Yosemite National Park is the first park I remember visiting as a child, and one of my most favorite places in the world. Even though I’ve been many times, I always catch my breath every time I enter the valley. It’s truly stunning.
I’ve been there as a child, a teen, a married couple without children, a married couple with young children, and a married couple with older children. There are a few tips I’ve learned along the way that can help make your time at Yosemite stress-free and memorable!
Before Your Trip
- Pack a poncho.
If you’re headed to Yosemite National Park during waterfall season (usually mid April through mid June–dependent on the levels of snowfall they received), when the water is roaring, you’ll need to be prepared to get wet. The rain ponchos will come in handy at Bridalveil Falls, Lower Yosemite Falls, and the Mist Trail up to Vernal Falls.
- Bring your bikes.
Biking around Yosemite Valley is the best way to get places quickly. In addition, you can stop when you want to stop, go when you want to go, and you have a better view of the scenery. Yosemite National Park is bike friendly with bike trails intertwined throughout the park. We never lock our bikes and have never had a bike stolen. Either we’re lucky, our bikes aren’t worth stealing, or the people who visit parks are full of humankindness. I like thinking it’s the latter, but it’s probably a combination of all three. Oh! Don’t forget helmets! Helmets are required by law in California for children under the age of 18.
- Prepare for bears.
Bears in Yosemite National Park aren’t the same as bears in Yellowstone. No one packs bear spray when hiking in Yosemite. However, the bears in Yosemite will get into your stuff! One time, when I was visiting as a kid, a bear rummaged through our camp and bit my friend’s coffee mug he had made for his mom for mother’s day, ruining it. He was devastated. We laugh about it now!
In order to keep the bears safe (bears that get to comfortable scavenging campsites and vehicles in search of food may have to be euthanized), Yosemite is VERY strict about enforcing their bear safety rules. ALL food, drinks, and toiletries that smell tasty MUST be stored in the bear boxes. You can’t even leave an empty water bottle or cup in the car where it can be seen. These bears are smart and will pry your car’s door open to get to anything that looks or smells like food.
For this reason, we make sure that all our food, drinks, and toiletries are packed in plastic totes or ice chests, making it easy to fit everything in the bear box at the campsite, quickly.
- Don’t forget your binoculars.
Binoculars are great for watching climbers in Yosemite Valley. Sitting in the meadow near El Capitan and finding climbers inching their way up the granite cliff is a great way to spend a morning.
- Pack an extra pair of shoes.
With all the water, you’re guaranteed to have soggy shoes at some point during your trip! We opt to take an extra pair of active shoes to keep our feet warm and comfortable. I don’t know that it’s terribly safe, but I usually switch to flip-flips on Bridal Veil Falls trail, Lower Yosemite Falls trail, and even the Mist Trail. Flip-flops on the Mist Trail are probably the most questionable. The ones I take have good tread, and I feel comfortable wearing them.
- Watch the documentary Free Solo.
Fun fact. We were in Yosemite the morning that Alex Honnald free soloed El Capitan. Unbeknownst to me, the minute he finished his world-record climb, I was enjoying my breakfast at the Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room. The footage is stunning, and it will give you a greater appreciation for what Alex accomplished when you stand on the valley floor staring up at El Capitan.
When You Get There
- Arrive early in the morning or later in the day.
The entrance fee lines into Yosemite National Park are longest around noon. Especially on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Finding parking is also easier if you arrive first thing in the morning. Although, with current COVID restrictions, a parking/entrance permit is required, so timing may not be as important as it is during normal operation.
- Enter the park through the Tunnel View entrance.
This entrance to Yosemite National Park, also known as the Yosemite West, will knock your socks off. Using highway 41 to access the park for the first time will give you the iconic view of the entire Yosemite Valley.
We like to change things up as we exit, using highway 140, El Portal, as it meanders alongside the Merced River. It’s a great way to catch a glimpse of some lesser known waterfalls right outside the valley.
- Visit Bridalveil Fall when you first arrive.
Yosemite Valley roads consist primarily of one-way streets. Bridalveil Fall is the furthest away from the remaining waterfalls and is not serviced by the parks shuttle system. For these reasons, we generally opt to visit Bridalveil right when we enter the valley. Make sure your ponchos are easy to access–you may need them!
- Eat breakfast in the Ahwahnee Dining Room.
There is something magical about the Ahwahnee Dining Room. It’s truly a majestic place to dine in style. But don’t fear if you only packed your simple suit. There is no dress code for breakfast! The kids’ menu serves up some incredibly generous portions, so keep that in mind when you order. Last time we were there, we ordered one adult breakfast to share, and each of the kids got their own plate. We had leftovers. They serve jam in small glass jars, maple syrup in miniature glass jugs, making the youngest members of your party feel extra special. It’s the little things…in the most literal sense.
- Enjoy ice cream or a frozen treat.
Whether you’re visiting in the spring, summer, or fall, ice cream is always a good idea. You can get single serving pre-packaged frozen treats at multiple locations throughout the park, or hand scooped ice cream at Curry Village. It always tastes extra amazing after a hard hike!
- Order Curry Village pizza.
After you’ve been cooking over a campfire for a week, hiking 7-9 miles a day, the pizza at Curry Village hits the spot! We like eating here on our last night, when the ice chest is starting to look a little empty. They even have a gluten-free crust and dairy-free cheese, which is wonderful if you have any family members with food sensitivities (like us). I think it was the best gf/df pizza I’ve ever had. The other members of my family said the regular pizza was delicious, too. Tip: Don’t feed the squirrels. They are persistent and adorable, but it’s not good for them, and they carry germs that you don’t want to take home with you! Did I say they are persistent?
Hiking in the Park
- Hike the Mist Trail.
The Mist Trail to Vernal Falls is one of our favorite hikes. If you go during waterfall season, be prepared to get wet. The past several times we were there, it was like standing in a shower fully clothed for minutes on end. Fortunately, there is a large slab of rock at the top where you can wring out your socks, sprawl out, and try to dry out a bit before tackling the hike back or going further to Nevada Falls.
- Avoid Mirror Lake in the middle of the day.
Don’t get me wrong. Mirror Lake is pretty during the middle of the day. But if you want to see the true “mirror” effect, it works best when there are shadows on the water. That’s why visiting Mirror Lake in the early morning or later in the day when the sun isn’t shining directly on the water is best!
- Visit Lower Yosemite Falls
The sheer power generated by these falls will leave you breathless and laughing. You can feel the air start to change as your walk up the easily-accessible trail to the base of the falls. You can’t go to Yosemite National Park and not make the short walk to these Falls.
- Become a Junior Ranger.
Participating in the Junior Ranger Program at national parks is something my kids look forward to with each visit. Kids can get their Junior Ranger booklet at the Visitor Center or at the Happy Isles Nature Center. It’s free, it’s fun, they learn, and they earn a little badge to keep.
- Don’t miss the Visitor’s Center!
My young adventurers (and us older adventurers) love walking through Yosemite’s Visitor Center. They have both an indoor and outdoor interpretive center. Usually, they have native american docents weaving baskets or sharing other skills from the original inhabitants of the valley. Outdoors, guests can explore replicas of the past, which feels like taking a step back in time. On our last visit, my kiddos saw an exhibit about a game that the natives played with sticks and acorns caps (is that what they’re called?). Days later, I found them playing it on the sidewalk with sticks and pastasico shells.
- Watch the climbers on El Capitan.
Spend an hour or two (or more) sitting on the valley floor, watching men and women make their way up one of the largest slabs of granite in the world. Take your binoculars, a sketch pad, and blanket, and enjoy the stillness.
- Tour the Happy Isles Nature Center.
Tucked a little ways off the beaten path is the Happy Isles Nature Center. In addition to selling gifts (surprise), there is an exhibit about the animals that inhabit Yosemite National Park. It’s small, but nicely put together.
Other Things to Know
- Avoid shuttle buses in the afternoon.
Shuttle bus lines can get long in Yosemite Valley…especially in the afternoon. Often, it’s faster to walk, but as you know, our preferred method of transportation is biking! Sometimes though, you don’t feel like moving, and an air-conditioned bus sounds better than walking. If that’s the case, here’s a quick shuttle bus hack: walk from the busier shuttle stop to a stop that is less busy. You might have to ride for a bit longer, but at least you’ll be sitting on an air-conditioned bus rather than standing in the hot sun.
- Don’t rely on cell service.
Cell service is spotty at best in Yosemite Valley. It’s almost non-existent in the Pines campgrounds, which I certainly don’t mind. In fact, LACK of cell service might be one of my favorite amenities at most national parks. Haha! If you do need to use your phone, your best bet at getting a signal is near the Visitor Center and General Store in the center of the valley.
Enjoy your stay!
Yosemite National Park is a great destination choice for your next family vacation! I hope these insider tips help make your next trip your best one yet!
If you have any questions, or have other tips to share, drop them in the comments below!