15 amazing Yosemite National Park facts

Light effect on El Capitan, Yosemite
These 15 amazing Yosemite National Park facts are bound to have you planning your itinerary for your first (or next) visit to this spellbinding natural wonder (Image credit: Pete Lomchid)

Yosemite National Park is world-renowned by hikers, rock climbers and globetrotters, so there has to be something special about it, right? Turns out there’s a whole slew of fascinating facts about Yosemite, from its dazzling geology to its diverse plants, people and how it got its name. These 15 amazing Yosemite National Park facts are bound to have you planning your itinerary for your first (or next) visit to this spellbinding natural wonder.

1. It was America’s third National Park

Many people believe that Yosemite was America’s first National Park, but that distinction is actually held by Yellowstone over in Wyoming which was established in 1872. Sequoia National Park, which is just south of Yosemite, was designated in September 1890, making it older than Yosemite by only a week.

Half Dome in Yosemite

Yosemite's designation helped pave the way for the National Parks System, which now encompasses 63 parks across the US (Image credit: Getty Images)

2. It helped inspire the idea behind National Parks

Even though it wasn’t established as a National Park until 1890, it was declared a federally preserved land under the Yosemite Grant by President Lincoln all the way back in 1864 and its designation helped pave the way for the National Parks System, which now encompasses 63 parks across the US.

3. Its name means 'those who kill'

Have you ever wondered what the word 'Yosemite' actually means? You’re not alone. Yosemite is a Miwok word that loosely translates as 'those who kill' and was a term used by the Miwok people to describe the Ahwahnechee people, who lived in Yosemite Valley and were apparently, uh, a little fearsome. Interestingly, the Ahwahnechee people themselves called the valley 'Awooni', which means “large mouth', but the valley was re-named by LH Bunnell of the Mariposa Battalion in 1851 who allegedly thought the word meant 'grizzly bear', according to the Yosemite Library (opens in new tab).

Heavy spray from Vernal Falls along the Mist Trail in early summer in Yosemite National Park

The Ahwahnechee people called the valley 'Awooni', which means 'large mouth' (Image credit: Anna Gorin)

4. People have lived here for millennia

Much talk is given over to the many 19th century Gold Rush settlers who flooded the area as well as explorers such as the naturalist John Muir, who spent time in the area and pushed for its National Park status, but the valley was home to the Ahwahnechee people, for as many as 7,000 years.

5. It’s pretty big

Most visitors to Yosemite never see beyond Yosemite Valley, which has an area of about 1,200 acres, but the entire park comprises about 760,000 acres. That makes it nearly as big as the state of Rhode Island, or bigger than Canyonlands and Sequoia National Park combined.

Hiker walking on mountain path, Yosemite, California

Yosemite Valley was formed by glaciers about a million years ago (Image credit: Peter Amend)

6. It was carved by ice 

Speaking of Yosemite Valley, when you arrive here your first question is likely to be, how was this place formed? After winding your way slowly uphill through California farmland towards the Sierra Nevada, you’ll enter the park to find Yosemite Valley spread out at your feet, with endless waterfalls tumbling over hulking granite rock formations such as El Capitan and Half Dome as they loom over gorgeous meadows. Could the Merced River really have created all this? The answer is no. Yosemite Valley was formed by glaciers about a million years ago as they made their way down hill and cut into the uplift of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

7. It has one of the tallest waterfalls in the world

At 2,425ft, Yosemite Falls is in the top 25 tallest waterfalls in the entire world, though it’s actually made up of three falls: lower and middle cascades, and upper Yosemite Falls. The lower falls can be reached by a wheelchair accessible path while the upper falls require a more strenuous day hike. The trail is often busy, owing to how spectacular the falls are, but the park is home to some 25 other waterfalls you can visit instead, which are at their most spectacular during spring runoff.

Yosemite Falls reflected in the Merced River

At 2,425 ft tall, Yosemite Falls is in the top 25 longest waterfalls in the entire world (Image credit: Anna Gorin)

8. It's up there

Though it’s only a short drive from sea-level San Francisco, Yosemite gains some significant altitude, from the valley floor which sits at 4,000ft above sea level to its highest point at the peak of Mount Lyell, which is over 13,000ft.

9. It’s wild 

It might welcome over two million visitors a year, but almost 95% of the park is designated wilderness (opens in new tab), which means nature prevails here. Tread lightly.

10. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Yosemite is recognized as a World Heritage Site thanks to its outstanding natural beauty and diversity of flora and fauna, as well as geological features.

Woman standing amongst giant sequioas

One of the many types of flora that make Yosemite special is its 500 or so giant sequoia trees (Image credit: Getty)

11. It’s home to a 3,000-year-old tree

One of the many types of flora that make Yosemite special is its 500 or so giant sequoia trees, the oldest of which is the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant who grows in the Mariposa Grove.

12. It’s home to 90 different mammal species 

The diversity of Yosemite’s topography and climate means it houses a stunning array of animals, including 90 distinct mammal species compared to Yellowstone’s impressive 67. Visitors here have the chance to view black bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and a wide variety of bat species

13. It’s a bird watcher’s dream

If you’re an avid bird watcher, head to Yosemite, where you can get spotted owls, western tanagers and eastern kingbirds among the 262 bird species here in the sights of your binoculars.

Yosemite national park

If it’s hiking trails you’re looking for, you’ll find some 800 miles of trails here (Image credit: Kari Siren)

14. It’s amazing for hikers 

If it’s hiking trails you’re looking for, you’ll find some 800 miles of trails here according to Yosemite Hikes (opens in new tab). The best hikes in Yosemite lead you under stunning waterfalls, over massive granite cliffs and into the shade of giant sequoia trees. In fact, it's the closest thing to hiking heaven we can think of.

15. It's Hollywood famous

And no, we don’t just mean famous climbing films like Dawn Wall, Free Solo and Valley Uprising. Yosemite’s amazing landscape has made appearances in popular films like Last of the Mohicans, Star Trek V and Maverick. 

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.