We just returned from a fantastic two-day vacation to Yosemite National Park with our seven and three-year-old daughters. Because this is such a common destination for people from all over the globe, I thought I would share my initial impressions and tips on traveling to this incredible wonder with children.
In order to create a frame of reference for my experience, this was my first visit to Yosemite, and we visited the valley itself on the first day as well as the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias on the second. We did not stay in the park itself, but in nearby Mariposa.
What to See
There are plenty of amazing sights that are accessible to families even with very young children, without significant hiking. Kids love waterfalls and Bridalveil Falls offers a very short walk from the parking lot (around a quarter mile each way) to a gorgeous viewing area. The Lower Yosemite Falls area is also a short walk from a shuttle stop or a longer one from the visitor's center area (we walked from the visitor's center). Views of Half Dome and El Capitan are available from all over the park although it is completely worth the drive south from the main village to Tunnelview.
The basic hike to the lower bowl of Mariposa Grove, which leads to the enormous Grizzly Giant sequoia and the California Tunnel Tree is just under a mile each way with only about a 400 foot elevation change. Our 7-year old found a great walking stick that kept her motivated throughout the hike. The three-year old was a bit tougher, but really liked being the "leader" on the clearly marked trail, and occasionally needed brief breaks for play or to draw in the dirt. We took some time at the top of the hike before heading back down, which was easy and fast. Taking time, and really enjoying and discussing the scenery made this a great first "real hike" for my kids.
The Junior Rangers program for kids ages 7-12 and the Little Cubs program for kids ages 3-6 are just wonderful and provided a framework for our activities aside from the "main attractions," both structured and on our own.
Parking at the Day Use Lot in Yosemite Valley and using the shuttles to get around worked just wonderfully for us. We were able to leave most of our "just in case" items (changes of clothes, sweatshirts, etc.) in the car and travel more lightly. Be sure to grab a shuttle map and pay attention to where you are and where you want to go in relation to the shuttle, as sometimes there is a closer stop than the one recommend, or walking is simply easier. Parking at Mariposa Grove would be fine if available (there is a sign at Wawona if the parking at the grove is full), but the shuttle from Wawona was great too, although it only runs every half-hour.
We did not find the park was particularly stroller-friendly, so if longer hikes are desired or the kids are younger than 3, consider a backpack carrier (or at least bring an unstructured carrier like a mei tei for just in case).
The most important thing when visiting Yosemite with Kids is to keep expectations realistic. This is not like a one-day trip to Disneyland where you can just "pack it in" and suffer the consequences later. Yosemite is huge – take your time, enjoy what you see, enjoy each other and don't ruin it by fixating on what you haven't seen. You are surrounded by a wonderland everywhere you go, so you can't go wrong.
For our purposes, we live only several hours away, so we'll be going back for sure. If this is a one-time trip for you, understand that you can't "do it all" in just a few days, or else plan significantly more days than we spend. A single hike can easily be a full-day experience.
Share your experiences with visiting Yosemite with Kids on the BellaOnline Forum (see the thread in related links below). Ask your questions, and I (or another forum participant) will do our best to help!