"If you can do just one dayhike in Yosemite, it should be the Mist Trail," recommends Pete Devine, who says this path packs in more spectacular scenery per mile than any other hike in the park. Start before 7 a.m. to get a jump on the 3,000 hikers that depart from the Happy Isles trailhead each summer day. The eight-mile horseshoe gains 2,000 feet and skirts 320-foot Vernal Fall, which douses hikers in spring and early summer, then tops out above 597-foot Nevada Fall. Hang a right on the John Muir Trail, which serves up a prize view of Half Dome and Liberty Cap towering above Nevada Fall's torrent of water. Continue on to Clark Point and more views of pounding cascades before descending to rejoin the Mist Trail.
Mt. Lyell Yosemite's highest summit, 13,114-foot Mt. Lyell, isn't easily bagged: You'll need two days and a measure of grit to climb this trail-less heap of rocks that includes class III scrambling. Up top, you'll savor solitude and views of the Cathedral Range in the west clear to the Nevada desert in the east. From the John Muir trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows (Shuttle Stop #2), follow the John Muir Trail up Lyell Canyon for 9.5 miles; camp near Kuna Creek, where sparsely forested sites offer sweeping views of Lyell's U-shaped glacial valley. Day two, continue two more miles on the JMT until it halts its southbound course and curves eastward. Here, leave the maintained trail and hike cross-country up Lyell basin, following the creek to the foot of the rapidly shrinking Lyell Glacier. It's a 45-minute scramble around the right side of the glacier to Lyell's summit, which looks out over watersheds of three rivers. Retrace your steps to the trailhead.
Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley This 46-mile, five-day route penetrates the heart of Yosemite's high country, slipping among the jagged towers of the Cathedral Range, skirting Half Dome, and ending in Yosemite Valley. While autos stream into the Valley from the west, you'll enter this temple from its roadless east end. From Tuolumne Meadows, take the JMT, then the Rafferty Creek Trail, for seven miles; camp near Rafferty's headwaters. Next morning, hike past Vogelsang Lake to watch the sunrise spotlight Vogelsang Peak, then follow Lewis Creek Trail, sampling its granite-bottomed swimming holes, to a solitary camp at Echo Valley (10.5 total miles). Day three, hike seven miles to Sunrise Camp at Long Meadow and siesta in this grassy oasis surrounded by steely peaks. Continue past Sunrise Lakes and make the breathtaking dash across the top of Clouds Rest, where the open air of Tenaya Canyon swirls beneath you. Camp by Sunrise Creek, near the JMT junction. Wake before dawn on your last day to climb Half Dome before the hordes arrive from Happy Isles, then descend via the Mist Trail for crashing waterfalls and an invigorating shower at hike's end. Take the shuttle to Yosemite Lodge and catch the Tioga Road bus back to Tuolumne Meadows.
Escaping Valley crowds is easy, says park ranger Scott Gediman: The trick is knowing the secret backcountry stashes. Here, he shares his favorites.
Valley Floor Loop Trail
No joke: This hidden, 13-mile path links such icons as Bridalveil Fall and El Capitan, yet sees virtually no traffic. "You can hike here on the Fourth of July and see no one else," says Gediman. Pick it up at Camp Four and walk west, hugging the base of El Cap to Pohono Bridge, where you cross to the Valley's south side. Then head east through El Cap Meadow to Swinging Bridge and its view of Yosemite Falls.
Lower River Campground This hideaway no longer appears on park brochures, since the Merced River's 1994 flood washed away the former campground. Now, with ponderosas pushing through the old concrete pads, this forgotten corner provides the perfect riverside idyll. Pack a picnic and park just north of Stoneman Bridge. Walk past the gate on the southwest side of the Valley Loop Road and head toward the river, where you gaze at El Cap reflected in the water.
Hidden Falls No official trail leads to Hidden Falls, where Tenaya Creek cascades 80 feet into pools beloved by locals. But this secret waterfall and swimming hole is well worth the scramble up the boulder-filled canyon–just watch out for falling rocks. From Mirror Lake trailhead (Shuttle Stop #17), hike three miles on maintained trail to the footbridge spanning Tenaya Creek. Look for a faint user trail on the southeast side of the creek, and hike upstream a half-mile to Hidden Falls.
Take better pictures of the falls–which are tricky to capture compellingly–with these tips from photographer Mike Osborne, who shot the new book Granite, Water, and Light: The Waterfalls of Yosemite Valley ($13, Heyday Books, yosemite.org).
Snap a segment Some falls are so lofty, they don't easily fit in the frame. But it's okay if you don't include the whole waterfall in your shot, says Osborne. "Chopping off the top or bottom of the fall tends to create interest and a sense of curiosity."
Try horizontal "Something about long, skinny objects tends to make people want to select vertical compositions for their photos," Osborne says. Rotate the camera occasionally and try a horizontal composition, which can be a fresh and engaging way to shoot a vertical waterfall.
Stop the action Use a fast shutter speed to "freeze" the water and show off its textures. The resulting folds and sparkling droplets look better than a featureless white stream.
Get the cliffs Note the rocks around the water. Says Osborne, "Interesting features such as lichens, cracks, and ledges often form strong lines or shapes that can contribute powerfully to your composition."
Cut the sky Yosemite's sky can appear overly bright and featureless, especially at midday, so eliminate those expanses for better shots. An exception: Dramatic clouds above the waterfall can add visual interest.
Pete Devine commutes to work in Yosemite Village every day. His advice for avoiding Valley traffic:
Shop beforehand "The Village Store is one of those places where people circle around endlessly, looking for a parking spot," says Devine. Stock up on food, batteries, and everything else you'll need before entering the park to avoid bottlenecks near Valley cash registers.
Ride a bike Take your cue from park residents and employees, who generally ride bikes rather than drive cars or take shuttles: Biking is faster and more direct than buses, and abundant bike racks make parking easy. Bring your own rig, or rent at Curry Village (209-372-8319) or Yosemite Lodge (209-372-1208), and don't forget to lock it up.
Go midweek Spring through fall, weekdays see relatively few park visitors, so traffic is light on Valley roads and trails.
Book campsites ahead of time "Try to reserve something for your first night in the park," advises Devine. Campgrounds and lodges fill quickly, and without an advance booking, you're likely to waste hours circling the Valley, looking for last-minute openings. Campgrounds just outside the Valley (on Glacier Point Road and Tioga Road) have spots even in the high season.
Park ranger Kari Cobb has helped plenty of hikers conquer their fear of climbing Half Dome. Here she reveals how to handle the park's scariest trail.
Don't spectate "Watching people climb the cables before you start up tends to make you more afraid," says Cobb. "It looks far worse than it feels once you're climbing."
Start early Traffic on the cables can spike hikers' alarm, so get going by 5 a.m. from Happy Isles to beat the crowd–and set your own pace. Try to hike on Sunday or Monday, which see one-quarter of Saturday's hikers.
Step up Wooden planks positioned every four or five feet provide footing that feels more secure than the granite, says Cobb. "Use those boards, even if it means taking longer steps than you normally would."
Don't look down Focus on your hands and feet as you climb, not on the views around you–or worse, the ground far below. You can enjoy the scenery once you're on top, feeling rooted and secure.