From sleeping in a tent for the first time and witnessing crashing waterfalls to gazing up at enormous sequoia trees (big enough to walk through) and trying to spot bears in the wild – a visit to Yosemite is one great big adventure for children.
Many things make Yosemite a good place to go with kids. The park is easy to navigate. Families can drive and park next to trailheads and sights and get the free shuttle bus around the valley. Tons of seasonal kid-centric events and activities are on the go, so there's always something new to experience. Plus, there are plenty of facilities – including restrooms and places to fill up water bottles. However, the restaurants in the park can get crowded during peak times, so it’s advisable to bring a packed lunch.
There are a few paved trails, which are stroller accessible, but to really get a feel for the park smaller children should be transported in a carrier or sling by hiking parents, and larger children should be prepared to walk reasonable distances. There are very few shops in the vicinity for essentials like diapers and sunscreen, so plan ahead and bring everything you might need for your children.
Here are the best experiences to have as a family in Yosemite National Park.
1. Hike the easy trails
There are several easy hikes in Yosemite that will have your kids gawking in awe, including the paved Lower Yosemite Falls Loop (1 mile/1.6 km), which is wheelchair and stroller accessible. The trail gets up close to the base of the tallest waterfall in North America, tumbling 2400ft (720m) from a soaring cliff edge. Your kids will love feeling the spray of its mist.
For a slightly longer hike try the Lower Mariposa Grove Trail (2.2 miles/3.5km roundtrip) and roam among ancient trees, including the largest sequoia in the park and the oldest in the world. The Grizzly Giant has stood in this very spot for around 3000 years. Children will enjoy walking through the California Tunnel Tree, which was cut in 1895 so horse-drawn stagecoaches could pass – remarkably the tree is still alive.
Try a section of the quiet and flat Yosemite Valley Loop, 11.5 miles (18.5km) full loop, to spot nature in the park and witness some of the park’s big sights from afar – including the iconic El Capitan rock formation, a 3000ft granite monolith loved by climbers. There are also views of the Three Brothers rock formation – named for the three sons of Chief Tenaya, head of the Ahwahneechee tribe – plus sections of the 145-mile Merced River to cross on the route. Most trails will require either a baby carrier, or children to be reasonably good walkers.
2. Climb, swim, ride or ski through epic landscapes
Kids aged 10 and up can take join a beginner "Go Climb a Rock" group class in Yosemite Valley (with an adult) with Yosemite Mountaineering School. Lessons include learning how to rappel up to 60ft high. Kids under 10 can climb if they book a private climbing lesson with an adult present. Cool off with a dip in one of the outdoor watering holes in the park, from the pools at Yosemite Valley Lodge and Curry Village to the sandy beaches of Tenaya Lake (ideal for paddling). Wild swimmers can head to Lake McClure, on the edge of the park, which has a splash obstacle course in the summer months. Note: don’t swim in Yosemite’s rivers – these fast-running currents are dangerous.
Areas of the park are ideal for bikers (bring your own or rent one at Yosemite Valley Lodge or Curry Village) or go horseback riding with Yosemite Trails Horseback Adventures. In the winter months, the gentle slopes of Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area are a great day out for families. Kids aged seven to 12 can join the Badger Pass Ski Area School, where they can learn to ride a chairlift and ski or snowboard a beginner run. And parents can hit the steeper slopes – childcare services are available for children aged three to nine.
3. Go star gazing
Night sky aficionados congregate at Tunnel View to gaze at galaxies when conditions are clear. This panoramic setting sits 6039ft (1841m) above sea level, offering excellent naked-eye views. There are also regular ranger-led Starry Night Skies tours in the park – in which participants lie on the floor of Yosemite Valley during an hour-long stargazing experience, on a cosmic voyage to other galaxies, while a ranger explains more about meteors, constellations, planets, and comets. Check rates and dates at the visitor center.
4. Learn about the park’s nature
Happy Isles Art & Nature Center is the place to swat up on the natural history of the area through interactive displays. The museum has fascinating facts about the flora and fauna and the ecosystems in the park, and does nature-themed kids’ art classes (usually between June and August), in partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy (for children aged four to 11). Two daily one-hour classes run at 10am and 1pm, and are free of charge. Older kids will enjoy the Creative Smartphone Photography classes in the field with Ansel Adams Gallery. Classes run for 3 hours in Yosemite Valley, covering 2–3 miles (3–5km) on mostly flat paths.
5. Camp overnight in the park
Sleeping in a tent is a real adventure for little ones (and bigger ones!). It teaches them self-sufficiency skills, builds their confidence, and is an easy way to immerse the whole family in park life. Get your kids to help pitch the tent, cook a camp meal, and allow them to explore their surroundings. Tell stories around the campfire while roasting s’mores in the flames before waking up with the sunrise to the sound of Yosemite’s melodic bird song. The most family-friendly campgrounds are in Yosemite Valley, the majority of which can be booked in advance.
6. Listen to a ranger talk
Drop into the visitor center to see what ranger talks are taking place during your visit. These are usually free and cover subjects like wildlife, geology, native people and the park’s early settlers. Wee Wild Ones programs are aimed at kids aged 10 and under and include stories, crafting and activities for Yosemite’s smaller visitors (these usually take place at Curry Village Amphitheater between May and October). Live theater shows also take place inside the park, telling the story of the history of Yosemite National Park (tickets can be bought at the Yosemite Conservancy Store at the visitor center).
7. Become a Junior Ranger
Pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the visitor center on arrival (or download it before you arrive). It is filled with activities for kids to do around the park, from scavenger hunts and crossword puzzles to interviewing a park ranger and learning about the night sky. If your children complete the whole thing they earn a badge, and go home with a whole heap of knowledge about the park and natural world.