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The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Yosemite with Kids

A family trip to Yosemite National Park is the quintessential American summer holiday. Exploring Yosemite with kids while camping (or glamping as it is for us!), splashing through rivers, and spying out some of the best natural scenes in the US is one of the best trips you can do with your family.

If you are planning a visit to California’s most iconic park, we have laid out all you need to know in order to have the best trip ever in Yosemite with kids. Below are our top picks for things to do in Yosemite National Park with kids as well as options on where to stay and eat. Trust me, seeing this national treasure through your little one’s eyes is a truly magical experience that you will not want to miss.

11 Magical Things To Do In Yosemite with Kids

11 magical things to do in Yosemite with kidsThere is so much to do in Yosemite Valley and the greater Yosemite park that you would need more than a week to really explore the different areas. We spent 4 days in Yosemite Valley and were able to just about see all the major attractions, but had many more items on our to do list. We didn’t even venture out to the other areas of Yosemite, which we hear is also breathtaking. Without further ado, here are 11 magical things to do in Yosemite with kids. Note, they are also magical without kids too!

#1 See Beautiful Waterfalls

While Yosemite is most known for Half Dome and El Capitan, the park is filled with beautiful waterfalls that are worth exploring during your visit. Even during the height of the California drought the waterfalls all continued to have a decent amount of water flowing, so I can only imagine how spectacular they are with more rain and snow melt flowing down.

Bridalveil Falls (.5 mile round trip)

If you plan to visit this waterfall, I highly recommend doing it on your way INTO the park as you arrive. It is on the way to Curry Village/Yosemite Village from the south entrance and is a quick stop off. The hike is short and easy up to the base of the falls.  Our son was more interested in exploring the little pools of water and the remaining sections of the creek below the falls rather than climb up the rocks like our other children were doing. There are a multitude of places to wander around near here and begin exploring Yosemite. Note: This is not on the shuttle bus route, so you must drive here.

Lower Yosemite Falls (1 mile round trip)

One of the easiest walks in the park is here at Lower Yosemite Falls. The paved path offers a flat walk from the shuttle stop. For the adventurous, climb up the rocks to get a closer view of the falls and a glistening pool of water at the top. While walking to the Lower Falls you will get a glimpse of the Upper Falls, however note that you cannot see the Upper Falls from the end of the trail. 

Depending on how much you have already done or are planning for the day, you can continue hiking to the top of Lower Falls which is 2 miles in/out.

Mist Trail to Vernal Falls (~3 miles +)

Exploring Yosemite with Kids

The Mist Trail to Vernal Falls is not a hike most small kids can do, but our determined toddler managed it just fine! The trailhead starts near the Happy Isles Nature Center and begins with a steady 1 mile uphill climb to a wooden bridge where you can see Vernal Falls in the distance.

The next stage continues uphill, culminating in stairs (that get very wet and slippery the higher you go) cut into the path. It is a 3 mile hike there and back. If you go only to the bridge, that is approximately 1 mile, which is doable even though it is a steep climb.

Expect to take many breaks if you are walking with a child.  The Mist Trail is a beautiful hike with great views throughout. It is only partially shaded, so it can get hot in the middle of the day. Bring snacks and lots of water.

For families with bigger kids, you can continue on further on the trail which will end up around 7 miles. It is wet and steep, so make sure you prepare for that.

#2 Go Hiking on the Valley Trails

Exploring Yosemite with Kids

There are so many hikes to do in Yosemite that you will never be able to fit them all in on one trip. Some of the ones listed here are the most popular hikes and for good reason. They are easy, short and most kids (and adults!) can do them. But there are also a multitude of hikes that are not listed on the maps and do not lead to anything in particular.

Don’t be scared to get off the beaten path a bit and wonder around on smaller trails. This is where you will likely see some wild animals.

Sentinel Meadow Loop & Cook’s Meadow (2.25 miles)

The Sentinel Meadow Loop and Cook’s Meadow hike offers great views of Half Dome reflected in the Merced River. From this hike, you will get great views of Half Dome reflected in the Merced River. The approximately 2.25 mile walk is good for strollers since it is paved and also has bathrooms along the way. The trail is beautiful and perfect for kids of all ages.

Exploring Yosemite with Kids

Mirror Lake (2.4 miles)

Mirror Lake is one of our favorite walks in Yosemite.  The views of the water reflecting the surrounding area are just beautiful. This is also the closest you can get to Half Dome without actually hiking it. You might be lucky enough to see some hikers on the dome.  For our son, this felt the most like a “real” hike in that it is a rocky path rather than a paved path like we experienced on most other trails in the park. 

Tenaya Lake (2.5 miles)

Tenaya Lake is a beautiful place to go for a day of exploration. Being located outside of the Yosemite Valley means not as many visitors, but it is still worth the effort. This 2.5 mile loop around the lake offers beautiful views and sandy shores for a little play time. This trail is not paved, but is easily accessible for even small children.

Taft Point Hike (~2.2 Miles)

This is a very popular spot for hikers and for photographers (aka Instagrammers!). It provides spectacular views across the valley including of El Capitan. (Have you seen Free Solo? If not, go watch it. WOW!). You might have seen photos of Taft Point in the news because this is where many visitors press their luck by getting too close to the edge. However, it actually is a safe hike for families as long as you use common sense and keep kiddos (and yourself) from the edges.

#3 Visit Iconic Overlooks

Glacier Point

Glacier Point Overlook offers one of the most iconic views over the park. This is where our top photo was taken as well as the one above with my son. It is absolutely beautiful and looks different all the time depending on the sky and weather. You can hike up about 4 miles from the Valley to this viewpoint if you want to spend more time here. Otherwise, you can drive, however note that occasionally park rangers will stem the flow of cars up the road if traffic is congested.

Once you are here, you can easily spend an hour or more cruising around the area exploring different angles. The shuttle does not go here, so if is best to go early or later in the day as parking can be difficult. It takes quite a while to get here up winding roads, so we recommend doing it on your way in/out of the park. This is not on the shuttle bus route, so you must drive your car here.

Tunnel View

Tunnel View is one of the first views of the Yosemite Valley that most people see as they enter the park. The family photo at the top of this post is from this viewpoint. It is easy to access, however even with the large parking lot, during busy seasons you might have to circle the lot a few times to get a parking spot. No worries though as most people don’t spend too long here. It is worth a quick stop on your way in and your way out to see it in all it’s photographic glory.

#4 See the Big Trees at Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

If you are exiting the park through this gate, do not miss the Mariposa Grove hike. It is a bit hot in sections, but overall this is a great child friendly hike. We saw large sequoias, walked through a tree and ran around through shady groves of trees.  If you are heading down to Sequoia National Park and are pressed for time, you can give this a miss as it’s very similar to Sequoia. However if you are not heading down to Sequoia, don’t miss this area of the park! 

#5 Ride Bikes in Yosemite Valley

Exploring Yosemite with KidsOne of the best days out in Yosemite is hopping on 2 wheels and hitting the pavement (or wooden paths!).  It might seem daunting to think about riding 12 miles of bike trails throughout the valley with a toddler or small child in tow, but it is mostly flat and easy riding.

Pulling a kid (or two) behind you in a trailer makes the ride a little more difficult, but does not take away the fun and freedom you have of exploring off the roads and away from the crowds a bit more.

Bike rentals are not cheap, but it is worth it. A bike rental will cost around $30 per day. A bike with a child trailer is $60 per day. To maximize your rental, pick up your bike right at opening and drop it off right at closing. Better yet, bring your own bikes!

Explore Yosemite with kids on the 12 miles of bike trailsOn one of our bike rides through a forested area we saw a bobcat run right in front of our bicycle. It was exhilarating to see one up close and in its own habitat. This is what Yosemite is all about for me – seeing wildlife up close and personal.

Hint: This is not totally advisable, but our friends found out the hard way that you can make an even longer day of it by ‘missing’ the closing time drop off. If you return the bikes right away the next morning you most likely won’t get charged extra. However.. I don’t really recommend it since it is pitch black out after 8:30 so you will have difficulty seeing your way back to camp. Luckily our friends happened to have their headlamps with them to guide them home safely.

#6 Visit the Happy Isles Nature Center

Exploring Yosemite with kidsThe Happy Isles Nature Center is a great place to visit in Yosemite for people with younger kids. The small nature center is fun to explore before a ranger guided walk or to cool down later in the day. Littles will particularly love the poop exhibit.

There is also a short trail that goes over a couple wooden bridges as it zigzags over the Merced River, called the Happy Isles Trail. This is perfect for kids who are not used to long or strenuous hikes.

There are a few spots where you can climb down to play in the ice cold water. However, be extremely careful of high rapids and fast moving water. This section of the river was the fullest of any of the rivers during our visit during the height of California’s drought. It could pull a little one along easily.

Exploring Yosemite with KidsI recommend spending a morning in this area if you have time. Without a bike, it is a 1 mile walk from Curry Village under a heavy canopy of trees, making it an easy breezy walk. Alternatively, there is a shuttle bus which drops off here. My recommendation is to ride your bike, take the park ranger guided walk and then find a spot near the water for lunch before venturing off elsewhere.

It’s nicely shaded in this area so even on a hot day you will find relief.  The park ranger guided walk is at 10:30 a.m. (check here for current times). We didn’t walk far, so this walk can easily be handled by most people. Even with little walking, we learned quite a bit – we chewed on a pine ‘leaf that tastes like lemon, we learned how to call a bird, found raspberry and gooseberries along the paths and saw bear scratchings on trees. It is free and geared for the whole family.

#7 Go Swimming

During the height of summer in Yosemite temperatures can soar up into the 100s. During our visit, we had several days of high 90s and 100s. Overall though the park is quite shaded so you can easily avoid the blazing sun. That said, when it’s hot, there is nowhere better to be than in the water! Luckily Yosemite has various spots to enjoy cooling down.

Sentinel Beach

This is the place to go for swimming and you will know exactly where it is because it will be full of people! Go in the late afternoon or middle of the day to avoid some crowds. Check your Yosemite map for directions on how to reach the beach.

Pool at Curry Village

The pool at Curry Village may only be available to people staying at the cabins and tent cabins, but if you are, it is a great clean pool to let the kids splash around in and cool down. For guests of Curry Village, show your room key for free admittance.

Merced & Other Rivers

You will see people playing in the rivers all along the park. One of our favorite places to play and explore was the area just across from Curry Village. Follow the wooden path through the meadow and walk through the campground to the river. It is slow moving and relatively shallow water to splash around in at the end of a day.

Mirror Lake

After a long bike ride and hike up to Mirror lake, we were not quite rewarded with the fantastic swimming hole we had hoped, but that is all dependent on the years rain. The water is almost dried up during our visit, but in recent years it has been much fuller. Even though we didn’t think there was enough water to swim, there were plenty of families enjoying the small pools of water. Our kids enjoyed running around in what used to be a lake spotting small water snakes swimming in the small pools. The water was nice and cold to our hot and tired feet.  It is an easy trail for most kids, but it is not stroller friendly as it’s rocky along the way.

#8 Take a Valley Floor Tour

There are several paid tours and excursions available in Yosemite. We have heard that the stargazing program is great, but it was a bit late for our young children. This would be amazing for older children though.

The only program we paid for was the Yosemite Valley Floor Tour. We did this on the morning of our first full day. It was quite informative for the adults and gave us a good overview of the valley. That said, the young kids were hot and a bit bored. I would recommend it for kids 6 and up.  Bring hats, water and plenty of snacks.

If you have a very limited amount of time and you want to get a good overview and lay of the land, then I would recommend you to do the tour. However, if you have more time at the park, my recommendation is to rent bikes and explore on your own for an even better experience and overview of the park.

#9 Earn Your Junior Park Ranger Badge

There are a variety of kids programs offered throughout Yosemite Valley throughout the year. In the shoulder season there is a night prowl walk that sounds so amazing for kids to explore the animals who come out after dark. Unfortunately this wasn’t offered during our stay. Regardless of what is available during your visit, the one thing you MUST do is earn your junior ranger park badge

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Curry Village Bear & Jr Park Ranger

For our son, the Junior Park Ranger Program was a super hit. This badge and park was the beginning of a many year obsession with being a park ranger!

There are two options for earning your badge – a free version and a paid version. Both will enable your child to earn a cool wooden Yosemite Junior Ranger badge.  The paid version is a booklet filled with fun activities and exercises for your child to do before earning their badge. Through this option, your child will also receive a button (for younger kids) or a patch. However, if you are pressed for time/money you can complete the free page in the Yosemite newsletter.

#10 See a Show

During the summer season, there are often great family friendly shows held at the Curry Village Amphitheater. During our visit we saw Ranger Ned’s Big Adventure. It was a big hit with all of the kids. It’s pretty silly in parts, but it educates kids (big and small) on the history of the park through a fun comedy sketch.  Definitely check it out if it’s still showing. The National Park website for Yosemite has up to date calendar information for all interpretive programs available each year. 

#11 Go on a Family Scavenger Hunt

One of the best reasons for a summer visit to Yosemite with kids is the abundance of family friendly programming at the park. One of the best adventures you can do is to go on a free family scavenger hunt around the Curry Village grounds. Check out the calendar for details on when it will run. During our visit, the program started at 2 pm which was sometimes difficult to make our way back to camp in the middle of the day. 

What to Bring to Yosemite with Kids

Exploring Yosemite with kidsThis depends on where you stay. If you are car camping, then you will need to bring a lot more than if you are staying in the lodge or even one of the hotels.  Check out our camping list for ideas on what you should bring.

If you stay in Curry Village like us, you will need to bring less than camping, but more than a traditional hotel stay. Staying in Curry Village (or camping) requires some advance planning, particularly for items that will need to go into your bear locker. Yosemite is very intent on keeping the bears away from human food and medicines so they insist that any and every item with a scent is kept in the bear locker. This includes sunscreen, lotion, toothpaste, shampoo, all foods, coolers, water bottles, and in some cases even your child’s car seat. Keep this in mind while packing and separate all of these things into their own bag for ease of packing up the bear locker every day. If you want to keep valuables in your bear locker, bring a lock from home to lock it.

Our general list of what you should bring:

  • Extra bedding in case of cooler weather
  • Lots of snacks and supplies to make packed lunches and simple breakfasts
  • Layers of clothes for all weather. During summer it is hot in the day and cool at night.
  • Bikes and/or scooters
  • Outdoor supplies such as binoculars, bird guides, animal track books, etc
  • Collapsible wagon to carry your bags to/from your tent

 For more ideas, download our Yosemite packing list.

Where to Stay in Yosemite with Kids

There are several places to stay throughout Yosemite Valley and the greater Yosemite National Park as well as outside the park. Wherever you stay, just make sure to stay within the park itself. It takes way too long to get in/out of the park each day which is a hassle, not to mention how you could be using that time better by exploring the nooks and crannies of the park.

Curry Village

If you want to recapture that feeling of adventure you got from sleepaway camp and share it with the whole family, we recommend Curry Village.  This is the middle ground between staying in a hotel or roughing it by pitching your own tent.  Even within Curry Village there are several options. We opted for the tent cabins.

For those of you scared of camping, the tent cabins at Curry are not that rustic – the only problem is walking to the bathrooms in the middle of the night. But that is also part of the adventure. I saw bats fly overhead on one of my midnight potty runs. 

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(photo by Jasmine Defoore)

Hotels Inside the Park

For those of you not quite into the camping or glamping experience, you do have the option to stay in a lodge at the Yosemite Valley Lodge. This is a nice hotel with all the amenities you will need.

For those of you wanting a little more luxury during your visit, check out the only 4 star hotel in the park, The Majestic Yosemite.

Camping Inside the Park

If you are on a tighter budget, there are also plenty of campgrounds where you can pitch your own tent, as well as Housekeeping Camp where your tent is pitched, but you do everything else just as you would on a regular camping trip. For more information on Yosemite Park lodging options check out their website.

Yosemite fills up quickly during the spring and summer months (March – November), so you will need to book early. We heard from many families in Curry Village that even with the 5 month advance reservation system, they were not able to book the tent campgrounds. The NPS corroborates this on their website saying that many of the car camping sites book up within minutes of opening. Check here for details on how to try to nab a spot.  Curry Village is competitive, but not quite as bad as that. We booked our tent cabins 4.5 months in advance.

Traveler Tip: Even if you go in the summer months, book a heated tent cabin. It might come with electricity including a power outlet to plug your phone into. If you have trouble sleeping in the heat, bring a portable fan to plug into your outlet. It is a little toasty in the tent cabins until around midnight when it cools down significantly.

Where to Eat in Yosemite with Kids

Depending on where you stay, you will have different choices on where to eat, but in general there are limited choices within the park itself. If you need something a bit nicer than what is available in the village, head over to one of the hotels. If you are staying in Curry Village, bring a cooler packed with goodies for breakfast and lunches so that your only meal out is dinner. This helps with cost and variety as well. Several days of eating in the same few places gets old quickly!

Half Dome Village Pizza Patio

In Half Dome Village, there is a small pizza bar where you can order pizza to be enjoyed while sitting outside. As options within the park are limited, be aware that lunch time crowds are heavy. Go early or plan to be there for a while! 

Degnan’s Kitchen

This small deli in Yosemite Valley offers sandwiches, salads and pizzas for eating here or take-away. It is open mainly for breakfast and lunch, but if you stop in before 6pm you can also grab an early dinner. 

The Loft at Degnan’s

Needing something a little different than burgers and sandwiches? Check out The Loft at Degnan’s which offers Mexican, Asian rice bowls and artisan pizzas. Something for everyone here. They are open for lunch and dinner only. 

Village Grill Deck

The Village Grill Deck is located in Yosemite Valley and is open only seasonally. They serve burgers, sandwiches, shakes on a beautiful deck. It’s not cheap, nor amazing quality food, but for the options provided, it’s a good place to go. Again, wait times can be long during high season and meal times. If you plan to visit with kiddos, go a little before lunch/dinner times. 

As a reminder, please do not feed the animals as cute as they are! They are getting bolder and less fearful of humans as each season passes.

The Majestic Yosemite Dining Room

This fine dining restaurant is part of the 4 star hotel in Yosemite Valley. It offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. Typically only guests of the hotel eat here, but it is nice to make a dinner reservation for something a little more upmarket!

Yosemite Valley Lodge Food Court

This quick, casual eatery offers plenty of choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As always, quality and prices aren’t quite what you might be used to outside of the park, but this is nature after all!

Other Essentials for Exploring Yosemite with Kids

Other Essentials for Exploring Yosemite with KidsFill Up With Gas Before Arrival

There are a couple of gas stations inside Yosemite, but it is more than $1 more per gallon than you will pay outside the park. Fill up before you get inside the park, even if you have half a tank. Driving distances can be far once you enter the park gates. No one wants to fill up inside the park if it can be helped!

Expect Spotty Wireless & Phone Service

Looking to stay connected with work or family back home while in Yosemite?Forget it! WiFi and cell service does exist, but very rarely works. There is one place in Curry Village (at the lodge, across from the dining area) that you can get internet access, but you need to go early in the morning or in middle of the day to get on. You have to be patient and wait for a ‘spot’ to open up in the network. But really just forget about it and enjoy the outdoors.

Phone service is spotty at best. If you are traveling with a group, you might consider bringing or investing in cheap walkie talkies. More than once we would pass people on the road holding their phones in the air yelling obscenities at AT&T! Hilarious, but also annoying when you are trying to meet up with your group. Make pre-arranged plans with one another rather than relying on phones.

If Traveling with A Group, Make Reservations Together

If you go with a group, make sure to let the reservations desk know when you book your cabins that you are traveling together and would like tent cabins near to one another. There is no guarantee, but they will try to group you close. We were about 6 tent cabins away from one of our party and another 6 from that one. It was fine, and this was as close as they could get us to one another. Another option would be to book all cabins under one reservation, so you can get them all together. This is very important, as the tent cabins are spread out over a large area.

Have you been to Yosemite? What are your favorite things to do?

Are you visiting other national parks in California? If so, check out our in depth guides for some of the other amazing parks in the state.

Near Yosemite National Park

Other Northern California Parks

Southern California National Parks

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Exploring Yosemite National Park with toddlers in tow. Everything you need to know on what to do, where to stay and what to bring.Exploring Yosemite National Park with kids is one of the best summer family trips you can do. We dish our secrets for amazing photography spots to the best hikes, lodging and all the top things to do in the park to make your trip the best. Find out why kids love the Nature center and more! #yosemite #california #familytravel #roadtrip

 

This Post Has 30 Comments
  1. WOW its so beautiful there! The photos are wonderful.

    you have to even put the child seat in the bear locker? didn’t even think of it but makes total sense.

    A bob cat? that must have been exciting, but we could imagine very exhilarating!!

    1. The bear locker aspect ended up being such fun for everyone! No one wanted a night time bear visit to the tent!

  2. You’re entire post sounds like exactly how my family would love to explore Yosemite. The Junior Park Ranger Program would be awesome! My husband visited there with his parents as a kid, and really wants to take our 2 children.

    1. Mariposa was so beautiful as well! We didn’t make it to Tioga Pass area so that’s our next adventure there!

  3. I love hiking, and I’m totally sure I’d love Yosemite. It’s on top of my US bucket list. When I finally come to the States, I’ll plug in as soon as possible.

  4. Great point about booking early! Important to remember, especially at national parks. And those cabins look so cozy and fun! I am definitely thinking about planning a trip now!

  5. Yosemite! One of those places that you´d love to see without the crowds right? Is there an off season? Your trip sounded great. we love glamping too!

    1. We were there in the middle of summer and to be honest it wasn’t that bad. For many of the trails we didn’t notice huge crowds. The only negative during high season was the line for restaurants. There isn’t a ton of options in the valley so lines get long. I would definitely go during the May to Sept time period. Lots of ranger activities and events which adds to the experience.

  6. On the day that you rented bikes, did you do hikes along the way? Or was the bike ride the activity for the day? We’re visiting in May with our toddler and really want to rent bikes but having a hard time knowing if you bike is the activity or just the mode of transportation. Thanks!

    1. We mostly rode bikes to areas and then would leave them to do a little hike. We left it on the trail near Mirror Lake and hiked out, then got back on later. I can’t remember at this point if we had locks, but I feel like we didn’t and it was fine.

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