Things to do in Yosemite National Park

Taking on Yosemite National Park with two toddlers seemed daunting to me at first, but we decided to just go for it one weekend and we had a blast.  We found it was an extremely family friendly place.  There is so much to do for everyone of all ages and abilities.  We already have plans to return.  Below is our list of tips and things to do at Yosemite National Park with a young family.

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Tips Before you go:

Tip #1 Where to stay: All the lodges, hotels, and campsites in Yosemite were booked when we looked a couple weeks in advance.  They get full months in advance.  Don’t make that stop you from going though.  We ended up finding a quaint little house on airbnb last minute for super cheap.  It was located just outside of the park entrance.    Next time we will try to stay in the park for sure. The west park entrance is another 30 minutes from Yosemite Valley where we actually spent all our time.  It would have been nice to wake up right in the middle of the park to cut down on drive time and be able to get up and at it bright and early.

Tip #2 How much it costs: Yosemite National Park charges $30 entrance for the day or $60 for an annual pass.  They do have free entrance days.  Below are the ones for 2016:

  • January 18 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day)
  • April 16-24 (National Park Week’s opening weekend)
  • August 25-28 (National Park Service’s 100th birthday weekend)
  • September 24 (National Public Lands Day)
  • November 11 (Veterans Day)

Tip #3 How to get around: You can drive right into the Valley and park your car for the day for free.  Then hop on and off the free Yosemite Valley Shuttle to get around the entire park.  This shuttle operates all year from 7 am to 10 pm.  There are 19 stops that take you all around.  There is also the El Capitan Shuttle with another 7 stops you will want to take to other parts of the valley further out.  This shuttle operates from mid-June  through October from 9 am to 5 pm.  If you are only going to be at Yosemite for a few days I recommend doing the El Capitan Shuttle loop first since the shuttle times close earlier.  Then you will have time to do Yosemite Valley with the shuttle stops being closer together and the shuttle running later into the day.  The shuttles and various stops were easy to get on and off with kids and strollers.  Another way to get around the park would be to ride bikes.

Tip #4 When to go: Of course Yosemite is majestically beautiful any time of year. We chose to take our first trip in the fall, going in late August.  This time of year was not crowded at all due to all the kids being back in school.  The weather was also a little cooler as well.  The best time to go if you want to see lots of water is in the spring because that’s when all the snow has recently melted and the lakes, rivers, and waterfalls are full.  Bridalveil and Lower Yosemite falls were small trickles in August and Mirror Lake was completely dried up.  There was still a lot of water running from Vernal Falls in the late summer.  Even without some of the major waterfalls the hikes were enjoyable and the scenery was magnificent.  With all that being said here is my list of:

Top 10 Things to do in the Yosemite Valley

1.   Valley Visitor’s Center (STOP #5, 9) We went here first to get free hiking maps.  We also signed up for the Junior Ranger Program, a program for children ages 3-6.  It’s a little $3 Little Cub Handbook filled with activities for you and your child to do throughout the park.  Once completed you can become a “Yosemite Little Cub” and get a colorful badge.  You can complete a free version and receive a wooden badge as well.

In the visitor center they have a free museum with exhibits of the history and the making of Yosemite. They also show two different presentations every 30 minutes in the theater in back of the visitor center. Outside the visitor center, is also a fun Indian village you can explore.

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2. Lower Yosemite Fall (STOP #6) This was a flat 1.1 mile loop we took with the stroller that lasted about 15 minutes.  The trail started right where the shuttle drops you off.  This is the tallest waterfall in North America.  It was completely dry when we went in August but the hike was gorgeous and the falls were still magnificent looking even without the water.  At the base of the falls are lots of boulders our toddlers loved climbing on.  We were also met by lots of playful squirrels darting all over and giving us lots of amusement.

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3. Sentinel Bridge (STOP #11 ) Here we walked across the bridge to get a great view of Half Dome.  This spot was perfect for pictures at sunset when the Dome turns pink from the suns reflection.  The Merced River runs under the bridge and a lot of people were wandering on the Sentinel Beach.

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4. Sentinel & Cook’s Meadow Loop (Stop #11) After crossing over the bridge we walked a ways around these two meadows in the heart of Yosemite Valley.  We crossed over the Merced River twice and passed the Swinging Bridge.  We explored a little church that is still used to this day in the park and had great views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome.

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5. Happy Isles/Mist Trail (STOP #16) Here there was a very hands on Nature Center with some interactive displays.  Also lots of stuffed animals to look at including bears.  Just behind the Nature Center were a lot of small hikes and trails.

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6. Vernal Falls (Shuttle Stop #16) We didn’t actually make it all the way to the end of this hike as it was a little longer and not stroller friendly.  We simply hiked to the Vernal Fall footbridge and played in the stream to cool down and have lunch.  If you were to continue all the way to the top it would be a 1.6 mile strenuous steep, but paved path!  The bridge provides gorgeous views of Vernal Falls.  If you’re looking for more adventure then we were with our little ones you could continue on up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls.  This part of the trail is made of steps which climb along the right side of the waterfall. If you continue on you will be on the John Muir trail.

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7.  Mirror Lake Trail (STOP #17)This was a 2-mile round trip hike, with a slight hill.  We took the paved path with our stroller. It was a very easy hike that the kids were able to take with us.  When we made it to the top we were in the middle of a dried up lake.  Took a picture of us standing in the middle so when we come back in the spring we can make the comparison.

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8.  Bridalveil Fall (STOP E5 on El Capitan Shuttle) This was a short walk on a gravel path about 1.2 miles round trip.  We ditched the strollers halfway and had the boys walk.  This is one of the most famous waterfalls in the world, photographed millions of times from Yosemite’s tunnel view.

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9. El Capitan Picnic Area (STOP E3, E1 on El Capitan Shuttle)  We stopped here to hop out and get the great view of Three Brothers and El Capitan.  You feel so small standing under these glorious gigantic granite mountains.  Truly breathtaking!

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10.  Half Dome Village (STOP #13)  We stopped here to enjoy some much deserved ice cream after a lot of walking and hiking.  We spent our time exploring the little village of grocery stores, picnic tables, and restaurants.  It was a great atmosphere with lots of rustic cabins and chairs to relax on.

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We had such a wonderful time during our weekend in Yosemite.  We enjoyed being outdoors as a family in the paradisiacal scenery.  We saw so much wildlife and truly enjoyed this peaceful place.  We can’t wait to go back again and explore other parts of the park.

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