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Exploring Yosemite National Park with Kids

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What to do with kids in Yosemite National Park

How to spend 5 nights 4 days in the valley 

Yosemite National Park with kids and teenagers makes for one epic outdoor adventure. Waterfalls, mountains, fresh air, wildlife, and 800 miles of hiking trails will help you get back to nature. There are so many things to do with kids throughout the expansive Yosemite: hiking, biking, climbing, horseback riding, rafting, swimming, and more.

When we took our four kids ages 8 through 15, we based ourselves in Yosemite Valley for five nights and days. We camped at the historic Camp 4, and immersed ourselves in the parks waterfalls: Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, and we hiked the Mist Trail to see Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall.

We also loved the easy hike to Mirror Lake, learning about the famous camp fire talk between John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt at the Visitor Center, watching climbers on El Capitan and Half Dome (bring your binoculars), and so much more.

Yosemite Valley Visitor Center

For first-time visitors to Yosemite, the Visitor Center is a must to get your bearings and learn the human history of one of the very first national parks. Watch the film Spirit of Yosemite, grab your Junior Ranger booklets so your kids can earn their badges, ask Rangers any questions you have about exploring the park, and then get out there.

Now, here’s how we suggest seeing Yosemite with kids and teens…


Camping and lodging in Yosemite Valley

5 nights in Camp 4

Surprising to me, many people I've talked to don't care for the busyness of Yosemite. It is one of THE most popular national parks. Summer weekends remind some of similar crowds down the road in Disneyland. But there’s a trick: show up on Sunday evening and leave Friday morning to miss the super busy weekends. And if you can, camp or lodge in the park so you can walk or bike (bring them if you can!) to see things in the park.

To camp in the Valley, away from the crowds, is a completely different story. 

Early mornings, evening campfires, and the sound of rushing waterfalls.  Muir said it best: 

"Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God." - John Muir

Where to stay

Camp inside Yosemite National Park park for several nights, and your family can easily take off on different day hikes to Yosemite's divine waterfalls. If you’re not into camping, stay at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, or splurge at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel. There are also many lodges or campgrounds to stay in outside the park.

Related post:  How to score a walk-in campsite at Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley.


Hike to Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls

Easily accessible, reaching the base of Yosemite Upper and Lower Falls is an easy short loop walk.  We walked over from our campsite at nearby Camp 4.  

For a more strenuous hike, take the 3 1/2 mile Yosemite Fall Trail rising 2,700 feet above the falls (trailhead off Camp 4, north of Northside Drive).  I mention the other hikes our family took further down in this post.

Above is a view of both the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls.  Below shows the Lower Falls exploding into Yosemite Creek, which leads to the nearby Merced River.


The waterfalls throughout the Valley were in full force when we visited in June 2017, thanks to heavy snowfall and rains in winter and spring.  In fact, there were new waterfalls in the Valley this summer, pointed out to us by visitors who had come there every year the past 30 years!

Good to know:  Upon entry to the park, ask for the hiking map as well.  Learn your park map, including shuttle stops.  Park shuttles also make many valley floor trailheads easy to reach, allowing you to leave your car parked in one place during your stay if you like.  Ask rangers questions; they are happy to help!


Snap pictures of Half Dome 

We couldn't get enough of her.  We snatched photos of her from every angle, every day we were in the Valley, we could hardly resist.

When the kids are all teenagers, we plan to hike the John Muir trail to Half Dome, then scale Half Dome from the backside as a family (tricky climb, permits required) to snatch an elevated view of the Valley.  

Hike the Mist Trail with kids

This hike is every bit worth the shirt-yanking, hand-grabbing, yelling-at-your-kids-to-stay-close view of the 317 foot Vernal Fall.  This moderately challenging, dynamite 3-4 mile hike (depending on your return route) is one for the books!

You can also catch fantastic views of Nevada Fall, even if you decide not to hike all the way further up to her top.  Crashing down 597 feet, she's a beaut. 

Be smart.  Your children must obey your verbal directions.  Make sure you are all up for the challenge of hiking slick, steep, mist-covered stairs.  You will get soaked.

The Mist Trail hike ranks as one of the most unforgettable adventures with our kids!  

Related post:  Hike the jaw-dropping Mist Trail with kids in Yosemite Valley


Picnic lunch at Mirror Lake

An easy one mile jaunt along a paved service road leads you to Mirror Lake where there is a loop hiking trail around the lake, adding another hour or two to your adventure. 

Half Dome's reflection in Mirror Lake will snare you and your camera for quite a while.  Perch on a boulder with your picnic lunch and enjoy the view.

As summer lengthens, the lake dries up and becomes dubbed Mirror Meadow.  

Riding the park shuttle?  Jump off at stop #17 to take this easy-going, gorgeous hike.


Breakfast buffet at the Ahwahnee

The Ahwahnee, known for its elegance and history, is an architectural wonder worth a visit no matter where you lay your head in the park.  

Following our day on the Mist Trail, we first set foot at the hotel in desperate search of ice cream treats.  We devoured those frozen gems on the lawn in front of the Majestic and met a family who'd been coming to the Valley for 30 summers running.

Peaking inside, we soon understood its place as a National Historic Landmark.  Queens and presidents have stayed at the Majestic, a luxurious hotel full of history, hospitality and grace.

Breakfast buffet the morning we parted was a must and a scrumptious birthday treat. Even if you're not staying there, consider a dining splurge in the Majestic Hotel Restaurant (reservations recommended) or play cards in the Great Lounge.

Don’t miss Bridalveil Falls

Bridalveil is typically the first waterfall you'll see when you enter Yosemite Valley. But we had entered the park at day break, so we were still hoping for a good view.

It was a mysteriously foggy, cold day stuck in a week of sunshine that we had slated for checking out Bridalveil Falls.  Having just tackled the Mist Trail the day before, pure laziness and exhaustion meant all we could eek out was a drive and a peek trhough the fog from the side of the road.

Bridalveil Falls flows all summer long, but expect to get soaked in spring and early summer when you hike to her base.  While the trail is open all year, expect a very slick, icy walk in winter.  It's only a quarter mile walk up to see her in all her glory.

Watch climbers take on El Capitan

Rising more than 350 stories tall above the valley floor, El Capitan is the largest exposed granite monolith on face of the planet.  People have been climbing its face and more specifically, its "nose," for nearly 60 years.

Best way to see El Capitan? Inspiration Point by foot and Tunnel View or from El Capitan Meadow by car.  Bring your binoculars for spying serous rock climbers.

This photo and the one above of El Capitan are both used by permission, courtesy of .

This photo and the one above of El Capitan are both used by permission, courtesy of

Drive up to Glacier Point 

Hike, or I say drive 3,200 feet up to this show-stopping view of Yosemite Valley.  

Can you believe we missed our chance to see the Valley from Glacier Point? The road was closed due to an overnight snow.  In the middle of June.  Go figure.

It's alright; we plan to be back in Yosemite one day soon.

Have you been to Yosemite?  So much to see in this wonder-filled national park! We're dying to go back to experience more in this massive park, like Tuolumne Meadows, Sentinel Dome, Mariposa Grove, the list goes on!

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