Stick your head into Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park and you'll quickly come to appreciate why they say that 95 percent of the park's visitors can be found in the spectacularly scenic valley. And while it's good they've come to explore the valley, they'll head home greatly shortchanged if they don't explore the rest of the park.
There's no doubt that the Yosemite Valley is the focal point of the park. With its feathery waterfalls, soaring granite walls, and tranquil Merced River coursing down the middle of the 7-mile-long valley, the setting is unparalleled. But it's not the only vista worth setting your eyes on during a visit to Yosemite. With that understood, here are Traveler's recommendations for to-do's that should be on your itinerary when you visit Yosemite.
* Mark your calendar, and one year out from when you want to visit Yosemite call central reservations ( 801-559-4884 ) to line up a place/places to stay. Yosemite's popularity can make a mess of your vacation if you don't lock up rooms far ahead of your trip.
* Do visit the Yosemite Valley. It's both immense and intimate at the same time. Park your car and walk the trails below Yosemite Falls, check out the activity at the historic Camp 4 climbers' camp, stand in El Capitan Meadow and "glass" the sandstone giant to see if you can spy any climbers working their way up this icon.
* Check out the Ansel Adams Gallery. Located in the heart of the valley not far from Upper and Lower Yosemite Fall, the historic gallery has been under the same family since 1902. Knowing Ansel Adams' work, walking into the gallery can feel akin to entering a photographic cathedral. Once inside you'll find not only copies of his works to admire and purchase, but a well-stocked book section and scores of prints from a wide range of artists.
* Make a note to visit, on the opposite side of the valley, sometime before you leave the LeConte Memorial Lodge (open from Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from May through September.) This small stone structure was the valley's very first visitor center; though "lodge" is in its name, there's no rooms for guests. Opened by the Sierra Club in 1904, the building today offers evening programs and a well-stocked library on environmental topics that you can browse.
* Stroll through The Ahwahnee, which, like the LeConte Memorial Lodge, is a National Historic Landmark. You don't have to stay there, but this grandiose, six-story structure is a main figure in the architectural history of the national parks. Designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who also designed lodges in Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Teton national parks, this imposing castle oozes blue blood, having housed royalty, presidents, and many from the Hollywood A-List. But that doesn't mean you can't stroll the halls, enjoy the artworks lining them, set in the Great Lounge that is book-ended by two spacious stone fireplaces, grab a drink in the lounge, or enjoy the Sunday buffet.
* Sample some of the valley's hikes. You'll regret not hiking up, at least to the top of Vernal Fall, the Mist Trail, what with its handcrafted trail stonework, the billowing mists that both cool you in summer and wrap you in rainbows, and the route it provides to Half Dome. Push on beyond Vernal Fall and you can stand atop Nevada Fall with its spectacular view of the valley down below. Venture up to Mirror Lake, which in spring captures reflections of both Half Dome and Mount Watkins. It's an easy 2-mile roundtrip. More strenuous paths lead to Glacier Point and the top of Yosemite Fall, but will take a day.
* Spend some time in the Yosemite Museum and Indian Village to learn both the history of whites in the valley and that of the Native American tribes, the Miwoks and Paiutes, that occupied the valley before being forced out. Time your visit right and you can watch demonstrations of basket-weaving and beadwork. There's even a reconstructed Indian Village of Ahwahnee behind the museum.
* Get up early, just before sunrise if possible, and walk one of the Yosemite Valley's meadows to enjoy the quiet and marvel in the Sierra sunrise.
* Feeling agile? Consider taking a climbing class from the pros at the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service.
Don't expend all your energy in the Yosemite Valley, for there's much to see beyond its confines.
* Head down to Wawona for a walk through the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. These big trees -- there are hundred in this grove -- are just incredible to walk around. To help you out, we've attached a map (below) to help you plan your hike. Two other groves of sequoias can be found just outside the northwestern corner of Yosemite Valley. The Tuolumne and Merced Groves are found near Crane Flat, but you'll need to hike 1-2 miles one-way to reach them.
* While you're in the Wawona area, check out the Pioneer Village. The collection of historic buildings here (pulled from various locations elsewhere in the park), include a Wells Fargo office, blacksmith shop, ranger cabin, and an early jail. Enter the "Artist Cabin" and you'll find a nice history on the artists who were drawn to Yosemite and the impact their works had on the growing popularity of Yosemite. There's also a covered bridge here, and you can take a stagecoach ride.
* On the way back from Wawona, turn right on the appropriately named Glacier Point Road and head 16 miles down to Glacier Point. While many aspire to stand atop Half Dome so they can gaze down into the Yosemite Valley, the view from Glacier Point, 3,200 feet above Yosemite Valley, is even more stupendous if for no other reason than the fact that you can also take in Half Dome from this perch. If you're staying in the valley, you can take a bus tour to Glacier Point, and hike down to the valley.
* Meander the Tioga Road. Running nearly 60 miles from Crane Flat to the park's Tioga Pass Entrance Station above the town of Lee Vining, this byway proves no car's windshield is broad enough to capture all the splendor of the high country that lines this route. Stop to spend time scrambling across the granite domes that are studded with conifers, plan a picnic for the shores of Tenaya Lake, walk the shores of the Tuolumne River, hike down to Cathedral Lake, or plan an overnighter along the John Muir Trail.
* Consider winning a lottery spot in one of the High Sierra Camps that dot Yosemite's high country. These backcountry camps, reached either on foot or astride a saddle, offer comfortable cots with warm blankets in tent cabins come nightfall, and there's a central dining tent where chefs serve up wonderful meals. With no need to carry housing, bedding, and food on your back, these camps enable you to take in some great, easy hiking through the High Sierra.
* If you enter or exit the park through the Tioga Pass Entrance Station, pull over at the small parking area on the north side of the road and check out the old entrance station. It was built in 1931, and the log-and-rock construction is gorgeous. There's a nice 2-mile roundtrip hike to Gaylor Lake here that is definitely worth the effort.
If that's not enough to keep you busy, consider an extended backcountry trek.
Yosemite National Park: www.nps.gov/yose
Half Dome hiking permits: http://www.yosemitepark.com
DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite (for lodging and dining reservations, activities): www.yosemitepark.com
Great Destinations, Yosemite & The Southern Sierra Nevada: In this pixelated age, this old-fashioned printed guidebook by David Page not only helps you negotiate Yosemite National Park, but also provides some great insights into the surrounding neighborhood, including Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Death Valley national parks.
The Yosemite Conservancy, an organization recently created by the merger of the Yosemite Fund and Yosemite Association, supports the park by funding various programs and offering field courses for visitors. During 2009, the new organization provided educational programming, trail maintenance, bird research, and other help to the tune of nearly $6 million in projects and programs.