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The Best Things to do in Yosemite National Park with Kids on a Family Vacation

The Best Things to do in Yosemite National Park with Kids on a Family Vacation

With its multitude of waterfalls, trails, wild animals, and incredibly scenic vistas, it is no surprise that there are so many things to do in Yosemite. It is a diverse park worth visiting in every season, and thankfully there are plenty of things to do in Yosemite with kids, so it is an ideal family vacation destination.

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!

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 National Park for families.

Things to do in Yosemite National Park with Kids

Know Before You Go- Entering Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley is one of the best things to do in Yosemite with kids

Yosemite is a wildly popular national park, receiving over three million visitors per year. Because of this, Yosemite National Park recently announced that will require reservations for select dates April through October, 2024 in order to decrease overcrowding in the park.

From April 13 through June 30, a reservation is required from 5am – 4pm on Saturdays, Sundays, as well as May

Regardless of when you visit the park you must pay the $35 entrance fee per car, which is good for seven days. The exception is if you have a Yosemite Annual Pass, America the Beautiful Pass, Interagency Senior Pass, or Interagency Access Pass. The fee is good for seven consecutive days of park admission.

Reservations are also required in February during “Firefall season” when Horsetail Fall can glow orange when it’s backlit by sunset, which can make it appear to be on fire. These dates are February 10 -11, 17 – 19, and 24 – 25 in 2024.

Trekaroo tip: If you book a reservation on YARTS, the public transportation service that busses people into Yosemite from various locales such as Mariposa, Midpines, and El Portal, you do not need a park reservation.

Staying at a hotel just outside of the park, like the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal or Autocamp in Midpines, and taking YARTS into the park from there is a great peak season hack around the park reservation system.

Yosemite made our list of the best national parks in California. See what other special places made the list.

When is the Best Time to Visit Yosemite?

Yosemite National Park is beautiful in the Autumn

Yosemite is a national park with four distinct seasons. If your priority is to hike and see waterfalls at peak flow, late spring and early summer are your best bet.

As one could imagine, this is an especially popular time to visit, so be sure to snag your reservations as soon as they are relased and start your days early to reduce your battles with crowds. I found that I did not need reservations on my recent midweek visit to the park in May, and crowds were very maneagable. I had no difficulties parking.

If you are not a fan of crowds and still want access to Glacier Point and Tioga Road, consider a visit in September or October. The weather is very nice for hiking this time of year, but many of the waterfalls are usually at a trickle by then, especially the showstopping Yosemite Falls.

Want to see Yosemite without throngs of people? It can be done! Check out our guide to Visiting Yosemite Without the Crowds.

Late fall and winter in Yosemite can be absolutely magical, but snow can temporarily close the main roads into the Yosemite Valley and chains are required. Glacier Point and Tioga Road are closed during this time of year.

The Best Things to do in Yosemite with Kids

Walk the Meadows at Dusk

Things to do in Yosemite include taking in the sunsets
Yosemite Alpenglow on Half Dome

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 three 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 five 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. 

If you manage to time it right, you can also see the legendary Yosemite firefall which typically takes place mid to late February. This happens when the setting sun lights up Horsetail Fall and makes it appear to be on fire as it falls over the steep, 1500-foot cliff.

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 bears have lumbered by. If you want to know what type of wildlife you might see, CaliforniaTravelLife has a wonderful guide to animals in Yosemite.

Yosemite made our list of the best national parks for kids. See what other parks made the list!

Discover Living History

Recreated Native American Dwelling in Yosemite Valley
Recreated Native American Dwelling in Yosemite Valley

You shouldn’t visit Yosemite without learning a bit about its past. Explore the history of the Native Americans and first European settlers in the valley in Yosemite Village. The new Yosemite Valley Welcome Center is now the primary visitor information station in Yosemite Valley where you will be able to pick up maps, talk to rangers, and learn about current conditions around the park.

While you are at the Welcome Center be sure to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet so your children can earn that coveted Yosemite Junior Ranger badge. This is also a great place to learn about current ranger programs.

Inside the New Yosemite Exploration Center
Inside the new Yosemite Exploration Center

The Yosemite Conservancy has recently opened the Yosemite Exploration Center inside of the old Visitor Center. There are several new hands-on exhibits that focus on the science and history of the park. There is also a theater behind the Exploration Center where you can watch the park film.

The trail behind the Welcome 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 Exploration Center. Be sure to look for the young sequoia trees, planted for a founding father.

Yosemite Covered Bridge
Yosemite Covered Bridge

In the Wawona area which is in the southern portion of the park, 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 with kids.

Gaze at Majestic Views from Glacier Point

things to do in Yosemite for families include visiting Glacier Point
View of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley 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 four 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.

There is great day hiking nearby. Take a one-mile moderate hike to Sentinel Dome or Taft Point to see equally breathtaking vistas. A trail connects Sentinel Dome with Glacier Point as well.

Two notable and famous hikes descend to the valley floor from Glacier Point. One is called the 4-mile trail. It is 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-mile hikes will take you all day but you will remember it for a lifetime.

Visiting the park with young kids? Check out these 7 easy hikes in Yosemite

Ride Bikes Along the Valley Trails & Make Time to Stop for Ice Cream

Riding Bikes in Yosemite Valley

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. If you are looking for ebikes that are great for travel, check out Buzz Electric Bikes. We love our foldable Centris ebikes that are perfect for throwing in the trunk on a road trip.

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.

Trekaroo Tip: Parents love the 12 miles of developed bike 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.

Explore Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne River looking toward Tuolumne Meadows
On the Trail Past Pothole Dome Looking Towards Tuolumne Meadows

Green grassy meadows sway gently in the breeze while sparkling creeks meander 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 and lead to granite polished domes and old mining communities or follow alpine rivers.

Our favorite begins on the left side of Tuolumne Meadows just below Pothole Dome (which you can climb for great views as well). It follows the left side of the meadow through the edge of a forest until it reaches the Tuolumne River.

There, you can scramble around on rocks near the water’s edge, watch the water tumble through a series of cascades, or cool off in a sheltered pool. It is pure, High Sierra heaven.

Another one of the best things to do in Yosemite for families 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.

Keep in mind that Tioga Road, the pass that takes you into this portion of the park, is only open in the summer and early fall. It typically opens in late May or early June, contingent on snowfall, and closes after the first significant snowfall of the fall season.

Explore more of the Golden State! Here are the best things to do in California with kids

Ice Skate Under the Cliffs of Glacier Point or Ski Inside the National Park

Snow blanketing the Yosemite Valley
Snow blanketing the Yosemite Valley

Winter brings a different sort of beauty to Yosemite. Frozen waterfalls, ice-crusted meadows, and a mist that makes everything quiet and still are in deep contrast to Yosemite’s summer skin.

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.

On a good snow year, enjoy downhill skiing at Badger Pass Ski & Snowboard Area (on the road to Glacier Point). Be sure to check conditions before heading out because the ski area is dependent California’s weather cooperating.

There is downshill skiing and snowboarding, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and even snow tubing available.

Frazil Ice in Yosemite
Photo via Flickr/Alex

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 9am, although it is difficult to predict.

Watch this to see the unique flow of frazil ice in Yosemite: Yosemite Nature Notes 9: Frazil Ice

Stand Under Giant Sequoias

Mariposa Grove sequoia tree
Mariposa Grove sequoia tree

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 easiest 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. These are great options for visitors coming in through Highway 120 or 140.

Visitors must hike 2-3 miles to reach these sequoia groves, but the reward is an uncrowded view of these majestic trees. Rest asssured, you will be in absolute awe of these incredible trees no matter which grove you choose.

For more tips on Yosemite, check out Yosemite National Park for First Timers

lar National Parks 

Gaze at a Waterfall

The Best Things to do in Yosemite National Park with Kids on a Family Vacation 2
Yosemite Falls

The waterfalls of Yosemite are epic. I’m talking about 3-4,000 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!

Bridalveil Fall
Bridalveil Fall from the trail approaching it

The two easiest 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. During a big spring melt, it is impossible to get close to the falls without getting soaked.

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 to accommodate the millions of visitors that enjoy this fantastic view each year. It is a very easy walk that is both stroller and wheelchair accessible.

Let kids stop to explore some fun granite boulders to climb near the base of the falls. 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 its base in the winter.

Take the trail past the bridge and return to the parking lot via the 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!

If you are up for a challenge, take the 7.2-mile hike up to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. It has a killer 3,175 elevation gain but your efforts are greatly rewarded with tremendous views. It best attempted by fit families with older children.

During the spring melt several other waterfalls pop up around Yosemite. The Cascades can be spotted just east of the El Portal entrance to the park. Ribbon Fall is visible in early spring and has the distinction of being the longest single drop waterfall in North America. It can be spotted on the west side of El Capitan.

Sentinel Falls is another seasonal waterfall you can view from the Valley. It is on the south side of Yosemite Valley, west of Sentinel Rock and near the Four Mile Trailhead which switchbacks steeply from the Valley floor to Glacier Point. You can see this waterfall from the road near Sentinel Beach Picnic Area.

Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall are two other waterfalls that can be accessed from the valley. Read more about them below.

Take a Hike

Hiking up the Mist Trail

Hiking in Yosemite is the best way to see majestic views. There is a wide range of hiking trails with levels ranging from easy hikes to very difficult, all-day treks.

One of the most popular from Yosemite Valley is the 1.5-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. Keep your eye out for Ililouette Fall which you can spot across the river before you reach the Vernal Fall footbridge.

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 Nevada Fall
The hike to the top of Nevada Fall

If you continue hiking, you will eventually reach another impressive waterfall, Nevada Fall. The round trip hike to Nevada Fall is 6.8 miles and gains 2,000 feet in elevation along the way. It is a great day hike for active families.

There are so many great day hikes in the park that you won’t want to miss. From the Yosemite Valley to the high country to the sequoia groves, the hiking options are seemeingly endless. Here are the 16 best easy hikes in Yosemite National Park.

One of the lesser visited areas of Yosemite National Park is Hetch Hetchy. This valley has often been compared with Yosemite Valley in tems of beauty and it also happens to be filled with water that is piped to San Francisco for drinking.

Wapama Falls
Wapama Falls

Hetch Hetchy is a wonderful place to hike in the spring, with Tueeulala and Wapama Falls flowing alongside the reservoir. There is a great hike along the shore to both of the falls that is only five miles round trip and relatively easy.

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 requires careful planning and preparation but can be the trip of a lifetime. 

There are also an incredible High Sierra Camp program in Yosemite National Park. These camps are set up at five locations in the high country and provide tents, meals, restrooms and water. They are a great way to experience a backpacking style adventure without having to actually backpack.

Camping at High Sierra Camps typically involves a 7-10 mile hike per day. There are guided and unguided options available. Due to the popularity of this experience, there is a lottery system in place which typically opens on October 1st.

Trekaroo Tip: 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.

Explore Yosemite on Horseback

The Best Things to do in Yosemite National Park with Kids on a Family Vacation 3

See Yosemite the way European settlers first did- on horseback. Yosemite Trails in Fish Camp (south of Yosemite off Highway 41) has a couple different trail rides that families with children seven and older can experience.

The Big Creek trail ride is an hour in length and offered in both the morning and afternoon. This is a great option for first time riders. There is also a Vista Pass trail ride that is two hours long and offered twice daily. It is longer but the views will be memorable.

Experienced riders or major horse lovers may want to book the five-hour trail ride to the Grizzly Giant, one of the largest sequoia trees in the world. The trail itself isn’t difficult but a few hours on horseback will likely leave you walking like a cowboy!

Wawona Stable is another place to book seasonal trail rides (May through September) in southern Yosemite. They offer two-hour and half-day rides. The Meadow Loop route will follow a historic wagon road which is a cool way to experience some Western history on horseback. This ride is offered three times daily.

This stable primarily uses mules while Yosemite Trails uses quarter horses. Make sure to wear long pants and closed-toe shoes.

Go River Rafting

Zephyr Whitewater rafting Merced River

Many of the waterfalls of Yosemite dump their flows into the mighty Merced River. While you can float in the river inside the park, the real fun takes place just outside of the park’s boundary.

The Merced River is a National Wild and Scenic River, and an awesome place to enjoy river rafting. I have rafted many rivers over the years and the Merced absolutely blew me away with its many roller coaster rapids that pack lots of fun into half day and full day trips.

If you haven’t rafted before, the Merced River is a greta place to start. My family always tries to add a river rafting trip to our vacation itinerary whenever possible. It is a great to see beautiful scenery that most people never get to experience and also have a total blast at the same time.

During high water the river has more class IV rapids, but later in the season the river features mostly calmer Class III rapids and is an ideal time for younger families and first timers to enjoy a day on the water. The snowmelt can be chilly but thankfully operators like our top pick- Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions, give you long wetsuits to keep you from getting cold.

Hang in a Hammock, Relax in Camp, and Roast Marshmallows

A Roaring Campfire at Night

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 enjoying walking distance access to waterfalls, trails, bike riding, Jr. Ranger activities, ice cream and pizza, and much more.

Reservations are required for all campgrounds from approximately April through October.

Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley is open on a first-come, first-served basis from October 1 through mid-May. 

Hodgdon Meadow is located along the western edge of the park, about 45 minutes from Yosemite Valley. It is open to first-come, first-served camping from late October through early April.

If you want to be in the heart of thingsUpper Pines Campground is set right in the midst of the grandeur of Yosemite Valley. In order to snag a campground here, you better be on your compuyter the moment reservations open up and have those fingers ready to push “book”.

Curry Village tent cabins are a nice compromise for families looking for a compromise between staying in a motel and tent camping. These book up incredibly fast as well but I have been able to snag a stay in peak season by checking for cancellations regularly.

While scoring a campsite in the Yosemite Valley is definitely the most popular option, there are still some great campsites in Yosemite’s high country as well as by the southern entrance near Wawona. Wawona Campground doesn’t require reservations late October through early April.

Looking for tips on reservations? Let this help you: How to Score a Campground at Popu

Where to Stay in Yosemite

Ahwahnee in Yosemite
The Ahwahnee

The crown jewel of national park lodges is Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel, a masterpiece of art, architecture, and history. It is expensive and wildly popular so if you can’t afford the stay at least make the effort to enjoy a meal in the window-walled dining room or take a walking tour of the property.

Yosemite Valley Lodge is a less expensive and centrally-located alternative. It is located a short walk from the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. This is another spot that will book up basically as soon as reservation dates open up during peak season.

Balcony view of the Merced River from my room at Yosemite View Lodge
Balcony view of the Merced River from my room at Yosemite View Lodge

If you can’t snag lodging inside the park, there are some awesome options just outside of the park as well. Yosemite View Lodge is the closest lodging to the park entrance and Yosemite Valley. It is a great property right along the Merced River off Highway 140.

They have large rooms with kitchenettes, several pools, a store, a pizzeria, a restaurant, a game room, and a playground. There are even family suites that sleep up to seven. Plus, the Lodge is right on the YARTS bus line so you can take public transport right into the park and skip all the reservation system and parking madness!

Airstream at Autocamp Yosemite
Airstream at Autocamp Yosemite

If you are looking for a glamping option, check out Autocamp Yosemite which has several converted airstreams to camp in and plenty of great amenities on site, including a pool deck and a full bar! This resort is also on the YARTS bus line and is about an hour outside of the park in Midpines.

Read our full Autocamp Yosemite review.

A special thank you to Michelle McCoy who wrote the original version of this article.

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Sharlene Earnshaw