The natural beauty of Yosemite is so incredible that it inspired an entire 19th-century conservation movement, which resulted in the valley’s protection as a national park in 1890. Naturalists led by John Muir (1838–1914) and artists like photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984) found inspiration for their life’s work here. First-time visitors to Yosemite National Park won’t want to miss any of the following heart-stopping vistas, all easily accessible from paved roads throughout the park.
At the western entrance to Yosemite Valley, Tunnel View is a must-do stop, no matter which direction you approach the park from. Here you can take photos of the most famous panorama of Yosemite Valley, perfectly framed by a forest of pine trees and wide-open skies above. On your right is Bridalveil Fall, plunging off granite cliffs. To the left is the iconic granite rock formation of El Capitan, with Half Dome rising in the background. During peak waterfall season in May, you might spy several more short-lived lacy cascades dropping steeply off the sides of the lushly carpeted valley, too.
As you leave Yosemite Valley, perhaps for a day trip down to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias near Wawona or a scenic drive up to Glacier Point or Tioga Pass, be sure to stop off at this roadside lookout. Here you’ll see a beautiful portrait of the Merced River (something that’s missing from earlier Tunnel View), flanked by massive El Capitan on the left and the skyscraping twin Cathedral Rocks and Spires. Look for this viewpoint along one-way Northside Drive, before the Pohono Bridge.
Arguably the most spectacular view in the park is at the end of Glacier Point Rd, about an hour’s drive from the valley. Here you can gaze out across the Sierra Nevada high country, with the curved tooth of Half Dome prominently in the foreground. If you walk just a short distance down the Panorama Trail, you might have this epic view, which also includes Vernal and Nevada Falls, almost all to yourself. Full moon nights are a magical time to visit Glacier Point, where John Muir and US President Teddy Roosevelt once camped out. Note Glacier Point Road is usually closed beyond the Badger Pass ski area from November until late May or early June.
For a whopping dose of scenic beauty, nothing beats a drive along high-altitude Tioga Road to Tioga Pass, about a two-hour drive from the valley. Almost every bend in road brings you another literally breath-taking view. The most famous viewpoint is at Olmsted Point, from where you can peer down into Yosemite Valley and get a unique perspective on iconic Half Dome. You can see the view right from the road’s overlook, or for a more glorious view as shown above, hike the shortest trail in Yosemite (0.2 miles). Bring your binoculars – you can watch hikers go up the back of Half Dome. Note: Tioga Road is closed during the winter season.
The panorama of Sierra Nevada peaks from the shores of alpine Tenaya Lake is another classic postcard shot, also off Tioga Road in the park’s high country.