California’s Sweetest Kid-Friendly National Park

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Excited to take your tots to the valley floor? Yosemite provides plenty of jaw-dropping moments for little first-timers and parental been-theres alike. Your first trip with the fam might be a little different from the trip you took in your early 20s: there will be no tackling of Half-Dome with toddlers in tow. But there’s still enough within the park to fill several days of low-impact exploring. You’ll need to act fast to reserve campsites for the upcoming summer months.

Sure, the must-sees are concentrated in the valley, but leave at least a day to explore other parts of the park, too. If you get over to Hetch Hetchy, Tuolomne Meadows, or the southern end of the park, you’ll find yourself on hikes that rival the beauty of the more famous ones, with considerably fewer crowds.

There is a shuttle that will take you everywhere you want to go on the valley floor, so we recommend that once you find a parking spot, you leave your car there until you want to venture beyond the valley.

Your first stop should be the Yosemite Valley Visitors’ Center. You can get your bearings, some maps, snacks, and inspiration, and be on your way.

For those who want to visit the giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove and stick to the south end of the park, the Victorian-style Wawona Hotel is a great option. It’s a throwback to more genteel times, so the tiny rooms have no phones, TVs—or AC. But the restaurant has great food, and they serve a wicked cocktail on the veranda, so you stay here if you are tired of the food-court scene, but don’t want to put on a jacket to meet the Ahwahnee’s dinnertime dress code.

If you’d rather hike around the uncrowded Hetch Hetchy reservoir,  or raft on the Tuolumne River, consider staying just outside the park’s boundaries at the Evergreen Lodge. The lodges are rustic but spacious and comfy, with private decks; there’s an onsite restaurant and bar, and the lodge puts together activities ranging from rafting trips to guided hikes.

Camping on the valley floor has its own set of rules: you mustn’t keep food in your tent or car, as it attracts the valley’s rather brazen bears; and staying in the canvas tented cabins in Curry Village can feel a bit cramped, as the tents are pitched densely and there’s not much privacy. That said, for a convenient location (right underneath Half Dome) and a range of activities (including renting rafts to float down the Merced River), it’s the best option.

If your  kids would be disappointed if they didn’t get to “help” set up their own tent there are the campsites on the valley floor, at Upper, Lower, and North pines. With all the kids running around these campsites, it can have the feel of a block party…tons of fun for the little ones, but not a genuine wilderness experience. TIP: Get online bright and early on Feb. 15 to reserve campsites for June 15-July 14 this summer. And hit the site again on March 15 for the July 15-August 14 window.

As far as waterfalls go, it doesn’t get any easier than strolling up to Yosemite Falls, the iconic cascade in the middle of the valley. But the short hike to Bridalveil Falls is doable for kids of any age, and you’ll want to get a photo or video of your kid experiencing the mist from the pounding water.

A relatively flat, short hike (one mile) up to Mirror Lake yields big rewards: kids can wade in the chilly glacial lake, which is evolving and will, in about 100 years, be a meadow with a creek running through it.

Another great way to see the valley is to bike the flat paths between the dramatic valley walls, and it’s a snap to rent bicycles from either the Curry Village Bike Stand or the kiosk at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls.

If you’re staying on the valley floor, you’ll hit up the Yosemite Lodge Food Court at least once (parents, especially if you got those coupons for free coffee at check-in). But for dinner, head upstairs to Degnan’s Loft for that all-sustaining favorite—pizza! Read more.

Need to feel civilized for a moment amidst the natural setting? The Sunday brunch at the fancy Awahnee hotel is a splurge and an all-you-can-eat extravaganza, in one of California’s most beautiful and dramatic dining rooms.

—Sarah Bossenbroek

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