Half Dome might be on the postcards, but Yosemite's best-kept secrets are on the other side of the park. Every year, millions of people gravitate to a few marquee wilderness attractions, choking up parking lots, snatching up campsites, and leaving equally spectacular spots largely untouched. "To get the wilderness experience, you have to dig deeper," says Kathy Kupper, a spokesperson for the National Park Service. That means discovering the less-traveled park entrances and looking regionally – maybe rafting the Colorado River through Utah's red rocks instead of the Grand Canyon – for great trips without the hassles.
Yosemite's Iconic Meadow
Yosemite Valley's sheer granite faces and towering waterfalls are unrivaled, but, then again, so are the stultifying heat, souldestroying traffic, and campfire smog. An hour east, just inside Yosemite's Tioga Pass entrance, lies a clean-air wonderland of white-rock domes and wildflowers known as Tuolumne Meadows. Fly fishermen cast for trout in its meandering streams, while day-trippers stroll an easy two-mile trail to the Tuolumne River, where you can swim in the cold water and lie out on sun-drenched granite slabs.
Rising above it all is 12,600-foot Mount Conness, one of the most coveted summits in California. Hikers start at Sawmill campground off Saddlebag Lake Road, northwest of Tioga Pass, and head westward up to the summit ridge, then north to the summit proper – where views stretch from Half Dome to the Nevada desert. Climbers opt for the more exciting ascent over on the west ridge. "It's the best moderate long climb in the Sierra Nevada," says Chris McNamara, author of High Sierra Climbing. This route does require climbing equipment and experience – or a companion with both – but the climbing itself is well within the abilities of any reasonably athletic person. "Plus, you get to climb for 1,500 feet," says McNamara, "and you can scramble out onto the knife-edge ridge for a great photo along the way."
Stay: Tuolumne Meadows Lodge has canvas tents with cots and linens from $124 per night.
Do: For rock-climbing lessons or to hire an expert guide, contact the Yosemite Mountaineering School. yosemitepark.com/rock-climbing.aspx