Yosemite Visitors’ Guide for Families
Yosemite National Park Road, Yosemite Valley, CA, USA
A Tour of Yosemite From The Perspective of Two Experienced Parents.
Join Margaux and Ash as they explore Yosemite!
Picture caption: Tunnel View lookout is sure to take your breath away no matter the season.
National Parks are known for being home to some of America’s most breathtaking landscapes, rugged backcountry, unique wildlife, epic trails, and awesome ranger-led programs. Not only does Yosemite National Park offer something in each of these areas, the park offers so many iconic experiences that it will leave your head spinning as you try to cram it all into your next weekend trip! It’s worthwhile to spend time planning the right blend of activities to keep kids and parents smiling without missing out on the best sites. In this article we boil down all Yosemite has to offer into a family-friendly trip planning guide to get you on your way to experiencing our favorite national park.
To kickstart your Yosemite trip planning, we recommend focusing on three must-see areas: Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, and the Glacier Point Area. For each area we’ll share our favorite hikes with options for different fitness levels and ages, viewpoints, and a variety of other activities that are worth considering. We finish with tips on where to stay, a few of our favorite family-friendly backpacking suggestions, how to get around the park, and seasonal considerations.
Yosemite Valley is open year-round, and is the most iconic area in the park, boasting towering waterfalls, sheer granite cliffs, and jaw-dropping rock formations. You can easily spend your whole trip in the valley and never run out of amazing sights to see or activities to keep your entire family entertained. While we recommend spending a good portion of your time in the valley, we also think it’s worth making it to the two other areas to get a full taste of Yosemite!
Picture caption: Upper Yosemite Fall as seen from the Yosemite Falls Trail in February
Want to see the tallest waterfall in North America? You can take in this beauty from a variety of hikes. The easiest, shortest, and most kid-friendly is the hike to the Lower Fall. It’s a short ½ mile, relatively flat stroll. The best time of year to see the waterfall is in the spring during peak snow runoff. It’s fun and refreshing to feel the mist on your face and the wind of the water falling. By late summer and into fall, and especially during droughts, the waterfalls really lose a lot of their “oomph.”
Picture caption: Lower Yosemite Fall during a winter snow storm
If you want to soak in 180-degree views of the valley, hiking about 1/3 of the way up the Upper Yosemite Falls trail (2 miles roundtrip from Camp 4 area, 1000 feet of elevation gain) will bring you to Columbia Rock. This portion of the trail is mostly switchbacks climbing to the viewpoint which can be a bit of a lung and leg burner, but the views over the valley here are really stunning and worth it. Keep in mind though, you won’t see the falls on this part of the trail. If you want to see the falls from the trail, you’ll have to keep hiking a bit farther before you decide to turn around.
Picture caption: Gorgeous views of the valley from the hike to the top of Yosemite Falls.
If you are up for a serious climb and some additional mileage, do the full hike to the top of the Upper Yosemite Fall which is 7.6 miles roundtrip, and 2,600 feet of elevation gain. We’ve seen school-age kids manage the hike, and we hiked it while Margaux was in the second trimester with our first baby, but we would only recommend it for experienced hikers. If you have little kids, we really only recommend attempting the full climb if you can manage carrying them in a hiking pack for the majority of the hike. Just count on a SERIOUS workout, otherwise, you might not enjoy yourself.
Make sure to wear shoes/boots with good traction, as the rocks can get slippery when they are wet. We also recommend a hat and sunscreen as this hike receives a lot of direct sun. Dressing in layers, even if the air is chilly, is a good idea as the climb will warm you up. You will need your layers again when you take in the view at the top.
The Mist Trail, aka Vernal and Nevada Falls
(3 miles roundtrip and 1000 feet of elevation gain to Vernal Fall, 7 miles roundtrip and 1,900 feet of elevation gain to Nevada Fall)
If you want to feel like you are in a waterfall, The Mist Trail is for you! This is literally a wet and wild hike if you hike it in the spring. We do not recommend this trek for younger children unless they are okay with being in a child carrier for most of the hike, and you are prepared to huff and puff carrying them up nearly 2,000 feet and back down again. If your kids are older and are sturdy hikers, this could be an unforgettable hike for your family. We’d recommend starting early to avoid the crowds, as some of the areas past Vernal Fall are tight and require taking turns passing. It can also get slippery if the water is really flowing, so make sure to wear appropriate shoes and take your time.
The best time of year to hike this is during peak runoff, usually April-June, but if it’s a big snow year the misty falls might extend into July. If it’s peak flow, plan to get wet! You will need a raincoat or ponchos for the whole family. The nice part about this hike is that you can decide to turn around at Vernal Fall bridge and still see a magnificent cascade of water.
However, if you are looking for a shorter hike to see a major waterfall with smaller kids, we vote for the Lower Yosemite Fall hike instead of Vernal Fall. The Lower Yosemite Fall hike is shorter and has less elevation change, but you still get to a massive waterfall that takes your breath away. Plus, the Lower Yosemite Fall hike is more central in the valley to other activities that are kid-friendly, with better access to facilities like restrooms and food.
Picture caption: Nevada Fall in September still had decent flow due to the heavy snow pack from the winter before.
(2.4 miles roundtrip, 100 feet of elevation gain)
This hike is an easy stroll. Don’t get overly excited that Mirror Lake is going to be a lake like you see in magazines, it’s more of a large pool in Tenaya Creek during the spring and summer months. What’s cool about this hike, though, is getting up close to the base of Half Dome and looking up at the monstrous granite masterpiece. You can also swim here in the warmer months if the river is calm. It isn’t a must-see on our list, but it’s one of the easier hikes in the valley, and it boasts a good swim spot that your family is bound to love.
Picture caption: Mirror Lake hike in the fall when water levels are lower.
(1.2 miles, about 200 feet of elevation gain)
While this waterfall could be something you hike to see, we think you can appreciate this misty wonder from other vantage points in the park. Some great view points are Tunnel View as you drive into the park, several pull-offs along Northside Drive, or even as you drive by the Bridalveil parking area. The parking lot gets clobbered with visitors because it is one of the first major sites upon entering the Valley from the southwest. If you want to stop and walk to the fall, just know you will probably need to wait on a parking spot.
Picture caption: Taking in Bridalveil Fall from a roadside lookout along Northside Drive.
Firefall is one of the most spectacular displays of natural beauty that Yosemite National Park has to offer, but you have to come in the winter to see it. When conditions are just right, Horsetail Fall, located on the eastern side of El Capitan, lights up and resembles molten lava pouring over the side of the valley. Words and photos don’t do it justice. You need to see it for yourself!
Firefall only occurs when the sun angle is just right at sunset in mid-February. Plus, you’ll need enough snow or rain runoff to make a waterfall which doesn’t happen every winter, so there are no guarantees. In February the park closes one lane of Northside Drive, to allow visitors to park at Yosemite Falls and safely walk along the road to various viewing points. El Capitan Picnic Area is the most popular. You’ll want to bundle your kids up for this one and pack some hot chocolate while you wait for the sun to set.
In addition, remember that you’ll need to step off the road to watch the phenomenon. Depending on the weather, snow boots or waterproof shoes are important to keep dry and comfortable. The year we went, the valley floor had over five feet of snow, so we took our daughter in a hiking pack and kept her in it for the duration of the event since the snow was too deep for her to safely wander around.
Picture caption: Witnessing Firefall can be one of Yosemite’s most treasured memories.
This vista showcases one of the most spectacular views of Yosemite Valley, second only in our opinion, to Sentinel Dome. A great bonus is that it’s right off Wawona Road (Hwy 41) as you enter from the South Entrance of the park. It provides striking views of El Capitan, Sentinel rock, and Half Dome. The parking lot for the viewpoint is small and can get very crowded during the middle of the day, but it regularly turns over. We’ve always had good luck in the morning getting a spot. If it’s really congested, you can hit it up on your way out of the park later in the day.
Other family-friendly activities to consider in Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley offers plenty of ways to explore on foot, but you can also tour the valley on two wheels. The valley is flat so biking is easy and enjoyable for the whole family along the 12 miles of designated paths. You can bring your own wheels or rent them at the Yosemite Valley Lodge or Curry Village. The park also rents tag-along bikes for kids, and trailers for little ones.
Floating down the Merced River is another fun way to take in the views and cool off on a 3-mile float. Raft rentals are available in Curry Village.
During the winter months, Curry Village has an ice-skating rink set up. After you’ve finished mastering your triple salchow, you can hang out around the fire and soak in the views of half dome.
Ranger Talks, Junior Ranger, Little Cub, and Wee Wild Ones Programs
Your kids will love the adventure of becoming either a Little Cub (ages 3-6) or a Junior Ranger (7-13). The park sells self-guided booklets at various visitor centers throughout the park. These booklets contain activities to complete in order to earn a badge.
There’s also a Wee Wild Ones program that is geared towards children under 10 years with crafts, activities, and stories that covers the plants, wildlife, and geology of Yosemite. It’s free and is offered in the Curry Village Amphitheater in the summer.
Finally, the regularly scheduled ranger talk-and-walks throughout the park are an awesome way to learn about the natural and cultural history of the park.
Glacier Point Area
Photo caption: Morning views from Glacier Point.
Glacier Point Area is unique because it is the only area where you can gain a bird’s eye view of the valley that is accessible by automobile as well as via trail.
Photo caption: Glacier Point can be crowded in the summer, but the fall has much lighter crowds. We practically had the whole place to ourselves!
Easy, epic roadside views that are some of the most beautiful anywhere in the world. This viewpoint is about an hour drive from Yosemite Valley. It has a million-dollar view of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, as well as Vernal and Nevada Falls.
Glacier Point can get crowded quickly, so we recommend arriving very early, staying later for sunset, or just expect to share the view with new friends! We came to see the sunrise and it was beautiful and peaceful. Glacier Point Road closes for the winter, so if you are visiting late in the fall or early in the spring, check with the park service to ensure the road is open.
You can also hike up to Glacier Point from the Yosemite Valley via the Four-Mile Trail. However, we only recommend this hike if you and your kids are experienced, as it climbs over 3,000 feet. Plus, we like driving up to the area so we have energy left to make it to our favorite lookout in the Glacier Point Area, Sentinel Dome.
Sentinel Dome Hike
(2.2 miles, 400 feet elevation gain)
Picture caption: Enjoying sunset from the top of Sentinel Dome.
We rank this the greatest “bang for your buck” hike in all of Yosemite. It’s a relatively short, well-marked stroll that ends with 360-degree views of all of the iconic sights that Yosemite Valley has to offer like Half Dome, Clouds Rest, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. It also boasts views of peaks and high-country as far as the eye can see.
We love that Sentinel Dome has less crowds than Glacier Point since there’s some hiking involved and we highly recommend coming for either sunset or sunrise to both beat the crowds and to witness how the view looks drastically different as the sun angle changes. Please note, the top of the dome is large and there’s plenty of area to walk around, however, the dome eventually drops off around the edges, so don’t let kids roam unattended.
(8.5 miles one way, 3200 feet of elevation change)
Picture caption: Sweeping views of Half Dome along the Panorama Trail.
This hike is long in its entirety, but because it has epic views nearly the entire hike, we think it can easily be shortened in two different ways if needed. First, you can drive up to Glacier Point and just stroll down the trail heading east along the valley rim and turn around at any point. A nice picnic spot and turn around for a shorter hike is Illilouette Falls.
Our favorite option, if you don’t mind some logistics, is to take a bus for a small fee from Yosemite Lodge up to Glacier Point. This option affords the ability to complete a one-way, downhill hike to the valley. (Please note, this bus is different from the free Yosemite Valley shuttle). We love this option because it winds around the east end of the valley giving wonderful views of Half Dome, beautiful rivers, and includes the iconic Mist Trail at the end. Don’t be fooled by the words “downhill hike” though. This second option is still challenging since there are some ups and downs, and going downhill can be a knee grinder. We would only recommend this hike for families with older kids, or parents accustomed to longer treks with their kids in a carrier.
Photo caption: Hiking down towards Illilouette Falls on the Panorama Trail.
Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing
There’s nothing more peaceful than seeing Yosemite wrapped in a blanket of snow! If you head up to the Badger Pass Ski Area there are 90 miles of marked trails and 25 miles of groomed track that will take you through a winter wonderland to see Glacier Point. You can rent all of the equipment, including the pulk sled (basically a bike trailer for kids on skis), so bring your kids along with you!
Picture caption: Looking down on to Tuolumne Meadows from the top of Lembert Dome.
At 8,619 feet, Tuolumne Meadows is over 4,000 feet higher than the valley, and therefore gives a great taste of the High Sierra. This part of the park receives substantially more snow fall and has cooler temperatures than the valley. Tioga Road, which leads to Tuolumne Meadows, often remains closed until May or June, and sometimes even July like in 2019! The center of this area is punctuated by a beautiful subalpine meadow that borders the Tuolumne River. While this area can get busy, it’s much less congested than the valley.
(2.8 miles roundtrip, 900 feet elevation gain)
Picture caption: Enjoying views from the back side of Lembert Dome before hiking to the top.
This is a relatively gentle hike that offers excellent views looking west over Tuolumne Meadows and east towards Mono Lake. We highly recommend this hike as it’s less travelled, short enough to be family-friendly, and still offers great views of the high country. You don’t have to go all the way to the top of the dome if you have littles ones in tow. You can stop on the back side of the dome and still soak in some great views. If you do have children under their own steam and want to hike to the top, keep a close eye on them on the dome because there are no guard rails.
(2.8 miles roundtrip, 250 feet elevation gain)
This is a nice, relatively flat hike. We paired the hike to Lembert Dome and Dog Lake in one day. It’s a pretty lake that doesn’t get as crowded as other areas, and would be reasonable for younger kids to manage on their own. Plus, the lake is a great spot for a picnic lunch.
Picture caption: Enjoying the calm, reflective waters at Dog Lake.
(2.5 miles roundtrip, 500 feet elevation gain)
We love this hike because it’s short for younger kids, and the lake is very picturesque as it rests at the base of Mount Hoffman. This hike makes for a great first backpacking trip for young kids due to the short distance and fact that there is a High Sierra Camp there in case you needed help in an emergency. We saw May Lake as part of a great two-night trip loop by adding in Glen Aulin for our second night. This loop was relatively flat and boasted lots of great sights.
Picture caption: Looking down upon May Lake.
(4.6 miles roundtrip, 900 feet of elevation gain)
Picture caption: Pack a picnic to eat lakeside if you decide to hike Elizabeth Lake.
This is another beautiful hike in the Tuolumne Meadows area. It’s a bit more challenging than Dog Lake, particularly the steep first mile, but you are rewarded with a beautiful and peaceful alpine lake surrounded by pine trees and Unicorn Peak. We were pleasantly surprised with the low number of people on this trail despite its close proximity to Tuolumne Meadows Campground.
Picture caption: Unicorn Peak towers over Elizabeth Lake.
One of the most beautiful and easily accessible alpine lakes in all of the Sierras, if you ask us! The lake is situated along Tioga Road, and thus you can enjoy this beauty right from your car. There are a few pull-offs and parking lots surrounding the lake. It’s a great place to stop for a picnic or even lay out on the beach on the east end of the lake. If you can time it right and winds are low, seeing the reflection of the surrounding granite peaks on the water is spiritual. We would only recommend doing the flat 2.5 mile hike around the lake if you have multiple days in the park and plenty of time on your hands.
Picture caption: Enjoying Tenaya Lake from a roadside pull-off.
Olmstead Point Look-out
Nice roadside views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome. It should be a quick stop on your way between Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley. There’s a parking lot that rarely fills up.
Where to stay
We would recommend trying to stay inside the park, particularly if you have kids, so you can spend more time exploring and less time in the car going to and from lodging outside the park. Fortunately, Yosemite offers a wide variety of accommodation options inside the park. We’ve stayed in everything from our backpacking tent out on a trail to the finest accommodations in the park, and everything in between. If we had our pick, we would choose to camp either in our own tent or van at a campsite. The park has thirteen campgrounds, and we are going to touch on our two favorite grounds inside the park.
This is our campground of choice in Yosemite Valley. The campground takes reservations up to five months in advance. It has paved parking spurs, flush toilets, drinking water, fire pits, and food storage lockers. It’s easy to hop on the shuttle bus that circles the valley from the entrance of the campsite, so you don’t have to move your car. Plus, it’s at the end of the valley so there isn’t a bunch of traffic going by, and it’s closer to trails such as The Mist Trail.
The campsites are pretty close together and don’t offer much privacy, but there really aren’t any in the valley that do, so it’s just one of the trade-offs of being in close proximity to all of the attractions without having to come in and out of the park each day. We’ve always been lucky with walk-up sites here in the fall.
This campground is in the heart of Tuolumne Meadows. Sites are slightly more spacious than campgrounds in the valley, but they still aren’t like camping out in the wilderness alone. Good news for those that don’t plan ahead…like us…they keep 50% of the sites for walk-up. You have to get there early though, because people will be waiting in line to snatch them up!
Picture caption: Tuolumne Meadows campground has nice tree cover and offers great access to plenty of family-friendly hikes.
General pointers for camping in Yosemite:
Reservations book-up fast! If you aren’t sitting online (https://www.recreation.gov/) when they open up you probably won’t get a reservation. Not to worry, you can cruise for cancelations, or try some walk-up spots. We’ve actually had decent luck with walk-up sites, but you have to arrive EARLY in the day to get them.
Campgrounds anywhere in Yosemite are busy. If you want to seek true solitude, you’ll need to camp in the backcountry. So, go in knowing you’ll be able to see and hear your neighbor. We mention this because we typically seek out complete isolation when we camp, but camping in Yosemite isn’t quite like that. People are respectful of the quiet hours, and the staff managing the campgrounds run a tight ship and enforce the rules.
There are no RV hook-ups in any of the campsites.
Food storage is critical to protect from bears and other wildlife.
Picture caption: Using bear boxes helps protect not only bears but other wildlife in the park-like marmots.
You can read more about other campsites on the Yosemite National Park website.
As a heads up, don’t try to sleep in your car anywhere in the park unless you are at a campsite. The park strictly enforces this rule.
Picture caption: A family backpacking trip is a great way to explore Yosemite’s backcountry.
There are endless trails to consider when backpacking in Yosemite. Just make sure you either reserve your wilderness permit ahead of time, or pick up a first-come, first-served permit at one of the permit-issuing stations. Yosemite holds 40 percent of wilderness permits for walks-ups, and that’s how we’ve always scored ours. Just have a back-up trail or two in case your first choice is full. One important consideration for backpacking in Yosemite is the need to fit all food and scented items into a bear canister, so make sure to pack wisely to conserve space. If you don’t own a canister, the permit stations rent them.
As mentioned earlier, May Lake or Glen Aulin make for an awesome first backpacking trip for families or combine both to make a nice two-night loop. Another option to consider if you aren’t quite ready to lug all of your gear into the backcountry is Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps. The camps are situated 6-10 miles apart along a loop trail. Instead of hauling your gear in packs, you can travel light with just a day pack. The camps have canvas tents and meals ready for your arrival. You can opt to do guided, unguided, or just meals at the camps. The catch with this fun experience is getting a reservation. You can learn more about the lottery here.
Picture caption: Camping on the shores of May Lake.
If you don’t want to pitch a tent or RV camp, you can opt to stay in canvas tents, cabins or even hotel rooms in Yosemite Valley. These properties are managed by Aramark and can be booked via this website.
*Note, there has been a big lawsuit going on about the names of several of the lodging locations so we will include both names.
Curry Village (Half Dome Village)
This is a nice option if you aren’t quite ready to lug out all of your camping supplies, but still want to rough it a little. It has a variety of canvas tents and cabins available for rent. Curry Village also offers dining options and activities for families, and the village is located on the shuttle line so you can easily hop on to shuttle and not fight with traffic and parking.
Proper food storage is required in the canvas tents to protect wildlife. Plus, the bear boxes help to keep other smaller critters like mice out, too, which can get into food. You can book through this website.
Yosemite Valley Lodge
The lodge is a step up from Curry Village in terms of amenities, and it is centrally located in the valley. This lodge is family-friendly, offering bunk beds and family rooms that are a bit more comfortable and suited to keeping your family comfy after a long day of hiking than traditional hotel rooms. We found the rooms clean and comfy. The lodge is located in a complex with multiple dining options and a Starbucks if that’s your jam. It was a bit busy for us.
The Ahwahnee (The Majestic)
This is the boujee, luxury hotel in the heart of the Yosemite Valley. The location can’t be beaten for access to everything the valley has to offer. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. The property is beautiful to walk around.
We didn’t think the price tag was worth it when we spent so much time outside in the park though. We’ve even stayed in their cabins too, but just don’t feel the cost is worth it. However, we DO recommend walking through the hotel and seeing the architecture and sitting by their massive fireplaces to warm up after a long day of hiking.
Photo caption: Warming up by the fire at The Ahwahnee.
There are a variety of shuttles that run throughout Yosemite National Park that can make travel around the park easier and less stressful. The two main shuttles we always use are the Yosemite Valley Shuttle, which runs all year around eastern Yosemite Valley, and the Tuolumne Meadows Shuttle, which runs between Tioga Pass and Olmstead Point in the summer. They are FREE and we HIGHLY recommend taking the shuttles because parking can be really challenging, especially in the summer. Plus, kids will like the big shuttle windows to take in all of the views versus the tiny windows in the back of the car. The whole family can easily hop on and off at all of the major sites and hikes. For all the details, visit the website.
Food and Supplies
If you are in need of refreshment, there are plenty of dining options throughout the park. We prefer to bring our own food and snacks when we travel since we’ve found the food in the park to be mediocre and expensive. However, if you need to pick up something, the Village Store in the valley is filled with grab-and-go snacks and a decent grocery selection that is pretty impressive for being in the middle of the wilderness in a National Park.
The one meal we do enjoy in the park is brunch at The Ahwahnee. While The Ahwahnee Dining Room has dress requirements for dinner, breakfast and brunch are casual. The dining room is beautiful, and they have lots of neat homemade goodies like banana bread.
The staff is very friendly and made us feel welcome even with a small child. They brought napkins to help make our daughter more comfortable in her high chair and even offered her complimentary fruit while we waited on our food. We would highly recommend getting reservations since brunch is popular.
When to go
Yosemite is open all year, and each season offers a unique opportunity to soak in all of the wonders of the park. Spring is a great time to see the waterfalls with the snowmelt, summer is a wonderful time to experience the high sierras in Tuolumne Meadows, fall brings crisp air and smaller crowds, and winter offers great opportunities for snowshoeing, ice skating, and maybe even a chance to see the famed Firefall.
If you decide to visit in the summer, just accept that there are going to be crowds in the valley. The best way to avoid two- to three-hour delays to get into the park, is to go early, ideally entering the park before 8:30 am and avoiding weekends if you can. If you can’t swing an early arrival, plan your restroom stops accordingly with kids because there could be a substantial wait.
Photo caption: Winter draws fewer crows and the park turns into a magical winter wonderland. If you decide to visit the park during the winter, keep in mind wintery conditions in the park (and roads leading into the park) may require tire chains.
What to pack
One key factor to consider when planning a trip to Yosemite is the diversity of elevation between the areas of the park. The park ranges from just over 2,000 to over 13,000. For reference, the three areas we recommend visiting have the following elevations: Yosemite Valley sits at 4,000, Glacier Point at 7214 feet, and Tuolumne Meadows is 8619 feet. This stark contrast can mean significant changes in weather and temperatures. Plus, you’ll find the air quite a bit thinner in places like Tuolumne Meadows, especially if you are accustomed to living at sea level.
If you aren’t used to these types of elevation, it can mean feeling winded on hikes and the possibility of altitude sickness. Keep in mind kids are more susceptible to altitude sickness, and may not be able to recognize their own symptoms. Staying hydrated, opting to spend the first part of your trip in the lower elevation portions of the park first to acclimate, and carefully monitoring your children is key if they are not used to being at elevation.
While the elevation changes might leave you winded on hikes, it will definitely mean you need to dress in layers. Temperatures can vary as much as 60 degrees between areas of the park. If you spend the morning in Tuolumne meadows you might need a beanie and jacket for the chill, but then you will shed layers as you travel down into the valley. By the afternoon Yosemite Valley can get down-right HOT in the summer! We love this clickable weather map for the various areas of the park. In addition to layers, packing a rain jacket or poncho is a good idea since thunderstorms can pop-up quickly.
Yosemite National Park is truly a bucket list trip that your family won’t soon forget. Remember to take it slow and don’t overbook your time. Just being in the park and soaking in the scenery is what it’s all about. Happy trails!