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. You’ll find it on the east end of Wawona Tunnel along Wawona Road, which is also Hwy. 41.
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 to see the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Wawona near the South Entrance, stop at this roadside lookout along one-way Northside Drive right before you reach Pohono Bridge.
You’ll see the Merced River (something missing from the earlier Tunnel View), flanked by El Capitan, which reaches 3,000 feet up to the sky, and opposite it, the imposing Cathedral Rocks and Spires.
Arguably the most spectacular view in the park is at the end of Glacier Point Road, 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 Yosemite Ski & Snowboard 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).
With binoculars, you can often see a line of hikers climbing up cables to the top of Half Dome. To the left is the northwest face of Clouds Rest. Its face drops nearly 5,000 feet to lower Tenaya Creek.
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.