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Yosemite National Park is renowned for its granite cliff faces, golden valleys teeming with pine, and thundering waterfalls. Lucky for hikers who want those elements without the hassle of the crowds, Yosemite’s natural wonders don’t stop at the park’s borders. There are plenty of impressive trails to tread, views to behold, and alpine lakes to enjoy outside the park’s entrance gates.
So whether you want to augment your park visit with a few extra days of adventure, you’re looking for a few more picturesque adventures to round out your exploratory ramble around Northern California, or you just couldn’t stomach the crowds and packed parking lots in the famous Yosemite Valley, these five trails not far from park boundaries won’t disappoint.
Virginia Lakes Trail
30 miles/45 minutes from the Tioga Pass entrance
Located in Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest just north of Lee Vining, California, Virginia Lakes Trailhead is the start of miles and miles of trails that lead you past a seemingly endless series of connected lakes. But that just means it’s the perfect place to choose your own adventure when it comes to distance. Little and Big Virginia Lakes are popular fishing spots and you’ll likely see anglers casting their lines from boats, but once you reach Blue Lake and beyond, you’re likely to have much of the trail–and the spectacular mountain views–all to yourself. Bonus: Although the drive up Virginia Lakes Road is beautiful any time of year, in the fall, lined with an abundance of aspens as it is, the vistas are phenomenally colorful.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
22 miles/30 minutes from the Tioga Pass entrance
OK, so at 0.8 miles, we admit that this is more of a ramble than a full-blown hike, but while this brief excursion just outside the Tioga Pass entrance of Yosemite may be neither strenuous nor especially lengthy, the views of the fairytail-like tufa–formed by calcium carbonate deposits built up and leftover from the receding mineral-rich lake–are mesmerizing. Along the mostly flat stroll from the Mono Lake South Tufa Area parking lot, you’ll meander past towering structures toward the reflective lake lined with calcium carbonate sculptures designed by Mother Nature herself. Take your time exploring the maze they create before completing the short loop back to the parking lot.
Carlon Falls Trail
7.5 miles/20 minutes from the Hetch Hetchy entrance
More-or-less flat hikes rarely lead to such marvelous views, but this easy trail that leads you through pine woods and alongside the South Fork Tuolumne River does, and it’s more than worth the stroll. The trailhead is located along the side of Evergreen Road a few miles from the Hetch Hetchy entrance of Yosemite, and leads hikers in low, rolling ups and downs during this out-and-back hike. Just before you reach the falls, you’ll have a brief but steep uphill to tackle as you route-find among the rocks and trees near the water, but you’ll be richly rewarded when you dip your feet–or take a full-body plunge–in the pools at the foot of the lovely cascade surrounded by greenery.
Parker Lake Trail
20 miles/32 minutes from the Tioga Pass entrance
Bring extra batteries for your camera on this out-and-back just south of Lee Vining, not far from the Tioga Pass entrance of Yosemite. You’ll gain a not-too-strenuous 642 feet of elevation over 3.6 miles, but none of it technical or particularly steep. Plus, the whole way up, the views don’t quit: From immense, towering pines to wide open valleys flanked by peaks, there’s something every few steps. The trail ends at its eponymous alpine lake, where you should absolutely unpack a picnic, enjoy the views, and maybe take a refreshing dip before turning around and retracing your steps to the trailhead.
Wapama Falls Trail
7.5 miles/15 minutes from the Hetch Hetchy entrance
All right, we’re cheating a little with this one: Wapama Falls is technically inside the park’s northwesternmost entrance, Hetch Hetchy. But if your goal is to avoid the crowds in Yosemite Valley, this spot fits the bill. It’s far less frequented by park visitors, meaning not only are you more likely to find a parking spot on the first spin around the lot, but trails won’t be choked with hikers all hours of the day. This trail leads you across O’Shaughnessy Dam (which forms the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir) through a tunnel, and up in elevation alongside the shimmering reservoir to multi-tiered Wapama Falls. Views of the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains abound on your way, so this out-and-back is never boring.
Where To Stay
Backpacking is always a good option, but if you’re looking to go a little more luxe—or just aiming for a little comfort after a few days of playing in the dirt—Rush Creek Lodge and Spa, located in Groveland just 9 miles from Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy entrance and 2 from the Big Oak Flat entrance, has you covered. Between the property’s sustainable gray water reclamation program that utilizes water from the laundry and showers to water the garden, the tavern’s delectable cocktails, the spa, and the nature-inspired rooms, all flanked by Stanislaus National Forest, this lodge is an ideal base of operations for all manner of Yosemite-centric adventures.