Exposing our kids to nature and spending time outdoors was something that we always wanted for our family, even before we had kids. I have fond memories of visiting national parks as a child, and I knew I wanted to share that with mine. Recently, we had the chance to take our kids to their first national park, and I’m going to share everything you need to know about visiting Yosemite National Park with kids!
Where Is Yosemite NAtional Park?
Yosemite is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Central California. It is about an hour and a half from Fresno, or about 3.5 hours from Sacramento, where we are. It could be done in a day, but to really make the most of your time, you should plan on spending at least one night nearby. Yosemite National Park with kids is the perfect road trip because it’s so centrally located to most cities in California.
How much time Do I need to spend in yosemite?
Yosemite National Park is almost 1200 square miles, so you could spend countless days exploring and still see something new. Not to mention that each season brings about new things to see, new trails to access, and different wildlife. Snow covered Yosemite is much different than the hot, dry summertime Yosemite.
For our first trip, we spent one day in Yosemite Valley. At 5 and 6, our kids don’t have a ton of endurance for long hikes. They can go about a mile or two, which is great for the age, but limited what we could do. A day in Yosemite National Park with kids was more than enough time to see everything we wanted and give them an immersive experience. Of course, more time is always great, but if you only have one day, you will leave feeling satisfied that you saw a majority of the valley.
What to do in Yosemite National Park with kids
Hike Yosemite Falls
The trail to Lower Yosemite Falls is a flat, paved trail. It’s about a mile round trip and is accessible for all ages and abilities. We even saw a few strollers make it all the way to the falls. This is a great first stop because it’s a quick hike (read: not too much time for whining), and there is a big reward at the end- the falls! Depending on the time of year, and the amount of rainfall, the amount of water in the falls will vary. We went in mid June in a drought, but there was a decent amount of water.
Once you get to the falls, there is a bridge you can cross and then climb down to the rocks at the bottom of the falls. We didn’t go too far, but if your kids are a little older, you can climb your way all the way to the base of the falls.
become junior rangers
Yosemite has an amazing junior ranger program. To participate, you’ll need to buy a junior ranger handbook at the Village Store (located in Yosemite Village, or at other concessions around the park). Your child will then complete a number of activities based on their age. It’s fairly easy and we completed it while we ate lunch. It’s basically like a workbook that has your child think about the wildlife in the park, how to be a good steward of the park, and to get them to connect to nature.
Once you’ve completed the right amount of activities, you’ll take it to the ranger station in Yosemite Village. When we visited, the rangers were in green tents outside the visitor center, which was closed because of COVID restrictions. The rangers will ask your child a few questions, and swear them in as junior rangers. They will get a patch and the cutest wooden badge to wear. My kids were thrilled with their new found authority, and take their junior ranger roles very seriously.
Get a National Park passport
Each park has a unique stamp, and if you get a passport, you can stamp your book and keep track of which parks you’ve visited and when. Yosemite’s is located right outside the visitor center in Yosemite Village. They also have these junior ranger passports which are really fun for the kids.
AJ and I visited Pearl Harbor on our honeymoon, and in the gift shop we saw national park passports. We loved the idea of visiting as many national parks as we could, and bought a passport in hopes that we’d continue it with our future children. It actually was our 11th anniversary the day we visited Yosemite with our kids for the first time, so it was a really sweet, sentimental moment to stamp our family’s passport almost 11 years to the day we got it.
Explore Yosemite Village and Curry Village
Due to COVID, many things were closed in Yosemite Village on our visit. However, there is a museum, visitor center, Ansel Adams Gallery, and wildlife center that are fun to explore and a great way to learn more about the park.
Curry Village is located next to most of the campgrounds in the valley. There is another general store, and a few restaurants. There is also an amphitheater where rangers lead talks. We happened upon a cool thing we’d never seen before. Located near the entrance to Bar 1899 is a walkway that generates energy! There is a monitor on the wall, and each time someone walks across the panels in the floor, energy is created. We joked that our kids could power the place for a week in just a few short minutes, and they had a lot of fun bouncing on the panels and watching the monitor change.
Swim at Mirror Lake
In the northern end of the valley, you can bike up to Mirror Lake. Typically, there is a lot of water, but there wasn’t much in this drought year. Half Dome looms above you, and the icy cold water was such a relief. It was over 100 degrees on the day we visited, and the chilly water was just what we needed.
Bike through the valley
Biking is the best way to experience Yosemite National Park with kids. There are bike paths that connect just about everything in the valley, so it is easy to get around. You can really feel the immense height of Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, and El Capitan and the other rock formations from a bike in a way that you can’t from a car.
Drive to Tunnel View
Tunnel View has one of the most breathtaking vistas in the whole park. From this spot you can see El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Falls. Your kids might not care too much about the view, but they will love driving through Wawona Tunnel, just beyond Tunnel View.
Depending on which route you take into the park, this may be one of the first things you see. Wawona Tunnel is the longest highway tunnel in California and was built in 1933 and bored out of solid granite.
If you have more than a day in Yosemite National Park
The trail was closed for renovations during our visit, so we were only able to see the falls from Tunnel View. However, if it’s open on your visit, this is a must. The easy half mile trail is accessible for all ages and abilities, and is one of many breathtaking waterfalls in the park.
Vernal FAlls Footbridge
We skipped this in favor of Mirror Lake on our visit because it was so hot. We had enough time to do both, but knew the kids didn’t have two hikes in them and knew swimming would be more appealing to them. This trail is about 1.5 miles round trip, so definitely longer.
vernal falls mist trail and nevada falls
Part of the reason we skipped Vernal Falls Footbridge is because it leads up to the Mist Trail. The Mist Trail, named because Vernal Falls literally mists you as you hike, is incredible and can’t be mist (get it?!), unless you have young kids with you. The trail consists of stairs carved out of the mountainside and combined with the mist, it gets very slippery. Oh, and there aren’t any railings for most of it. This is a must do if you are kid free or have older, more cautious children with you.
This trail also leads to longer hikes in the backcountry, like Half Dome and Clouds Rest. It is a busy trail with day hikers and backpackers alike and sometimes the more experienced hikers don’t have a ton of patience for a younger, slower crowd. People are friendly, but know that it won’t be the secluded, quiet hike you may be envisioning.
Mariposa Grove is home to Grizzly Giant, the largest sequoia tree in Yosemite. If you have never seen sequoias, it’s definitely worth a visit. There are lots of trails ranging in easy to strenuous.
You can also go to the Yosemite History Center in Wawona and see the Wawona Hotel, which is nearby.
Tioga Road that leads to Tuolumne is only open during the summer. In winter months, it’s packed in with snow. The High Sierra is absolutely gorgeous, and definitely worth a visit if you have time. There are lots of day hikes in that area as well, including Cathedral Lakes, Elizabeth Lake, and granite monotliths like Lembert Dome. You could even go over Tioga Pass to Mono Lake, which is just outside the park.
Hetch Hetchy Resevoir
Hetch Hetchy is where all of the drinking water and hydroelectric power for San Francisco is located. There are a few trails, at lower elevation, to explore. You can also see the O’Shaughnessy Dam.
Tips For visiting Yosemite National Park with kids
- Go early! When we visited in June 2021, the park was still operating under a reservation system. This was great because it limited the amount of people in the park. But, even with a smaller crowd, parking is limited.
- Bring your bikes (or rent them). Once you park, you are not going to want to move your car because you will lose your spot. Bikes were key to getting around and saving our kids’ legs for the trail. If we had to walk from spot to spot, they would have been toast before lunch.
- Where to stay- we got an AirBNB in Mariposa, which is about 45 minutes from the main gate. There are campsites, tent cabins, and hotels within the valley. To score one of these spots, you will more than likely need to book months in advance. You’ll have better luck staying outside the park if you’re planning a last minute adventure like we did.
Did I miss anything? Tell me your favorite thing to do in Yosemite National Park with kids! Looking for more California road trips? Check out this list of ultimate Northern California adventures.