Visiting the best viewpoints in Yosemite is the ideal strategy to start exploring the famous national park.
It is impossible to see all landmarks and hike the most exciting trails in one visit because Yosemite is immense. But starting your exploration by hitting the best viewpoints in Yosemite is a great compromise, allowing you to see the big picture and give an idea of how to plan your next visits.
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12 Best Viewpoints in Yosemite
The Yosemite viewpoints offer unique perspectives of the world-famous valley, each with its own distinct features.
While some Yosemite viewpoints are more popular, they all provide visitors with unforgettable views.
1. Tunnel View
When you’re planning a trip to Yosemite National Park, one of the things you have to do is visit the Tunnel View Viewpoint. It’s the park’s most famous and stunning viewpoint, and it’s a great way to get orientated for first-time visitors. This spot provides one of the most classic and photographed views of Yosemite Valley. El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall are all visible from this vantage point.
Ansel Adams made it famous by featuring it in his photos when Yosemite was not widely popular. It has become one of the most iconic views in America. The perspective from Tunnel View was even featured on a U.S. postage stamp.
Be warned that it can be pretty busy and crowded, especially during peak season. The parking area is always packed. The good news is that there’s no hiking required to get to the viewpoint.
To avoid crowds, the best time to visit is early in the morning.
I visited Yosemite on many occasions but always stopped at the Tunnel View, even if only for a few minutes. It never ceases to amaze me.
How to Get to Tunnel View Viewpoint
3 Yosemite entrances lead to the Valley. And the best way to get to Tunnel Viewpoint is to take South Entrance via the Wawona Road (Highway 41). The drive from the south entrance takes about 45 minutes. Once you reach Highway 41, follow it until you reach the tunnel.
There is a large parking lot at Tunnel Viewpoint, and no hiking is required.
But if you are entering the Yosemite Valley from Big Oak Flat Entrance or Arch Rock Entrance, it is only a one-mile detour to get to the Tunnel View.
2. Valley View
Valley View is one of the most famous viewpoints in Yosemite National Park. It is located near the west end of Yosemite Valley along Northside Drive, not far from the Tunnel View vista point.
The Valey View perspective is similar to the Tunnel View but from the ground level of the Valley.
As a photographer, it is my favorite view in Yosemite. It has all elements of excellent landscape photography composition.
In the foreground, you have Merced River with the logs and rocks placed randomly across. In the background, there is a great perspective on both the north and south walls of the Valley. The focal point of the South wall is El Capitan, and on the north side is Bridalveil Falls. And the Valley connects the foreground and background, making the arrangement just perfect with all 3 main compositional elements in place (foreground, middleground, and background).
There is no hiking involved. Just park your car and enjoy the Valley View. Please, note that the parking lot is tiny, and you might have difficulty finding a vacant spot during the high season.
How to Get to Valley View
The Valley View is located on Northside Drive, which has one direction. It means that you can access the Valley View only from the east direction. For detailed info check the Yosemite maps
Over the years, it became a tradition of mine to stop by the Valley View on my way out of the park. It is my way of saying goodbye to the majestic place.
3. Swinging Bridge Viewpoint
The Swinging Bridge in Yosemite National Park is a popular and busy vista in the park. The bridge spans the Merced River and offers spectacular views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Yosemite Valley. The bridge is open to pedestrians only.
The reasons for its popularity are distinctive and astonishing views from the floor of the Valley and the acceptability from the parking lot, which requires almost no hiking.
The Swinging Bridge viewpoint’s uniqueness is that it offers reflections of the Yosemite Falls in the Merced River. And since I am very fond of including the reflections in my landscape photographs, I never miss opportunities to visit the bridge, hunting for exciting reflections.
The negatives of the viewpoint are that it is always full of people, and in summer, when the Yosemite Fall dries out, the view is less attractive.
Tip. The best time to visit the Swinging Bridge is in April, May, and September, October. Try to show up at the bridge as early as possible in the morning to avoid crowds and to have an opportunity to capture softer light.
How to get to the Swinging Bridge Viewpoint
There is a parking lot on South Drive next to the bridge. It takes a 2-minute walk to get to the bridge. Ultimately, you can park at Sentinel Beach Picnic Area a have a half-mile hike to the Swinging Bridge. The hike provides exceptional photo opportunities.
4. Sentinel Bridge Viewpoint
Sentinel Bridge Viewpoint is located at the eastern end of the Yosemite Valley. Even though it provides a unique view of Hal Dome with the Merced Rivers serving as leading lines, I consider it the least inspiring vista in the valley.
The vista is positioned on a busy Sentinel Drive that connects the Southside and Northside Drives not far from the main visitor center.
The best time to photograph the Half Dome from the Sentinel Bridge is sunset. The sun sets behind you at the western end of the valley, illuminating the Half Dome with soft and worm light.
But you have to be ready to fight for the spot on the bridge at sunset. The bridge is always packed with photographers dragging their tripods with them.
As I said, it is not my favorite spot to visit.
It reminds me of the Canyon Junction Bridge in Zion, which provides an iconic view of the Vergine River with the Watchman mountain in the background, but you can take a picture from a moving car without even stopping.
The same goes for Sentinel Bridge; the view is iconic but not the experience. I recommend visiting it once on your first visit to check the box but spending your valuable time on more inspiring viewpoints.
How to get to the Sentinel Bridge Viewpoint
After crossing the Sentinel Bridge when driving from Southside Drive, parking is on the left side. It takes a couple of minutes to walk back to get to the bridge.
5. Cook’s Meadow
Cook’s Meadow in Yosemite is one of the best places to experience the beauty of Yosemite Valley. The uniqueness of Cook’s Meadow is that it provides unobstructed views in all directions from the floor of the valley, giving you an unlimited number of photo opportunities. But it is most famous for its stunning view of Yosemite Falls.
Cook’s Meadow was named after a business family from New York who settled in Yosemite in 1880 and was the first owner of Yosemite Lodge.
The best way to experience Cook’s Meadow is to take an easy 1-mile hike that takes you through the Meadow and past several other viewpoints. When hiking along the trail, don’t forget always to look around to avoid missing anything.
The best time to visit Cook’s Meadow is in April and May. This is when the Meadow is full of colors and the Yosemite Falls are full of water.
How to get to Cook’s Meadow
After crossing the Swinging Bridge at the valley’s east end, the parking lot on the left side is the best place to start Cook’s Meadow exploration.
6. El Capitan Meadow
El Capitan is one of the most famous landmarks in the Yosemite Valley. It is a 3000-foot-tall single piece of granite rock formation located at the valley’s northern wall at its western end.
The El Capitan Meadow is the best place to grasp the magnitude of the famous rock. The combination of ground-level perspective and proximity allows you to understand the actual scale of the scene.
El Capitan is popular destination amaong rock climbers. From spring until the middle of fall, climbers from around the world come to Yosemite, intending to conquer the famous rock.
And El Capitan meadow is not only the best place to observe and photograph El Capitan but also to watch the rock climbers hang on its vertical walls.
On my first visit to El Capitan Meadow, I mistaken tourists with binoculars for birdwatchers. I was wrong; that were rock climber watchers.
How to Get to El Capital Medow
You can access the El Capitan Meadow from Northside Drive. You can find plenty of single parking spots along the drive.
7. Glacier Point
Glacier Point is the most famous vista outside of the Yosemite Valley. The viewpoint is located on the valley’s south wall and provides a stunning 3,000-foot drop to the valley floor below. It offers panoramic views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls.
When visiting Yosemite Vally vistas, you always look up; from Glacier Point, you look down. The change in perspective offers completely different views.
The main challenge when planning to visit Glacier Point is it is not accessible year around. Because of a much higher altitude at the point, Glacier Point Road is covered with snow for 6 months of the year, sometimes even longer. As a result, you can only visit Glacier Point from May to October/November.
To make the matter even more complex, Glacier Point Road was closed for the entire of 2022 due to renovations.
How to Get to Glacier Point
If you come from the valley, drive towards the Tunnel View and after passing the tunnel, take a left turn to Glacier Point Road.
When driving from the coast, take Highway 41 and use the South Entrance to access Yosemite. Before entering the valley, take the right turn to Glacier Point Road.
It is a 1.2 miles round trip from the parking lot to Glacier Point.
8. Washburn Point
Washburn Point is a lesser popular vista in Yosemite National Park, overshadowed by Glacier Point. The point is located on the north side of Glacier Point Road, less than 1 mile from Glacier Point.
Washburn provides a panoramic view of the eastern side of Yosemite. The Glacier Point shields the western side.
The focal point of the Washburn Point viewpoint is the staircase of waterfalls: Nevada, Vernal, and Illilouette Fall. At the same time, the Yosemite Falls are not visible from here.
From my point of view, Washburn Point has the best ratio of quality of views, accessibility, and crowds.
The view from the vista serves as a preview of what to expect from Glacier Point. It has a decent-sized parking lot and takes a few steps to get to the point. Plus, many tourists avoid it, anticipating the approach of Glacier Point. It is a must-see vista and won’t take much of your time.
It was named after Washburn’s brothers, who built the first road from the south entry (Wawona) to Yosemite Valley.
How to Get to Washburn Point
When driving along Glacier Point Road, you can not miss the Washburn Point parking lot on the right side, not far from the final destination, Glacier Point.
9. Taft Point Overlook
Taft Point is located on the South Rim of Yosemite Valley, just west of Glacier Point.
The viewpoint is a part of a granite cliff that overlooks Yosemite Valley. Taft Point is one of the best places to experience Yosemite from a high vantage point. Visitors can observe the famous landmarks of Yosemite – El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall as part of a sweeping panorama.
Out of all viewpoints along the South Rim, Glacier Point is the most famous, but Taft Point provides a much better view of Yosemite Valley and a vast area of Sierra Nevada mountains.
Taft Point is accessible by a short hike from Glacier Point Road. The trail to Taft Point is about 3 miles round trip and is rated as moderate. The trailhead is located just before the turn-off to Sentinel Dome.
Since most park visitors are lazy and do not go beyond Glacier Point, you will experience much lesser crowds at Taft Point.
How to Get to Taft Point
Take the Glacier Road and drive to the final destination, the Glacier Point parking lot. Visit Glacier Point first, and follow the signs to Taft Point.
10. Hetch Hetchy Valley View
Hetch Hetchy Valley is located in the northwest part of Yosemite. It is the least visited part of the park. The main reason is that the valley is separated from the rest of the park and is pretty far from the park’s main attractions, such as Yosemite Valley and Groove.
In its current state, Hetch Hetchy Valley was formed in 1923. When the O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed, the valley was filled with water from the Tuolumne River, making it a reservoir for San Francisco’s water supply.
Think about Hetch Hetchy Valley as Yosemite Vally with one huge difference; it is filled with water.
As you can imagine, such a water reservoir offers some unique and unprecedented views, typically not found in nature.
There are plenty of stunning vistas around Hetch Hetchy Valley. But if you are short on time, even the view from the O’Shaughnessy Dam will make you speechless.
How to Get to Hetch Hetchy Valley
The fastest way to access the Hetch Hetchy Valley is from Highway 120. Before entering Yosemite from Big Oak Flat Entrance, take a left turn towards Hetch Hetchy.
11. Big Oak Flat Road Half Dome Overlook
Whenever I traveled to Yosemite National Park, I took the Big Oak Flat Entrance because it is the fastest route for driving from San Francisco. And just before entering the Yosemite Vally, there are two lesser-known overlooks I never miss visiting.
The first one is Half Dome Overlook. It is located just before the tunnel, which signifies the entrance to the Yosemite Valley.
The overlook is a small rundown turnout with only a few parking spots. But it provides a unique view of Half Dom from outside of the valley. At the same time, it is a one-trick pony; there is nothing else to do or see at the vista. But it is worth it to stop by the viewpoint for a few minutes with the hope of getting interesting photos of the Half Dome.
2022 Update. According to National Park Services, the $800.000 renovation of the Half Dome Overlook was completed in the summer of 2022. It has a bigger parking lot with much better views. Let’s hope it was worth almost a million dollars.
How to Get to Half Dome Overlook
When you drive along the Big Oak Flat Road, stop by the turnout on the right side before entering the Yosemite Vally through the tunnel.
12. Big Oak Flat Road Merced River Overlook
After visiting Half Dome overlook, driving Big Oak Flat Road toward Yocemity Vally is the Merced River Overlook. It is located just after you pass the tunnel and start descending to Yosemite Vally.
It provides a wide panoramic view of the valley’s west end, with the Merced River running at the bottom of the deep canyon. When the canyon gets wider, it becomes the Yosemite Vally.
The only challenge with the Merced River Overlook is it has almost no parking. There are only a few spots on the side of the Big Oak Flat Road, and they are always full during the day. My advice is to visit the overlook as early as possible.
How to Get to Merced River Overlook
After visiting the Half Dome overlook and driving for a couple of kilometers, you will need to pass through the narrow tunnel. And as soon as you exit the tunnel, start looking for a vacant parking spot.
Best Viewpoints in Yosemite | Conclusion
I am confident that my collection of the 12 best viewpoints in Yosemite National Park will equip you with a variety of ways to experience the majestic place.
Each of these viewpoints offers something unique and special you don’t want to miss. So make sure to add them to your list of things to see when visiting Yosemite National Park.