Yosemite National Park has been on my travel wish list for years, but we wanted to wait until our girls were old enough to hike long distances without complaining. (Okay, I’ll settle for “hike long distances.”) During the early days of COVID, we took them to many of the Texas state parks and they became seasoned hikers, so we thought maybe they were ready to level up to a national park. We decided on Yosemite National Park because we could pair it with a Disneyland trip at spring break and have a little something for everyone.
Planning a trip to Yosemite was overwhelming since I had never been there before. To make it even more overwhelming, you never know what you’re going to get when you visit Yosemite in the winter. It’s really hard to plan because you don’t know if the weather will be gorgeous and in the 50s or snowy and below freezing. And the weather can vary within the park too, because it’s approximately the size of Rhode Island and the elevation changes drastically within its boundaries. So, it’s best to plan for all scenarios and hope for the best.
Because there are so many factors that can affect your experience at Yosemite (weather, crowds, COVID closures, etc.), each visit there will be a little different. So your experience could be quite different from our experience. But I learned a lot about visiting Yosemite with kids during the trip planning process and our three-night stay, and I hope it might save you a little research and worry.
How to Get There
The closest airport to Yosemite is Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT). From there, you’ll need to rent a car and drive about 1½ hours to Yosemite’s south entrance. You can also fly into San Francisco International (SFO), but you’ll be driving about three hours to get to the western entrance of Yosemite.
Where to Stay and Eat
I had no idea how large this park actually is. With the snowy driving conditions, it took over an hour to get from the South entrance of the park to the Valley, where we were staying. Most of the sights you’ll probably want to see are located in the Valley, so I recommend staying there if you can. There are many hotels/lodges located outside of the park with more amenities, but then you spend so much of your day just driving in and out of the park. Personally, I’d rather spend that time exploring and seeing the sights.
From tent camping, to rooms that share a bathroom with other guests, to luxury accommodations, you’ll find it all here. We opted to go for convenience, because I wanted to spend most of our time enjoying the park and not driving around. We stayed at Yosemite Valley Lodge, which is quite basic and pricey for what you get, but you’re paying for location, location, location! You literally walk outside your door and see and hear Yosemite Falls across the street from the lodge. Some of the balconies actually have a view of the Falls. And another bonus for families with young kids: you can book a room with bunk beds. I don’t know about your kids, but mine sleep SO much better when they don’t sleep together.
This lodge is very centrally located within the Valley, which is where you will likely spend most of your time. It’s only a ten-minute walk to Yosemite Falls, and there are several other trails you can reach easily from the lodge. To get to others, you can drive (in low season) or ride the shuttle (during busy times). I had read that parking could be a problem so riding the shuttle was best, but in March when we visited, parking was never a problem. And the shuttle was running on a modified schedule (I’m not sure if this was due to low-season or COVID), so it was not as convenient as it could have been. The lodge has a food court style restaurant and a sit-down restaurant (which is closed in the winter), a lounge, a small store, and possibly other amenities depending on the season.
Our room was very basic and did not have AC (which we didn’t need in March), but it did have a heater, television, small fridge, toiletries, daily housekeeping, and most have balconies.
If you want more luxurious accommodations and you’re willing to splurge, the Ahwahnee Hotel is another option in the Valley. This place is exactly what a grand national park lodge should be. Known as the “crown jewel” of the national park system, its soaring vaulted ceilings, giant wood-burning fireplaces, and gourmet dining options will please even the pickiest guest. We didn’t get to see the guest rooms here, but we did spend time in the gorgeous Great Lounge, the Ahwahnee Dining Room, and the Ahwahnee Bar. (Wander around and visit the many public rooms. They’re beautiful!) The Dining Room is grand and a must-visit if it’s within budget. Prices are high, and there’s a dress code in the evenings, so we visited at lunch in our snow gear. It was well worth the short wait and higher-than-we’d-usually-pay-for-lunch prices. The Bar is a separate location within the hotel and does not have a dress code. It is family-friendly and offers delicious appetizer/meal options and drinks. We loved the restaurants at the Ahwahnee and found them much better than the Base Camp Eatery at the Yosemite Valley Lodge, which is like a food court. (Yosemite Valley Lodge does have a table service restaurant, The Mountain Room, but it was closed during our visit.)
Another in-park option is the Wawona Hotel, a picturesque white building that looks like something from a movie. It’s beautiful and was being renovated when we were there, but it’s pretty far from most of the park’s main attractions (other than the Mariposa Grove). There is a cool covered bridge, Pioneer History Center, gas station, and small store in Wawona, so check those out if time permits. (FYI: Gas is not available in the Valley.) There are also some great sledding hills there (which we found out after we unexpectedly found ourselves in Wawona for three hours when the road into the Valley was closed due to a wreck on the icy roads). FYI: The Wawona store sells chains for tires and plastic sleds, much to the delight of my children!
One other restaurant we enjoyed was Degnan’s Kitchen in Yosemite Village. This place had delicious soups, sandwiches, pizza, and cozy tables near a warm fireplace. It’s located near the Visitor’s Center, Post Office, and Park Store, so you can visit all of these places at once. Unfortunately, the Visitor’s Center was still closed due to COVID, but there were Park Rangers stationed outside to answer any questions and give park information. There’s also an interesting Native American village exhibit behind the Visitor’s Center that would be easy to miss, so watch for the sign.
Hiking with Kids
As I mentioned, my kids (ages 8 and 11) are pretty experienced hikers. So please consider your family’s situation before embarking on any of these hikes.
An easy, perfect starter hike is the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. The one-mile trail is wheelchair and pet friendly, and a visit to Yosemite wouldn’t be complete without a close-up look at North America’s tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls.
More strenuous, but still pretty kid-friendly is the nearby Mirror Lake Trail. You can hike to the lake and turn back (two mile round trip) or continue past the lake for the full five-mile loop. The views of Half Dome from Mirror Lake are amazing!
Two other well-known waterfalls inside Yosemite are Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. The hikes to these waterfalls are gorgeous, but all uphill, and may not be suitable for young kids. From Curry Village, you can hike to the Vernal Falls footbridge fairly easily (about a 1.4-mile round trip). This hike is a paved uphill trail. Past there, you can continue up an unpaved trail to get a better view of Vernal Falls, and if you keep going you’ll be climbing hundreds of granite steps to the top of the waterfall. This part of the trail is quite strenuous. To get to Nevada Falls, you’ll take the trail to the right past the Vernal Falls footbridge. It’s a six+ mile round-trip hike, so plan accordingly. This trail is rocky, uphill, and narrow in parts. We actually had to turn back before reaching Nevada Falls because the trail got too icy and steep for us. But others (without kids) continued on. These trails are definitely worth seeing if your family can handle long, challenging hikes.
You can’t go all the way to Yosemite and not see some of its famous giant sequoias! We hiked to both Tuolumne Grove on the west side of the park and Mariposa Grove, home of the Grizzly Giant, the largest sequoia in Yosemite.
The hike to Tuolumne Grove is a little over two miles round trip. The trail was 100% covered in snow when we were there. Hiking through the snow was actually kind of fun with our snow/hiking boots and snow clothes. If we hadn’t had the proper winter gear, we wouldn’t have made the trek. My girls also brought along their plastic sled and had fun pulling each other and sliding down the small hills. The hike is downhill on the way into the grove, so save some energy for the uphill hike back. The trees here are smaller than the ones at Mariposa but still impressive. This grove is home to the “Dead Giant Tunnel Tree,” which is the huge stump of a dead giant sequoia, but it has a tunnel carved out that you can walk through.
Mariposa Grove is the largest grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite, with about 500 mature trees. It’s located near Wawona, at Yosemite’s South entrance. The hike to Mariposa Grove was a bit more challenging. The road to the grove is closed in the winter, so visitors have to park two miles away and hike the trail or walk along the road into the grove. We hiked the snowy trail on the way there and walked on the road on the way back. The trail is pretty and not too difficult, so I’d recommend taking the scenic route at least one way if you have the time. This hike was a six-mile round trip trek because once you get to the grove’s Welcome Center, it’s another mile to the Grizzly Giant. Just past the Grizzly Giant is the California Tunnel Tree, a living giant sequoia with a tunnel you can walk through. It’s worth the extra steps to see it. There is a trail that leads around the grove to see all of the giant trees, but we turned around after we saw what we came to see. In the months when the Mariposa Grove road is open, there is a shuttle that takes visitors from the parking lot into the grove, so you can avoid the four-mile hike in and out. Since this hike is located near the park’s entrance/exit, it’s a good one to take on your way out of the park if you have time.
Seeing Yosemite covered in snow was an experience I’ll never forget. The park is obviously stunning any time of year, but the snow-covered mountains were magical and the nearly-empty trails made us feel like we had the park to ourselves at times. We were able to enjoy the peace and solitude that wouldn’t be possible at many other times during the year. Some roads were closed and some required chains, so I feel like we didn’t quite get the full Yosemite experience. But because the park was not crowded at all, parking was plentiful, so we were able to use our own car to explore and didn’t have to worry about finding parking or waiting on a shuttle. And we still saw most everything we were hoping to see. The most important thing is to come prepared for any type of weather. Bring waterproof clothing and shoes, gloves, hats, hand warmers, and chains for your tires if you can. And make sure you have plenty of room on your phone or camera for pictures and videos, because every single part of this park is just begging to be photographed. But the very best pictures you take home will be the ones in your memory, because it’s impossible to capture the full impact of Yosemite’s beauty on camera.
If you’d like to start your national park journey closer to home, check out our post about visiting the national parks of Texas with your kids.