Yosemite with Kids: Family Adventures for Every Season

Yosemite policies and available services may change in response to both weather conditions and Covid-19 safety regulations. Always check the park site directly to see the latest entrance policies and which roads and services are accessible. 

On this post you’ll find a wide range of family-friendly Yosemite experiences for every season. Plus lodging guidance, packing tips and some ideas to help you get the family excited for your visit. You can scroll all the way through, or skip ahead using the links here at the top of the post.

When we moved back to California, I couldn’t wait to visit iconic Yosemite National Park with the boys. I often hear people say that they are waiting to visit when their kids are older to get the most out of the park, but I believe there are fun and memorable experiences to be had for family members of all ages. When we first visited, we had 2 year old Bug and my mom with us, and we all had an amazing time.

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! Our first scheduled trip was rescheduled because a fall fire made for unhealthy air quality and then a surprise early snowstorm hit the day before our rescheduled trip.  We went anyway, and as it turns out, snow makes Yosemite into a winter wonderland!  Our family has been hooked ever since. I’ve included a section on what each season in Yosemite offers, but be prepared to expect the unexpected. And consider travel insurance.

I hope this guide will serve as a helpful resource as you plan an unforgettable Yosemite family adventure! 

Note: Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. This doesn’t cost you a penny, but it helps offset the cost of running our little blog. Thank you for your kind support.

Kid-friendly Hikes and Experiences

Wondering what there is to do with kids throughout Yosemite? We’ve laid out our favorite family friendly hikes and experiences by park section. You can skip ahead to each area by clicking on the links below:

Family-Friendly Guided Experiences

When planning a family trip, I’m always on the lookout for unique experiences. 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 memories. 

Click here for some special experiences you might be interested in booking during your visit.

Family Adventures Outside the Park

The beauty and adventure of the Sierras don’t end at the Yosemite entrance gates. If you choose to stay outside the park or have some extra time to explore, check out some of the fun activities in the gateway towns near the park entrances. 

When to Visit

Yosemite offers something for everyone in every season! Click here to check out what each season at Yosemite offers.

Where to Stay

From camping to vacation rentals to resorts outside the park, your lodging is a bigger part of your experience than a place to sleep.

Click here to check out a round up of our favorite places to stay in and around the park.

What to Pack

What you choose to bring will depend on the season of your visit and the activities you hope to do. I’ve put together a list of some things you’ll want to consider bringing based on our visits to the park in summer and winter.

Click here to skip ahead and check out our list.

Get the Family Excited to Visit

I believe people of all ages respond to a new destination based on their previous knowledge of that place. Whenever we go somewhere new, I try to lay a foundation for our next adventure by getting the kids excited about where we’re going and what they might encounter along the way. 

Click here for the books and movies that have helped our family fall in love with Yosemite a little bit more each time.

Kid-friendly Hikes and Experiences 

We haven’t been able to experience everything on this list first hand, but each ranks high on our list! I’ll be updating this with first hand accounts and updates after each return trip. I’m hopeful that there will be many!

Remember to check the official National Park Service website before you go to see which trails and services are open during your visit.

 

Kids splashing in the Merced, oblivious to El Cap behind them. Yosemite with kids
Half Dome from a quiet Cook's Meadow

Yosemite Valley

The Valley Floor is the most visited region 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.

Tunnel View in Winter

Tunnel View

Visitors are awe-struck 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. 

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. 

Yosemite's Bridalveil Fall, Frozen in November 2019

Bridalveil Fall (Stroller-Friendly)

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.

Winter in Yosemite, Snowshoes to Bridalveil Fall

Snowshoeing the Bridalveil Fall Trail

Thanks to our guide at Yosemite Family Adventures (more on that experience below), we were able to snowshoe to some scenic spots along the trail. We would have never thought to snowshoe on our own, and we loved it!

Sledding near Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

Sledding Near Bridalveil Fall

JJ found a perfect sledding hill near the Bridalveil Fall Trailhead. We had a lot of fun things to see and do that day, and I was a bit worried that we’d never get him to leave!

Lower Yosemite Fall without crowds, July 2020

Lower Yosemite Fall Trail (Stroller-Friendly)

Yosemite Falls is actually three separate waterfalls. Together the three form one of the highest waterfalls in the world. We walked the easy paved path (1.1 miles round trip) to the Lower Fall in July, when the famously dramatic falls had slowed to a trickle. The trail was practically empty given the limited visitors allowed daily in summer 2020, so it was a surreal experience to have this popular trail to ourselves. 

Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park

The Mist Trail

My greatest regret of our summer 2020 trip was that we didn’t prioritize hiking the Mist Trail. Many tourists and travel writers alike call this their favorite hiking experience in the park. Which means it’s also one of the most crowded when the park is full. I had read about the steep inclines with over 600 slick granite stairs and had visions of our 3 and 5 year olds struggling, but in retrospect I think we could have just taken our time and enjoyed the experience. The trail to Vernal Fall is 2.4 miles round trip. You can choose to continue on to Nevada Fall for a 5.4 mile round trip hike that returns via the John Muir Trail. The trail closes in the winter and can be hazardous in spring when the river is at its peak with a swift current. Always check for trail status on the NPS website before you visit.

Explore Cook’s Meadow (Stroller-Friendly)

Quintessential Yosemite Valley views surround you during an 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. We spotted a bear!! 

We combined the Cook’s Meadow walk with the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. Others like to combine it with the Sentinel Meadows for a 2.25 mile round trip loop.

Finding a bear in cook's meadow was a highlight of our visit to Yosemite with the kids
Mirror Lake, Yosemite National Park

Mirror Lake (Stroller-Friendly)

We haven’t made it to Mirror Lake yet, but I’ve heard it’s a popular and easy hiking and biking path (2.4 miles round trip from the trail head) with the fun payoff of splashing in the lake. Those starting in Curry Village can add an additional 1.5 miles round trip. 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 still a popular spot for those visiting Yosemite with kids, so expect crowds in the hot summer.

El Cap Meadow, Winter in Yosemite

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. 

Kids splashing in the Merced, oblivious to El Cap behind them. Yosemite with kids

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 spring time 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. 

Yosemite Rafting on the Merced River

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.

Junior 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.

Curry Village Ice Skating

Curry Village Ice Skating

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.

Pioneer Village in Snow, Yosemite

Wawona

The small town of Wawona is located four miles from the Southern Entrance of the park. It’s known for its pioneer historical district with a hotel, restaurant, and outdoor exhibits. These are the closest services to the Mariposa Grove.

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

The Mariposa Grove is high on my list, but we’ve struggled with shuttle shut downs during 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. 

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. 

Wawona Stable

If you have some extra time in Yosemite and you’d like 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 kids!

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 their footsteps to the famed viewpoint by car or shuttle (May – October depending on weather conditions). It takes about an hour to drive to the Glacier Point Viewpoint area from the Valley, so you might want to make the most of your visit by planning some other fun stops along Glacier Point Road.

Note: Glacier Point Road will be closed to all traffic throughout 2021 to rehabilitate and improve the road.

View of Half Dome from Glacier Point
Valley Views from Glacier Point

Glacier Point Viewpoint

The Glacier Point overlook 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 4:30pm. From the parking lot, it’s a short stroller-friendly walk to the viewpoint itself. There are restrooms and a gift and snack shop on site.

Glacier Point at Night

During our last visit, I had planned to arrive for sunset, but it was just too much for our boys after a long day of hiking and swimming. If you can make it, 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 spots in the park for astronomy. You might just run into the astronomy club setting up their telescopes on a summer Saturday.

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 the visit on the way to Glacier Point.

Sentinel Dome Hike

This 2.2 mile round trip hike is said to be fairly easy with big payoff 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. The thought of our three year old runner getting away from us plus my occasional vertigo have kept this one on the maybe list for our family, but others visiting Yosemite as a family LOVE it. I thought I share for our more adventurous readers.  

Badger Pass

If you’re in the area during the winter months when Glacier Point Road is closed, you might be interested in checking 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 some tubing time. It’s definitely a unique experience for kids on a winter visit to Yosemite.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Hetch Hetchy

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! Upon arrival around 9am, 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 might be just the place for you.

Hiking to Wapama Falls in the summer was beautiful but tough in the heat. Yosemite with kids

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. The trail is rated as moderate, but for us it was HARD. We’re not super experienced hikers and the heat and our new toddler carrier definitely contributed to the struggle. Though we appreciated the varied and beautiful landscapes we experienced, I highly recommend going on a day in late spring when there are butterflies in the meadows, puddles to jump on the large granite pathways, and roaring waterfalls.

Tunnel was an exciting start to the trail to Wapama Falls, Yosemite with Kids
Underneath the "Mighty" Wapama Falls
Half Dome from a quiet Cook's Meadow

The Road Less Traveled: Tioga Road

We have yet to make it to Tioga Road, but I have high hopes that it will someday be a part of a longer California Road Trip experience. This scenic drive passes Olmstead Point, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolumne Meadows on its way to connecting to the Eastern Sierra via the Tioga Pass Entrance.  Like Glacier Point Road, it is only open once the snow clears, roughly May – October. 

Family-Friendly Guided experiences

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!

Winter in Yosemite, Snowshoes to Bridalveil Fall

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 itch to give it a try yourself!

If you’re so inclined, the 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 would make for some incredible Yosemite memories.

Ansel Adams Gallery Yosemite Photography Class

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.

Family 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 Train

The 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. I think it looks like a fun activity for a family with better timing than ours.

Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions - Things to do outside of Yosemite National Park

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 said to be geared toward family fun and are age appropriate for children 7+ (depending on swimming ability). This trip is less technical than other options, and it includes stops for swimming and jumping off “Jump Rock.”

When to visit?

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, 

Rainbow over Tunnel View
Spring in Yosemite

Spring

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! 

Cathedral Beach is a must on a trip to Yosemite with kids

Summer

 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 less known parts of the park.

Fall in Yosemite

Fall

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 climbing season, beautiful fall colors popping through the evergreens, fly fishing, and mild weather. Campsites are a bit easier to reserve, and biking is less stressful with less traffic.

Tunnel View at Yosemite National Park Covered with Snow in Winter

Winter

In the winter, you’ll find less 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 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.

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 main Yosemite website before you go for the latest on what locations and services are open.

Yosemite with Kids: Welcome Sign

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.

Getting Around

  • DRIVINGDriving 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. 
  • SHUTTLESThere 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 is a separate seasonal shuttle for the Mariposa Grove that will take you from the main Welcome Plaza to the Grove. 
Family Bike Ride
  • BIKE: Many people enjoy bringing or renting bikes to avoid the stress of driving in the Valley. The Valley has over 12 miles of paved, mostly flat trails, so riding a bike can be a fun and easy way to explore.

Gas

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!

Cell Phone Service

Service is notoriously bad outside of Yosemite Valley. Bring good maps and get familiar with routes and plans before you head out each day. 

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.

Staying at Hilltop Cabins in Foresta was one of our best decisions when planning a quick trip to Yosemite with kids.
Ahwahnee Hotel in Winter

Yosemite 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 in advance!  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 7am PST.

In a normal summer season, reservations for May through September fill the first day they are available, sometimes within minutes after 7am! 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.

Dining on the porch of our vacation rental in Foresta - Yosemite with Kids

Vacation Rentals in Foresta and YOsemite West

We booked a vacation rental in Foresta through VRBO for our most recent visit and loved, loved, loved it! To us, a vacation rental is the perfect way to experience Yosemite with kids.

We were within a 25 minute drive of the Valley and still inside the park, so 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, with the exception of grab-and-go sandwiches at the Village Store for John and I. We also enjoy having a separate space to hang out after the kids go to bed. We’ll definitely stay here again in the future.

There are also vacation rentals in the Yosemite West neighborhood, which is further south toward Wawona.

Holiday Season at Tenaya Lodge

Resorts Outside the Park

There are several gateway towns outside of the park entrances that offer many accommodation options. Some of these are family resorts that offer plenty of fun 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 snow fall 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 my low-maintenance travel style. John and I would throw a tent and a couple 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.  

Kids splashing in the Merced, oblivious to El Cap behind them. Yosemite with kids
Feetmat Waterproof Hiking Shoes

Hiking Shoes

After watching our boys slip and slide around our local trails, we bought some hiking shoes to help them stay upright while exploring Yosemite. We chose these waterproof hiking shoes from Feetmat, which have worked great for them this year. Some other recommended brands are:

Water Shoes

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: 

Layers!

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. 

Sun Protection

One of my closest friends is a dermatologist, and she wouldn’t let me write this without mentioning sun protection!  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.

Hydro Flask - Packing List

Water Bottles

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.

Binoculars with Smart Phone Adapter - Packing List

Binoculars

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 smart phone adapter for the best of both worlds!

Nat Geo Yosemite Map Bundle

Maps

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.

Small First Aid Kit - Packing List

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.

Osprey Daypack - Packing List

Daypack

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.

Get the Kids excited for 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 movies that John and I almost always watch before and after our visits!

Kids splashing in the Merced, oblivious to El Cap behind them. Yosemite with kids

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.

Children's Stories: "So Big! Yosemite"

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.

Children's Stories: "So small! Yosemite"

So Small! Yosemite

I love this companion to “So Big! Yosemite” which reminds children to take in each small things like a yellow-legged frog, a shooting star, and a surprisingly small sequoia cone. More here.

Children's books: Who Pooped in the Park

Who Pooped in the Park?

Even if you don’t see wildlife on you’re visit, you’re likely to encounter their poop! Not only are these books entertaining, but they will help kids engage in close looking as your family notices evidence of the animals all around you. More here.

Children's Books:The Sequoia Lives On

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 for 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.

Free Solo

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.

And, of course, here’s our own YouTube video of our latest trip this past summer.

And With that, you should be ready to plan your own unforgettable Yosemite trip!  We wish you an amazing adventure and hope you’ll Share your favorite Yosemite moments with us in the comments.