When it comes to national parks, few have quite the name or cachet of Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is one of the oldest national parks in the United States and is also one of the most visited – and with good reason. The park’s majestic waterfalls, grand giant trees, and natural wonders like Half Dome and El Capitan are truly breathtaking to behold.
My husband worked in Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps when we were in college, and he and I visited the park many times in our pre-kid married days. Yosemite has always been a magical place for us, but it has been made all the more special by getting to see it now through our kids’ eyes. Yosemite is a fascinating place for kids to explore and learn about nature and an ideal destination for the whole family to experience together.
If you are considering visiting Yosemite National Park with kids, I can’t recommend it highly enough. But I will say that a trip does require some careful planning and attention to logistics. Yosemite’s popularity has made it a destination you can’t really just visit on a whim anymore, particularly with kids.
Here are all the essentials that family travelers need to know when visiting Yosemite National Park with kids, along with a detailed map highlighting points of interest, park entrances, hikes, things to do, and lodging options.
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Yosemite National Park Basics
Yosemite National Park is located in Northern California in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The park is one of the larger national parks at 1,187 square miles (759,620 acres) but isn’t quite the enormous size of a park like Denali or Yellowstone.
Most travelers spend some or all of their time in the Yosemite Valley which is by far the most popular place to visit within the park. There is a shuttle service that connects the key sites in the Valley (reopened as of December 2021), as parking is quite limited at many points of interest.
Driving to Yosemite
Yosemite’s proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento makes it a popular weekend getaway for many Northern Californians. For travelers coming by car, there are multiple entrances into the park.
For travelers heading into Yosemite Valley, the two main entrances are on the western side of the park along either Highway 120 at Big Oak Flat or Highway 140 (El Portal Road) at the Arch Rock Flat entrance. Visitors from Southern California tend to use the southern entrance to the park at Wawona along Highway 41.
There are two other entrances less commonly used. Those include an entrance into the Hetch Hetchy Valley on the northwest end of the park as well as the entrance near Lee Vining at Tioga Pass to the east that is closed in winter months.
Flying to Yosemite
For visitors coming from farther away and flying in, Yosemite is a little tricky to reach. There’s no airport that is super close, so many travelers decide to make Yosemite a stop on a longer Northern California road trip or combine it with a visit to San Francisco.
Technically, the closest airport is in Fresno, California. Known as the Fresno-Yosemite Airport (FAT), this airport offers commercial service on Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Southwest, United, and a few international airlines. It’s still about a 1.5 hour drive from FAT into the southern entrance at Wawona. To get to the Yosemite Valley from FAT, plan on about a 2.5 hour drive.
Because Fresno flights are often expensive and the airport has limited direct service beyond several major West Coast cities, the next best option is to reach Yosemite by flying to one of airports in the San Francisco Bay Area – my home base. Oakland International Airport (OAK) and Sacramento International Airport (SMF) are the two closest alternate choices, but San Francisco International (SFO) or Mineta San Jose International (SJC) are viable options too. Plan on about 3.5 hours from OAK or SMF to Yosemite Valley when traffic cooperates, and about 4 hours from either SFO or SJC.
Cost & Reservations to Visit Yosemite
Yosemite charges entry by the vehicle – $35 for a seven consecutive day pass. The better value may be to purchase an $80 America the Beautiful National Park annual pass for your family, especially if you plan to visit other national parks, national monuments, or public lands in a single calendar year.
If you have a 4th grader in the family, you can get a national park pass for free for the year through the Every Kid Outdoors program, so definitely take advantage!
Yosemite required reservations to enter the park in 2020 and 2021 to control capacity due to public health concerns. While those requirements were recently lifted, Yosemite just announced it will now require reservations in peak summer periods to deal with the park overcrowding more generally.
Reservations will be required for all guests visiting the park from May 20 through September 30, 2022 and arriving between the hours of 6 am and 4 pm. Guests with in-park lodging (hotel or campground) reservations do not need separate park reservations. Reservations are valid for three consecutive days. Most reservations go on sale on Recreation.gov for $2 per car for the entire summer on March 23, 2022 at 8:00 am PT- mark your calendars! In addition, an additional smaller batch of reservations will be released starting May 13, 2022 on a rolling basis 7 days in advance of arrival.
Best Times to Visit Yosemite
Most of Yosemite National Park is open year round, but by far the most popular time to visit is in the summer months – particularly for families. Of course, that’s also when you’ll be battling crowds and paying higher prices for lodging and tours. Yosemite can get pretty hot in the summer as well, with the valley regularly registering daytime temperatures in the 90s in July and August.
Shoulder season in late spring and early fall can be a sweet spot to visit. Weather is still pleasant and crowds retreat a bit. It is of course harder for many families with kids to make trips happen when school is in session.
Yosemite is open in winter as well, although many trails that ascend from the valley floor aren’t really open or hikeable certain times of year. Snow can start as early as October or November in parts of Yosemite and remain into well into the spring. Tioga Road is at significantly higher elevation so it closes in winter (usually some time in November until May or June depending on seasonal snowfall – see Yosemite’s site with historical data on road openings here).
Top Things to Do in Yosemite with Kids
Outdoor pursuits are of course the best thing to do with kids all over Yosemite National Park. The park has plenty of kid-friendly hikes for various ages as well as quite a few sites that can be explored by car or shuttle (particularly important for families with babies and toddlers or taking a multigenerational trip with grandparents). These are our favorite things to do with kids in Yosemite, with advice on the best ages to experience each.
Stop at Tunnel View
One of the first things many visitors do when they are arriving into Yosemite is to make a quick stop at Tunnel View. This vista point has views of the whole valley, including both El Capitan and Half Dome, and is a must-see for all ages.
When approaching the park on Highway 41 from the south entrance, pull over immediately (and I mean immediately or you’ll miss it) after the Wawona Tunnel at the Tunnel View parking lot. The backdrop is the classic Yosemite view and is a great way to get oriented to the scenery in the park and maybe even take a memorable family holiday card photo.
Hike the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail
One of the easiest hikes in Yosemite with a big payoff is the loop to Lower Yosemite Falls. The trail takes visitors to the bottom of this world famous waterfall, providing another memorable photo backdrop.
The Lower Yosemite Falls loop hike is right at 1 mile long. The trail is mostly flat, and substantial portions are paved making one route to and from the falls (although not quite the whole loop) wheelchair and stroller accessible. These features make it my top pick for travelers with babies and toddlers as well as those with any mobility issues. It’s also an excellent choice to save to hike later in the day when everyone in your family is tired from a more strenuous morning hike.
(Note that for families with older kids, this area is also the jumping off point for a more advanced hike to the top of the falls. The main Yosemite falls trail is 7.2 miles with 2700 feet in elevation change.)
Take a Mirror Lake Nature Stroll
Another one of the easier hikes in Yosemite Valley is around Mirror Lake (more aptly named Mirror Meadow in the summer as the lake dries up). The trailhead is located at Shuttle Stop 17.
There are a couple of different hiking options at Mirror Lake. The easiest is the 2 mile roundtrip along the paved trail to the lake’s edge.
If you have your own bikes (but not with rental bikes), you can bike the paved part of the trail and then get to the parts with the best views a bit more quickly. As soon as the pavement ends, there is a bathroom and then the start of a small nature trail with plenty of signage where you can read up with your kids about the flora and fauna of the area.
For a longer but still quite easy and relatively flat hike, it’s about 5 miles to complete the entire loop around Mirror Lake.
Ascend the Mist Trail (Vernal & Nevada Falls)
If your kids are ready for a bit more of a vertical challenge, one of the most popular hikes in the Yosemite Valley is the the Mist Trail which ascends Vernal and Nevada Falls. The complete trail is 5.4 miles roundtrip and a very steep climb, and is probably best reserved for older kids or at least those who are experienced hikers.
Two shorter versions of this hike, however, can work better for families with younger kids looking for a less strenuous option. The shortest of these is under 2 miles roundtrip to the footbridge that crosses the Merced River with a view of Vernal Falls. My son at 6 years old was able to make this moderate climb with a little encouragement and a few breaks.
The second partial version of this hike is to keep going from the footbridge and make the climb up to the top of the first waterfall, Vernal Falls (getting to experience the steep misty staircase that gives the trail its name). From there you can come back the way you came for a roundtrip of about 2.5 miles. Or you can take the Clark Point cutoff down the more gradually descending but slightly longer John Muir Trail that will rejoin at the footbridge. This hike provides very different views on the return.
To reach the trailhead for any of these hikes, head to Shuttle Stop 16 known as Happy Isles.
Splash at Sentinel Beach
After a couple of hikes, many families are looking for a little leisure and down time. And in the summer months, setting up a towel on the banks of the Merced River in the Valley is a relaxing activity. Sentinel Beach is one of the top spots for wading or tubing when the water isn’t flowing too fast.
The area also has picnic tables and grills available. There’s some unpaved parking available adjacent to the beach on Southside Drive, but it may fill during peak summer times.
Picnic at Swinging Bridge
Another enjoyable water spot a little closer to the center of the valley is Swinging Bridge over the Merced River. The riverbank has some small beach areas and the water often forms shallow pools for kids to wade and splash in.
Swinging Bridge is an ideal spot to set up for a picnic lunch. We picked up sandwiches and snacks in the morning at Yosemite Village, then hiked Lower Yosemite Falls, and made Swinging Bridge our lunch stop our first day in Yosemite.
Hike Bridalveil Fall
Another short hike in the valley is to (surprise!) another magnificent waterfall that is one of Northern Califronia’s best – Bridalveil Falls. This hike is just half of a mile roundtrip and is paved, but is too steep for wheelchair access. There’s no shuttle stop nearby and the parking area can fill quickly on busy days, so plan accordingly if you want to visit. (Note that the trail is under refurbishment until Fall of 2022.)
Bike the Yosemite Valley
I’ve mentioned biking a few times already, so I’d be remiss not to call it out more specifically as an activity all its own. The valley is crowded and has limited parking so exploring by car isn’t really feasible in peak months. But it’s also pretty compact, so it’s ideal for biking around to the highlights, freeing yourself from waiting on shuttles that can sometimes be delayed or full.
There are a number of bike rental locations in the valley open in warmer months. Those include locations at Curry Village, Yosemite Village, and at Yosemite Valley Lodge. We also spotted a location at the Ahwahnee Hotel exclusive for guests of that property. Both adult and kid bikes are usually available for rent as well as bikes with trailers if you have toddlers or young kids not ready to ride on their own.
But if you are in a position to come to Yosemite with your own bikes, I’d recommend it highly! Our family actually purchased a bike rack for our car for purposes of our first Yosemite trip and got so much value out of that decision. It saved serious time and money, and we were able to have bikes available for the entirety of our stay right where we needed them.
Drive Up to Glacier Point
Some of the most jaw dropping views of Yosemite are available from high atop the valley floor from Glacier Point. The drive from Yosemite Village takes about 45 minutes, but it well worth it. You can’t get more amazing lookouts to see Half Dome, Vernal and Nevada Falls, and the entire valley. If your kids get carsick, just be aware the road is steep and winding so roll down the windows for air or pack some meds to help!
Sadly for 2022 and 2023 visitors, the road to Glacier Point is about to start a significant closure this year for major repairs. The only way to the area for will be an extremely strenuous hike from the valley that isn’t for the casual visitor.
When it reopens, know that Glacier Point has historically been extremely popular and likely will be so again. If you want to drive your own vehicle, you truly need to leave at the crack of dawn to arrive in time to be able to park at one of the limited parking spaces at the top (at least in peak summer season, particularly on weekends). There have always been a number of shuttle tours up to Glacier Point where you don’t have to worry about parking, so consider those as well when they return.
Hike Sentinel Dome
While you are at Glacier Point, a hike in the area is totally worth it for very different views than you can experience in the valley. Our family chose to hike the Sentinel Dome trail on our most recent visit and highly recommend it to families with kids of elementary age and up (when the Glacier Point road reopens). The views of El Capitan and almost all of the valley are pretty unparalleled from the top of the dome.
The hike is 2.2 miles roundtrip with 400 feet of elevation change, with some decently strenuous portions that have an uphill climb and scramble. Again, my 6 year old was able to do it but it pushed him quite a bit. It can get a bit windy and exposed at the top so watch out for the weather forecast before heading on this hike.
Visit the Mariposa Grove
Away from the valley near the southern entrance to the parks is a very different Yosemite experience. Here, giant trees rather than granite rock faces are the center of attention.
Mariposa Grove is the home of a number of giant sequoias. The most famous of these are the Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree, both of which visitors can walk through!
Normally, Yosemite offers a shuttle from from the Mariposa Welcome Center to the grove’s arrival area that is the trailhead for several hikes. From this trailhead, visitors can hike the easy Big Tree Loop (1/3 mile) or the more moderate Grizzly Giant Loop Trail (2 miles). Unfortunately, this shuttle is still not yet running in 2022, so the only way to access the trailhead is to first hike or bike 2 miles from the parking area at the welcome center. That may be perhaps too much for many families at the moment. Stay tuned for improved access to return.
Drive to Tuolumne Meadows & on Tioga Road
Visitors who want to get out of the valley often head for the higher elevations of Tioga Road and Tuolumne Meadows. To get here, take Highway 120 past the Big Oak Flat entrance as it becomes Tioga Road. The area is only accessible in the summer and early fall when the road opens.
There’s a lot of explore all along this path to Tioga Road. The Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias, Tenaya Lake, or Olmsted Point are all worthy stops. There are a variety of hikes along the road, usually with less crowded car pullouts to park.
One of the most kid-friendly stops is at Tuolumne Meadows where visitors can stroll the flat meadow on a hike of about 2 miles. The area normally has a visitor center but it’s closed in 2022 for the time being. There is also ongoing work to Tioga Road planned for the summer months in 2022 on weekdays that may cause delays.
Where to Stay in Yosemite with Kids
Finding appropriate lodging – especially for families – is often a tricky part of any national parks vacation. Yosemite’s remote location, large size, and minimal in-park lodging choices makes finding accommodations sometimes the most challenging part of planning a trip there.
There are just a very few hotels within the park boundaries, along with several campgrounds – all of which book up many months in advance. Many visitors stay just outside the park’s gates for less expensive hotel options and more last minute availability.
Lodging choices my family would recommend to other travelers with kids include the following:
The Ahwahnee Hotel is the most splurge-worthy option. It’s an historic national park lodge with a fantastic location right in the thick of things in Yosemite Valley. Of course, it’s priced accordingly, often running $600+ a night in the summer high season for a standard room.
Rooms have been recently remodeled, but don’t expect this hotel to match the standards of modern luxury hotels. Standard rooms have include two double (full) beds which can be a tight squeeze for some families. Our family opted to stay in the El Dorado Diggins Suite on a splurge trip for my husband’s 40th birthday, but there are only a couple of these specialty rooms available in the whole hotel. Snagging one usually requires booking a full year in advance.
Even if you can’t stay here, visiting to look around or to dine is highly recommended. The hotel is famous for its Sunday Brunch as well as for the elevators that were featured in the movie The Shining.
Yosemite Valley Lodge
The more budget-friendly (although still pretty pricey) hotel option within the valley proper is the Yosemite Valley Lodge. The lodge is in the thick of the action not far from Yosemite Village and other points of interest, so it’s a well-located even if not perfect otherwise. The property has both dining options and a pool on site.
Rooms can be a little tight for families, with two double beds or one queen or king in standard rooms. There are a limited number of family suites and bunk rooms that may work better, but they sell out quickly.
Curry Village is the least expensive lodging option in the Valley that isn’t a true campgroup. It has several restaurants and food trucks and a prime location and books up fast because of its lower price.
Curry Village has some regular cabins for rent but is probably best known for its tent cabins. These accommodations have a concrete floor, basic mattresses on bed frames, and canvas coverings over a simple A frame. Bathrooms are communal so pack your shower shoes and be prepared to rough it.
I wouldn’t recommend Curry Village to travelers with babies and toddlers because the noise from neighbors through canvas tents can be pretty disruptive. But for families with older kids, it’s a pretty happening and unique place to stay.
For newer accommodations and many more creature comforts, Tenaya Lodge just outside the park’s south entrance is a family-friendly choice. This hotel has received AAA’s 4 Diamond Designation and has a spa and a nice pool. Plus, it has a variety of accommodations for all family sizes, from individual hotel rooms to suites to freestanding cabins.
The location is ideal for visiting Mariposa Grove, but if you plan to spend a lot of time in the valley, know that the drive is significant – about one hour and 15 minutes.
Rush Creek Lodge
Another popular higher end choice with families staying outside of the park is Rush Creek Lodge. Its location near the Big Oak Flat is about as close as you can get to the Valley from accommodations outside of the park, but plan on about a 40 minute drive and the potential for traffic on weekends.
Rush Creek Lodge has fine dining, a spa, a pool, and other activities on site. Almost all room types will work well for most families, from two queen beds in standard lodge rooms up to suites and villas.
Even More Family-Friendly Yosemite Lodging Choices
A few other lodging options in the vicinity to consider:
- Best Western Plus Yosemite Gateway Inn: Reliable chain hotel near the Wawona entrance and Mariposa Grove.
- Holiday Inn Express & Suites Oakhurst-Yosemite: Another reliable chain hotel near the Wawona entrance and Mariposa Grove.
- Evergreen Lodge at Yosemite: Boutique historic resort near the Big Oak Flat entrance and convenient to Hetch Hetchy or Tioga Road travelers. Family cabins available.
- Yosemite View Lodge: Inexpensive modest accommodations closest to the El Portal Road entrance. Two queen rooms and family suites available.
Additional Tips for Visiting Yosemite with Kids
Ready to take the kids on a Yosemite vacation? Here are a few additional tips to keep in mind. And if your family is new to national parks travel generally, don’t my tips for national parks for beginners.
- Drive in one way, out another: The views at Yosemite are very different depending on how you approach. If your overall travel itinerary allows you to drive in one entrance and out another, take that opportunity. Remember to drive slowly through the park, as wildlife can regularly cross the roads!
- Book lodging 12 months in advance: Lodging is the biggest choke point when it comes to a lot of national parks, and Yosemite is no different. Book early and often! Cancellation policies (for bookings made through the official Yosemite concessionaire Aramark) are generous so it’s better to book and cancel later if your plans don’t pan out than wait to firm up your travel plans and find all the hotels are full.
- Consider a winter visit: While most visitors come during the warmer months, Yosemite offers a totally different experience in winter. The park is often covered in snow and is even home to a small ski resort, Badger Pass, and an ice skating rink in Curry Village.
- Plan for minimal cell service and very limited WiFi: While Yosemite may seem bustling and well traveled in many places, it has decidedly not entered the Information Age. Cell tower coverage is weak and the few places that do have WiFi are so glacially slow as to be almost unusable. (I found I couldn’t even upload static photos to Instagram on the WiFi at the Ahwahnee Hotel on our last visit in Summer 2020.) So don’t plan to rely on the internet at all. Pack paper maps and screenshot important digital information on your phone before your trip so you can access it offline while in the parks.
- Take the dangers seriously: Last but certainly not least, one word of warning. Because Yosemite is so popular and accessible, it sometimes seems more theme park than national park to many visitors. The dangers are, however, quite real. It’s vitally important to be prepared at Yosemite, especially if you are traveling with kids and getting off of the beaten path. Get everyone in the family (including young kids) quality hiking boots to keep safe from slipping on rocks on hikes. Pack way more water than you’ll think you need and a first aid kit. Be realistic about what your kids can handle. Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask a ranger for advice and current conditions or even fellow visitors about their experiences.