Granite domes, sheer cliffs, waterfalls, ancient and enormous trees, alpine meadows, and a lush river valley all come together in one of America’s most famous and beloved national parks. Yosemite is just a few hours’ drive from the Bay Area, so it may be tempting to add a few days to your San Francisco itinerary to go visit the park (or make a side trip to San Francisco if you’re already visiting Yosemite).
Living in such close proximity to Yosemite ourselves, our family has been so lucky to visit nearly every year since we became parents, and it’s been a treat not only to see the park in different seasons but to see the different “seasons” of our kids unfold as we return to the park through the years. If you get the chance to check Yosemite off your family’s National Park bucket list, here are some of our favorite ways we’ve found to experience Yosemite National Park with kids.
–> And don’t forget, if you have a fourth-grader with you the whole family gets into the park free (details on getting and using the Every Kid in a Park Pass in this post)!
Activity 1: Bike Yosemite Valley
From the time your baby is big enough to ride in a baby seat on the bike or get towed along behind in a trailer, riding bikes is one of the most pleasant ways we know to take in Yosemite Valley. Paved, relatively easy pathways follow along the scenic Merced River and criss-cross at occasional bridges, all the while offering beautiful views of the towering natural landmarks around you and the beauty that fills in between them below. We love packing a picnic and staking out a lovely beach spot beside the river for a lunch break, plus you can also plan to stop at Yosemite Village or Half Dome Village for ice cream. If bringing your bikes from home doesn’t work, bicycle rentals are available at Yosemite Village, including bikes with kiddie trailers, kid-size bikes, ADA bikes, and helmets for the whole family. Bike racks are found nearly everywhere you’d want them throughout the valley, including at restrooms, just don’t forget your bike locks at home.
Activity 2: Boulder Your way to Mirror Lake
You don’t need bikes to enjoy the route from the The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly The Ahwahnee) to Mirror Lake, and in fact, ours often get ditched along the way in favor of scrambling on foot and climbing on the many mind-boggling boulders you’ll find along the way. This natural playground is a kid-climber’s paradise, and even includes a long corridor where the non-claustrophobic can pass through a fissure between giant geologic slabs. For best results, follow the hiking (not biking) path to the left as you head toward Mirror Lake (2 miles or 3.2 km round trip if you back track from the lake, 5 miles or 8 km if you do the loop trail). If you’re lucky, you may just find your way to the legendary Indian Caves hidden (and unmarked) among the biggest boulders.
Tips: In summer weather, bring at least one towel to share as the calm pool that is Mirror Lake can be an ideal, calm swimming hole for kids. It shrinks as summer progresses and by autumn it is often a dry sand pit, so how much time you may want to spend once there can vary by season. There are no concessions at Mirror Lake, just vault toilets and bike racks, so bring a day pack with plenty of snacks and, as always, water.
Activity 3: Hike the dome—Sentinel Dome that is!
The Sentinel Dome hike is ideally combined with the trip out to see Yosemite’s Glacier Point. The hike from “Sentinel Dome Parking” to the top of the dome is only 2.2 miles round trip (3.5 km), but it will likely feel like much more before you are through. Remember, you’re starting at 7,700 feet (2,345 meters), which is a respectable altitude (especially for those of us living at sea level) and will end with a very steep finale up to 8,100 feet (2,470 meters). However, the pay-off of a 360-degree view over Yosemite National Park makes kid and parent hiker alike feel rightfully victorious (bring candy bars or cookies to celebrate as you take in the view–and take a breather). This is one “short hike” your school-age kids are not likely to forget!
The final ascent of the dome is so steep that you’ll likely find yourself on hands and knees for parts of it, though the wide-sloping surface doesn’t feel precarious like a trail with a drop-off beside it might (don’t attempt in wet weather, however; the most well-worn areas of smooth granite can be slick even when dry). Bring plenty of water on the trail with you, and I recommend sun glasses for everyone in addition to sun hats as the granite surfaces are extremely bright when blessed with sunshine–and don’t forget the camera! Vault toilets are available at the parking area.
Activity 4: Visit the Giants
Especially for kids having little experience with earth’s largest living organisms (not blue whales but trees!), the giants dwelling in Yosemite are not to be missed. For spectacular sequoia sightings, you have three good options here. First, the Tuolumne Grove which is accessed by a relaxed 2.5-mile round trip hike (4 km) at the west end of the park by Highway 120. For a little more of a hike (3 miles round trip or 4.8 km), you can visit the slightly less-crowded and even farther west Merced Grove (though there is less parking, too). However, each of these groves has only about two dozen giants left standing, while Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove boasts a whopping 500 giant sequoias, including the beefy Grizzly Giant. At time of writing, the Mariposa Grove is closed except for the outer loop trail until fall of 2017 (I include here in case your timing works). If you’ll be visiting Yosemite sooner than that, I recommend visiting one of the other groves. You might also be interested in my features The 5 Best Places to Visit California’s Redwoods and Giant Sequoias and Five Places to Get Up Close to California’s Redwood Trees.
1 Great Place to Stay: Lodge
Over the years, we’ve stayed many places in and just outside of Yosemite, from our own tent and Curry Village tent cabins (now called Half Dome Village) to the historic Wawona (now not historically called Big Trees Lodge) and Evergreen Lodge–and the four-diamond Tenaya Lodge. But whenever a family asks me where I’d recommend they stay for a first-time visit to Yosemite National Park with Kids, I usually recommend the Yosemite Valley Lodge. Because of its location smack dab in the heart of the valley, you can wake up where you most want to be–with your bikes (or bike rentals) just outside your door and those bike baths beckoning. For further exploration of the park, you are also right at the hub of Yosemite’s shuttle buses (free!) which can save you serious parking headaches at the most popular points of interest, especially in Yosemite’s high seasons. Plus, the river is just a stone’s throw away for skipping stones or counting dragonflies at dusk, and the cafeteria is just across the road for easy meals and take-away options.
1 Great Place to Eat: Yosemite Valley Food Court
Sure you’ll find everything from hot dogs at Curry Village to Five-Star dining at the Ahwanee, but when you aim to cover a lot of ground at Yosemite National Park with kids, making a lunch stop at the Yosemite Valley Food Court can make a whole lot of sense (especially if you need to avoid storing food and/or an ice chest in your car throughout the day per park rules). Not only will you find options to suit just about everyone in the family, from fresh-baked pizzas and homemade hot fare to simple deli pre-mades, fruit cups, and salads, but you can also grab some extra sandwiches, wraps, or drinks to load up into the day pack for your afternoon excursion. It’s centrally located within the park, too, and if you’ll be using the free park shuttles, they stop just outside. And for the jet-lagged travelers with kids, they’re open at 6:30 a.m. (with good coffee) and don’t close until 8:00 p.m.
You’ll find many more posts and recommendations on my Yosemite National Park with Kids Pinterest board.