Last updated on February 24, 2023 by Wandering our World
If you are looking to get out and about and explore the great outdoors in the United States, there can be few arguments against a trip to California. And if you plan to hit the walking trails and take in some stunning scenery, its national parks are the place to go.
Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park are both located in California, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and both parks offer the chance to enjoy the excellent California climate surrounded by breath-taking scenery. But they’re actually quite different.
Yosemite National Park covers an area of around 1,200 square miles (3,100 square kilometers) and encompasses an entire valley full of superb walking trails that wind through woods and pass by huge waterfalls and steep granite peaks. It’s the better choice for serious hikers, epic trails and wildlife spotting opportunities too (as we’ll explain).
Yosemite is also home to some of the most impressive rock formations in the United States, including the famous Half Dome; a huge, climbable granite dome at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley.
Sequoia National Park is the smaller of the two parks and covers an area of around 600 square miles (1,5600 square kilometers). Sequoia National Park also boasts stunning walking trails, but there are fewer, and they are less varied. Those trails tend to be more family friendly than the ones in Yosemite, plus it’s also a great place for a scenic road trip.
That’s because huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and the world’s largest trees are the draws of Sequoia National Park, with the giant sequoia trees being the park’s most famous feature – and a great photo opportunity too.
If you only have the time to visit one of these parks we’re here to help!
Below we use our knowledge to show you why one park could suit you better than the other, as well as show you the hikes you should try and activities to do!
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Has The Best Hiking Trails?
- Which Is Better For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Wildlife?
- Which Time Of Year Is Best?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
Which Is Easier To Get To?
Depending on your point of origin, there should be no major issues in reaching either of these destinations. International travelers can also choose to explore the iconic sights in California’s best-known cities by flying into either Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) or San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
The drive time from Los Angeles International Airport to Yosemite National Park is around five and a half hours, while the drive to Sequoia National Park would take around four hours.
From San Francisco International Airport to Yosemite, it would take around four hours by road, and to get to Sequoia National Park, it would take around five hours.
Depending on where you are traveling from, you may also find it easy to source a flight into Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT).
Fresno Yosemite Airport receives direct flights from a few major cities in the United States, as well as a few locations in Mexico, and may be the best option if you are already in the United States.
The drive from Fresno Yosemite to Sequoia would take around an hour and a half, while the road trip up to Yosemite would clock in at a little over two hours.
There are also flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Fresno Yosemite. With the flight taking around one hour from either starting point, it may be a better alternative than a minimum four-hour journey by road.
Which Has The Best Hiking Trails?
Both Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park are blessed with breath-taking scenery, wonderful walking trails, and iconic views.
Both parks have a range of walking trails to suit all levels of hiker, including family-friendly trails, and both parks boast impressive peaks to summit if your quads and calves are up to it. However for serious hikers, Yosemite will likely be the best – and most challenging – park to visit.
For families, or less confident hikers, some of Sequoia’s most iconic trails tend to be a little easier and more child-friendly.
To help you make up your own mind, we’re going to run through some of the most popular and most iconic trails that are awaiting you in both parks:
The Best Yosemite Hiking Trails
1. Yosemite Valley Loop
The Yosemite Valley Loop trail is a reasonably long yet easy hike which takes in many of the park’s major attractions and viewpoints.
The full loop covers eleven and a half miles and takes between five and seven hours to complete, taking in views of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls along the way.
El Capitan is a 3000-foot granite monolith that was featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary film Free Solo. The vertical face of this rock formation has become a challenge that many rock climbers look to conquer, and its imposing mass rising from the Yosemite Valley is a popular spot for visitors to the park.
Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in the park and one of the tallest in the whole world. The falls drop a total of 2,425 feet (739 meters) from the top of the upper fall to the base of the lower fall and are one of the park’s most impressive sights.
The Yosemite Valley loop is accessible throughout the year, but the spring and fall see dramatic colors as the wildflowers bloom and the trees’ leaves turn their autumnal shades.
2. Half Dome Peak
For those seeking a challenging hike, summiting the Half Dome peak should be on your list. The granite crest rises more than 4,737 feet (1,444 meters) above the valley floor, but before you set off to conquer its peak, you will need to secure a permit.
The trail takes in the photogenic Vernal and Nevada waterfalls before continuing through serene sequoia forests towards the impressive Half Dome rock formation.
Reaching the summit requires a head for heights, as you need to overcome the final 200-foot cable-assisted climb to the peak. You should also be aware that the cables are only in place between May and October each year.
The full round trip covers seventeen miles, and parts can be quite strenuous, so ensure you are up to the challenge before heading off down the trail…
3. The Mist Trail
If taking in Yosemite National Park’s huge waterfalls is on your agenda, then the Mist Trail is the one for you. The trail covers five and a half miles, and its difficulty level is rated as being moderate to strenuous, with five to six hours required to complete it.
This breath-taking hike rises along a slippery granite staircase which follows the course of the Merced River as the nearby falls spray cooling mist on hikers. The hike takes you to Vernal and Nevada waterfalls, as long as your legs are up to it.
There is the option to turn back after taking in Vernal Falls, and for those whose legs still have power, you can continue on up to Nevada Fall.
Vernal Falls drop an impressive 317 feet but are dwarfed by the 594-foot Nevada Fall. Both waterfalls are worth the considerable effort, and the views across the valley from the top of Nevada Fall will make it all worthwhile.
4. Mirror Lake
If you’re looking for something a little easier on the thighs or fancy a warm-up before tackling a bigger trail, the family-friendly Mirror Lake trek could be just what the doctor ordered.
Mirror Lake is one of the few places in the park where you can enjoy a refreshing swim, but during the height of summer the water levels can be too low.
The two-hour hike is open all year, but the spring is arguably the best time if you plan to enjoy a dip in the lake. The trail up to the lake passes the base of Half Dome and meanders through lush forests on the way to the lake.
The early summer is a very popular time to hike this trail as the water levels are still high enough for a swim, but there can be crowds along the way.
The Best Sequoia Hiking Trails
1. Congress Trail via the Generals Highway Trailhead
This popular paved trail begins with a walk to the General Sherman Tree before continuing into the heart of the Giant Forest, where hundreds of giant sequoias stand.
The General Sherman Tree is touted as being the largest known living single-stem tree on Earth and is estimated to be between 2,200 and 2,700 years old. Good luck framing the entire tree in one shot!
The trail is family-friendly, with its paved trails accessible by strollers and wheelchairs alike. The gentle walk covers two miles and is rated as an easy hike. Its accessibility and ease of walking make it a popular trail, but it is not the best choice if you’re looking to escape the madding crowds.
However, the iconic General Sherman tree and the sheer number of large sequoias along the way make for an impressive stroll in the shadows of giants.
As this is a popular trail, especially during peak seasons, it’s best to access the start of the trail via the shuttle buses. This saves time and effort trying to locate a parking spot and eliminates the need for obtaining a placard from the park authorities before driving to the trailhead.
2. Marble Falls Trail
The Marble Falls trail is considered a moderately challenging route, and its eight-mile loop takes around three and a half hours to complete. The hike takes you through chaparral meadows and oak forests on the way to the crystal-clear Marble Falls.
While the trail is child-friendly, there are some steep drops at the side of the trail in places, and caution is advised. The trail does also get a little tougher closer to the falls.
The trail is open all year, but there can be times when parts of the trail are washed out, so it’s best to avoid visiting after heavy rainfall.
Springtime is especially beautiful as the valley’s wildflowers and dogwoods bloom, bringing an added splash of color.
3. Lakes Trail
The Lakes Trail is one of the more popular wilderness hikes in Sequoia National Park.
The trail climbs from the Wolverton trailhead up to three picturesque alpine lakes: Heather, Emerald, and Pear. A fourth lake, Aster Lake, is also not far from the trail and can be enjoyed along the way.
The twelve-mile hike takes between six and seven hours to complete and can be split over a couple of days, with designated camp sites along the way.
The year-round trail can also be tackled on horseback, but only for single-day visits as the horses are not permitted overnight.
The Lakes Trail is also popular for cross-country skiing during the winter months, and proper attire and footwear are required after snowfalls. The busiest season on this trail is from June to October.
4. Big Trees Trail
This easy one-and-a-half-mile walk takes around thirty minutes to complete and is a great way to see the giant sequoias with the whole family.
The paved trail starts at the Giant Forest Museum and passes by the Clara Barton Tree, Round Meadow, and various giant sequoia and young sequoia groves.
The informative path features educational signs along the way and stays relatively flat throughout. It can be hiked in all weather conditions but can become slippery during the winter months.
The Giant Forest area of the park is at its busiest during the summer months, and it is recommended to take the shuttle bus to the start in order to avoid traffic congestion and parking problems.
Which Is Better For Activities?
If you are looking to visit either of these national parks but aren’t too keen on the idea of spending a few thigh-burning hours hitting the spectacular trails, then both parks also have some less-strenuous activities to enjoy.
As the larger park, there’s a little more going on at Yosemite, but there are still some iconic sights to see in Sequoia too.
The visitor centers are a great place to start. Each park has both a visitor center and a museum to explore, which are full of interesting facts and information about their respective parks.
Yosemite’s Valley Visitor Center is open all year and includes a ranger-staffed information desk, bookstore, Spirit of Yosemite film showings, and an exhibit hall with information about the park’s geology, flora and fauna, and its history.
Sequoia National Park’s Foothills Visitor Center is also open throughout the year and offers information about the park’s attractions, maps, books, gifts, and restrooms. There are also informative displays about the ecology and human history of the park, and you can also sign up for free ranger-led programs.
The visitor centers are the ideal place to garner information on the activities available in the area.
Yosemite has plenty of other activities to get you out and about in nature, with cycling, horseback riding, and fishing all possibilities.
Sequoia National Park may have fewer activities than its larger neighbor, but you can get some great views of some of the park’s most iconic attractions from the comfort of your car. There are some great scenic drives in the area, and you can also drive through a giant sequoia tree!
Unfortunately, the photographs that you may find on the internet of cars driving through the base of an upright giant sequoia are a thing of the past. That iconic tree collapsed in 1969; however, there is another fallen giant that lies across one of the roads.
It fell in 1937, and rather than remove the tree altogether, the park rangers created a tunnel through the trunk of the fallen tree to create a unique photo opportunity known as Tunnel Log.
Sequoia’s most famous tree, General Sherman, is also visitable without the need for an arduous trek. The impressive tree stands at 275 feet (83 meters) tall and is over 36 feet (11 meters) in diameter at its base, and you can view it after making just a short half-mile walk along the paths.
Which Is Better For Wildlife?
With Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park both being located in the Californian foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, you can expect similar environments and similar flora and fauna in both parks.
The parks’ varied terrain supports an impressive array of creatures great and small, but for the best chances of encounters, stick to the longer, more remote trails where fewer visitors tread.
More than 400 species of vertebrates, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, have been reported from within the parks.
If being able to spot interesting animals along the way is key to your hiking vacation planning, the larger expanses of Yosemite National Park may be more rewarding for you. It’s easier to escape the crowds in Yosemite, and fewer people making less noise translates to better chances of memorable animal sightings or encounters.
Short-tailed weasels and skunks both inhabit the parks and prey on the myriad insects, frogs, and small rodents that they share the parks with. There are also a few snake species to keep an eye out for, especially the highly venomous western rattlesnake.
Larger predators, including badgers, foxes, coyotes, and wolverines, may also be encountered.
Perhaps the most notable predators in the parks, though, are black bears and mountain lions. However, it’s not common to encounter these beasts, as they tend to avoid human encounters. Bigger, yet less intimidating, mule deer, elk, and moose may also be spotted.
Both parks also boast an impressive array of birdlife, with both parks having recorded over 200 different bird species.
It’s worth scanning the skies as you trek the trails, and you may be rewarded by sightings of peregrine falcons or bald eagles hunting high above the meadows.
The parks also provide shelter to a number of owl species, including the California spotted owl, the northern pygmy owl, and the great gray owl.
Which Time Of Year Is Best?
Both Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park remain open throughout the year, although the summer months are generally considered the best time of the year to visit either park.
During the summer months, the weather is at its most settled, and blue skies are all but guaranteed. The better weather will mean that there will be fewer trails closed or inaccessible too. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that the summer months will also see the largest number of visitors to the parks.
If you would like to enjoy a bit more tranquility when you hit the trails or admire the scenery, yet still have good chances of great weather, then spring and early fall are also worth considering.
There is a slightly higher chance of rainfall than during the summer, but the crowds and the queues will be more bearable, and the trails will be quieter.
Sequoia vs Yosemite: Which Is The Better Choice?
If you are merely looking to have your breath taken and your jaw dropped by immense natural beauty, neither Sequoia National Park nor Yosemite National Park will disappoint.
However, if you are looking for a bit more from your visit, you may need to be a little more selective.
Serious hikers and trekkers may prefer the more varied and rugged options in Yosemite National Park. As the larger of the two national parks, Yosemite has more miles of trails to explore, and as the crowds are a little more spread out, there are better chances of enjoying nature’s tranquility.
The larger park boasts some epic trails, and with plenty of campgrounds along the way, it offers the best chance of the two parks for losing yourself in nature.
If you are planning a family road trip, you may prefer the more relaxed trails in Sequoia National Park, and the kids will love driving through Tunnel Log and grabbing a photo for Instagram.
There’s also the impressive General Sherman to pay a visit to, and you can also pop over to Kings Canyon National Park to see General Grant—another mighty giant sequoia tree.
Overall, both parks offer the chance to enjoy some of the United States’ most iconic natural beauty, and neither park will disappoint.
If it’s epic trails, tall waterfalls, and giant rocks you’re looking for, head to Yosemite National Park; if giant trees and epic drives are more likely to float your boat, set your compass for Sequoia National Park…