3 Day Itinerary – Yosemite National Park with Kids
My husband and I, along with our 1 and 2 year old, spent 8 days road-tripping through California & the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in September. We began our vacation in South Lake Tahoe, California, before heading down to Yosemite. Indeed, three days is a sufficient amount of time to see most of the highlights in Yosemite National Park with kids. But keep in mind, since the littles were with us, a few of the popular hikes, like the 10 hour hike up to Half Dome, weren’t exactly our top choices. But for the most part, I feel confident that we covered most of the popular points of interest.
Where to Stay in Yosemite National Park with Kids?
The drive from South Lake Tahoe to Yosemite Valley, with no stopping, is 4.5 hours. Since we had toddlers in the car, I scheduled several fun stops along the way. Check back soon for my post on all the wonderful places and things to do along this drive. Consequently, after all of our stops, we arrived to Yosemite National Park after dark.
As with many National Parks, the hotels that are in the center of the parks, book up quickly, sometime years in advance. If you can secure a room in Curry Village or in the Valley, then definitely go for it! But we booked this trip only 1 month in advance. Therefore, we stayed at Yosemite View Lodge which is the next closest location to the Valley.
From Yosemite View Lodge, it is about a 20-25 minute drive to the Valley, and about 1 hour to Glacier Point. This was a great place to stay in Yosemite National Park with kids because it had 3 pools and 4 hot tubs (plus an indoor heated pool which was nice since it was quite chilly in September). We also had a room with a balcony overlooking the river which was beautiful. Moreover, there’s a grocery store and restaurant onsite!
Day 1: Ride Bikes around Yosemite Valley
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Yosemite Valley, the heart of the park, is pretty straightforward. It’s a one-way oval loop, with only one entrance and one exit. Click here for a map with all the major points of interest in the Valley plus a map of ALL of Yosemite National Park. Biking is one of the best ways to hit up all of the sites in the Valley in a short period of time. You can rent bikes at either Curry Village or Yosemite Valley Lodge. We found parking to be easier at Curry Village, so we rented our bikes there. We paid a total of $120 for 2 bikes with 2 trailers for the kids for an entire day. Yosemite Valley is mostly flat, and there is a 12 mile biking trail loop that goes all throughout the valley.
Below are a few stops I recommend taking during your Bike Ride:
Your first stop is Mirror Lake (or in September, it’s more like “Mirror Beach” because the water is dried up completely). From Curry Village, you will take the loop trail counter-clockwise and within about 5-10 minutes you will reach the Mirror Lake trailhead. You can ride your bikes up to a certain point, but you will have to park your bike and walk UPHILL for about 5-8 more minutes before you reach the lake. Even with no water, it is worth the stop. You feel like you are inside a huge mountain bowl.
Lower Yosemite Falls
Continue on the bike trail and you will literally run right in front of Lower Yosemite. But, depending on the time of year, this area could be really crowded. We visited in September, when Yosemite Falls was just barely a trickle. So we had no problem riding our bikes through here. See pic below. There is an easy 1 mile trail that is wheelchair accessible around the Lower Falls. And a 2 mile UPHILL trail to Upper Yosemite Falls which would take at least 2 hours. Since the waterfall was hardly flowing, we opted out. But it’s definitely worth considering if you visit in the Spring.
Sentinel Beach & Swinging Bridge along the Merced River
Make your way into the middle of the Valley by steering off the main bike loop and towards Merced River that flows through the center. Sentinel Beach is right next to the Swinging Bridge (fun fact: it doesn’t actually swing). We stopped for a snack and let the kids play in the water. The water is very shallow here during the fall and safe to swim, but chilly. Bring a picnic if you plan for stopping here mid-day. This was one of my favorite things to do in Yosemite National Park with kids.
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Cook’s Meadow Loop Boardwalks
This is a great place to capture some fun photos. The boardwalks go through an open field with a view of Yosemite Falls (when it’s flowing) in the background. A good time to stroll this area is early morning or early evening for the best lighting for photos.
The 12 mile trail passes right in front. We just road by it and looked up at the enormity of it. I was hoping to see some of the experienced vertical rock climbers scaling the side, but no luck.
Day 2: Best Views & Hiking in Yosemite National Park with Kids
Today will be your hiking day with a few stops at vista points. And you will need to start the day EARLY. Like before sunrise early. You didn’t think you would come to Yosemite and NOT hike did you? Trails range from easy, to moderate, to hard, to “you’ve gotta be kiddin’ me.” And with our two little ones tagging along, I decided to stick to the easy and moderate trails. Although, I definitely used the phrase “you’ve gotta be kiddin’ me” on one of them. Here is your itinerary for Day 2:
Great way to start the day to get your legs moving. A simple 10 minute walk to see a beautiful waterfall and it’s on your way to the next stop, Glacier Point. Parking here is easy, as long as you get here early. You still have a lot to pack into this one day, so don’t linger too long.
Glacier Point (get here EARLY!)
Watch the sunrise at Glacier Point! At least, that was our goal, but ….toddlers. Ideally, you get here super early and watch the vistas from Glacier Point come to life with the sunrise. We still managed to get here around 10 a.m. and found a parking spot no problem. It just wasn’t the best lighting for photographs. The site has restrooms and a shop that sales drinks, snacks and souvenirs. Glacier Point is arguably the most popular point of interest for good reason. The view is breathtaking.
Next stop, is Washburn Point, just 5 minutes down the road from Glacier point. It’s another vista point with a similar view but still worth the stop. It’s not quite as busy as Glacier Point and should be a quick in and out stop.
Trail to Taft Point and Sentinel Dome
Just a 5 minute drive down the road from Washburn Point is the trailhead to Taft Point. This is an easy hike (2.2 miles round-trip). But be careful and always have the kids in the carriers, because there are impressive fissures that cut into the cliffs. You don’t want them straying far, if at all. And if you look down into these vertical chasms, it drops into what looks like a thousand foot trench into Yosemite Valley.
This is another fantastic vista point on your way down to the Valley from Glacier Point. Tip: if it’s too crowded, and if you have time, walk the 2 miles round-trip hike to Artist Point from the parking lot.
Hike Mist Trail to Vernal Falls
If you have toddlers with you, this hike is a humdinger! Otherwise, it’s moderate. We spent the afternoon hiking the (6 miles round-trip) Mist Trail to Vernal Falls. It took us about 3-4 hours. I was unaware beforehand, that the first 3 miles of the hike, is straight uphill. It is labeled moderate, and if you don’t have toddlers on your back, it will be a breeze. And if you do have toddlers on your back, then I still recommend it! The whole hike, and especially the view of Vernal Falls, is stunning. Take breaks, and bring snacks and water. There is a water fountain half way to refill.
It is called “Mist Trail” because during the spring when the falls are flowing the largest, the trail is soaking wet and you are walking through the mist of the falls the whole time. In September, it wasn’t “misty” at all.
Day 3: Yosemite’s Tioga Road and Tuolomne Meadows
This will be your relaxing day that includes a lovely scenic drive along Tioga Road with a few stops to get out and take in some beautiful vistas. This was our last day in the park and we left around 9am and exited at Lee Vining at the end of day to head back to South Lake Tahoe.
Olmsted Point – Tioga Road
First stop on Tioga Pass Road will be the popular Olmstead Point. The main view point from the parking lot can get quite crowded. Walk off the beaten path from the parking lot, about 30-40 yards, down a dirt path and through some trees, and you may have this whole space to yourselves, like we did.
This is a good spot for a picnic if you packed a lunch. The lake is stunning and there’s a beach area for the kids to run around too!
Toulumne Meadows & lunch at Meadows Grill
These are some of the largest high-elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevadas. This was our half way point, so we decided to stop here and eat lunch at Toulomne Meadows Grill. There are many trails around the vast meadows, but you can also simply walk across the street from the grill to get a glimpse of them. Walking out into them gives you such a calm, serene feeling.
The final stretch of the from Toulomne Meadows to Lee Vinings goes through Tioga Pass. This was my favorite part of the drive simply for the scenic views the whole stretch. There are many places to pull off and take in the vistas, which we did.
Have an Extra Day? Visit the Giant Sequoias in Wawona
Giant sequoias, the earth’s largest known living trees, grow only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. There are 3 different groves of giant seqoias in Yosemite National Park. The Mariposa Grove is located near Wawona in the southern region of the park. It’s the largest grove of the 3, with over 500 mature giant sequoias, and is the only one that offers wheelchair (stroller) accessible hiking trails. The other two smaller groves are the Tuolumne and Merced groves off highway 120. They are accessible by steep paved trails from the trailheads. Both downhill hikes on the way there, and uphill back to your car.
Things to Know
Cell phone service – Unless you are in the heart of Yosemite Valley, cell phone service is limited or nonexistent in most areas of the park. It is best to have a park map with you at all times. Do not rely on a cell phone or data from your mobile device to navigate, especially if you are hiking more remote trails. We purchased Wifi at our hotel for a rate of $10 per day so that we could stay connected in the evenings after the kids went to bed.
Hike Smart – Always carry plenty of water and high-energy food with you when hiking in Yosemite National Park with kids. Wear appropriate clothing and sturdy shoes for hiking. Giardia (a microscopic parasite that causes intestinal illness) is present in park waterways, so purify ALL water taken from natural sources for drinking. Wading or swimming in the streams can be unsafe in many areas of the park – Yosemite’s rivers and creeks can be surprisingly powerful, especially in the Spring! Unless it specifically says it is safe to swim, stay safe, by remaining on the trails.
Respect Wildlife at a Distance – Don’t feed wild animals and don’t leave any food unattended. If an animal changes its behavior due to your presence, you are too close.
I hope that about covers it! Feel free to comment below if you have any questions about planning your Yosemite National Park vacation!