When we moved back to California, I couldn’t wait to visit iconic Yosemite National Park with the kids. Some people wait to visit when their kids are older, but there are fun and memorable experiences here for all ages.
Because there is so much information out there on Yosemite, I felt a bit overwhelmed when planning our first trip. My aim with this post is to help simplify trip planning. You’ll find fun and easy family experiences for every season, lodging ideas, packing tips, and even a couple of ideas to get the kids excited for your visit.
I hope this guide will serve as a helpful resource as you plan your own unforgettable Yosemite family adventure!
Things are changing fast – make sure to double-check what’s open before your trip. And be sure to follow all local guidelines to keep yourself and others safe!
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YEAR-ROUND YOSEMITE WITH KIDS
An important thing to consider when planning a Yosemite visit: prepare for any kind of weather, because you never know what you’re going to get! I dread summer crowds, so I scheduled our first visit for the fall. Then that trip was rescheduled because a fire made for unhealthy air quality. Then a surprise early snowstorm hit the day before our rescheduled November trip. We decided to go anyway, and discovered a winter wonderland! Our family has been hooked ever since.
I’ve included information on what each season in Yosemite offers, but my number one rule for Yosemite is to expect the unexpected. And consider travel insurance.
IN THIS POST
YOUTUBE VIDEO ON OUR JULY 2020 VISIT
YOSEMITE HIKES WITH KIDS
The Valley Floor is the most visited area in the park, with iconic sights, stroller-friendly hikes, interpretive programs, and all of the services you’ll need. It’s the best starting point for your visit, whether this is your first or 50th time at Yosemite.
If you’re visiting Yosemite with kids, you’ll love this easy 0.5 mile round trip walk that leads to a 620-foot waterfall. Bridalveil Fall runs year-round, so it’s a good bet when some of the other falls have slowed to a trickle in the fall. It was still beautiful when we saw it frozen in November 2019.
LOWER YOSEMITE FALL
Yosemite Falls is actually three separate waterfalls. Together the three form one of the highest waterfalls in the world. Walking the easy paved path (1.1 miles round trip) to the Lower Fall is a must for first-time visitors. After July the water slows to a trickle, but the trail still makes for a fun day hike.
This is a stunning trail that rewards hikers with close-up views of two powerful waterfalls. Springtime hikers should come prepared to get soaked in the name-sake mist!
So many call this their favorite hiking experience in the park, and it has the crowds to show for it. My greatest regret of our summer 2020 trip was that we didn’t prioritize hiking the Mist Trail, at least to the Vernal Falls Footbridge, when the park was quiet. I’m pretty sure our 3 and 5-year-olds couldn’t have made it up the steep inclines with over 600 slick granite stairs to the top of Vernal Fall. Each family will have its own comfort level here.
There are three trail options on the Mist Trail:
- Vernal Fall Footbridge: 1.6 Miles Round Trip from Happy Isles
- Top of Vernal Fall: 2.4 Miles Round Trip from Happy Isles
- Top of Nevada Fall: 5.4 Miles Round Trip from Happy Isles
This trail closes in the winter and can be hazardous in spring when the river is at its peak. Always check for trail status on the NPS website before you visit.
Quintessential Yosemite Valley views surround you during this easy 1-mile round trip stroll through Cook’s Meadow. We were told that this was a great spot to observe wildlife in the early morning and at twilight, and nature didn’t disappoint. Toward the end of our walk through the meadow, we spotted our first bear!
After Cook’s Meadow, we decided to continue to the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. Others like to combine it with the Sentinel Meadows for a 2.25-mile round trip loop.
We haven’t made it to Mirror Lake yet, but I’ve heard it’s a popular and easy hiking and biking path with the fun payoff of splashing in the lake. The lake itself might look more like a wide shallow spot in Tenaya Creek depending on which season it is when you arrive, but it’s always a popular spot for those visiting Yosemite with kids. Expect crowds in the summer heat.
There are two options for the Mirror Lake Trail:
- Roundtrip from the Trailhead to the Lake and Back: 2 Miles
- Continue on the Loop around the Lake: 5 Miles
If you’re staying in Curry Village you can skip the shuttle and add 1.5 miles round trip by foot or bike.
The small town of Wawona is located four miles from the Southern Entrance of the park. It’s known for its pioneer historical district and has a hotel, restaurant, and outdoor exhibits. This area offers the closest services to Mariposa Grove.
MARIPOSA GROVE OF GIANT SEQUOIAS
This grove is the largest of three sequoia groves in the park and is home to more than 500 mature sequoia trees. Trails within the grove range from the easy, stroller-friendly 0.3 mile Big Trees Loop to the 7 mile Mariposa Grove Trail. One of the most popular routes is the 2 mile Grizzly Giant Loop that takes you by the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant and the California Tunnel Tree.
The Mariposa Grove is high on my list, but we’ve struggled with shuttle shutdowns during all of our visits. You can still visit without the shuttle, but be sure to make time for the extra miles to and from the parking lot. It’s a stroller-friendly 2 miles each way, but if your family is like ours, that adds significant time to your visit. Always make sure to check the website before you head over.
GLACIER POINT ROAD
It takes about an hour to drive to the Glacier Point Viewpoint area from the Valley. If you’re planning on visiting Glacier Point, make a day of it by exploring other fun stops along Glacier Point Road.
SENTINEL DOME HIKE
This 2.2-mile round trip hike is said to be fairly easy with payoff views in every direction.
After arriving at the Sentinel Dome / Taft Point trailhead, turn right toward Sentinel Dome. When you get near the dome, follow an old road to the northeast side where the incline is a bit easier. Scramble up the side of the dome until you get to the top where you can see amazing views in every direction.
Know that the top of the dome gets steeper as you approach the edges, so don’t let your kiddos wander alone there. Never travel in a thunderstorm.
Every family is going to have a different hiking comfort level. This one is on hold for us until the boys are older, but I know others who LOVE it, even with younger kids.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was once a valley that was said to mirror the beauty of Yosemite’s famous valley floor. After the great 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco, it was dammed to serve as a water and energy source for the city.
Its remote location and quiet reputation drew us to the area, and we certainly felt it as we made our way to the entrance gates. Our GPS took us to a dead-end road where we had no service, so we just kept driving toward the massive cliffs in the distance. Bring a map if you go here! Upon arrival around 9 am it felt as though we were the first visitors through the entrance. The ranger kept confirming that we knew where we were. If you’re looking to escape the crowds, Hetch Hetchy is the place for you.
WAPAMA FALLS HIKE
The 5-mile round trip trail to Wapama Falls begins through a tunnel across the O’Shaughnessy Dam. It may be man-made with a controversial history, but the boys thought it was a pretty cool start. We appreciated the varied and beautiful landscapes we experienced here, but I highly recommend going on a day in later spring when there are butterflies in the meadows, puddles to jump, and roaring waterfalls.
The trail is rated as moderate, but for us it was HARD. Not technically, but in the exhaustion sense. The heat and a new toddler carrier for a big preschooler definitely contributed to the struggle. I wouldn’t recommend this one in the summer.
Located in the eastern portion of Yosemite, Tioga Road connects the Valley with Highway 395 through the park’s high country. It is the highest highway pass in California. Though it’s considered one of the best drives in California, relatively few take this scenic route.
Like Glacier Point Road, it is only open once the snow clears, roughly May – October. Check the NPS site for road status before you go.
This grove has over 20 mature giant sequoias to explore. Marvel at nearly two dozen mature giant sequoias in the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias. The trail is 2.5 miles round trip beginning in the Tuolumne Grove parking lot. This trail begins with a 500 feet descent in the first mile. Know that it won’t feel as easy on the way back to the car!
Visitors also enjoy the easy half-mile self-guided nature trail in the grove itself.
This relatively easy 2.4-mile hike to May Lake is among Yosemite’s most scenic lake hikes. It rests at the base of Mt. Hoffmann’s granite cliffs, with a low side that gives way to a drop-off that looks out to Clouds Rest and Tenaya Lake.
The May Lake High Sierra camp sits on the lake’s eastern shore.
THINGS TO DO IN YOSEMITE WITH KIDS OTHER THAN HIKING
RIDE YOUR BIKE THROUGH THE VALLEY
Driving through Yosemite Valley can be a frustrating experience during busy seasons. There are crowds and traffic to deal with, and the driver misses all the big views. I’m not a biker by any means, but even I’d prefer to explore the Valley on a family bike ride rather than deal with park traffic!
There are over 12 miles of paved bike paths available in the Valley, and bikes can ride on regular roads too. If you don’t want to bring your own bike, there are bike rentals in the Village or you can even borrow one through Yosemite’s bike share program (2-hour limit).
TAKE A FAMILY PHOTO AT TUNNEL VIEW
Visitors are awestruck by the view of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Falls that greets them just outside of the Wawona Tunnel on Highway 41. For many families, it’s a tradition to try to hold your breath through the mile-long tunnel until your first spectacular Yosemite views. Good luck!
Tunnel View is a must-see for first-time visitors. There’s no hiking required, you simply park at one of the lots and make your way to the viewpoint. This is a popular spot, so arrive early for easier parking if the park is crowded.
GAZE UP AT EL CAPITAN
The famed massive chunk of granite known as El Capitan rises more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor. It is hard for photos to capture its awe-inspiring impact as it fills your field of view or windshield. Someday I’d like to hike the 15-mile trail to the top of El Cap via Upper Yosemite Fall, but while at Yosemite with the kids, we simply enjoy gazing up at it while playing in El Cap Meadow.
Bring binoculars to see climbers on the wall in the fall. It’s pretty cool to see the twinkling of lights from the bivouacs at dusk. If you’re visiting in mid-late February, you might be lucky enough to view the “Firefall” that is visible from El Capitan Picnic Area.
RELAX ON THE BEACHES ALONG THE MERCED RIVER
Splashing in the Merced River was definitely a highlight of our summer visit! It was the perfect way to end our day in the Valley after a long morning hike. While playing at the beaches can be an ideal activity on a hot summer day, be extra careful in the springtime when the currents are deceptively strong. Be sure to check the Yosemite guidance on water safety before you go.
Cathedral Beach, Sentinel Beach, the North Pines Campground, Housekeeping Camp, and Devil’s Elbow are all popular swimming spots depending on the water levels in the Merced. Cathedral Beach, shown here, offered endless fun for the kiddos while John and I couldn’t get over the views of El Capitan.
RAFT OR TUBE THE MERCED RIVER
If your visit to Yosemite coincides with ideal conditions (water levels must be below 6.5 feet at Sentinel Bridge and the combined air-water temperature must be greater than 100°F) you can rent a tube or bring your own raft to enjoy a 3-mile float on the Merced through Yosemite Valley. This is a quintessential activity for families visiting Yosemite with kids. Find more info on raft rentals and Curry Village shuttles (even if you bring your own) here.
HAVE A SNOW-SHOE ADVENTURE
Thanks to our guide at Yosemite Family Adventures (more on that experience below), we were able to snowshoe to some scenic spots like Bridalveil Fall and El Cap Meadow. We would have never thought of snowshoeing on our own, and we loved it! Once we have a bit more practice, I’d love to snowshoe through the giant sequoias at Mariposa Grove.
SLEDDING NEAR BRIDALVEIL FALL
In a park like Yosemite where there’s so much to see and do, it can be a challenge to remember to take a sightseeing pause for playtime. JJ found a perfect sledding hill near the Bridalveil Fall Trailhead. It was great to just be in the moment…though there was a time or two when I worried that we’d never get him to leave!
ICE SKATING IN CURRY VILLAGE
Named by Fodors as one of the best outdoor ice rinks in the US, the Curry Village rink offers families the opportunity to skate while surrounded by views of Half Dome and Glacier Point. When you need a break, you can warm up with hot chocolate and s’mores at the nearby fire pit.
TAKE A HORSEBACK RIDE THROUGH WAWONA STABLES
If you’re interested in an alternative way to explore the southern part of the park, check out the mule and horseback riding adventures at The Wawona Stable. Visitors can register for 2-hour riding adventures for all skill levels (ages 7+), or an all-day ride to the Mariposa Grove for more experienced riders. The novelty of riding through Yosemite trails will surely make a lasting impression on the whole family!
GLACIER POINT ROAD
GAPE AT THE VALLEY FROM GLACIER POINT OVERLOOK
This famous spot is clearly the highlight of Glacier Point Road. Legend has it that in 1903 John Muir brought President Roosevelt to Glacier Point and ignited the president’s passion for Yosemite. Today you can follow in their footsteps to the Glacier Point Overlook.
This spot offers some of the best views in the park, including breathtaking views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls. The large parking lot fills up during the busy seasons, so plan to either arrive early in the day or after 4:30 pm. From the parking lot, it’s a short stroller-friendly walk to the viewpoint itself. There are restrooms and a snack shop on site.
STARGAZE FROM GLACIER POINT AT NIGHT
Sunset at Glacier Point is supposed to be an incredible experience! If you’re visiting Yosemite with older kids, consider staying for some stargazing. It’s one of the most popular places in the park for astronomy. You might just run into the astronomy club setting up their telescopes on a summer Saturday.
CHECK OUT THE VIEWS FROM WASHBURN POINT
As you’re driving to Glacier Point, you’ll round a corner and suddenly see a picture-perfect view of Half Dome. For us, it was a quick, “wow, did you see that!?” Then we noticed a parking lot as we drove by. It was too late to stop. I now know that was Washburn Point, and I wish we knew it was there before that moment. Be prepared to stop, as it looked well worth a visit on the way to Glacier Point.
TUBE, SKI OR SNOWBOARD AT BADGER PASS
If you’re in the area during the winter months check out the Badger Pass Ski Area for skiing, snowboarding, tubing, and cross-country skiing. Had we known about Badger Pass during our snowy Yosemite November, I would have definitely planned for some tubing time. It’s a unique experience for families on a winter visit to Yosemite.
Driving scenic Tioga Road is in itself a fun thing to do, but when you’re ready to get out and stretch your legs, there are some pretty amazing places to visit in the Yosemite’s high country.
SWIM IN TENAYA LAKE
Sometimes referred to as the “Jewel of the High Country,” Tenaya Lake is a popular spot for kayaking, swimming, and playing along the shoreline. Its stunning alpine scenery makes it a memorable lake excursion! Your best parking option is near the east shore, next to the largest swimming beach. Picnic areas and vault toilets are located around the west, north, and east shores.
TAKE IN THE VIEWS FROM OLMSTEAD POINT
If you’re on the drive over Tioga Pass, you’ve got to make a stop at Olmstead Point. Named for renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the area offers views of the northern side of Half Dome, Tenaya Canyon, and Tenaya Lake. Visitors enjoy wandering around the “erratic” boulders that were left behind when the last glacier came through.
EXPLORE TUOLUMNE MEADOWS
At 8,600 feet, Tuolumne Meadows is a broad, grassy stretch of open land bounded by high granite domes and peaks. The meadow extends more than two miles along Tuolumne River, make it one of the largest high-elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada range. Hiking trails lead off in all directions from here.
As visitors take in the Tuolumne River winding quietly through the meadows against the stunning rugged backdrop, it’s become one of the most photographed areas in Yosemite. Visit the small visitor center and take in the exhibits that share information on the region’s geology, wildflowers, and wildlife.
This area also offers the most amenities on Tioga Road. In summer, the Tuolumne Meadows Store opens to offer visitors anything they might have forgotten along the way. You can even pick up breakfast, lunch, or ice cream cones at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill.
Those who’d like to linger longer can stay at the nearby Tuolumne Meadows Lodge or campground from mid-July through late September, depending on snowfall.
GUIDES AND PROGRAMS
When planning a family trip, I am always on the lookout for unique guided experiences. I believe that the specialized knowledge of a great guide or instructor can transform the way you experience a park like Yosemite. It can also take some of the pressure off the grown-ups so everyone can relax and focus on making the kinds of memories that we hope to have by the end of a family trip.
Plus, they are usually pretty good at photo opportunities, so you won’t even need that selfie stick for a full family photo!
JR RANGER PROGRAMS
You can’t bring your kids to Yosemite without participating in the Junior Ranger program! Children ages 7 – 13 can earn their Junior Ranger Badge by completing an activity book, picking up some trash, and participating in one of the park’s interpretive programs. Workbooks are produced by the Yosemite Conservancy and can be purchased for $3.50 at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center (May through September), the Nature Center at Happy Isles (May through September), the Wawona and Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Centers (June through September), and Big Oak Flat Information Station (May through September).
Younger children ages 3 – 6 can purchase a Little Cubs booklet for $3 at the same centers. Program materials are also available in Spanish.
YOSEMITE FAMILY ADVENTURES
When it came to planning our first trip to Yosemite with the kids, I was honestly overwhelmed when trying to figure out what would be suitable for everyone from my mom to then 2-year-old Bug. And I’m someone who genuinely loves to do this research!
We decided to splurge and book a day trip with Yosemite Family Adventures. There was a surprise early snowstorm the weekend of our trip, and I can’t tell you how relieved John and I were not to have to navigate the park and figure things out on our own! We could all relax, gaze at whatever we wanted out the window, and let our guide lead the way.
Without YFA, I can guarantee that we would never have thought to have the boys sled near Bridalveil Fall or have convinced my mom to put on snow-shoes (which she loved!). Adam, our guide, even made a snow house for the boys with John while my mom and I tried out more snow-shoeing in El Cap Meadow. This small business really aims to make your visit special and will show you around Yosemite in ways that are uniquely suited to your family.
YOSEMITE MOUNTAINEERING SCHOOL
Yosemite is well known as a magnet for the best climbers in the world. It’s awe-inspiring to watch, and may make you want to give it a try yourself!
If you’re so inclined, Yosemite Mountaineering School offers fun and memorable beginner lessons. Children 10 and up can join a group beginner class with a parent, and younger children can climb with an adult in a private lesson. Classes are pricey, but this experience could make for some uniquely incredible Yosemite memories.
ANSEL ADAMS FREE CAMERA WALK OR PHOTO CLASS
Many artists have found inspiration in Yosemite’s beauty, and the work of some, like Ansel Adams, have become intertwined in the history of the park itself. Ansel Adams was given a camera before a trip to Yosemite when he was only 12, and he grew to become one of photography’s most transformative figures.
In addition to being able to view some of his work at the gallery, visitors can take a range of photography classes, workshops, and guided tours. Free camera walks led by staff photographers are available throughout the summer on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
ADVENTURES OUTSIDE OF THE PARK
The beauty and adventure of the Sierras don’t end at the Yosemite entrance gates. If you do choose to stay outside the park or have some extra time to explore, you might be interested in checking out some of the fun things to do outside of the entrance gates.
SUGAR PINE MOUNTAIN RAILROAD
The Sugar Pine Mountain Railroad is located in Fish Camp, near Tenaya Lodge, where we stayed during our first visit. We had planned to take the boys on an open-air train ride through the forest, but our plans got postponed after a fire…and then a snowstorm…and then Covid. It looks like a fun activity for a family with better timing than ours.
ZEPHYR WHITEWATER EXPEDITIONS
Growing up, I loved whitewater rafting with my family, and I look forward to introducing it to the boys when they’re a bit older. Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions is one of the closest outfitters to the park. The late-season summer trips on the Merced are geared toward family fun and age-appropriate for children 7+ (depending on swimming ability). Because the river is calmer in the summer, the route is less technical than the other options. It even includes stops for swimming and jumping off “Jump Rock.”
VISIT GOLD COUNTRY
Head to Jamestown to see gold was first discovered in Tuolumne County. You can pan for gold, something that John became surprisingly obsessed with, and experience Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, aka “the movie-star railroad.” Locomotives from Back to the Future Part III, Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and more are stored here, and there are many Hollywood props on display. Historic downtown Jamestown has also been used as a set for many Old Westerns. It even has its own walk of fame.
WHEN TO VISIT
As you’ve probably noticed above, Yosemite offers something for every family in every season. I’ve listed some of the pros and cons of each season below to help you figure out the best time for your family to visit.
In the Spring, the snow thaws, and the park’s famous waterfalls are at their most dramatic. Currents in the Merced are at their strongest this time of year, so unless you’re looking to do some serious whitewater rafting, you’ll want to be careful near rivers and streams.
Wildflowers are in bloom, and the summer crowds have yet to arrive. The weather is fairly mild, but always unpredictable. You can always be surprised by late-season snow!
Summer is the most popular time to visit. All of the mountain roads that are closed due to snow should be open by June, just in time to see the wildflowers bloom in the subalpine meadows.
As visitor numbers increase, so do services and programs that might be unavailable during the quieter seasons. That being said, in a normal year, you can expect heavy crowds, traffic and parking congestion, hot weather, and trickling waterfalls. This is a good time to visit the lesser-known parts of the park.
Fall was my favorite time of the year to travel…before we moved back to California. In California, fall means the height of fire season, and over the past few years, that has meant a significant degree of unpredictability in the Sierras.
If you do get to go, you’ll find the height of the climbing season, beautiful fall colors popping through the evergreens, fly fishing, and mild weather. Campsites are a bit easier to reserve, and less traffic means less stress for everyone.
In the winter, you’ll find fewer crowds and possibly even more beauty. Glacier Point Road and Tioga Road will be closed, but Badger Pass and the Curry Village Ice Rink are open for skating, skiing, snowboarding, tubing, snow-shoeing, and cross-country skiing. Plus you have the possibility of seeing the Firefall in February.
I would have never planned to visit Yosemite in the snow, but now that I’ve experienced it, I wouldn’t hesitate to go again.
WHERE TO STAY
From camping to vacation rentals to resorts outside the park, your lodging choices will shape your experience beyond providing a place to sleep.
VALLEY HOTELS AND CAMPGROUNDS
Many people look to stay in Yosemite Valley so that you’re already in the middle of the action and don’t have to worry about parking or delays at the entrances. And when visiting Yosemite with kids, it’s always nice to be able to go back to your hotel or tent and rest or relax as needed.
But with convenience comes cost and the need to plan. Yosemite hotels sometimes book up to a year in advance. Campground reservations are available in blocks of one month at a time, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 am PST.
In a normal summer season, reservations for May through September fill the first day they are available, sometimes within minutes after 7 am! The good news is that people frequently cancel reservations, so you may still be able to find an open site through recreation.gov even if you didn’t get reservations on your first try.
VACATION RENTALS IN FORESTA AND YOSEMITE WEST
We booked a vacation rental in Foresta through VRBO for our most recent visit and loved it! For us, a vacation rental is a perfect way to experience Yosemite with kids.
Staying in Foresta, we were within a 25-minute drive of the Valley and still inside the park. This meant we didn’t have to worry about long drives or wait times at the entrance gates. We brought our own groceries and made most meals ourselves, except for grab-and-go sandwiches at the Village Store for the grown-ups. John and I also enjoy having a separate space to hang out after the kids go to bed. We’ll definitely stay here again in the future.
Another great option for vacation rentals is the Yosemite West neighborhood, which is further south toward Wawona. It’s only a few minutes longer to get to the Valley from Yosemite West, but it’s much easier to access areas like Glacier Point or Mariposa Grove.
RESORTS OUTSIDE THE PARK
There are several gateway towns outside of the park entrances that offer accommodation options. Some of these are family resorts that offer plenty of excitement and recreation in their own right.
On our first visit to Yosemite with the kids and my mom, we stayed in one of the Explorer Cabins at Tenaya Lodge near the southern entrance. We loved having our own living room space so we could watch the snowfall outside while we warmed up by the fire. The lodge was all decked out for the holidays, which the kids enjoyed. Unfortunately, a lot of the special activities were already booked up when we arrived. As with anything around Yosemite, plan in advance if you can!
WHAT TO PACK
Before kids, I prided myself on a low-maintenance travel style. John and I would throw a tent and a couple of sleeping bags in our car and be off for the weekend. But now that we’re a family of four, I can’t get out the door without checking through multiple lists! I put together some of our must-have Yosemite items that you might want to add to your own packing list before your trip.
When you set out for the day, you’ll need a comfortable place to stash all this stuff! We have an Osprey daypack similar to this one, which works well for our day hikes. The boys also started carrying their own daypacks where they can stash their snacks and layers. The Deuter Pico is perfect for 3 year old Bug, and JJ uses the Deuter Schmusebar.
One thing that we’ve learned about Yosemite is to expect the unexpected when it comes to weather. It might be cooler in the morning, scorching hot in the afternoon, and then you could be surprised with a later afternoon thunderstorm! We almost always bring a versatile waterproof rain jacket for the kids like this one by Oaki. Also, consider items like vests and hats that can be easily thrown in your day pack when they are not needed.
Don’t forget to fill your water bottles! On our super hot hike to Wapama Falls, we drank more water than we’d ever consumed on a trail before! It may not be fun to carry around full water bottles for the whole family at the start of the day, but you don’t want to get caught out on a trail without enough. We drank everything we brought with us and after the hike, we made a beeline for the nearest store for some cold Gatorade … which was quite a ways away, as there are no concessions in Hetch Hetchy.
Bring your favorite sunscreens for all ages, some straps for your sunglasses so they don’t fall off and float away, and a wide-brimmed sun hat. JJ’s forest school had us purchase this Ultra Adventure Hat by Sunday Afternoons, which keeps him cool and covers both his face and neck.
The kids love to bring their binoculars along with them wherever we go, but we’d never thought of investing in some good ones for us until our last trip to Yosemite. We were walking through Cook’s Meadow and saw a bear rustling around in the tall grass! We were fascinated and watched as long as we could … from a distance. It would have been awesome to have some binoculars with us that day. We had to settle for our phone’s zoom lenses instead. These binoculars have a smartphone adapter for the best of both worlds!
As I mentioned earlier, you can’t rely on your cell phone for service outside of Yosemite Valley and our GPS lead us to a dead-end while driving to Hetch Hetchy. It’s a good idea to bring maps if your plans take you further afield.
FIRST AID KIT
Anyone with kids knows that moment of silence after a big fall when you’re waiting to see just how bad this one will be. Trips and scrapes can happen pretty easily on the trail. We bring this little first-aid kit along with us to clean up the next round of inevitable ouchies.
After watching our boys slip and slide around our local trails, we bought some hiking shoes to help them stay upright while exploring Yosemite. Check out our roundup of the best hiking shoes for kids here.
If you plan on playing in the Merced, you will want a good pair of water shoes. Flip-flops are not recommended as they can get stuck in the mud and either break or accidentally float away with the river current. Look for shoes that will wrap around your foot, ideally with a covered rubber toe to avoid stubbing on river rocks. Our boys have loved these this summer. Other popular options are: Weestep Boys and Girls Closed Toe Quick Dry Beach Hiking Sandal and KEEN Unisex-Child Seacamp II CNX-C.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
In this section we highlight some of the basics and logistics you’ll want to consider as you plan your trip. As always, check the Yosemite website before you go for the latest on what locations and services are open.
ENTRANCES AND FEES
Yosemite is open daily, year-round. Entrance fees are $35 per vehicle ($30 motorcycle and $20 individual) and your entrance pass is good for seven days. There are five park entrances:
- Arch Rock (Highway 140): Access Yosemite Valley from the west. This is the main park entrance and can get quite busy.
- Big Oak Flat (Highway 120): Access Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows from the north.
- South (Highway 41): Access to Wawona from the south.
- Tioga Pass (Highway 120): This is the High Sierra Route on the east side of the park that connects to the Eastern Sierra via Tioga Pass. This entrance is closed in winter.
- Hetch Hetchy (Highway 120): Hetch Hetchy has a separate park entrance. It is open from sunrise to sunset year-round.
Driving in Yosemite Valley during peak tourist season can be a frustrating experience as thousands of people angle to get a spot in the small parking lots and roadside pullouts.
If you have to drive into the Valley, it’s recommended that you arrive before 9am, and park in one of the main lots at Yosemite Village, Half Dome Village, and near Yosemite Falls. Leave your car in the lot for the day and use other modes of transportation like the park shuttle or bikes to get to the specific trailheads or sights that you’d like to explore.
Similarly, if you plan to drive to Glacier Point during the busy season, plan to arrive by 9am or after 4:30pm. According to the official NPS site, waiting for parking at the Glacier Point lot can take up to 2 hours in addition to the hour drive.
There are public transportation options throughout the park that will take you to the major sights and trailheads. The Yosemite Valley Shuttle makes 19 stops around the Valley and the El Capitan Shuttle will get you to El Capitan, the Four-Mile trailhead, and the Valley Visitor Center.
There are also seasonal shuttles that will take you to Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Meadows, and Glacier Point. Check out the public transportation options on the main NPS site here.
Many people enjoy bringing or renting bikes to avoid the stress of driving. The Valley has over 12 miles of paved, mostly flat trails, so riding a bike can be a fun and easy way to explore.
There are only 3 places to get gas in the park and all are miles outside of Yosemite Valley. Gas Stations are open year-round at Wawona (Highway 41), El Portal (Highway 140), and Crane Flat (Highway 120) and seasonally at Tuolumne Meadows (June through October). Prices are higher than what you’ll pass as you drive into the park. Basically, make sure to plan ahead!
Service is notoriously bad outside of Yosemite Valley. Bring good maps and get familiar with routes and plans before you head out each day.
4-DAY ITINERARY: YOSEMITE WITH KIDS
I often find that it’s easier to start with someone’s sample itinerary than a big list of activities. With that in mind, this is just a sample itinerary to give you an idea of how different activities and locations might be grouped as a starting point for your own planning.
DAY 1: SETTLE IN AND UNWIND
- Hit the Road! Get an early start and head straight to the park (or your lodging outside the gates).
- Start Playing. If you’re staying in the park, head to Cathedral Beach and kick off your vacation by splashing in the water. If you’re staying outside the park, make some time to play in the pool or a lake near your home base.
DAY 2: EXPLORE THE VALLEY
- Jr. Ranger Time: After breakfast, stop by one of the Visitor Centers to pick up your Junior Ranger or Little Cub booklets.
- Start the day with a hike. Choose something that fits your speed, whether it be Cook’s Meadow / Lower Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake, or parts of the Mist Trail.
- Enjoy lunch with a view by picnicking at the El Capitan Picnic Area.
- Head over to Tunnel View for a for a family photo in front of a quintessential Yosemite scene.
- Continue on to Glacier Point, where you can gaze down into the Valley you’ve spent the day exploring.
DAY 3: ROADS LESS TRAVELED
Take a journey along Tioga Road to see Yosemite’s high country.
- Stretch your legs at stunning Olmstead Point.
- Enjoy a little beach time and a picnic at Tenaya Lake.
- Continue on to wander through Tuolumne Meadows. Get a souvenir at the Tuolmne Meadows Store and enjoy an ice cream from the grill before heading back down again.
If it’s not summer and Tioga Road is closed, consider the Hetch Hetchy hike to Wapama Falls instead.
DAY 4: ONE LAST STOP
- Turn in your booklets and get your Jr Ranger badges at the Wawona Visitor Center.
- Continue to the Mariposa Grove for one last walk through Yosemite’s remarkable natural wonders. Let the kids get all that energy out, so they can rest all the way home.
GET THE KIDS EXCITED TO VISIT YOSEMITE
When it comes to traveling with kids, I believe that our responses to new places are often directly related to our previous knowledge of them. Whenever we go somewhere, I lay a foundation for our trip by getting the boys excited about our upcoming adventure. This most often involves introducing them to stories about the places and things we might encounter before we leave home. I’ve included some fun ones about Yosemite below.
I’m also including a couple of movies that John and I almost always watch before and after our visits!
YOSEMITE CHILDREN’S BOOKS
TWO BEAR CUBS: A MIWOK LEGEND FROM CALIFORNIA’S YOSEMITE VALLEY
This popular children’s book is a retelling of the Southern Sierra Miwok legend of El Capitan and how it came to be. Once kids have a story attached to El Cap, they’ll be so excited to see it in person. More here.
SO BIG! YOSEMITE
Introduce little visitors to Big Yosemite with this board book tour of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, and Tuolumne Meadows. More here.
SO SMALL! YOSEMITE
I love this companion to “So Big! Yosemite” which reminds children to take in each small thing like a yellow-legged frog, a shooting star, and a surprisingly small sequoia cone. More here.
THE SEQUOIA LIVES ON
Published by the Yosemite Conservancy, this book shares the life story of a giant sequoia. This would be a wonderful story to share if you plan to include a visit to the Mariposa Grove. Few things are more amazing than how giant sequoias grow from small cones and go on to live for thousands of years. More here.
ANSEL ADAMS’ YOSEMITE
Ansel Adams was only twelve when he was given his first camera on a trip to Yosemite. He spent the rest of his life taking photographs and advocating for its conservation. Looking through Adams’ photos as a family would be a wonderful way to get excited about your visit, and just might inspire a future photographer. More here.
YOSEMITE MOVIES WE LOVE
These two documentaries changed the way John and I understood the lure of Yosemite as a climbing destination and even the way we saw El Capitan. Be sure to check them out before or after your next visit.
This Academy Award-winning film follows climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to achieve his dream of climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope (!).
THE DAWN WALL
This movie documents Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s captivating attempt to climb The Dawn Wall, a seemingly impossible 3,000-foot rock face in Yosemite, while sharing moments from Caldwell’s amazing life journey that led him to that moment.