Kids love the national parks, and bringing them along is a no-brainer. To find kid-oriented events, check the free seasonal park newspapers or consult the daily or weekly program calendars posted at visitor centers and some park lodgings and campgrounds. Spend days swimming, cycling and hiking. How about spying on the wildlife, marveling at waterfalls, peering over tall cliffs and exploring crazy-cool caves? For many kids, just sleeping in a tent for the first time is the biggest adventure.
Best Regions for Kids
- Yosemite National Park
Drop by the Happy Isles Art & Nature Center, be awestruck by Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls, drink in views of Half Dome from Glacier Point and picnic by wildflower-strewn Tuolumne Meadows. When your kids get tired of traipsing around the valley, simply hop on the bus and head back to your car, campsite or lodge.
- Eastern Sierra
Ride a historic narrow-gauge railroad through pine forests, explore an Old West mining ghost town and ski the powder slopes of Mammoth Mountain or June Mountain. Sno-parks, good for tubing and sledding, are scattered around the region.
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
In Sequoia learn all about giant sequoias in the Giant Forest, then scramble up Moro Rock and explore the creepy-crawly underground at Crystal Cave. In Kings Canyon duck inside the Fallen Monarch tree in General Grant Grove, cool off at Hume Lake and spot wildlife in Zumwalt Meadow.
- Yosemite Conservancy Park partner offers outdoor classes and indoor programs that teach kids about ecology, history and more, as well as low-cost art classes taught at the Happy Isles Nature & Art Center in Yosemite Valley.
- Ansel Adams Gallery Photography walks for budding shutterbugs explore Yosemite Valley.
- Yosemite Mountaineering School Kids aged 10 and up can take a beginners' 'Go Climb a Rock' class in Yosemite Valley.
- Yosemite Valley Rent bikes or bring your own to pedal along paved, mostly level bike paths.
- Mammoth Mountain Older kids and teens will go bananas over this giant mountain-bike park, open during summer.
Hiking in Yosemite National Park
- Yosemite Valley Loop Hike along primarily paved, flat trails, then hop on the shuttle bus back to where you started.
- Vernal Fall It’s less than a mile to the footbridge below one of Yosemite Valley’s most famous falls.
- Mirror Lake Best in spring or early summer, when the lake’s waters reflect iconic Half Dome.
- Happy Isles Art & Nature Center Guided junior ranger walks start here during summer.
- Sentinel Dome Yosemite’s easiest granite-dome scramble, worth it for 360-degree views.
- McGurk Meadow An easy-as-pie walk among wildflowers, just off Glacier Point Rd.
- Mariposa Grove Ramble among majestic giant sequoias on newly restored nature trails.
- Tuolumne Meadows Stroll by wildflowers and the Tuolumne River to Soda Springs, or climb nearby granite domes.
Hiking in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
- Big Trees Trail Marvel at giant sequoias along a short nature loop.
- Moro Rock Climb with older kids up a granite dome for spectacular panoramas.
- Crescent Meadow Loop Spy on black bears and peer inside the Chimney Tree.
- Tokopah Falls Scenic riverside hike to a 1200ft-high cascade tumbling down cliffs.
- General Grant Tree Trail Stare up at giant sequoias and step inside the Fallen Monarch.
- Zumwalt Meadow A peaceful riverside ramble, with a good chance of spotting wildlife.
Hiking in Eastern Sierra
- Discovery Trail Slow 1-mile loop guides visitors through an ancient bristlecone pine grove.
- Kaweah Oak Preserve Home to 324 acres of majestic oak trees; a gorgeous setting for easy hikes.
- Devils Postpile National Monument Short trail to the top of Reds Meadow to see bizarre formations of molten lava.
- South Tufa Interpretive trail to the southern rim of Mono Lake.
- Yosemite Valley Visitor Center Child-friendly, interactive natural and cultural history exhibits, plus afternoon junior-ranger talks and evening programs for little ones in the outdoor theater during summer.
- Yosemite Museum Explore Yosemite’s indigenous heritage, including at the reconstructed Indian Village of Ahwahnee. Don’t miss the cross-section of a giant sequoia (count the rings!) out front.
- Pioneer Yosemite History Center Wawona’s atmospheric old buildings, stagecoaches and covered bridge are worth a look. In summer hop on a stagecoach for a short ride.
- Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad South of Yosemite, ride historic narrow-gauge trains into the forest.
- Sequoia Parks Conservancy In summer this park partner puts on family-oriented living-history programs with a BBQ cookout at Wolverton Meadow and campfire storytelling at Wuksachi Lodge.
- Hospital Rock Inspect ancient pictographs and Native American grinding holes in the Foothills area of Sequoia National Park.
- Bodie State Historic Park Explore the ghostly ruins of a real 19th-century mining town in the Eastern Sierra that went from boom to bust.
- Laws Railroad Museum & Historic Site A fun whistle-stop for train enthusiasts in the Eastern Sierra, with family-friendly special events.
- Yosemite Hitch up in summer for a scenic two-hour trip to Mirror Lake in Yosemite Valley, or a two-hour ride along a pioneer-era wagon road in Wawona.
- Yosemite Trails Pack Station Just south of the park, this outfit offers one- and two-hour creekside trail rides from April through early November, weather permitting.
- Kings Canyon In summer, one- or two-hour horseback trips trek among giant sequoias in Grant Grove and along the Kings River from Cedar Grove.
- Happy Isles Art & Nature Center In this Yosemite Valley center you'll find great hands-on exhibits and dioramas depicting natural environments. Kids can learn about pine cones, rub their hands across granite, check out different animal tracks and even snicker at the display on animal scat.
- Giant Forest Museum In Sequoia’s Giant Forest, this family-friendly educational center has lots of stuff to touch, play with and explore, with a walkway outside that dramatically shows the height of these giant trees.
- Discovery Room At the back of the Kings Canyon Visitor Center, kids can practice pine-cone identification and play a spot-the-species game with bilingual (Spanish/English) murals.
Swimming & Water Sports
- June Lake In the Eastern Sierra hang out by the beach in summer or launch a canoe, kayak or paddleboat.
- Merced River In summer go rafting or kayaking in Yosemite Valley or just splash around by the sandy shore.
- Half Dome Village & Yosemite Valley Lodge Yosemite Valley’s outdoor public swimming pools let families cool off.
- Tenaya Lake Build sandcastles on the beach of Yosemite’s roadside high-altitude lake (warning: the water is chilly, even in summer!).
- Hume Lake Along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, take a dip in this pretty forest lake with sandy beaches that's always crowded with families.
- Kaweah River Families picnic, sunbathe on the rocks and splash around summertime swimming holes in Sequoia's Foothills and Lodgepole areas.
- Muir Rock Late in summer this swimming spot along the Kings River near Road's End in Cedar Grove offers a small sandy beach.
- Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area Gentle slopes and groomed cross-country tracks are excellent for beginners. The ‘Badger Pups’ kids' downhill program offers lessons for little skiers and boarders from four to six years old. Childcare is available for ages three to nine.
- Half Dome Village Go ice-skating on an outdoor rink with superb scenery in Yosemite Valley. There's a smaller outdoor rink at Tenaya Lodge, just south of the park.
- Wuksachi Lodge In Sequoia National Park, rent snowshoes and take the whole family for a hike around giant-sequoia groves, or join a ranger-guided snowshoe walk.
- Mammoth Mountain In the Eastern Sierra near Mammoth Lakes, this superb skiing and snowboarding resort offers kids' lessons and childcare services. Families also love tamer and less crowded June Mountain ski resort nearby.
- Montecito Sequoia Lodge In the Giant Sequoia National Monument, this family camp offers cross-country ski trails, snowboarding, snow tubing, sledding and daily children’s activities.
Be a Junior Ranger!
The junior ranger program is a national-park-specific activity book (www.nps.gov/kids/jrrangers.cfm) that helps children of different ages learn about wildlife, history and conservation. It’s one of the best all-in-one bundles of things for kids to do, and includes scavenger hunts, crossword puzzles and do-good assignments such as picking up a bag of trash on the trail or interviewing a real park ranger. Upon completion, kids get a souvenir badge. It’s a neat way for families to experience and learn about the parks, and it’s open to all ages (even adults!). Booklets are available for a nominal fee from park visitor centers and bookstores.
In the Eastern Sierra, the Inyo National Forest has its own junior ranger program, with activity booklets stocked at USFS ranger stations and visitor centers.
It’s raining, it’s pouring – will the kids think it’s super boring? A little weather doesn’t have to spoil your trip. In fact it might prod you to explore some cool indoor activities you might not have noticed otherwise.
Yosemite National Park
- Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center The cozy children’s corner is full of ecofriendly books, games, puzzles, stuffed animals, fake bugs, crayons and an activity table.
- Happy Isles Art & Nature Center Hands-on animal displays and identification activities (including on everyone's favorites – animal tracks and scat), plus drop-in family crafts and art classes.
- Half Dome Village Lounge If you just need somewhere to sit out the storm, head to where the kids can do puzzles and play games by the fire (bring the cards!).
Sequoia & Kings Canyon
- Kings Canyon Visitor Center Fun, nature-themed activity stations for kids are hidden at the back of the park's main visitor center in Grant Grove Village.
- General Grant Grove and Giant Forest Pathways around these giant sequoias are generally shielded from all but the heaviest downpours by the massive trees themselves.
Packing too much into your national-parks trip can cause frustration and spoil the adventure. Try to include the kids in the trip planning from the get-go. If they have a hand in choosing activities, they’ll be much more interested and excited when you finally arrive.
For more advice and anecdotes, especially for families hitting the road together for the first time, read Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children. Other helpful and encouraging reads for parents are Babes in the Woods by Jennifer Aist, Outdoor Parents, Outdoor Kids by Eugene Buchanan and the Sierra Club Family Outdoors Guide by Marlyn Doan.
Before You Go
Some great resources for getting kids psyched up about your trip:
- Yosemite’s official website (www.nps.gov/yose/learn/kidsyouth) links to all kinds of junior-ranger and educational online activities, as does the 'Park Fun' page (www.nps.gov/yose/learn/kidsyouth/parkfun.htm).
- Sequoia and Kings Canyon’s official website (www.nps.gov/seki/learn/kidsyouth/index.htm) lists free ranger-led programs and also includes a link to the Sequoia Seeds kids’ newspaper.
- The National Park Service (NPS) WebRangers portal (www.nps.gov/kids) has dozens of fun, educational activities for aspiring junior rangers.
- Phil Frank’s comic-strip books, Fur and Loafing in Yosemite and Eat, Drink & Be Hairy, are compilations of hilarious, bear-filled park adventures.
- Bishop Area Visitors Bureau (www.bishopvisitor.com/activities/kids) has recommendations and advice for families traveling in the Eastern Sierra.
- Ask questions and get advice from other travelers on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree’s ‘Kids to Go’ and ‘USA’ forums (www.lonelyplanet.com).
- Travel for Kids – High Sierra (www.travelforkids.com/Funtodo/California/high-sierra.htm) has loads of tips for family activities, sightseeing, hiking and accommodations, plus recommended children's books.
Sleeping & Eating
The parks and nearby gateway towns all cater for families. Most lodgings allow kids under 12 years of age to sleep for free in the same room as their parents, though a rollaway cot may cost extra. A child-sized inflatable mattress or portable sleeping crib will fit into most motel or hotel rooms. Almost all restaurants in and around the parks have kids' menus with smaller portions and significantly lower prices. Dress codes are casual almost everywhere (except at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel's dining room).
Health & Safety
Travel with kids always requires extra safety measures, but with a little preparation and common sense, your family can make the most of your park visit.
- Dress children (and yourself) in layers so they can peel clothing on or off as needed – mountain weather can change suddenly.
- Bring lots of high-energy snacks and drinks, even for short outings and easy hikes. Remember that kids dehydrate more quickly than adults.
- When hiking make sure your kids stay within earshot (if not sight). They may want to rush ahead, but it’s easy to miss a trail junction or take a wrong turn.
- As an extra precaution while hiking, have each child wear brightly colored clothes and carry a flashlight and safety whistle.
- Make sure kids know what to do if they get lost on the trail (eg stay put, periodically blow the whistle) or anywhere else in the parks (eg ask a ranger for help).
- Be extra cautious with kids around waterfalls, near cliff edges and at viewpoints, not all of which have barrier railings; the same goes for any peaks or domes.
- At higher elevations kids may experience altitude sickness. Watch them for symptoms, especially while they're active outdoors. Descend to lower elevations immediately if any symptoms arise.
- Ensure your kids know what to do if they see a bear.
- Children are more vulnerable to spider and snake bites. Remind them not to pick up or provoke snakes (eg with sticks) and never to put their hands anywhere they can’t see.
- Teach children to identify poison oak.