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If there was a contest to identify the most beautiful natural place in the world, I would vote for Yosemite every single time. I dare anyone to stand in one of Yosemite Valley’s green meadows with wildflowers all around, gaze at towering cliffs 4,000 feet high with waterfalls pounding down, and tell me they know of a more beautiful spot! And if that wasn’t enough, there are also so many things to do in Yosemite with kids!
As a matter of fact, there are hundreds of things to do in each of the changing seasons. Some are better for families than others, and it is hard for a first-time visitor to know where to begin. That’s where we come in. Here are our picks for the best things to do in Yosemite for families.
The Best Things to do in Yosemite with Kids
10. Walk the Meadows at Dusk
Half Dome is the iconic peak of Yosemite, featured on its logo and showing up in photographs ever since the days Ansel Adams captured its stunning face to show the world. When the sun sets over the valley, the glow of the last rays linger on the granite face and shine like a moon down on the meadows and river below.
This is alpenglow, the glory of Yosemite and a photographer’s dream to capture. While the meadows descend into cool dusk, deer and coyote emerge from the trees to feed on the grasses. If you are lucky, like we were one evening in August, search for the evening primrose who opens from bud to blossom in less than 3 minutes. Thanks to a passing ranger we knew to look for it and then waited for the sphinx moth to come and pollinate it within the next 5 minutes. Amazing!
There are trails that meander through the valley, and the bridges crossing the Merced River are especially lovely places to admire the view. However, if your feet are tired from a long day of exploring, the patio of the grand Ahwahnee Hotel is a great place to relax and enjoy the scenery. I once saw a bobcat cross the meadow here.
Important note: Don’t get too close to any wild animals in Yosemite. Many have been injured. Admire and photograph from afar. Pay attention to matted down grasses in the meadow to see where bear have lumbered by.
9. Discover Living History
You shouldn’t visit Yosemite without learning a bit about its past. Explore the history of the Native Americans and the first European settlers in the valley at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. While you are at the visitor center be sure to Junior Ranger booklet so your children can earn that coveted Yosemite Junior Ranger badge.
The trail behind the center is a favorite for kids. Walk the path to see replicas of the living quarters, food production, and spiritual houses of the Miwok and Paiute people. There is a fascinating cemetery to explore just steps away from the visitor center. Be sure to look for the young sequoia trees, planted for a founding father.
In the Wawona area, find the Pioneer Yosemite History Center to watch a blacksmith at work or take a horse-drawn stagecoach ride. Exploring the big grey barn, covered bridge, and rushing creek below are favorite things to do in Yosemite.
8. Gaze at majestic views from Glacier Point
High above the valley floor on the edge of a cliff is Glacier Point. From protected ledges, families can gaze down on the valley below to see the U-shaped curve covered in trees carved out by a glacier during the ice age. It’s a thrilling view!
At least 4 large waterfalls are visible from Glacier Point as well as the curving Merced River, Half Dome, El Capitan, North Dome, and other notable Sierra Nevada peaks. If the parking lot and trails in are crowded with summer tourists, check out less traveled spots.
Trekaroo Tip: Two notable and famous hikes descend to the valley floor from Glacier Point. One is called the 4-mile trail – a 4,000-foot descent along steep switchbacks. A killer on the knees, but a photo op at every corner. A longer and more strenuous hike on the Panorama Trail goes over Illilouette Falls to the top of Nevada Falls, then Vernal Falls, and down. These 8.5 miles will take you all day but you will remember it for a lifetime.
7. Ride bikes along the valley trails and stop for ice cream
Pedal your way from waterfall to waterfall along the flat and safe bike paths of Yosemite Valley. Families have discovered that riding bikes is actually one of the easiest ways to travel the valley. And unless you are driving a convertible, there is no better way to gaze up at the towering cliffs.
Bike ride highlights include peddling past Lower Yosemite Falls, watching rock climbing experts scale El Capitan, and biking out to Happy Isles to take the quick and easy 3/4 mile hike to explore a pair of small islands in the Merced River.
Bring your own bikes, helmets, and bike locks, or rent them for the day at one of the many locations in the valley such as Yosemite Valley Lodge and Half Dome Village. There is no better way to enjoy a bike ride than to top it off with some delicious ice cream. Some of our best memories were spent licking sweet ice cream with the roar of Yosemite Falls in the distance. Great ice cream can be found at Yosemite Valley Lodge.
Parents love 12 miles of developed trails with less than 50 feet in elevation change. These paved trails are separate from the road, making it a relatively safe way to travel as a family.
6. Explore Tuolumne Meadows
Green grassy meadows sway gently in the breeze while sparkling creeks play over mossy river rocks in this alpine meadow high in Yosemite. Playing on the sandy banks of the Tuolumne River is a favorite activity for families. There are many gentle hikes that start from this location leading to granite polished domes, old mining communities, and along alpine rivers. One of the best things to do in Yosemite is to take a picnic and enjoy the majestic views of the towering peaks of the high country. Tenaya Lake, with its icy cold and deep blue waters, is a favorite spot to enjoy for a picnic or a kayak ride. Visit the nature center, participate in junior ranger activities, and camp in Tuolumne Meadows. Make a reservation or stay at one of the many first-come-first-served spots.
5. Ice skate under the cliffs of Glacier Point
Winter brings a beauty to Yosemite with frozen waterfalls, ice-crusted meadows, and a mist that makes everything quiet and still. An outdoor ice skating rink sits right underneath the 4,000-foot cliff of Glacier Point. Strap on your skates and don’t hold your breath as you glide around the rink. Half Dome will be smiling down at you as you weave and wobble, watching your kids learn to ice skate with confidence. This is ice skating at it’s best. This rink is the reason we wrote our article, The Best Outdoor Ice Skating Rinks for Families and is one of the best things to do in Yosemite.
On a good snow year, enjoy downhill skiing at Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area (on the road to Glacier Point). For a magical experience that can be seen in only a few places in the world, check the weather and come to see frazil ice in the creek below Yosemite Falls. A mix of a high water flow over the falls and overnight lows in the valley below freezing are the ingredients to create the slushy-like lava flow of needle-shaped ice crystals created from water freezing as it falls through the air. It seems that the best time to observe frazil ice is before 9 am, although it is difficult to predict.
Watch this to see the unique flow of frazil ice in Yosemite: Yosemite Nature Notes 9: Frazil Ice
4. Stand under giant sequoias
The largest trees in the world can be found in Yosemite. A sequoia is so huge that it would take up to 20 people to make a circle around the base. The best location for families to visit these giants is the Mariposa Grove near the south entrance of the parks. A parking lot and paved trails wind through the red-barked trees. Two other groves located near Crane Flat are the Tuolumne and Merced Groves. Visitors must hike 2 – 3 miles to reach the sequoias, but the reward is an uncrowded view of these majestic trees.
Please note: the Mariposa Grove and the road to access it are closed for renovations until early June 2018. Check websites for notification of reopening.
3. Hang a hammock, relax in camp, and roast marshmallows
Camping in Yosemite Valley is an incredibly popular activity and reservations can be difficult to get. The reward for securing a campsite in the valley is the incredible views and the walking distance access to waterfalls, trails, bike riding, Jr. Ranger activities, ice cream and pizza, and much more. There are also several first come, first served campsites in the mountains above Yosemite Valley. Bridalveil Creek Campground on the south side of Yosemite is in close driving distance to Glacier Point, ranger talks, and hiking trails to Sentinel Dome and Taft Point. Wolf Creek Campground on the north side of Yosemite is in driving distance of Tuolumne Meadows, Olmstead Point, and other great hiking trails such as the popular trail to North Dome overlooking Yosemite Valley. Reservations can be made for campsites in Tuolumne Meadows and Wawona.
Looking for tips on reservations? Let this help you: How to Score a Campground at Popular National Parks
2. Gaze at a waterfall
The waterfalls of Yosemite are epic. I’m talking about 3-4000 foot drops straight down with beautiful feathery sprays of water that catch the sun to make rainbows, and even catch moonbeams to make moon rainbows! The two best waterfalls to visit with kids are Bridalveil Fall and Yosemite Falls. On your drive into Yosemite Valley, make your first stop at Bridalveil Fall. A paved and short 1/4 mile walk takes you to the base of the falls.
Yosemite Falls is the most iconic and dramatic in the valley, tumbling over 2,000 feet to the valley floor. The ½ mile trail to the base of the falls has been widened and improved in the past 5 years to accommodate the millions of visitors that enjoy this fantastic view each year. Let kids stop to explore some fun granite boulders to climb. This waterfall shows off its personality throughout the seasons with a pounding, water-drenching fall in the spring, drying up to a trickle in the late summer, and then creating a snow cone at the base in the winter. Take the trail past the bridge and return to the parking lot via the newly constructed path. There are multiple wooden bridge crossings over the creek that is fed by the falls. This is the place to see frazil ice in the winter!
1. Take a hike
Hiking in Yosemite is the best way to see the majestic views. There is a wide range of hiking trails with levels ranging from easy to very difficult. One of the most popular from Yosemite Valley is the 1-mile uphill hike to the top of Vernal Falls. This trail is one of the steepest, but the views are worth every leg cramp and ragged breath. The footbridge is the first destination at less than a mile and offers incredible views. Brave the steep and wet steps to the top of the dramatic falls, but never ever let people play in the water or near the slippery rocks at the top. The hike to the top of Yosemite Falls is equally dramatic and steep with incredible views and winding switchbacks along the 1 mile trip to the top.
The backcountry of Yosemite is a vast wilderness crisscrossed with trails along alpine lakes, streams, and granite peaks. Taking a backpacking trip in this area of Yosemite is a dream come true for many hardy adventurers who love to get out into nature. Taking kids into this area takes much careful planning and preparation but can be the trip of a lifetime. For more tips on Yosemite, check out Yosemite National Park for First Timers.
Very memorable: Climbing to the top of Half Dome is one of the most difficult, dangerous, and thrilling hikes in Yosemite, with over 4,800 feet in elevation change. Due to the popularity of this 14-16 mile round trip hike, and due to the danger of the narrow trail guarded by chains leading to the top of the dome, there is a lottery system to gain a permit to access the chains. Without it, you cannot climb to the top. Make reservations and find more information on the NPS website.
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