Yosemite is one of those national parks that should be on everyone’s list when visiting the United States. It often gets confused with Yellowstone, which is in Wyoming. While Yellowstone is the freak show of national parks (Old Faithful is there), Yosemite is one of the crown jewels of California, hiding just east of Sacramento. It is home to Half Dome, a climbers dream destination, and the sight of a defunct volcano that caused massive damage at the time, but has left a devastatingly beautiful landscape for the rest of us to enjoy biking, climbing, driving and hiking around.
In October 2014 my family took a trip to Yosemite National Park for the first time. We were on a cross-country road trip, and this is the park that determined our route. My husband had done a two-week trip with his siblings after he graduated from high school. They tried to see Yosemite but it was closed due to flooding that summer. He had been aching to see the park ever since. Who am I to say no to a man’s dreams, especially if it gets us out of the car and experiencing something new.
We spent one full day in the park, staying just outside of the entrance at Tenaya Lodge. Yosemite deserves more than a day, but we were surprised just how much we could pack in. We called it a scouting mission, and indeed it was, for we got a taste of all that we want to do when we head back when our boys are older and can hike without being carried.
Here is a quick and dirty Yosemite day trip guide of how you can tackle about 10-12 hours in the park…
Bike rides and rentals
Bikes are the best way to get around Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Lodge offers rentals if you have to leave yours at home. Most of the rides around the valley are flat and can get you into parts of the park that you can’t get to with a car.
Trail ride: Take the trail to Mirror Lake (dry in autumn). Leave your bikes at the bike rack and hike up the trail to the lake for views of Half Dome. You will be dwarfed by the rocks in the lake (if it is dry that time of year), and have fun showing your kids where the water normally goes up to when the lake is filled with water. Hop back on your bikes and continue onto Curry Village before ending at Yosemite Lodge.
Price: $62 for 2 adult cruiser bikes (one with a children’s trailer towed behind) for two hours. Tandems and child bikes are also available. Helmets are required for all children and available to borrow at the rental station.
Nevada and Vernal Falls: If you have time stop to hike to the Nevada and Vernal Falls. A baby or toddler hiking carrier is a must. This is not an easy hike or safe hike for little ones to wander on their own.
Bridalveil Fall: This is one waterfall that is easy for anyone to get to. The path is smooth with a gentle slope. There are plenty of rocks for the kids to climb on their way up to the waterfall viewing station. Normally the falls will be roaring and the river will make the rocks extra slippery. You don’t want to hike up that way with kids. During the dry season, which we got to see, Bridalveil is nothing but a trickle. Parents can take turns hopping rocks to get a closer peek, but the rocks are still very smooth and slippery, even when dry, after being battered by water for years. Younger kids should not take on the riverbed hike.
Yosemite Falls: The lower falls are easy for families to walk to and get a glimpse of this iconic view of the park. Unfortunately, when we arrived the waterfall was dry. This can happen in the summer and autumn as draught sets in. If you want to see the falls in all their glory, head to the park in winter, spring or early summer. The upper falls hike can be a bit more strenuous, but it is not impossible with kids.
Wawona Tunnel View: Give up any pretense of having seen majestic views before. You will enter a tunnel in Yosemite and what you see when you come out the other side will make the drive worth every second in the car with the kids. You will get a panoramic view of Half Dome, El Capitan, Three Brothers and Bridalveil Falls. This is the spot you want to take your Christmas photos. There are plenty of tourists milling around getting their own photos. They will be more than happy to take a few shots for you with your kids. There is parking on both sides of the road. Pick the side of the road that you are driving on. Do not attempt to cut across the road. It will just screw everyone up.
Want more national parks? Check out our friend’s Yellowstone guides!
Glaciar Point: Save this drive for the end of the day. Sunsets are spectacular. Bring a sweatshirt or jacket. It gets cold up there. Pack a picnic, scout out your spot and wait for the light show to begin. More than one photographer has taken a million dollar shot here. Don’t believe me? Head to the gift shop in Yosemite Village to buy a copy of one.
Mariposa Grove: Unfortunately we missed Mariposa Grove When you enter the park you either had towards Yosemite Village or you can turn right and go to Mariposa Grove. We just couldn’t cram it in. We had dreams of seeing it the morning we left for Vegas, but it didn’t work out that way. If you have time drive over and hike around for a bit.
One day itinerary
- Tunnel Views
- Bridal Veil Fall
- Yosemite Village: Ansel Adams Gallery, Visitors Center, Movie, Gift Shop
- Rent Bikes to ride to Mirror Lake
- Drive to Glacier Point for the sunset
*Mariposa Grove early in the morning or on a separate day
Where to stay
Tenaya Lodge, a large property just outside of the park that is slowly undergoing a revitalizing room renovation that will make the space even more family-accessible, hosted us. Queen beds are being added, doors are being replaced and the lodge is getting a facelift. This does not mean the lodge isn’t worth staying in now.
When booking ask if any of the renovated rooms are open. If not, parents can opt for a King room with pull out couch or junior suite. We stayed in a double room. The beds were a bit cramped and we ended up putting the 2 year old on the floor, I slept with my 5-year-old son and my husband got a bed to himself. There were indoor and outdoor pools for the kids to unwind in, a decent buffet breakfast (not included in room rate) and lots of activities you could take advantage of at the lodge (added fee).
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