There are 3000 square kilometres of protected nature and wildlife within the boundaries of California’s mighty Yosemite National Park. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is staggering in both its size, scale and variety of landscapes, from lake-painted valley floors to soaring granite peaks and crowds of stately redwoods. It’s a spectacular natural wonderland; all within driving distance of San Francisco.

So, strap on your hiking boots – here’s our guide to exploring one of America’s most beloved national parks.

How to get there (and how to get around)

Yosemite is in eastern California, near the border of Nevada. From San Francisco, a journey of just over three hours east by car brings you to the park’s border – and that’s the most efficient and direct route. While it’s technically possible to get an Amtrak train, it’s not a hop-on-hop-off kind of trip (it involves two buses that bookend the train portion) and is only a viable option if you’re staying overnight.

Once you’ve reached the park, you should plan on leaving the car in a carpark.

The best ways to experience the park

By shuttle

Yosemite Shuttle services, USA

Those with extensive Yosemite wisdom decree that no-one should attempt to drive into (or certainly not around) the park after 9am – yes, even with this density of wilderness, traffic jams are common and they eat into precious exploration time. The best way to get around the valley is actually via one of the free shuttles, which run loops around popular areas and access points from 7am until 10pm. The Easy Valley Shuttle services spots such as the imposing Half Dome and the Church Bowl Picnic Area, while the Valleywide shuttle runs to its namesake peak and the western edge of the valley. The former runs every eight to 12 minutes, while the latter runs every 12 to 22 minutes and the longer, Valleywide loop taking around an hour and a half in its entirety.

Camping overnight

Camping at Yosemite, USA

Pitching a tent in Yosemite offers more than just the opportunity to make your days longer. From the 13 campgrounds sprinkled around the park, you can experience Yosemite in its most pristine undisturbed state: take in the sounds of sunrise and sunset or, as visitors tend to do between June and August, set up telescopes at Glacier Point for excellent stargazing. (There’s even an astronomy club that organises workshops throughout the year.) Note: you’ll need to follow a strict protocol for food storage while camping – black bear sightings are common, especially when human food is involved.

Although camping overnight gives you a headstart on the crowds that drive in for the day, it’s unlikely that you’ll be solo on your patch. While some campsites are on a first-come, first-served basis (Camp 4, Wawona, Hodgdon Meadow), most are bookable by reservation only and open up to five months in advance. In short: planning ahead is essential.

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On foot

Hiking at Yosemite, USA

Hiking in Yosemite is bucket-list territory. With over 1200 kilometres of trails, there’s an incredible variety of ground to cover, with sights spanning ancient redwoods, misty veils of waterfalls and meandering paths around staggering monoliths.

Beginners, families and day hikers gravitate towards the kilometre-long Bridalveil Fall Trail or the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail, a 3.2-kilometre trail that snakes through a forest of mighty redwoods, with an accessible section of the trail for wheelchair users.

More ambitious hikers will want to give Half Dome (via Mist Trail) a go. It demands an early start, non-negotiable timings and a 10- to 12-hour hiking time. The reward is an elevation of over 1400 metres, with panoramic views over the surrounding valley – and bragging rights, of course.

Bunk in a hotel

Yosemite hotel cottage, USA

If you’re a film buff, you might have a palpable sense of deja vu upon entering The Ahwahnee, a vast, cabin-esque hotel in the eastern part of the park. No, you’re not in a Stephen King novel. You’re actually in a Kubrick film: this very hotel was the inspiration for the Jack Nicholson horror classic The Shining (just take a ride in the blood red lifts if you need a memory jolt). For fans of the movie, it’s a wonderfully eerie experience – for others, it’s a stay that lands you in one of the park’s most popular corners – from the hotel, access points for Half Dome and Glacier Point – two of the park's most visited natural wonders – are less than 10 minutes away by car.

On horseback

Not into strenuous strolls? Let a stallion do the walking. In the Wawona/Fish Camp area, there are two companies running tours through the park on horseback. Yosemite Trails Horseback Adventures is the most family-friendly option, with one- or two-hour tours of pine and redwood forests on their trusty steeds.

Have the time of your life in Yosemite National Park when you fly to San Francisco with Qantas. Plan your trip now.

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SEE ALSO: 14 Surprising Places You Didn’t Know Were in California

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