Over 4,000 years of history, waterfalls and giant sequoias: Why Yosemite park is 'iconic'

Eight years before Yellowstone was established as America’s first national park, President Abraham Lincoln signed a document called the Yosemite Valley Grant Act in 1864. This act protected Northern California’s Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove for public recreation.

“This is a landmark act, the first time anywhere (in America) land had been set aside for protection and public enjoyment,” said Scott Gediman, public affairs officer at Yosemite National Park.

Now we know the valley and surrounding area as Yosemite National Park – one of America’s most popular national parks, with 3,897,070 million visitors in 2023 – designated in 1890. You have likely heard of its world-famous sites, such as Yosemite Falls, El Capitan and the towering ancient sequoia trees.

“Yosemite National Park is such an iconic national park. We attract visitors from all over the world to the park,” Gediman said.

Here’s what travelers should know about Yosemite, the second-to-last national park in USA TODAY’s yearlong series.

From Acadia to Zion: What travelers should know about each of America's national parks

What’s so special about Yosemite National Park?

Yosemite Valley is seen in Yosemite National Park in California on April 19, 2008.
Yosemite Valley is seen in Yosemite National Park in California on April 19, 2008.

Comprising 1,200 square miles, Yosemite has a lot to offer visitors.

“It’s, like, between the natural history, the culture history, the wildlife, the beauty and the size, there’s so much to see and do in Yosemite,” said Gediman. “We feel that it just encompasses so many of the ideals and so many things that come to mind when people think of national parks.”

Of course, there’s the park's natural beauty: iconic monoliths like Half Dome, the stunning Yosemite Valley that enraptured famous naturalist John Muir, and some of the world’s tallest waterfalls.

Besides the natural wonders, the park is steeped in history, from the Native people who have lived there for centuries to establishments that convey “the growth of the national park system,” Gediman said. One of California’s first mountain resort hotels, the Wawona Hotel was established in 1856 during the Victorian Era and features a swimming pool and golf course – right inside the park. There is also The Ahwahnee Hotel, built in 1927 as a luxury hotel and today, is considered “the crown jewel of national park lodges,” Gediman said.

President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir riding horses along a road in Yosemite Valley, with Half Dome in the distance, accompanied by Park Rangers Archie Leonard and Charles Leidig, followed by unidentified man on foot.
President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir riding horses along a road in Yosemite Valley, with Half Dome in the distance, accompanied by Park Rangers Archie Leonard and Charles Leidig, followed by unidentified man on foot.

Do I need reservations to visit Yosemite National Park?

Yes, if you plan on visiting this summer.

The park is piloting a reservation system to enter the park during the peak hours of 5 a.m. through 4 p.m. on certain days between April 13 and Oct. 27 to manage traffic. (You can enter without a reservation before 5 a.m. and after 4 p.m., though.) Reservations cost $2 and are available seven days before your park visit, but you’ll need to hurry – they sell out almost immediately.

Can I drive through Yosemite National Park?

Yes, you can drive through Yosemite (with a reservation).

Tioga Road, also known as Highway 120, is one of the park’s most scenic drives. The 46-mile-road takes travelers past landmarks such as Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows, and to an elevation of just under 10,000 feet when it hits Tioga Pass. However, Tioga Road, like others, closes depending on the season.

People stand by the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias at Yosemite National Park in California.
People stand by the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias at Yosemite National Park in California.

What are the towns closest to Yosemite National Park?

Several historic gateway towns surround the four corridors of Yosemite, including Sonora, Jamestown and El Portal. Travelers can find hotels, campgrounds, restaurants and gas stations in these towns, as well as a rich heritage of gold mining and railroads.

What is the best time of year to visit Yosemite National Park?

A lunar rainbow reflects off a waterfall at Yosemite, a national park in California.
A lunar rainbow reflects off a waterfall at Yosemite, a national park in California.

There’s no bad time of year to visit Yosemite. However, spring and summer are its most visited seasons.

“The park comes back to life after the spring,” Gediman said. As the ice melts, the waterfalls roar and meadows bloom. “Summer is beautiful and good for hiking,” he said. The park's lakes become a popular destination for visitors to swim and canoe.

However, if you visit in the fall, you’ll encounter fewer crowds and still enjoy “the nice weather and longer days,” according to Gediman. In the winter, the park is still open, although some parts are closed. “Winter is the quietest time of the year, absolutely beautiful. We do get snow; it just depends on the elevation in the park.”

Who are the native people who live in Yosemite National Park?

Group of about twenty-six Native Americans seated and standing beside a cedar bark structure, near the Merced River, Yosemite Valley, 1872.
Group of about twenty-six Native Americans seated and standing beside a cedar bark structure, near the Merced River, Yosemite Valley, 1872.

The Indigenous people of Yosemite can be traced nearly 4,000 years ago, and many tribes continue to call Yosemite home to this day. Today, there are seven traditionally associated American Indian tribes and groups connected to the valley that make up the American Indian Council of Mariposa County: Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation), Bishop Paiute Tribe, Bridgeport Indian Colony, Mono Lake Kootzaduka'a, North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California, Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, and the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.

To learn more about the Native people of Yosemite, park visitors can stop by Wahhoga Village, the last American Indian village in the valley that was dismantled in 1969 with its residents evicted.

The National Park Service worked with the tribes to construct a roundhouse in the village where Indigenous people perform religious ceremonies that could also be used for public education.

“They help us construct facilities that are respectful of the land,” Gediman said.

The tribes also consult the National Park Service on prescribed burns, or cultural burnings, a hundreds-year-old practice meant to reduce the chances of natural wildfires and promote the growth of other plants.

“We have a very, very close relationship … with the tribes,” Gediman said. “It’s a privilege, if you will, to work with these tribes.”

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at kwong@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What to expect at Yosemite, one of the most 'iconic' national parks

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