Spectacular Yosemite Falls is a three-part waterfall that stretches 2,425 feet skyward, making it one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. In spring, snow runoff makes it a magnificent spectacle as spray crashes to the base of the falls, leaving visitors drenched. In the winter, cold temperatures help form a cone at the base of the waterfall, sometimes reaching 200 feet high -- it looks like a giant upside-down snow cone. You can reach the base of Yosemite Falls by taking the shuttle bus to stop no. 6. It is also an easy walk from any parking lot near Yosemite Lodge.

Picturesque Mirror Lake, named for its nearly perfect reflection of the surrounding scenery, is slowly filling with sediment thanks to the forces of nature and, depending on the spring runoff, may be little more than a watering hole by late summer. Eventually, the sedimentation will turn the lake into a meadow. Still, the lake as it is captures beautiful images of Half Dome and North Dome, which tower above. It is surrounded by forest and has a fairly level, paved trail along its banks, which also offer places to sunbathe and picnic. It's accessible (by vehicle) to people with disabilities; there's a 60-foot elevation gain. Take the shuttle to stop no. 17.

The Mist Trail to Vernal Fall shows the power behind the water that flows through Yosemite. The trail itself can be slick and treacherous, but it is a pretty walk up 500 steps to the top of the waterfall. Miniature rainbows dot the trail as mist from the waterfall splashes below and ricochets back onto the trail. This walk is sometimes closed in winter due to ice, but there is a winter route to the top of the fall.

advertisement

The remnants of a recent rockslide can be seen behind the Nature Center at Happy Isles. Several years ago, a granite slab collapsed with such force that it blew over hundreds of trees, claimed one life, and filled the valley with dust. Park officials decided to leave the landscape pretty much as it was post-slide, as a reminder of the tremendous geologic forces that shaped (and are still shaping) the park.

The view from Glacier Point  is one of the most spectacular vistas in the park. From this point far above the valley floor, visitors will find themselves at eye level with Half Dome and hundreds of feet above most of the park's waterfalls. The white and silver rocks offer a stark contrast against the sky. To reach Glacier Point in summer, take one of the buses (check at tour desks for information) or drive south of the valley on Wawona Road to the turnoff for Glacier Point Road. Follow the winding road to the parking lot (allow about 45 min. from the valley) and walk a few hundred yards to the lookout. In winter, the road is closed and Glacier Point is accessible only on skis or snowshoes.

A drive toward the high country on Tioga Road offers other breathtaking views. Some of the grandest sights are at Olmsted Point, which provides a panoramic view of the granite landscape. There are nearby picnic spots at picturesque Tenaya Lake. A bit farther along the road is the emerald-green Tuolumne Meadows, dotted with thousands of wildflowers during late spring and summer.

advertisement

An off-season visit to Yosemite Valley, especially in winter, offers unique beauty plus the peace and quiet that was once commonplace. And although the high country is inaccessible by car -- Tioga Pass Road and Glacier Point Road are usually closed to vehicles from mid-fall to early June, depending on snowfall -- the valley becomes more accessible, as the number of visitors is greatly reduced. Snow dusts the granite peaks and valley floor, bends trees, and creates a winter wonderland for visitors. Lodging rates drop, and it is slightly easier to secure accommodations or a campground site, but even a day trip can be rewarding. Although many animals hibernate during the cold months, this is the best time of year to see the valley as it was before it became such a popular place.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.