Yosemite National Park is known for its stunning waterfalls, fed by snow melt from the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. You may have seen the water crashing down from heights of over 2,000 feet at Yosemite Falls, or maybe you’ve done the iconic Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada falls. On a hot day your mind is probably thinking about where to take a dip.
So, can you swim at Yosemite? Swimming is allowed in Yosemite National Park. The park has relaxing beaches, rivers, lakes and pools. Swimming in Yosemite is a great way to cool off after a hike or just enjoy the crisp waters of the Sierra. You can find somewhere to check out the water almost anywhere you go in the park. Keep reading to discover my favorite spots…
A bit of caution – The spray from the falls can be so powerful in the spring, it feels like you’ve gone swimming without ever getting in the water. If you’ve visited these spots, you’ve probably noticed signs stating that swimming is off-limits in the areas right above and below the waterfalls, or seen the pools fenced off. Take notice of these warnings and stay safe by obeying all posted signage.
Best Lakes and Rivers to Take a Dip In
Tuolumne River and the Merced River – There are two major rivers that flow through Yosemite, the Tuolumne River and the Merced River. The Tuolumne river flows through the northern and eastern parts of the park including Tuolumne Meadows, and the Merced flows through the southern part and Yosemite Valley.
There are a couple of spots to jump in the Tuolumne river up near Tuolumne Meadows, but the easiest to take a swim in will be the Merced down in Yosemite Valley. The Merced is a little warmer, and has plenty of great beaches where you can jump in the water.
Housekeeping Camp Beaches – My favorite beaches in the valley are down at Housekeeping Camp. If you’re using the Valley shuttle system (which I highly recommend – parking can be difficult and the shuttle is free, so find a place to leave your car and use the buses to get around), it’s located at stop number 12. From the parking lot, head back through the camp while keeping to your right.
There is a path on the edge of the campground.
You’ll be able to see the river and the beach over to the side. Walk down until you reach a bridge across the river. There’s a great view of Yosemite Falls from this point, so don’t miss it! After you cross the bridge, take a right to walk down to the beach and the shores of the Merced. There’s plenty of room to set up camp chairs and beach towels if you want to stay a while.
During the summer months, Highway 120 through the park opens up, and with it comes access to many beautiful lakes. You can usually expect the road to be open from late May until October. In above-average snow years, however, I have seen the opening be delayed through June. Just make sure to check conditions before you plan your trip.
Keep in mind that a delayed opening will generally mean that higher elevation trails will continue to have snowpack through the late summer months and prepare accordingly.
Tenaya Lake – The easiest lake to get to in the park is Tenaya Lake. It’s about seven miles to the west of Tuolumne Meadows and is right off of the side of Highway 120. It’s a popular spot because of its accessibility – and who wouldn’t want to stop here on their way through? There’s plenty of room for everyone, though. This alpine lake is a mile long and has quite a bit of beach access.
Nestled in the high country and surrounded by granite, it’s definitely a favorite for a quick, scenic swim.
Sunrise Lakes – If you’re looking for something a little more off-the-beaten-path, there are quite a few longer trails to alpine lakes in the high country of Yosemite. The trailhead for Sunrise Lakes is on the western edge of Tenaya Lake. It’s an 8.8-mile round-trip to see all three of the lakes, and the trail has roughly 1,300 feet in elevation gain. It’s worth the steep climb, though.
These high elevation lakes are a favorite spot for backpackers. In late summer, conditions permitting, Yosemite Hospitality operates a High Sierra Camp here with tent cabins, showers, and hot meals. As the name suggests, the sunrises here are fantastic, too.
Dog Lake – Tuolumne Meadows also has a few trailheads to lakes. The quickest of the few is the 3-mile round-trip to Dog Lake near Lembert Dome. This is one of the more populated hikes in Tuolumne, being one of the shortest, but it’s still a little less crowded than some other spots in the park. To get there, park at the Lembert Dome trailhead near the eastern side of Tuolumne.
The trail heads north past the dome to get to the lake.
Cathedral Lakes – A longer hike to a couple of lakes out of the Tuolumne area is the trail to Cathedral Lakes. It’s an 8-mile round-trip to both the upper and lower lake. Lower Cathedral Lake is one of the most scenic spots you could pick to take a dip – the lake has an amazing view of Cathedral Peak. This trailhead is right off of the highway, and has a small parking lot area.
Follow the brown hiker signs for Cathedral Lakes and pick up the trail heading south. This hike is a great way to get a taste of the John Muir Trail, if you’ve never done the whole thru-hike.
Hotels with Swimming Pools Open to the Public
If you’re visiting Yosemite Valley, there are two swimming pools that are open for public use for a small fee. If you’re staying at either Yosemite Lodge or Curry Village (temporarily known as Half Dome Village), you can access these swimming pools for free. These are a great option if you want to take a swim but the mountain waters are too cold for your taste, or if you have kids.
Yosemite Lodge Pool – The Lodge is to the west of the Yosemite Village area, close to Yosemite Falls. It’s located at stop number 8 on the Valley shuttle. To get to the swimming pool, walk behind the Cedar building (these are the hotel rooms closest to the lobby). You can also cut through the gift shop, exiting through the back doors and taking a right.
Curry/Half Dome Village Pool – The other public pool is located in Curry Village, to the southeast of the Yosemite Village area. The closest shuttle stop is number 13, but stop 14 and stop 20 put you a short walking distance away in the parking lot. You can find the pool by walking down the path past the Front Office towards the food and shops.
In front of the Dining Pavilion, there is a large sign with the opening and closing times of all of the food options in the area. Walk past this sign and over to your left. The pool is located to the side of the Pavilion.
Pool Hours – The pools are usually open from 10 am until 5 pm during the summer. These are the only places in the park where you can swim with a lifeguard on duty.
Staying Safe During Your Swim
Water flow rates vary throughout the seasons in Yosemite and are different from year to year. You may have noticed if you’ve visited the valley in late summer that Yosemite Falls is just trickling down the rocks, or has stopped altogether. On the flip side, in the spring after a winter of heavy snow, the falls and rivers are a powerful force.
This upcoming 2019 summer season is likely to be one to remember, after a winter of record snowfall in the Sierra.
Heavy snowpack means that the snowmelt will continue throughout the late summer, bringing high water levels to the rivers, streams and falls. It’s a great time to visit the park, but remember to keep safety on your mind when you’re playing around the water.
You’ll notice signs in various areas of the park warning against climbing on rocks, or “rock-hopping.” Even when dry, the polished granite rocks in Yosemite are slippery. Don’t climb on rocks around the water, and stay away from wet granite. It’s easy to slip into waters below and take an unplanned swim, which can be dangerous.
When you’re getting in for your swim, avoid rapids and rushing water and keep out of currents. The water can be stronger than it looks and can quickly sweep you away. Keep swimming contained to calm areas or shallow riverbeds, and always look downstream and upstream for potential hazards.
Remember that even during the heat of the summer, alpine rivers and lakes can be surprisingly frigid. This is especially the case for alpine lakes and anything higher in elevation. The water will be warmest in late summer, but you’ll still want to prepare yourself for a cold swim. Make sure to limit your time in the water to avoid hypothermia, and keep a towel and some dry clothes nearby.
Make sure to obey closure signs, and if the water doesn’t look safe, find a different spot. As long as you respect the force of these incredible mountain waters, you’ll be able to have a refreshing and safe swim.
Swimming in Yosemite is one of the most enjoyable activities in the park, no matter where you choose to go. I’m definitely planning on my fair share of trips to enjoy the snow-melt this year. Don’t miss out during your visit!
Can you kayak in Yosemite? Kayaking is allowed in Yosemite. You’ll need to bring your own though as there is nowhere to rent kayaks within the park. Popular spots include the Merced river and Tenaya lake.
Is Yosemite water safe to drink? It is not safe to drink untreated water in Yosemite. You may be very tempted to drink water straight from a stream or pristine looking lake but you will be taking a big risk. Unfiltered water can have giardia, cryptosporidium, and other parasites and bacteria which can make you very sick.
Only have a day or two in Yosemite? Don’t miss our other article on how to hit the best of the park: How To Spend ONE Day In Yosemite