Turn along the final bend on the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas and watch as it opens to one of the most remarkable views in the United States: a 7-mile long, 1-mile wide utopia known as the Yosemite Valley.
The valley, which is part of Yosemite National Park, is home to the county's most famous landmarks—El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. Though it's just 7-square miles of the overall 747,956-acre park, most of the annual 3.6 million visitors flock to these monuments.
Don't get caught up here, however. Yosemite National Park as a whole has much to offer. So much, in fact, that a multiday trip is the only way to really see this wilderness.
Here's what you need to go before you pack up and go.
Start—or stop at least once—at the Yosemite Valley. There are a few ways to drive in, and each option is rich in unforgettable scenery.
Coming from the northeast, you gain significant elevation through the Tioga Pass (Tioga Road itself varies between 6,000 and 10,000 feet). Check road conditions before you make this drive—the pass is often closed due to snow. Tioga Road then weaves through alpine majesty, including Tuolumne Meadows, an area filled with lakes, open fields and granite domes bubbling up from the earth.
View driving through Tioga Pass
If you're coming from the south entrance, stop at the Mariposa Grove, a designated area created to celebrate the park's giant sequoias (about 500 trees in this region). The most famous in this grove is the Grizzly Giant with branches wider in girth than most other trees' trunks. Don't miss the Historic Wawona Hotel, Glacier Point and Pioneer Yosemite History Center as well.
Enter from the western entrance for a direct drive to the heart of the Yosemite Valley.
More: 8 Scenic Byways to Drive