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Blog The Ultimate Fall Hiking Guide to Yosemite & Where to Find Fall Colors
Ciara Turner-Ewert | 08/01/2023Hiking, Outdoor Activities, Seasons, Trails |   

The Ultimate Fall Hiking Guide to Yosemite & Where to Find Fall Colors

When you think of fall, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Maybe pumpkins, baked goods, and leaf peeping all pop-up. While those foods and activities ring in the fall season, there’s one other thing I highly recommend adding to your fall to-do list — visiting Yosemite National Park. During the fall, Yosemite Valley flashes various hues, from yellowish-green and shamrock green to shades of apricot orange and more.   

The crowds within the park begin to dwindle, and the summer heat begins to cool down, offering a superb time to explore the various hiking paths within the park. That being said, enjoy your pumpkin spice latte (preferably from a locally owned shop like Zanders or Glow Café), then head over to Yosemite National Park to discover the vibrant fall colors. So if fall foliage and quiet bouts of solitude get you excited to explore Yosemite, below, you’ll find a great hiking and adventure itinerary. 

Fall Hiking Guide To Yosemite

Yosemite is home to a diverse ecosystem with various vegetation zones, including: foothill-woodland areas, lower and upper montane forests, subalpine meadows, and alpine areas consisting of boulders, plants, and rocky slopes. While each of these zones have their respective beauty, if you’re looking for fall colors, the forest and foothill zones offer the most jaw-dropping options. Within these zones there are blue oak trees, interior live oak trees, deciduous trees, and more, according to the National Park Service (NPS). 

When it comes to finding these trees in the park, the best place to find these snazzy fall colors is in the Valley. You’ll find random coves with bursts of color and several hikes which lead to sweeping vistas high above for a colorful bird's eye view. That being said, my favorite places to find fall colors are on the Mirror Lake Trail, around Bridalveil Falls, and at the base of El Capitan.

Tip: The best months to experience the fall colors in Yosemite are September, October, and November. September and October tend to be warm, while November is often very cool and you run a small chance of seeing some snow. When I visited during November, it snowed and I experienced fall foliage peeping between blankets of white snow. It was gorgeous!   

While any time of year is an excellent time to hike Yosemite National Park, there are some hikes that are especially beautiful during the fall. From colorful landscape scenery to bouts of fall foliage, here are the best hikes I recommend checking out.

Tip: Before heading into the park, make sure to grab hiking provisions (i.e., snacks, lunch, water, etc.) from the grocery store. Some of the hikes listed are advanced and located in Yosemite’s wilderness, which means there’s no grocery store if you’re hungry.  

Fall Hiking Guide To Yosemite

For your first day in Yosemite, you’ll want to arrive early. This will give you ample time to explore the beautiful Four Mile Trail which is located on the Valley Floor. It starts near the base of Sentinel Rock and quickly climbs the mountainside through various steep hills and switchbacks. Then it pops out at the top of Glacier Point for breathtaking views of Yosemite’s biggest natural attractions: Half Dome, El Capitan, the Valley, Yosemite Falls, and the serpentine Merced River among the fall colors. There’s also a beautiful lookout point about two-thirds up the trail called Union Point.    

While the name, Four Mile Trail, suggests the trail is 4 miles long, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The trail is actually 9.6 miles out and back to Glacier Point. It’s rated strenuous due to the intense, continuous uphill trek, and it takes roughly a full day (6 to 8 hours) to complete depending on your speed.

After your hike, consider grabbing dinner at Mountain Room Lounge. Here you can grab a hearty bread bowl of chili (or vegan chili) to warm with after a cool autumn hike.  

Tip: The trail gets more difficult and dangerous to hike as the weather gets colder due to snow, so hike with caution. For instance, I ran into snow in early November and couldn’t make it up to Glacier Point due to the hiking conditions.

Photo Credit: Herrmann Global

One of the most popular hiking trails in Yosemite is the Mist Trail. It’s a 6 mile loop and every season this trail attracts visitors to ponder different perspectives of the two gigantic waterfalls — Vernal and Nevada Falls. That said, day two in the park is all about exploring these gorgeous falls.

The trail begins at Happy Isles Trailhead with a gentle hike along the river, then it rapidly picks up for a steady, steep climb up the mountainside. Rated as strenuous, this hike gains over 2,000 feet in elevation. Along the path you’ll find a scenic lookout point at Vernal Falls Footbridge (which is before Vernal Falls) and the greenish Emerald Pool as you continue hiking towards Nevada Falls.

Stay alert as hiking up to Vernal Falls incurs one of the best rewards — getting soaked by the massive waterfall! (Editor's note: please watch your footing on the stone stairs as they can be very slippery.)

Grab some dinner at Casa Velasco Mexican Food in Bass Lake after your hike. This Mexican restaurant dishes out some tasty tacos, fajitas, nachos, and chips and guacamole.

Fall Hiking Guide To Yosemite

Upper Yosemite Falls Trail is another strenuous hike that reaps a big reward at the end. It’s also the perfect way to end your hiking vacation in Yosemite National Park. With spectacular views of the valley as you hike alongside the upper fall, I highly recommend this hike for any avid hiker. During the fall, the views from above showcase vibrant patches of yellowish-green among verdant evergreen trees.   

This trail is 7.2 miles out-and-back and is one of the oldest trails in the park according to NPS. Talk about historic! What I love about this trail is no matter the season you’re hiking, you can expect the lower portion of the trail to be sunny (if the suns out). Otherwise, pack layers as it gets colder the higher you climb during the fall.

For those craving American food after exploring the waterfall, consider eating dinner at Oakhurst Grill and Whiskey 41 Lounge. The ambiance here is extremely inviting as a round fireplace in the center of the restaurant is lit to set the fall-time mood and warm up guests (aka, it’s a vibe).

Besides hiking in Yosemite, fall is a great time to explore beyond the park with off-road vehicles. Some vehicles you can expect to find are UTVs, jeeps, and Rykers, which resemble a three-wheel motorcycle. Yosemite Adventure Company is the best place to snag a rental or book a tour. I rented a UTV and had an amazing time zipping through the mountains past a cliff edge to witness some dramatic views at the Bass Lake Vista.

Another great heart pumping fall activity to do is to rent a bike and cycle around the Cooks Meadow Loop to find fall foliage. Take a stroll through Curry Village, go bird watching, or consider taking a dip in the Merced River to cool off after your hike.

Fall Hiking Guide To Yosemite

If you’re looking for a cozy, quaint lodging option that gets you as close as possible to fall foliage, then you’ll want to stay at Sierra Meadows. Located 20 miles from Yosemite, this glamping resort offers stunning private micro cabins and larger cabins. The premise spans over 1,300 acres and you’ll find an abundance of activities to during the fall (on top of hiking).

For guests, there are free bike rentals, a pool, board games, a tiny store on site, and paved paths across the street meant for hiking and biking. Follow these paths to see giant sculptures, go bird watching, or enjoy a beautiful rosy sunset kiss the Eastern Sierra Foothills goodnight. This resort is rated 5 stars on TripAdvisor.

Ciara is a travel writer, health & wellness writer, certified wellness & transformative travel coach, and a world traveler who’s visited over 30 countries. Her work has been seen in USA Today, Essence, Travel Noire, and many other publications. When she’s not writing for publications or coaching, Ciara is traveling the world with her amazing husband, eating chocolate chip cookies, and writing for a wellness travel blog she founded, Wellness Travel Diaries. On her blog, you’ll find adrenaline-seeking inspiration, outdoorsy adventures, drool-worthy allergy-friendly eats, and tried and true wellness hacks.

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