Pack some snacks and fill your kids’ water bottles – with its spectacular scenery, snow-melt river and visitor-friendly infrastructure, the Yosemite Valley is a big outdoors playground for all ages. Every time we bring our girls we know that once we’re out of the tent, we’ll spend an entire day outside without checking our watch, checking Facebook or worrying about what to do next. And that’s because “what to do next” comes naturally in a national park where almost everything is possible.
Go On a Waterfall Hike
Particularly around late spring and early summer, waterfalls are the crown jewels of the park and kids will be impressed by these wild high country rivers falling hundreds of feet onto the valley floor, to merge with the glacial Merced River. We’ve done all the classic waterfall hikes with our girls at various ages and while it’s hard to recommend one over the others, it’s quite easy to give you tools to make your choice:
- Bridalveil Falls: Easy. At 0.5 mile round trip, it doesn’t get any easier. This short amble for little legs will lead you to the foot of Bridalveil Falls before you have time to blink twice. It may actually take you longer to park than to hike but that’s Yosemite for you. The last yards include an incline that can be slippery for tiny ones so hold on to the handrail.
- Lower Yosemite Falls – Foot bridge: Easy. In only 1 mile, this loop takes you through a majestic pine alley to the bottom of lower Yosemite Falls where your family will get sprayed with invigorating glacial water if you get too close. You are warned! It can be raging over there. With its dramatic backdrop and proximity to the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, the footbridge at the base of the falls is the scene of many (sprayed) family photos.
- Yosemite Falls – Columbia Point Lookout: Moderate. At 1.2 mile long with 1,000 feet of elevation gain, this hike is a good option for those who don’t want to go all the way to the top of Yosemite Falls but still want a lofty unobstructed view of the valley. Be prepared for a long series (3 dozens) of switchbacks through a laurel and oak forest before you emerge on the granite and reach the viewpoint at 1 mile. The steep drop above the valley is so impressive that there’s an iron guardrail between you at the edge of Columbia Rock and the void. Yes, that’s your reward for doing 1/3 of the total elevation gain the top of Yosemite Falls. Note that ironically you don’t get a good view of Yosemite Falls from the viewpoint. If you want to continue another half mile, you’ll ford a creek and reach a view on the middle tier of Yosemite Falls. We ran that portion with my husband two years ago (my mom was babysitting our girls, we didn’t want to impose) and got drenched by a good rain shower on the way back. Thanks to the rain, we enjoyed the most beautiful rainbow over Half Dome.
- Vernal Falls: Moderate. With 3 miles of trail and 1,000 feet of elevation gain, we’re getting into serious waterfall hiking here. Some people stop at the footbridge which is 0.8 mile away from the Happy Isles trailhead (1.6 miles round trip) but I strongly recommend kicking your butt mentally and going for the top of the falls. You won’t regret it and you earn your ice cold beer tonight. Be prepared to be sprayed wet and step on slippery trail steps along Mist Trail.
- Nevada Falls: Strenuous. It’s not the 5.6 miles of the hike that will kill your quads, it’s the 2,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss). Only kids with a serious hiking capacity should attempt this one if you expect to see them sign up for this type of adventure ever again. Not a piece of cake but wow, the views. At the top of Nevada Falls, you are 1,900 feet above the valley floor and you can see the high country and the surrounding glaciers. You are also at the foot of Half Dome, if ever you plan on doing that hike. As tempting as the water pool looks at the top of the falls, do not let the kids go near it. The water is icy cold and the current much stronger than it looks. People plunge to their death every year ignoring the signs. You’re much better off refreshing your kids’ faces with water sprays. To access Nevada Falls, you can start from Vernal Falls and continue up or start at Happy Isles and follow John Muir Trail, bypassing Vernal Falls. I like going up John Muir Trail and down Mist Trail, it’s a nice loop.
- Yosemite Falls: Strenuous ++. If 7.2 miles and 2,700 feet elevation gain don’t scare you, you’re in marathon shape and ready to conquer the mightiest falls of Yosemite National Park. To put the view into words is tough but just know that the Ahwanee Hotel and Curry Village will look like tiny model buildings glued on a collector’s train set. We only did this hike with our first daughter in a child carrier when she was 7 months old so it’s hard to judge with our now 6- and 8-year-olds but I’d say it’d take us a good 6 hours as a round trip. The one thing that matters on this hike is to have good hiking shoes that are shock-absorbent. I’ve seen spur-of-the-moment hikers do it in barely more than sandals and suffer hell when coming down on the rock-eroded trail. Leave early right after breakfast to make it back before snack time in the afternoon and pack extra water. This trail is totally exposed to the sun all the way and the kids will need to hydrate often. Trailhead next to Camp 4.
Take a Meadows Hike
In a world of extreme granite verticals, it’s relaxing to lose yourself in the meadows and walk on level ground, enjoying mind-blowing views of the valley with minimal effort. Our favorites are:
- Cook’s Meadow: one word for you kids – boardwalk! Who doesn’t love a boardwalk walk? Starting next to the Yosemite Falls trailhead or Sentinel Beach, Cook’s Meadow takes you on a trip over a seasonal wetland that remains remarkably wild despite being so popular. Cook’s Meadows is one of the rare Yosemite Valley meadows that weren’t plowed in the late 1800s. Watch for wildflowers and tall grasses. Note that there’s a boardwalk both on the northern side of the river and on the southern side so you might as well cross the bridge, see what’s going on on the other side and loop around. 1 mile + depending on you.
- Mirror Lake: or Mirror Pond, or Mirror with no lake – depending on when you go. For this one we always take the shuttle bus to the trailhead (stop #17) and walk on the main paved trail beautifully shaded by trees until the “lake.” More than a lake, this flooded area of the Tenaya River is a quiet mirror for the massive shape of Half Dome. One year we decided to take the dirt trail across the bridge at the trailhead and this led us to the other side of the river. The meadows were completely flooded and our girls had a ball splashing thigh-high on the meadows. If you want to avoid the crowds, this is a good alternative but the reflection of Half Dome isn’t as good. 2.4 miles round trip.
Bike Around the Valley
With the distances to cover between any two highlights, bikes are a fun way to move around in the valley. Plus, with 12 miles of mostly-flat paved biking trails, the valley is a bike lover’s paradise. As we always forget our bikes, we rent them for the day at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls but there’s also a bike rental shop at Curry Village.
From the Yosemite Lodge, our favorite itinerary is the following. We ride south-west through the meadows (away from the Yosemite Falls) and stop at the Swinging Bridge over the Merced River so our girls can splash around in the river at Sentinel Beach. Awesome views on Yosemite Falls and the meadows – whip out the picnic.
We hop on our bikes again and turn left to ride north past the Chapel and the LeConte Memorial Lodge. We continue all the way around the Upper Pines campground by hitting Happy Isles, the offshoot for Mirror Lake, and keep riding our bikes around the park to the Yosemite Village where we stop for a well-deserved ice-cream at the store.
Energized, we hop on our bikes again and loop back to the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. All crushed, it’s a 5-mile loop and kids will be happy riding at their own pace through the park – rather than having to wait for the crowded shuttle bus.
Bike Rental Details:
- Yosemite Lodge at the Falls (next to pool) – (209) 372-1208 – Use Shuttle Stop #8
- Curry Village Recreation Center – (209) 372-8319 – Use Shuttle Stop #13 or 21
- Rates: by the hour.
- Both locations have bike trailers for little kids but you better show up early if it’s a busy weekend.
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Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.