One of the top must-see National Parks is Yosemite National Park in California. From its jaw-dropping waterfalls to its towering sequoias, this park has something for everyone. With its location just a few hours away from San Francisco, it’s an easy add-on during a Northern California vacation. And don’t miss the charming Mariposa Museum and History Center while you’re entering or leaving the park.
Yosemite National Park is located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, and its earliest inhabitants were the indiginous Ahwahnechee people. With the California gold rush in the mid-19th century, the tribe was driven off the land during the Mariposa Wars as more American pioneers came to the area, and in 1864, President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant to protect the land from development. John Muir, the famed wilderness preservation advocate, played an instrumental role in securing its protection for perpetuity. Over the years, millions of people have visited its stunning waterfalls and climbed its precarious rocky cliffs.
We visited Yosemite several years ago with our boys, and it was truly unforgettable. The park is huge so it is impossible to see or do everything in one trip. We picked the southern part of the park to visit, especially since we could also visit Sequoia National Park along the way. We left Los Angeles and were able to swing through to see Sequoia’s towering sequoia groves, including the world’s largest tree – the General Sherman Tree. The tree is just a short paved hike off the main road.
We then spent two days at Yosemite, which was just enough to barely see the highlights of the park. We stayed just south of the park at Tenaya Lodge but you can also stay in the park. Next time we visit, I want to stay at the majestic Ahwahnee Hotel, one of the most historic hotels in any of the national parks.
Yosemite Valley and its surrounding well-known peaks are the focal point of the park. With children, it can seem a bit daunting as the hiking and mountain climbing are challenging. I’m sure there are more adventurous families who can hike or climb with children but I was at my limit with the danger of our hikes here!
We secured a private guided hike since we were worried about just striking out on our own. I highly recommend that for families, especially first-time visitors. Yosemite is not a place to just wing it. Our guide asked us if we wanted to hike in the valley or on the ridgeline to get better views. We (unwisely!) chose the ridgeline so I can’t speak to the valley floor hikes. Find out more about Yosemite’s day hiking trails here, including some easy, family-friendly hikes.
We met our guide at the Taft Point Trailhead and hiked both to Taft Point and Sentinel Dome (see this map, bottom center).
It was an amazing experience but to be honest, it is not for the faint of heart. Our youngest was 8 ½ at the time, and there were moments of heart-stopping worry on this hike. The trail itself was fine but as our guide thankfully warned us, once we got near Taft Point, the dangers dramatically increased.
Sheer drop offs to the valley floor 3000 feet below and hidden crevices abound!
Be sure to hold tight to your children and never let them wander ahead of you. I can only imagine the danger we would have been in without his guidance!
Once you get to Taft Point, the views are magnificent, especially of El Capitan. Just looking at its sheer rock face made me nervous. I don’t see how people even begin to climb it!
The view of the valley floor and Yosemite Falls – North America’s tallest waterfall – is breathtaking!
NOTE: there are little to no guardrails at Taft Point!!! We stayed far, far back from the edge but even that made me extremely nervous. This place is not for young children or for kids who like to take chances!
We then hiked back to the parking lot (be sure to take a bathroom break as there are no bathrooms on the trails) and hiked to Sentinel Dome.
This hike was less precarious than the one to Taft Point, at least until we got to Sentinel Dome. My husband and sons hiked to its very top but I stayed below. It’s a steep hike up sheer granite and a heart-stopping fast hike (or run!) down. It made me too nervous to even watch them!
The best part of this trail is the view of Half Dome that you get from the trail.
I wish we had spent more time in Yosemite Valley but that’s on the to do list for the next trip! During the summer, it can get very crowded and traffic is a problem here. Staying overnight in one of the valley’s hotels is a way to see the sites without dealing with the traffic. I’d also like to go back and tour the Pioneer Yosemite History Center and the Yosemite museum and visitors center (currently closed due to COVID).
There are also giant sequoias to see in Yosemite at the Mariposa Grove near the southern entrance. Unfortunately this section was closed during our visit due to a large renovation project but it has since reopened. Many of the southern hiking trails and sites were also closed during our visit due to recent fires. Be sure to check weather and fire activity before your trip. **NOTE: Check on the status of all locations and activities due to COVID restrictions before your trip. Please adhere to all local, state, and national guidelines.
If you have little ones and want to view most things from your car, check out Yosemite’s auto tour. It takes you past most of the main sites in the park. As with any national park, be sure to download the Gypsy app for a GPS-enabled car tour. I wish I had known about this app on our trip! However you decide to visit, don’t forget to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet for your child!
An easy addition to any trip to or from the southern part of Yosemite is the little town of Mariposa. This town was a supply hub during the California Gold Rush, and it feels as if you’re stepping back in time when you visit. John C. Frémont, the famed American explorer, politician, and husband of the even more famous (to me!) Jessie Benton Frémont, had claim to most of the Mariposa mining district. We visited the Mariposa Museum and History Center on our drive from Yosemite to Monterey, and I was excited to see some of Jessie’s things in the museum (it’s even located on Jessie Street!). The museum is chock full of all kinds of interesting artifacts and decor, and my kids loved exploring its hodge podge of historical items!
Yosemite is a once-in-a-lifetime trip that every American family should do. Its awe-inspiring vistas and unforgettable geography are so amazing that even young children will remember their time here!
- Cost: $35/car (good for 7 days); free with Every Kid in a Park pass
- Tour: 2-3 days
- Gift shops located throughout the park at many visitor centers, museums, and hotels
- Transportation: Yosemite is best seen by car. There are some bus tours available once you’re in the park (currently unavailable due to COVID). Our hotel also provided special guided bus tours especially for families. There is public transportation through YARTS. Yosemite is a 3 ½ hour drive from San Francisco.
- Dining options: The park itself has many dining options, all reserved through Yosemite Hospitality. We had an amazing dinner experience at our hotel, Tenaya Lodge, where we celebrated our oldest son’s birthday at a Wild West-style barbeque complete with music, dancing, and activities. It was fantastic and such a memorable experience (pictures below)!
- Lodging options: All in-park lodging is handled by Yosemite Hospitality. We stayed at the Tenaya Lodge and it was wonderful. We had a cabin to ourselves and the kids loved the activities at the hotel.
- For help planning activities during your visit, check out the options through Yosemite Hospitality.
- Nearby attractions: Mariposa Museum and History Center, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and the ski resort of Mammoth Lakes
Books to Read:
- Guidebooks for Parents:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up: