Vacation Inspiration: Yosemite with Little Kids - 510 Families
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Vacation Inspiration: Yosemite with Little Kids

Yosemite National Park is a magical outdoor wonderland that’ll excite the imagination of your little kids, and it’s only a three-hour drive from the East Bay. My not-so-outdoorsy family of six (kids’ ages 3-9) recently spent a week at a house near Yosemite and had an absolute blast.

Child playing by river in Yosemite
Yosemite Valley is very kid-friendly | Photo: Julie Herson

We experienced amazing views, towering waterfalls, bears closer than expected, huge bugs, and even went on a 5.5-mile hike to visit some truly humongous trees. While it’s difficult to get a campsite at Yosemite, you can always rent a house near the park and reserve a day pass (good for three days). So if you’re looking for a road-trip destination that’s relatively close, affordable, and truly awe-inspiring for all ages, Yosemite National Park should be top on your list.

Important reminder for 2021: Reservations are required to drive into Yosemite through September 30, 2021

How to Have Fun at Yosemite with Little Kids

As I said, we’re not an outdoorsy family by any means (just an occasional toddler hike here and there). So if you’re like us, Yosemite can seem intimidating. The key to our success in this regard was threefold:

  1. We rented a house with a pool. We weren’t able to snag a campground, and honestly, I wasn’t mad about that.
  2. We arrived at Yosemite very early each day (7 am) to avoid the long long lines (1-3 hours!) and hot summertime temps (80s-90s by mid-morning in July).
  3. We limited our scope. Yosemite is huge so we narrowed our visit to just a few approachable kid-friendly hikes and destinations.
hiking in forrest
Hiking with toddlers who refuse backpack carriers can mean sore shoulders | Photo: Julie Herson

Renting a Family-Friendly House Near Yosemite

If you can get a campground in the park, that’s awesome. If not, there are a lot of fun options as far as renting a house near Yosemite, and some even inside the park.

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Where to look: Mariposa County is full of rentals, as well as hotels and even air streams if that’s more to your liking. We made sure to find a house with a pool since I know that’s essential to having fun on a family vacation for us.

Keep in mind that you’ll still need to drive anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to reach certain areas of the park. I’d also recommend reserving your entrance to the park before booking your stay. Reservations are required to drive into Yosemite through September 30, 2021, so make sure your dates are available.

toddler by pool
Our rental house in Mariposa had a super fun pool | Photo: Julie Herson

Other Yosemite lodging ideas

Some families prefer hotels because the idea of re-setting a house at the end of a stay is stressful. Two higher-end hotels in the Yosemite area that are especially family-friendly are Evergreen Lodge and Rush Creek Lodge. Both have pools, fantastic play areas for kids, and some helpful programming designed to support families getting the most out of their Yosemite vacations.

Arrive Early at Yosemite to avoid entrance lines and lots of whining

Lines suck. And the lines to enter by car at the gates are epic if you arrive at the wrong time. Little kids hate lines, and parents hate whining, so with that in mind, do yourself a favor and set your alarm for the crack of dawn and get a move on in the morning. Pack breakfast and lunch the night before and lay out clothes for the kids. We arrived at the gates of Yosemite between 7 am and 8 am each of the three (week) days that we visited and were always the third or fourth car (and yes, the kids still complained about the “line”). When we were on our way out of the park around lunchtime, the lines were astonishingly long (an email from Yosemite before we arrived warned us that the lines range from one hour on weekdays to three hours on weekends!).

family hiking in forrest
Just the beginning of our 5.5-mile hike to the giant sequoia trees | Photo: Julie Herson

The Top Three Things to Do with Little Kids at Yosemite

1. Play in the water

The Merced River runs through Yosemite and there are plenty of places you can let your kids splash around. We went to Swinging Bridge in Yosemite Valley and had a terrific morning skipping rocks, splashing around, and reveling in the views. There’s also a short, flat path just past the bridge if you want to add a hike to your morning. The water is chilly, but kids never seem to mind. Mirror Lake is another spot to consider (it dries up as summer progresses, so best if you go in the spring). You’re allowed to swim and splash around pretty much anywhere there’s a sandy beach to enter the water, you can pull over wherever looks good. We didn’t try this, but floating down the river on a raft or inner tube is another option to consider.

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two kids by river
The Merced River at Swinging Bridge Beach in Yosemite Valley | Photo: Julie Herson

2. Visit a Waterfall

Yosemite Valley is home to two epic waterfalls that are easily accessible via short toddler-friendly hikes. When we went, Bridalveil Falls was closed due to construction. Happily, Yosemite Falls was open and it was awesome. The falls are at their best in the spring, but our visit in the summer still provided ample excitement for the kids. The hike to Lower Yosemite Falls is a short, flat one-mile loop. When you get to the falls you can scramble around on the rocks (though they’re slippery), and even find your way closer to the falls if you’re up for the challenge. Of note, we encountered a bear and her cub on this hike. It was exciting, scary and a real highlight of the trip.

family by waterfall
Lower Yosemite Falls | Photo: Julie Herson

3. Hike to the Giant Sequoias in Mariposa Grove

If you’re going to Yosemite you’re probably hoping to do at least one hike, if not more. For our family’s more ambitious hike, we chose Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Unfortunately, the easy hike was closed due to restoration and storm damage. So we ended up doing a 5.5-mile hike that was way more than we’d prepared for. But we made it, and it was totally worth it. Yes, the kids complained most of the time, but when I ask them about their favorite part of the entire trip, this hike and the huge trees are it.

Pro Tip: Be sure to bring plenty of water, snacks, and bug spray.

kids hiking in forrest
The Grizzly Giant made the long hike worth it | Photo: Julie Herson

Places to drive to during naptime

Yosemite is huge. So driving to the various areas can take hours, which is perfect for doing during naptime. Here are a few great options:

  • Tunnel View: You get a stunningly dramatic and iconic view as you emerge from a long tunnel. The parking lots get crowded early though.
  • Glacier Point: A longer drive, but worth it for the view of Half-Dome. Check to make sure the road is open if you go in the winter months.
  • Tuolumne Meadows: Not a vista per se, but a beautiful place to view wildlife.
kids on bridge
Finding beautiful views isn’t challenging in Yosemite | Photo: Julie Herson

The Bottom Line on Yosemite with Little Kids

It’s easy to delay going to Yosemite with little kids for all sorts of reasons, but don’t put it off. There’s so much for little kids to enjoy at Yosemite, from splashing in the Merced River, spotting wildlife in the many meadows, or just finding cool bugs on the hiking trail. If camping seems like too much, rent a house or stay in a hotel. Bring snacks and a backpack carrier for younger children and you’ll be able to find some magical hikes to enjoy as a family. Heck, it’s only 3 hours away!

bear walking on log
Our Yosemite bear! Photo: Julie Herson

Have you been to Yosemite with little kids? What are your favorite places to visit? Let us know in the comments!

Another resource: Just Go Travel Studios offers inexpensive downloadable National Park guides packed with indispensable tips >

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