I’ve been visiting Yosemite National Park my entire life. My adventures there began at a young age, with my first backpacking trip at three, followed by many more family camping, hiking, and backpacking trips throughout my childhood. As an adult, I’ve regularly visited the park three-four times per year. Before having a child, Yosemite, to me, was all about hiking and getting as far away from the crowds as I possible could.
Having a child, however, has changed things for us. For the first three years, either I carried our son around in our Ergo carrier or my husband carried him in a backpack, without putting much of a dent in our hiking ability. But then he became too heavy to carry, and he wasn’t always up for a walk. We have the philosophy that it’s detrimental to push a child to hike when he or she isn’t in the mood. Our long-term goal is to have a kid who loves to hike. And, so far, at five, he does! But in the process, we’ve found that Yosemite has a lot of other things to do that are fun, too!
Before you start: I have a few tips before we get into the fun things to do with your child(ren). When you enter Yosemite, the ranger at the booth will offer you a newspaper. Accept this. It’s filled with tons of great information! Next, after you’ve settled into your campsite, cabin, or hotel room for the night, head to the Visitor Center in Yosemite Village. Here, pick up a Valley Shuttle Map and ask them to give you the free hiking maps for the park areas you plan to visit. They have maps for each region of the park. For my recommendations below, you’ll need the “Yosemite Valley Hiking Map”. Also, if interested, purchase the $3.00 “Little Cub Handbook”, which I’ll discuss below. Now you’re set to explore!
Here are the things we’ve enjoyed doing in Yosemite Valley with our son, at ages 2-5…
- Ride the free shuttle bus. My son LOVES this! One of the first things he asks when we’re planning our next trip to Yosemite is, “Will we be able to ride the shuttle?” I don’t recommend riding the shuttle just for the fun of it, as it can get pretty crowded at times, but it’s a great way to get from one destination to another in the valley without the hassle of finding more than one parking space. And parking spaces can be hard to find in the busy summer months!
- Become a “Yosemite Little Cub”. We first did this last year, when our son was four, and we’ll be doing it again this year. This is a Junior Ranger program for younger kids, ages 3-6. In order to participate, purchase the $3.00 Little Cub Handbook from the Visitor Center or from the Nature Center. The handbook provides 9 fun activities to work through with your child(ren), as you and your family explore Yosemite. After completing the necessary number of activities (age dependent), head to a visitor center to have your child pick up the earned Yosemite Little Cub badge.
- Check out the exhibits at the Visitor Center. Shuttle Stop #9. This is a small museum (free), but has a few exhibits that are fun for kids. You’ll be visiting here, anyways, to pick up your shuttle and hiking maps! Whenever we visit, we like to walk through, and then…
- Explore the Indian Village. Walk out back of the Visitor Center, and, to the left, you’ll find the entrance to the Indian Village. Walk along the path to discover the village. You’ll find “bark houses”, which your child will have fun checking out. My son loves to run in and out of them and pretend he’s living there. The village is a great way for your child to imagine what it might have been like to live in Yosemite before the explorers came.
- Purchase some great nature-oriented children’s books. I love the ones at the Ansel Adams Gallery, but other locations, such as the Nature Center at Happy Isles, also have a nice selection. Disclaimer… during graduate school, I worked a summer at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Pebble Beach (which has since been closed). I fell in love, not only with the photography, jewelry, and other artisan products offered, but also with their book selection when I worked there!
- Hike to Lower Yosemite Falls. This is a flat 1.1 mile loop, perfect for little kids. We take the shuttle here, getting off at Stop #6, which is where the trail starts. The trail starts off with a meander through the forest, along the river, and over a couple bridges. If it’s a hot day, you can be a fun spot to splash around in the water. When the water is flowing, the highlight of this walk is the bridge under the fall, where you’ll be sure to get drenched with spray from the falls. But, then, keep going for our favorite activity on this hike. On the other side of the bridge, down the path just a ways, along the right side of the trail, you’ll begin to see lots of boulders, just calling to be climbed. There are also “caves” created by the fallen rocks, which are also fun to explore, as long as you skip the ones with tiny spaces. We can spend hours here climbing around.
- Relax at the beach. We usually visit Sentinel Beach (Shuttle Stop #11), but there are other beaches to be found along the river. The beach behind Housekeeping Camp appears to be a popular beach area (Shuttle Stop #12). Put on your suits, pack the towels and some snacks, and enjoy the sunshine and gorgeous views!
- Visit the Nature Center at Happy Isles and hike the trails behind it. You’ll find this at Shuttle Stop #16. From the official Yosemite website, the Nature Center… “is a family-oriented nature center that features natural history exhibits (with an emphasis on wildlife) and interactive displays. Nearby are short trails focusing on the area’s four different environments: forest, river, talus, and fen. You can also see substantial evidence of the huge 1996 rockfall from the Glacier Point cliff far above the nature center. The nature center is a short walk from the Happy Isles shuttle bus stop, and is open May through September.” If you’re visiting Yosemite with a kid, you have to check this place out. Also, look in the scheduled events section of the newspaper you received when you arrived in Yosemite, and you’ll find when naturalist programs are offered here. After you’ve explored the museum, I recommend you head out back for a walk along the trails. If it’s a hot day, bring along a bathing suit and towels, as this is another great spot for water play (when the water is low enough later in the season!!).
- Hike to Mirror Lake. This is a 2-mile round trip hike, with a slight hill. To get here, take the shuttle bus, exiting at Stop #17. You’ll find specific hike information in the Yosemite Valley Hiking Map. Note that this is no longer a lake, but more of a pond in the earlier season and a marsh later. This is my son’s favorite spot in the valley to play in the water, so bring a swimsuit and towels!
- Ride bikes! Many of the roads in Yosemite Valley are closed to cars, which makes them fun to ride bikes on. My son’s number one favorite Yosemite Valley activity is to ride bikes from Curry Village to Mirror Lake. But there are trails all over the valley that are perfect for bike riding. Head out and explore!
5 Bonus Activities:
- Find a pretty spot and have a picnic. I’m not going to recommend any one place. Any spot within the valley will do. Find a spot in a meadow, along a river, on a rock, at a beach, in an official picnic area… anywhere will do!
- Looking for a longer hike to do with your child? Join the masses, and head to Vernal Falls (Shuttle Stop #16). You can simply hike to the Vernal Fall footbridge for a 1.6 mile strenuous (this is a steep, paved path!) round trip outing. The bridge provides gorgeous views of Vernal Falls. If you’re looking for more adventure, continue on up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls. This part of the trail is made of steps which climb along the right side of the waterfall. And, as you can guess from the name, it can get pretty misty up here, so plan to get wet. And beware of potentially slick steps. You’ll find hike details in the “Yosemite Valley Hiking Map”.
- Explore the Indian Caves. Shuttle Stop #3. I haven’t been to these yet, but one of these days, I’m going to take my kid here. These aren’t really caves, but were created by fallen boulders. For details, check out this post from Debi at Go Explore Nature… Where to go in Yosemite with Kids: The Indian Caves.
- Need an adult-length hike? My husband and I take turns watching our son, so we can get our need for longer hikes fulfilled (and take a short break from parenting). The trails around here are crowded enough, that I’m comfortable hiking just about anywhere on my own. Trails I regularly enjoy include Nevada Falls (5.4 miles) and Yosemite Falls (7.2 miles). Or have your spouse drop you off at Glacier Point for a one-way hike into the valley on either the Four Mile Trail or the Panorama Trail (9-miles).
- Unwind on the patio at the Ahwahnee Hotel. Shuttle Stop #3. When we’re feeling exhausted and simply need a little parenting downtime, my husband and I like to give ourselves a little treat. We’ll head to the Ahwahnee Hotel, order a beverage at the bar, and either sit at one of the outdoor tables or head to a bench in the grassy field behind the hotel. We like to relax and enjoy the views while our son runs around on the grass. Ah…
Last tip? Don’t try to do this all in one day. Only here for a day? Select only a few activities. Relax and enjoy your visit!
You may also enjoy…. 5 Tips for Joyful Hiking with Little Kids
Love it! So many of these items are favorites for us, too. We’re also partial to exploring Wawona near the South Entrance to the park, especially when the Valley becomes overrun with tourists during the summer. Thanks so much for the shout out!
Hope you had a great trip to Yosemite last week! I think the Wawona area is underrated… there are so many gems in the area to explore (Chilnualna Falls is a highlight). I’ve been through the Indian Caves (perhaps called Spider Caves?) at the base of Lower Yosemite Falls, but haven’t been to the ones you recommend yet. Next trip! My son would love to play there.