!
The great meadows of Yosemite (no mosquitos in fall!)
Yosemite Valley is home to some of the most beautiful meadows in the world. There are many that are worth visiting and hiking through, but one of our favorites is the Great Meadow.
Located on Glacier Point Road just past the Sentinel Dome parking lot, this large green field is a popular spot for photographers and tourists alike. In fact, there are no less than three separate parking lots for people who want to visit this meadow.
The Great Meadow comes alive in the spring when it’s covered with wildflowers including shooting stars, lupine, Indian paintbrush, and more. It’s also home to many different types of wildlife including deer, bear and even turkeys!
For those who don’t mind getting wet feet, another great time to visit the meadow is during autumn when all the flowers have died back and only patches of green grass remain. This makes for a beautiful scene as it contrasts against the orange leaves that have fallen from surrounding trees and bushes making them stand out against their surroundings like never before!
Tenaya Lake Trail (open till early November)
Tenaya Lake Trail is a short, easy hike that offers some great views of Tenaya Lake. The trail begins at Tenaya Lodge and heads east, passing through a forest of pine, fir, and aspen before emerging in the open and providing excellent views of Tenaya Lake.
The trail is wide and well-maintained, with only a few spots where it’s necessary to step over rocks or around tree roots. There are several wooden benches along the way if you’d like to stop for a rest or just enjoy the view.
After about half a mile (0.8 km), you’ll reach a small clearing where there are several picnic tables and an outhouse. This is also where most people turn around and head back to the lodge — but if you want more exercise or just more time at Tenaya Lake, continue on past this point down into Tenaya Canyon (you’ll know when you see it).
Mariposa Grove to the Giant Sequoias
Autumn is the best time to visit Yosemite National Park. The crowds have thinned, the summer heat has subsided and the autumn colors are at their peak. It’s a perfect time to take in the sights and sounds of Yosemite Valley, including its famous waterfalls, El Capitan and Half Dome.
We recommend visiting in October or November for the best weather conditions and fall color changes. If you can’t wait that long to get your fall fix, check out these options for autumnal adventures:
Mariposa Grove: In addition to giant sequoias, this grove is home to some of the oldest trees in California — including one that is estimated to be over 1,500 years old! You can hike through this incredible grove or take a tram tour that offers an up-close look at these towering giants.
Wawona Meadow Loop
The Wawona Meadow Loop is a great way to get out of the crowds and enjoy the fall foliage in Yosemite. It’s also a nice introduction to hiking in the park.
The trail is just over 5 miles long and has some elevation gain, but it’s not too difficult. The trailhead is right next to Chilnualna Falls, which makes for a great starting point if you want to hike both trails on the same day.
In autumn, Yosemite’s Glacier Point is a spectacular place to visit. The granite walls are painted with deep reds, oranges and yellows, while the floor of the valley below is covered with a carpet of golden leaves.
Glacier Point overlooks Yosemite Valley, Half Dome and El Capitan. In the distance you can see the peaks of Mount Clark and Mount Hoffmann.
The view from Glacier Point is simply stunning. It’s one of the best places in all of Yosemite National Park to take in this incredible landscape.
The hike to Glacier Point takes about four hours round trip (five hours if you stop at Sentinel Dome along the way), but there are plenty of other trails nearby that offer shorter hikes that take you through beautiful forested areas full of trees and wildflowers.
There are also several campgrounds along this section of road for those who wish to stay overnight in Yosemite Valley.
10 Reasons to Hike in Yosemite This Fall!
Autumn is a magical time to hike in Yosemite, and here are 10 compelling reasons to do so:
1. Fall Foliage: Unlike other places in California, Yosemite experiences a vibrant display of fall colors. Trees like the black oak, bigleaf maple, and dogwood transition into a kaleidoscope of golds, yellows, and reds that contrast beautifully against the park’s granite cliffs.
2. Avoid the Crowds: Summer is the peak tourist season for Yosemite, which can mean congested roads and trails. By fall, the number of visitors drops significantly, offering a more tranquil and solitary experience.
3. Perfect Weather: While summer can bring intense heat, autumn offers cooler temperatures that are ideal for hiking. The crisp air and the scent of fallen leaves only add to the experience.
4. Clear Skies: The clearer fall atmosphere offers sharper vistas of the park’s iconic landmarks. The likes of El Capitan, Half Dome, and the Yosemite Falls are even more breathtaking with the clarity autumn brings.
5. Wildlife Activity: Autumn is a great time to observe wildlife as many animals are actively preparing for winter. Bears, in particular, are more active as they forage extensively to build up fat stores.
6. Lower Lodging Costs: With the decline in tourist numbers, many accommodations around and inside the park may offer reduced rates, making it more affordable to stay closer to the trails you want to explore.
7. Unique Photographic Opportunities: With the changing foliage, low-angle light, and potential for early morning mist or fog, autumn presents unique and breathtaking photo opportunities for photographers.
8. Waterfalls Rejuvenate: While many of Yosemite’s waterfalls are most powerful in the spring due to snowmelt, some waterfalls see a small resurgence in the fall due to early rain showers, offering a different but equally mesmerizing view.
9. Starry Nights: With fewer particles and pollutants in the air during autumn, star gazing in Yosemite can be a magical experience. The park’s elevation and remote location already make it a great spot for astronomy, but the clarity of fall nights makes it even better.
10. Reflect and Reconnect: There’s something introspective about the fall – the changing scenery, the close of the year, the hush before winter. Hiking in Yosemite during this season offers an unparalleled opportunity to reflect, reconnect with nature, and find a deep sense of peace.
There’s even more to Yosemite beyond the valley floor. The scenic beauty and signature waterfalls are amazing, but Yosemite’s mighty granite domes and picturesque waterfalls can be truly phenomenal during fall. As summer winds down, so do the crowds, making fall a great time of year to go!
If you have the chance to visit Yosemite during the Autumn time period, you should consider doing so. It is a spectacular location, and if you like hiking, it will be simply perfect. It’s amazingly beautiful and is the perfect season of the year to see the park.