Yosemite National Park is known for its stunning granite cliffs popularized by Ansel Adams, its waterfalls, giant sequoia trees and mountains. Yosemite is located in the Sierra Nevada mountains about four hours from San Francisco and easily one of the country’s most impressive national parks.
A print of one of Ansel Adams’ Yosemite photographs hung in my dorm room as a college student, and Yosemite was high on my bucket list. I first visited in 2002 during my cross-country road trip. My college roommate and I made a long day excursion from San Francisco and were not able to spend nearly enough time at Yosemite. Our focus was hiking the 600 step trail to Vernal Fall. When we planned a family trip to San Francisco in 2012, I was so excited to get the opportunity to more fully explore Yosemite.
We booked too nights at Tenaya Lodge, which is a cozy resort near Yosemite’s South Entrance and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the area. Yosemite National Park is quite large, and the driving distances within the Park are unusually long, but the scenery is extraordinary.
We had one and a half days to explore Yosemite and found more than enough to do with our two and four year old boys. Here is our top five list:
#1: El Capitan and Half Dome
El Capitan, a granite monolith, and Half Dome, a granite dome, are the most recognizable symbols of Yosemite. There are some phenomenal views of El Capitan and Half Dome on the drive to Yosemite Village from the South Entrance, and these formations are visible throughout the Park. The Tunnel View viewpoint just passed the Wawona Tunnel provided the most exquisite panorama.
El Capitan is a 3,000 foot monolith that is a favorite of daring rock climbers. We even spotted one scaling the rock face.
Half Dome is a granite dome with one sheer face and the another rounded. The 14-mile hike up Half Dome is also not family-friendly. It is extremely strenuous and requires advance permits.
- Kid Facts: When Apple released their OS X Yosemite in 2014, Half Dome was the default wallpaper.
#2: Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley is a glacial valley created in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The scenic 30 mile drive from the South Entrance to Yosemite Valley takes about an hour. We were all glad to be able to stretch our legs once we finally arrived at the visitor’s center in Yosemite Village. We parked our car and used the shuttles to explore the area.
We enjoyed a short stroller-accessible hike to Bridalveil Fall. Spring is peak season for waterfalls, which are created mostly as the snow melts. During our October visit, many of the falls were dry. The 620 foot Bridalveil Fall was really just a trickle, but still beautiful.
We also enjoyed an easy hike to Mirror Lake, which reflects Yosemite’s peaks when it is full in the Spring and early Summer. Even without the full mirror effect, we enjoyed a wonderful view and some time to check out the ducks.
While the hike with 600 steps to Vernal Fall was not in the cards on this trip, we loved that we were able to find several trails that were doable with two young boys. Our two year old even did quite a bit of walking on his own.
- Kid Facts: While most visitors to Yosemite spend their time in Yosemite Valley, it is actually only 1% of the area of the Park.
#3: Junior Ranger Program
Like most National Parks, Yosemite offers a Junior Ranger program for young visitors. Our boys earned their first Junior Ranger badges by attending a guided program that we joined at the Happy Isles Nature Center. Our boys were the only kids at this program and received much attention from the ranger and other attendees. The program culminated with the two of them taking the Junior Ranger pledge and earning their badges.
Yosemite’s Junior Ranger program has changed slightly in the last few years. There is now a Little Cub program for children aged 3-6 and Junior Ranger program for children aged 7-13. To participate, you now need to purchase a booklet at the Park.
- Kid Facts: The Junior Ranger motto is “Explore, Learn, and Protect!” The Junior Ranger Pledge is, “As a Junior Ranger, I promise to teach others about what I learned today, explore other parks and historic sites, and help preserve and protect those places so future generations can enjoy them.”
#4: Glacier Point
Glacier Point is a one hour drive from Yosemite Valley up Glacier Point Road but worth the trip for unmatched views of the Yosemite Valley. Glacier Point provides an eye-level vantage point for Half Dome. We traveled to Glacier Point for sunset over the Valley. The overlook is just a short, stroller-accessible walk from the parking area, and we loved watching the colors change as the sun disappeared over the horizon.
The drive back to the South Entrance after sunset also took about an hour. After a day of adventuring, both boys fell asleep quickly in the car. We were not able to stay but hear that it is a phenomenal location for stargazing.
- Kid Facts: The historical Glacier Point Hotel operated here from its opening in 1918 until it was severally by heavy snowfall 1968. It was unoccupied when it was destroyed by a fire in 1969.
#5: Mariposa Grove
Giant sequoia trees are located in Mariposa Grove near Yosemite’s South Entrance. Massive does not begin to describe these trees, and it’s not hard to see why John Muir nicknamed them “big trees” and called them “nature’s forest masterpiece.” Giant sequoias can reach over 300 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter.
The Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree are the two most famous trees in Mariposa. The hike to these two landmarks is two miles round trip and easily doable with young kids. The Grizzly Giant is the 25th largest living giant sequoia tree.
The California Tunnel Tree was cut in 1895 so that people and carriages could pass through – possibly as a marketing scheme to draw visitors to the area. This tree is now the only living giant sequoia with a tunnel.
Mariposa Grove has been closed since July 2015 due to a major restoration project that includes even more accessible trails. If you visit after the Spring 2018 reopening, please let us know about the restored facilities.
- Kid Facts: The giant sequoias (Sequioadendron gigantem) are the largest living things in terms of volume.
Yosemite National Park is definitely one of my favorite National Parks. We avoided crowds by visiting in Fall and lucked out with great weather. I’m so glad that I got to share it with family years after my first visit.