All you need to know to plan the perfect family trip to Yosemite National Park. Must see sites, activities and all the practical tips you need to plan the perfect stay in Yosemite with kids.
Majestic, imposing, jaw-dropping beautiful. Words struggle to capture the feeling Yosemite evokes when you see it for the first time. One of the most popular and better known of all the National Parks in the United States, Yosemite National Park is in Northern California and welcomes the visitors to pristine Alpine scenery, fast water streams and green valleys.
I first visited Yosemite when I was a teenager and it reminded me of the beautiful Italian Alps I love so much.
We then visited again with our children and paid more attention to what is unique in this stunning park: the granite peaks, the green valleys in otherwise dry California and the rich wildlife: this is bear land, deer land and mountain lion land and every step of the way nature reminds your that this is her home and you are a just a guest (which is a wonderful feeling)!
Despite this power and large extension (over 12,000 square miles!), it is easy to enjoy Yosemite with children: in this guide, we share the several areas of Yosemite you can visit, give pointers on the most suitable for families and go through the practical info we gathered during our last stay in this stunning National Park.
How to get to Yosemite
Yosemite National Park sits in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California. It stretches over 700.000 acres and it is open to visitors all year round.
The easiest way to reach Yosemite is by car but no cars are for hire in the park so all arrangements, pick up and drop off must happen in off park locations such as the airport.
The park is open 24 hours a day all year round and a pass is currently 25$ in winter and 30$ in summer per car.
There are 4 park entrances:
- Northwest: Big Oak Flat Entrance from Hwy 120
- East (open summer to late fall only): Tioga pass entrance via Hwy 120
- West: Arch Rock entrance via Hwy 140
- South: Entrance via Hwy 41
We drove to Yosemite on a sunny summer day, from San Francisco. The road there is well kept and wide but make no mistake: it is a mountain road and it climbs up pretty high! We are not good with heights and the drive had both my husband and I quite nervous (there is no guard rail and it’s all mountain hairpin turns…).
If you are not afraid of heights, you shouldn’t have problems on this road but in our case let’s just say that when we got to the Priest Station cafe and left the scenic road behind us, we were pretty relieved (it took a few minutes for our legs to stop shaking though)!
Arriving to Yosemite by by plane or train
According to official park info, the closes airport to Yosemite is Fresno/Yosemite International airport. Driving from San Francisco International Airport SFO to Yosemite will take about 3 hours and driving from Los Angeles LAX about 6 hours.
Other airports close to Yosemite are: Oakland OAK (4h by car), Sacramento SMF (6h by car), Modesto City-County Airport MOD (2.5h by car), Reno International RNO (5h by car via Tioga pass, seasonal), Las Vegas LAS (8.5h by car, seasonal), Merced MCE (2hby car). These timings are approximate and calculated to reach Yosemite Valley: take into account that Yosemite is big so depending on where exactly you need to arrive, these times can change significantly.
Best places to stay in Yosemite with kids
Yosemite is generous with lodging options and this is an overview of some of the accommodation most suitable for families.
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The Majestic Yosemite hotel, formerly The Ahwahnee
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly The Ahwahnee (click here for details are reviews) is open all year round. This stunning hotel it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. The hotel has a great location offering incredible views, a full concierge service and family friendly amenities including connecting Rooms, cribs, kids meals, free Wi-Fi, laundry service, onsite dining, refrigerator and year outdoor heated pool.
Yosemite Valley Lodge, formerly Yosemite Lodge at the falls
Yosemite Valley Lodge, formerly Yosemite Lodge at the falls, (click here for reviews) has an eco-friendly theme: as well as 200+ ‘green’ rooms they have amenities such as bicycle and electric scooters rental and swimming pool. This is one of the families favourite places to stay in Yosemite because of the convenient transport options and the accessibility of the hotels which has wide doors, family rooms with king beds and bunks, private bathroom, refrigerator, free wi-fi coffee maker and more. Please note: the hotel has fans but no air conditioning.
Half Dome Village, formerly Curry Village
Half Dome Village, formerly Curry Village (click here for reviews) is another popular place to stay in Yosemite with families since it comprises motel rooms, cabins and canvas tent cabins. The village is well serviced with shared showers and toilet facilities, a swimming pool, shops, restaurants and bike and raft rentals and an amphitheater with junior led activities for kids and adults. With our children, we opted for the tent cabins and had a lovely stay: the ranger-led activities in the evening and the screening of old films about Yosemite history was among the highlights of our stay!
Big Trees Lodge Yosemite, formerly The Wawona hotel
Big Trees Lodge Yosemite, formerly The Wawona hotel (Click here for reviews) is a gorgeous Victorian era lodge near the stunning Mariposa grove of giant sequoias. The hotels has a restaurant on site and is a hub of activities since it has a swimming pool, tennis course, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and horseback riding. This is where I stayed on my first visit to Yosemite and have amazing memory of the beautiful rooms and on site restaurant.
What you cannot miss in Yosemite: Yosemite must see
Yosemite valley is the most popular part of Yosemite and where many of the must see sites and activities are. Here you have for instance Bridalveil falls, Yosemite falls, views of El Capitain and Half dome, Happy Isles, Mirror lake and famous Tunnel View
Six miles south of the park south entrance Wawona is where you have the beautiful giant sequoias at and and charming historical buildings such as the Yosemite history centre. Please note: Mariposa grove is currently close and is due to reopen in spring 2018
Glacier point viewpoint
The perfect location for a birds eye view over Yosemite valley. Tours from the valley make their way here in summer and the path is wheelchair accessible
Described by John Muir as ‘a grand landscape garden, one of Natures’ rarest and most precious mountain temples’ Hetch Hetchy is perfect for hiking and offers opportunities to go fishing, camping and (motorless) boating.
This is the largest sub-alpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada and a popular spot for day hikes.
Tioga road and high country
Tioga road is famous for being scenic and views are what attract people here. Olmsted point is said to be one of the most spectacular vistas in the whole of Yosemite but I’ll be honest, I read that road is so scary if you are not good with heights that we did not go up!
Top things to do in Yosemite with kids
You will be spoilt for choice when looking for what to do in Yosemite with kids.
Depending on the age of you children, your physical shape and their willingness to engage with activities, you can spend lazy days in the valley or challenge yourself to hikes, cycling or even a rafting experience!
Here are some of our favourite ideas.
Cycle in Yosemite Valley
Yosemite valley is (mostly) flat and cycling around is a fun and easy way to cover good distances. Bikes are available in the park: we rented ours in Half Dome Village and got equipment for the kids too. My son got a tail attached to dad’s bike and my daughter went into a trailer attached to mine. We had lots of fun but if you have never pulled a trailer, be aware that it is VERY heavy!
Bathe in the Merced river
Nature must be respected at all times and the delicate ecosystems of National Parks mean that some areas are off limits to the public. However, some areas can be easily enjoyed and one of them is the Merced river where kids and adults bathe to cool off during hot summer days. The streaming water is a delight and some areas are shallow enough for small kids to be safe too.
Yosemite has stunning waterfalls, falling from the high peaks all the way down to the valley floor. In summer, the water may not be abundant but you still get an idea of their might. You can get quite close to Yosemite Fall and Bridal Veil Fall but be careful as when you get close, the rocks can be slippery!
Nature center at Happy Isles
Our cycling expedition brought us to the nature center in Happy isles, in Yosemite Valley. This is a small but well equipped nature center where kids can learn about the wildlife in Yosemite and get to grips to why you must always use bear boxes to store food (the old car with the door ripped off by a bear made quite an impression on our two!).
The center is informative and the area immediately outside lovely, good to stretch your legs without majour effort.
Go on a hike
Yosemite really comes into its own when you hike and some of its paths are suitable for families. A lovely area is Toulumne Meadows, which in summer you can reach with the park shuttle. Here you have a visitors centre and store.
Become a junior ranger
I love the junior ranger programme. We discovered it in Joshua Tree and it is perfect for the kids. Yosemite has one too. Kids can be awarded the junior ranger badge if they complete the several activities in the park booklet and answer the questions about the park wildlife conservation threats and history.
It is a great way to experience Yosemite with kids and adults will learn a lot too!
Valley floor tour
One of the easiest way to learn about Yosemite is to take a valley tour on an open air vehicle. They happen in the summer only and are very popular (book in advance!). They follow a 26 mile trail and the commentary explains the history of Yosemite, its geology and wildlife. Don’t be surprised if a deer suddenly crosses the road in front of you while you snap photos!
Join a ranger led evening
Ranger led activities are a big part of what is available for kids in Yosemite and, for me, where one of the highlights of our stay. Our kids participated in a fun workshop about trees and later an an activity for adults took place where they showed an old film about the history of Curry Village and the Yosemite fire fall tradition.
Enjoy the view from glacier point
Glacier point is famous for towering over Yosemite valley and offering stunning views of the park. Its location 3,200 feet above the valley can be disconcerting for families but the viewpoint is safe (it’s still a viewpoint so be careful!) and the view breathtaking.
Or rather, form a circle of people around them since your arms won’t be able to hug these giant trees! Sequoias are in several parts of the park: when we visited, Mariposa Grove was closed but you can also see them in Tuolumne and Merced groves. We love sequoias and saw in Muir Woods as well: their record breaking characteristics (they are the tallest living thing in the world!) are always a hit with the kids!
What to pack for a trip to Yosemite with kids
What to pack for Yosemite depends largely on the season of your visit and the type of accommodation you choose. Some of the essential items we recommend are:
- Good walking shoes for adults and kids, ideally with good hiking sole and ankle support
- A rain jacket / windbreaker
- Layers (long sleeve top, short sleeve top, jumper etc)
- Water bottle
- Essential first aid kit
- Day pack
- Sun hat (summer)
- Sun screen
- Bathing suit and flipflops
- Snow gear (winter)
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I hope you enjoyed our guide to visiting Yosemite with kids and found useful info in it!