Embarking on a family adventure in the great outdoors is a surefire way to create cherished memories that will last a lifetime. And what better destination to explore with your little ones than the breathtaking Yosemite National Park? From exhilarating hikes to awe-inspiring glacier cut valleys, Yosemite offers a wealth of natural wonders that will captivate both young and old. But with so much to see and do, planning the perfect family trip can feel overwhelming. Prepare to leave your worries behind as our comprehensive guide is here to help you navigate through this stunning wilderness and make the most of your time with your kids. Whether you're a seasoned hiker or a first-timer, we'll provide you with insider tips, must-see attractions, and family-friendly activities that will ensure an unforgettable experience for everyone. So grab your backpacks, lace up your hiking boots, and get ready to embark on an extraordinary journey through Yosemite National Park's majestic landscapes with your loved ones.
Yosemite National Park
A bit about Yosemite
Around the early 1870s, a debate was happening in California. Yosemite, with its staggering granite cliffs, was the center of attention for scientists Josiah Whitney and John Muir. How could such a dramatic valley landscape have been formed? Whitney was convinced that Yosemite had been created when the valley floor sank down. Muir argued that these shapes could only have been formed by glaciers scraping the valley out. Which scientist do you think was correct?
If you sided with John Muir, you guessed right! The breathtaking shapes of iconic Yosemite features like Half Dome and El Capitan were made possible by powerful glaciers over two million years ago. The valley’s story begins even earlier--100 million years earlier. Yosemite’s granite was formed when magma hardened underground. This granite was much harder than the other rocks around it, and when those other rocks were worn away, the granite was left standing.
Throughout the creation of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, new rivers and volcanic activity took turns leaving gashes on the landscape and cutting canyons in the granite. This brings us to the importance of glaciers--about three million years ago, the Sierra Nevadas had become very tall and very cold. Though they’ve long since melted away, enormous masses of ice once dominated the landscape. Check out the Dig Deeper with a learning Adventure section to learn more about the awesome power glaciers can have, and how they shaped the distinct and breath-taking valleys of Yosemite.
What you can see and do in Yosemite!
Admire the beauty of Yosemite Falls from afar and up close: The trail to the lower falls is a 1 mile round trip trail to the falls and back. Here you will be able to take pictures and feel the mist of the falls. If you're looking for a challenge you can even hike the 7.2 mile round trip trail to the top of the falls.
Yosemite falls in one of the world's tallest falls at 2425 feet long. This waterfall actually made up of a series of 3 waterfalls: Upper Yosemite Fall, the middle cascades and lower Yosemite fall. The best viewpoint of all three falls together is on the path between the lower falls and the nearby restrooms.
Bike or walk through the Yosemite Valley via Cook’s Meadow boardwalk loop. This 1 mile boardwalk takes you away from the crowds and through lush meadows. From this trail you can reach Yosemite falls, take in the views of the valley cliffs, and visit the swinging bridge. Yosemite bike paths can even be taken all the way to the Mirror Lake trailhead and to Lower Pine Campground.
Keep your eyes alert, this is a great area to spot wildlife.
Rock scramble at Bridalveil Falls: .5 mile round trip. This trailhead has very limited parking so go early to beat the crowds.
While most people will stop and admire the falls from the river. It is possible to carefully rock scramble to see the base of the falls and to feel the mist.
Relax, swim, or float down in the Merced River. (check here for Merced River Status)
For a short float start at a swinging bridge and end at Sentinel Beach. For a longer 2 hour float start in the river at Stoneman Bridge.
Sentinel Beach is a fun spot to relax from a fun day of exploring. The water can get deep in this part of the river so bring something to float on and a picnic.
Hike to the top of Vernal Falls. This 2.4 mile round trip hike takes you to the top of the staircase next to the falls. Water from the falls does spray of these stairs as you hike up. This trail is closed Mon-Thurs in the summer 2023.
If water sprayed stairs aren't for you stop at the footbridge, view the falls, and go back.
If your up for a longer hike you can continue on the trail above the falls another 3 miles round trip to Nevada Falls.
Take in the breathtaking sight at Tunnel View. Tunnel View is the most popular vista in Yosemite for good reason. Here you will see Bridalveil falls on the right of the valley, half dome in the distance, El Capitan to the left and and incredible view of Yosemite Valley flowing through the center.
This beautiful vista is also only a short drive from Bridalveil Falls, just before Wawona Tunnel.
The parking lot here may be crowded so be patient. No hiking is required, simple park and walk to the edge of the parking lot to see the view.
Take a stroll, see a bubbling spring, and glacial striations in Tuolumne Meadows. Tuolumne Meadows at more than two miles long is one of the largest high elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevadas.
Here you will see wildflowers, meadows, possible wildlife, large granite domes, granite peaks, bubbling springs, and glacial striations on the flat rocks by the river.
The many trails here lead to granite domes, waterfalls along the Tuolumne River, and beautiful alpine lakes at the base of the spires of Unicorn Peaks and Cathedral.
For a nice stroll through the meadow and a chance to see Glacial Striations park at Lambert Dome parking and picnic area. Walk along the dirt road to the locked gate with a sign for Glen Aulin and Soda Springs. Take this flat 1.5 roundtrip trail. About 1/4th of the way down this trail you will hear the river, if you walk down to the river this is where you will find glacial striations. Continue on the trail to see the bubbling Soda Springs and Parsons Memorial Lodge.
Cool off in the clear blue waters of Tenaya Lake. Located 7 miles west of Tuolumne Meadows. This is lake not only has beautiful granite domes surrounding it but is a great place to swim, fish, canoe, kayak, or have a picnic.
A good place for swimming is the beach at the east end of the lake. The lake water is cold but is still fun on a hot day. There is parking and restrooms available here.
Don't forget to bring sunscreen. With the high elevation of this lake you are more likely to burn. So while the rocks here are perfect for sun bathing, be prepared.
If you plan to kayak of canoe make sure to bring your own. There are no places to rent them in Yosemite.
See the giant trees at Tuolumne Grove: 2.5 mile round trip trail is a great place to see Giant Sequoias if you are camping in or North of Yosemite Valley.
While this trail not strenuous, be prepared to walk steadily downhill to the grove on the trail then steadily uphill on the way back. Don't let this scare you. These trees are worth it.
Giant sequoias are the largest trees in the world by volume and only grow at elevations above 6000 feet. While the largest Giant sequoia in the world is located in Sequoia National Park, the giant sequoias located in Yosemite are still a sight to behold.
Yosemite Pro Planning Tips
Season: Spring- fall, waterfalls are their biggest in the spring
- Time Needed: 2-3 days
- Cost: $35 for a seven day pass or Free with National Parks Pass
- Book your overnight stays in advance: Yosemite campgrounds open their reservations at different times; some 5 months, some 2 months and some two weeks in advance. Click here to see campground opening releases.
- A good place to see Glacial Striations is at Tuolumne Meadows on the flat rocks by the river just off of the Soda Springs/Parsons Memorial Lodge Trail.
- Bring tubes to float down the slow moving Merced River in Yosemite Valley.
- Keep your distance from wildlife, bears, mule deer, racoons, squirrels and lots of other wildlife live here. They love areas where there is a lot of food like Yosemite Valley so watch for them, but don't get close.
- For a short kid friendly float, get in the river at Swinging Bridge and exit at Sentinel Beach. Drop your family off at Swinging Bridge then drive to Sentinel Beach to pick up your family and tubes. It’s a great spot to relax by the river.
- Bring a bike to avoid riding the crowded shuttle, bike paths run along the entire Yosemite Valley and are mostly flat and not on the road.
- Rocks near waterfalls are slippery, be careful and watch children.
- Tunnel View is an overlook that is an easy quick drive from Yosemite Valley. It offers a fantastic view of the valley.
- A good place in Yosemite to see giant sequoias near Yosemite Valley is Tuolumne Grove, 2.5 miles round trip.
- The Merced Grove is near the West entrance but has a steep trail down to the sequoias and you have to walk along a dirt road as well. It is not a good trail for kids.
- **limited cell service:** cell service can be limited or non-existent in certain areas. Inform your family and friends of this beforehand and consider alternative communication methods, such as walkie-talkies or designated meeting points.
- Hike Halfdome (if your family ages and abilities allow) 16.5 miles round trip. Reserve a permit ahead of time. Permit lottery sign up is in March. A daily lottery is also available 2 days before your trip. For more info click here.
- Pack a lunch, dinner and lots of snacks. Once you are in the park you can only buy food in Yosemite Valley. Don't limit your adventure due to lack of food.
Discovering the beauty of Yosemite's glacier-cut valleys
Yosemite National Park is renowned for its breathtaking glacier-cut valleys, which showcase the power and beauty of nature. These valleys, formed by the movement of glaciers over thousands of years, offer a unique glimpse into the park's geological history.
One of the most famous glacier-cut valleys in Yosemite is Yosemite Valley itself. Surrounded by towering granite cliffs, such as El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite Valley is a sight to behold. Take your kids on a leisurely stroll along the valley floor, where they can marvel at the sheer size and grandeur of these natural wonders.
If you want to see some proof of past glaciers in Yosemite check out Tuolumne Meadows! Hike Soda Springs/Parsons Memorial Lodge Trail and check out the glacial striations on the flat rocks by the river. This alpine meadow is surrounded by granite domes, pristine lakes, and wildflower-covered fields, providing a serene and picturesque setting for family hikes or picnics.
When exploring Yosemite's glacier-cut valleys with your kids, take the time to teach them about the park's geological history. Explain how the movement of glaciers shaped the landscape and point out interesting rock formations or evidence of glacial activity. This educational experience will not only deepen their appreciation for Yosemite's natural wonders but also spark their curiosity about the world around them.
Dig Deeper with a Learning Adventure
If your planning a trip to Yosemite with your kids and want an easy way to learn about glaciers and how they shaped the park, then California Adventure Activity Book is a great resource for your family. It includes our Top 10 Sierra Nevada destinations (Including Yosemite National Park) with activities for each location and fun earth science lessons. It's like your own Junior Ranger program for each location. Here are some of the things included:
- 10 adventures in the CA Sierra Nevadas
- 10 Earth Science Lessons
- 10 Hands-On Science Activities
- 10 Coloring Pages
- 1 Sticker Map
- Reward Tickets
- 10 Scavenger Hunts
- Journal Pages
Glacier Learning Activity
The book includes 10 earth science lessons and fun activities. For the Yosemite National Park adventure, you'll learn about Glaciers through a fun activity called "The Power of Glaciers". It's a simple, cold, and fun way to see a “glacier” in action. All of the lessons in the California Adventure Activity Book are simple and fun and help you get even more out of your adventures.
Can you Spot it?
The book also contains a scavenger hunt pages for each adventure that you can cut out and fold up into a booklet. Here are some of the things you'll be looking for and learning about on your trip to Sequoia National Park.
Half Dome was originally named “Tis-sa-ack” An Ahwahneechee phrase for Cleft Rock. It looks like a giant rock on top of a mountain that has been cut in half. It is formed from some of the hardest granite in the USA. There is a strenuous hiking route with cables that people like to take to the top.
The mule deer’s name comes from its huge, mule-like ears. These mammals are fast, sprinting up to 45 miles per hour. This comes in handy when sharing habitats with hungry mountain lions. Look for mule deer in the mornings and evenings, as they are most active during these times.
Rock Climber on El Capitan
Yosemite is a rock climber’s paradise, and one of the most famous climbing spots is El Capitan. Known locally as “El Cap”, this rock formation is about 3,000 feet tall. Miwok tribal legend has it that the first creature to scale this wall was an inchworm!
Don’t let the name fool you; black bears can also be brown or even blonde. These are the smallest bears in North America, but they are still dangerous. If you see one, give it lots of space. Raise your arms to look bigger, make noise by talking to it and slowly move away.
A meadow is an open habitat or field filled with grasses, herbs and other non woody plants. The meadows of Yosemite are lush, thick with plant life and support plants that use shallow surface water. They act like sponges absorbing the water that melts from the peaks above.
Where to Camp in Yosemite National Park.
Camping in Yosemite National Park is an excellent way to immerse yourself in nature and create lasting memories with your kids. The park offers a variety of camping options to suit different preferences and levels of comfort. All campgrounds in Yosemite can be reserved on recreation.gov
Campgrounds in Yosemite Valley:
Yosemite Valley is home to several campgrounds, including Upper Pines, Lower Pines, and North Pines and Camp 4. These campgrounds offer stunning views of the surrounding granite cliffs and convenient access to popular attractions. You must have a reservation for all campgrounds except Camp 4 which allows walk ins for any remaining spots.
Upper Pines: Can be reserved 5 months in advance, about $36, tents camping and RVs up to 35 ft. Open year round.
Lower Pines: Can be reserved 5 months in advance, about $36, tents camping and RVs up to 40 ft. Weather pending it is open April 24-Oct 16.
North Pines: Must join the lottery 5 months ahead on the 15th of the month for a chance to stay here. About $36, tents camping and RVs up to 40 ft. Weather pending it is open April 17-Oct 30.
Camp 4: Reservations are available 1 week in advance for camping May 21-Sept 30. Walk in is allowed is any spots are remaining. About $10, No RVs, only tent camping is allowed. Open year round.
Campgrounds outside Yosemite Valley:
If you prefer a quieter and more secluded camping experience, consider camping in one of the campgrounds outside Yosemite Valley. Campgrounds such as Tuolumne Meadows, Wawona, and Hodgdon Meadow offer a more serene atmosphere and are well-suited for families.
North of Yosemite Valley
Tuolumne Meadows: Closed till 2024 or 2025
Hodgdon Meadow: Can be reserved 5 months in advance, about $36, tents camping and RVs up to 35 ft. Open year Round.
Tamarack Flat: Can be reserved 2 weeks in advance, about $24, tents camping, no RV camping, Weather pending it is open June-Oct. 15.
White Wolf: Can be reserved 2 weeks in advance, about $30, tents camping and RVs up to 27 ft. Weather pending it is open July- Sept. 5.
Crane Flat: Can be reserved 2 months in advance, about $36, tents camping and RVs up to 35 ft. Weather pending it is open sometime in Aug-Oct. 30.
Yosemite Creek: Can be reserved 2 weeks in advance, about $24, tents camping, no RV camping. Weather pending it is open July-Sept. 4.
Porcupine Flat: Can be reserved 2 weeks in advance, about $20, tents camping, no RV camping. Weather pending it is open sometime in July-Oct. 15.
South of Yosemite Valley
Wawona: Can be reserved 5 months in advance, about $36, tents camping and RVs up to 35 ft. Open year round.
Bridalveil Creek: Can be reserved 2 months in advance, about $36, tents camping and RVs up to 35 ft. Weather pending it is open sometime in July-Sept 4.
Yosemite Backcountry Camping:
For those seeking a more adventurous camping experience, backcountry camping in Yosemite is an option. Obtain a wilderness permit and venture into the Yosemite backcountry. You can join the lottery to get a permit 24 weeks in advance. %40 of the tickets become available 7 days in advance.
You must have a permit if you are planning an overnight stay in Yosemite's backcountry or if you are wanting to hike Half Dome. All other day hikes in the Yosemite Backcountry do not need a permit.
Campgrounds in the Yosemite Backcountry are located at Little Yosemite Valley, May Lake, Sunrise, Glen Aulin, Merced Lake and Vogelsang. No reservations are required to stay at these campgrounds, just a wilderness permit.
Big Rig RV Camping in Yosemite (Over 40 ft RVs):
Check out Yosemite Lakes RV Resort. Its located just 5 minutes outside the West entrance of Yosemite. There is also a river with a small swim hole to cool off your kids.