Yosemite Valley Family Adventures Big and Small

These Yosemite spots are perfect for families.
view of Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View overlook, with clouds in background
(Photo: @jarrcrew via Twenty20)

It’s hard to describe the feeling of pulling into Yosemite Valley. Words don’t do it justice. Your eyes have a hard time taking it all in. No photo (sorry, Ansel Adams) can truly capture it. Bringing your children to Yosemite Valley and its surroundings will be a family vacation none of you will forget. 

Yosemite Valley for Families

While heading into a National Park might feel intimidating if you aren’t an avid outdoors family, the main sites of Yosemite Valley are accessible to all with well-marked (even paved) paths and a circulating bus; a family can easily spend several days admiring the grandeur from varied perspectives. As the light moves across the valley, and as you travel on foot, bike, or in a car, the park seems to evolve and change. Bring whatever camera you’d like, but your best memories will come from those “Oh wow!” “Look at that!” “No way!” moments on your walks.

Don’t hesitate to visit Yosemite any time of year; the sharp sunlight and lack of crowds make it particularly awesome, though less predictable weather-wise, in winter.

NOTE: You will need a reservation to enter the park from May 20 through September 20, 2022 (infrastructure repairs warrant limiting entry). 

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Easy Hikes in Yosemite Valley

view of a rainbow over the mist trail on the vernal falls hike in yosemite valley
Mist Trail/Vernal Falls Hike (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

The best walks for families in the valley include:

  • Lower Yosemite Falls: The gentle 1+ mile loop to see Lower Yosemite Falls. Mostly paved and full of beauty, you’re rewarded at the halfway point with great views of the falls (and in winter, spring, and early summer, the chance to be cooled by the mist coming off the waterfall)
  • Mirror Lake: The paved closed road to Mirror Lake is two miles round trip to the lake or five miles round trip around the lake. Along this easy walk, you’ll get great views of Half Dome, Mount Watkins, and other valley vistas. Note that except in late winter and spring, there’s not much water in Mirror Lake (it’s sometimes referred to as Mirror Meadow in summer–it really does dry up), but the walk is both easy and great, and the views are stellar.
  • Bridalveil Falls: As you enter the valley, the first waterfall you’ll see is the 620-foot Bridalveil Falls. Set to reopen in Fall 2022, the paved trail to Bridalveil Falls is an easy half-mile round trip walk. The view of the waterfall will get everyone pumped for more (use it as a way to get kids psyched for the slightly longer Lower Yosemite Falls walk). When it reopens at the end of Fall 2022 the trail will have improvements like restrooms and better signage.
  • Vernal Falls Footbridge: Most kids can also easily navigate the hike to the Vernal Falls footbridge, where you can pause for an amazing view of the falls. There’s some elevation change getting to the bridge, but by taking is slow and steady, it’s an achievable challenge for most. 
  • Vernal Falls: Want to keep going? Though it’s steep in some spots, the gorgeous but steep and slippery Mist Trail to Vernal Falls is an incredible hike full of rainbows that hang in the mist coming off the falls. It’s a popular trail with adventurous families with kids older than six or so. There are lots of rocks for pausing along the way, and it feels like a big adventure. Note that people who have heights issues (especially parents with heights+kids issues) may find this to be too much. 
  • Nevada Falls: For a bigger adventure, continue along the trail to the higher-elevation Nevada Falls. On the way back, you can intersect with the long-distance John Muir Trail before making the loop back down into the valley. This is a longer hike best for older kids and fit families. 

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More Things to Do in Yosemite Valley

View of Tunnel View parking lot and Yosemite Valley view beyond
Tunnel View from above (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Throughout the year, families can picnic and play along the Merced River, with its awe-inspiring surrounding views. Great picnic/play spots include Cathedral Beach, Sentinel Beach, and Swinging Bridge. From there, you can try to spot climbers on El Capitan, the park’s crowning glory (okay, Half Dome is pretty great too). 

To catch the most iconic view (Tunnel View) of the valley, drive up Wawona Road past Bridalveil Falls, and pull over just before the tunnel. You can even bring your lunch up there, and take the small footpath along the rocks across the street for arguably one of the most awesome picnic spots in America (do not leave the trail and LNT, or “leave no trace!”).

For the less nature-oriented travelers in your group, the Miwok Museum near the Visitor Center is a powerful experience and an important reminder of the history of the native people of this land. The Ansel Adams Gallery gives visitors an up-close-and-personal experience of Adams’s documentation of and perspectives in the park. Also, a stroll through the historic Ahwahnee Hotel for a festive (and expensive!) drink or snack in the sitting area brings visitors back in time to when the first white visitors started setting up camp in the park. Sitting rooms off the main room give a photo and painting history of the park from the times when skis were wooden with metal bindings.

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Things to Do Near Yosemite 

View of reservoir at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite
Hetch Hetchy (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Most folks who head out to Yosemite are in it for the experiences in nature. Fish Camp is a small town at the South Entrance to the park where train enthusiasts can ride the full size Sugar Pine Steam Train and learn about old logging practices; further along, boat lovers might enjoy a day or two on Bass Lake.  In winter, Badger Pass Ski Area makes for a great family stop, as the mountain is small, inexpensive, and super-friendly. 

Coming from Mariposa (Arch Rock Entrance), the Merced River Recreation Area in Briceberg makes for a great place to float down the Merced. Pull off the road into the parking lot just below the road for a fun run through some small rapids or drive over the one-way bridge down along the old railway and pull off where you see a safe place to set up some fun water play. NOTE: Swim at your own risk. There are no lifeguards along the river. 

If you come to or go from the park at the Big Oak Flat entrance, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir–about 30 minutes from the park entrance–should not be missed. Set up as San Francisco’s primary water source, this incredible reservoir looks and feels like a “mini-Yosemite”; towering rocks and spectacular waterfalls frame the lake, and a gentle path flanks the water with views that get better and better along the way. Park above the dam, and bring plenty of water and snacks.

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Nina Cohen
Nina Cohen is a teacher, parent, traveler, and writer. She’s lived around the world and is an expert on travel to France, Hawaii, and the Boston-DC corridor.