Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous in the world and it has been on my bucket list for a long time. In fact, it was one of the places I most wanted to see in the USA. The National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California has existed since 1890 and is famous for towering granite cliffs, waterfalls and giant Sequoia trees.
While researching the trip I was shocked to find that around 5 million people visit the park each year. Would a wilderness area with this many people be a disappointment? Read on to find out about our 3 days in Yosemite National Park with kids.
Accessing Yosemite National Park
Unfortunately due to the popularity of the national park (NP), the campsites in Yosemite Valley were booked out when we visited. As a result we stayed outside the National Park at Indian Flats RV Park. To be honest it was a pretty basic RV park and quite expensive but it had one major redeeming feature, in that it is located only a 15 minute drive from the entry to the NP on Highway 140. We don’t typically book in advance when travelling, but perhaps for the National Parks this would be a better option next time.
There is an entry fee to enter the Park. It is possible to purchase a single entry ticket, but if you are planning to visit more than one park the US National Parks have an annual pass called “America the Beautiful” available that is excellent value for money. For an annual charge of $80 USD (at the time of writing) you get unlimited access to all National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands across the USA for 12 months from the time of purchase. The pass can be purchased on arrival at the gate.
In order to make the most of our time at Yosemite National Park with kids we spent some time planning which hikes would be most appropriate with the kids. As we had never been to the USA and were planning on visiting a number of parks we purchased the book Your Guide to the National Parks: The Complete Guide to all 59 National Parks (Second edition) to help us plan. It is full of detailed information about all the National Parks and details the hikes, along with their distance, difficulty level and what can be seen along the trail. A great book and we highly recommend it.
The majestic El Capitan
On our first morning we got up early and set off from the RV park while the mist was still hovering over the river. The Arch Rock park entry itself is an experience. Just after the park entrance where you pay your entry fee to the friendly park ranger, you drive through an archway formed by two massive boulders leaning on each other. It is a great introduction to the impressive granite rocks that make the park so spectacular.
The road enters Yosemite Valley through a forest of pine trees. You only get glimpses of the steep rocky valley walls on either side of you and on your right you pass the pretty, wispy Bridalveil falls. Then all of a sudden, the trees clear ahead to reveal an enormous rock wall towering up in to the sky in front of you. This is the magnificent El Capitan.
It is impossible to describe the scale of this light grey granite rock face which is 3300 feet (1000 m) high. Invariably you will pull over to the roadside and gawk up at the huge rock wall with the other Yosemite first timers and take a photo or two or three. It is truly a spectacular sight which we never tired of admiring during our stay.
We stopped each day from different vantage points to admire El Capitan. It is so massive and we enjoyed scouring the rock wall trying to spot rock climbers. Usually we had to use the telephoto lens on the camera to pick out the ant-like figures making their way up.
I have tried indoor rock climbing and liked it but I am a bit scared of heights. The adrenaline rush as you hang hundreds of metres above the valley floor must be intense. It is almost impossible to comprehend that this year Alex Honnold completed a free solo climb of El Capitan in under 4 hours.
Hiking the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls
Once we had visited the information centre and asked for advice on the various trails that were open, our first hike was the Mist Trail. The free shuttle bus took us to Happy Isles, the start of the Mist Trail. The bus was packed and we piled out and began the hike on a steep paved path alongside a river running between massive boulders.
Soon people were puffing and the crowd thinned out a bit until the path crossed the Merced River. Here there was a glimpse through golden autumnal leaves to Vernal Falls and everyone (including us) was stopping for a photo.
We continued up to the base of the spectacular falls. This is the called Mist Trail and while the mist did not spray on us, it did make a nice rainbow. From here the path turned into a stone staircase of 600 steps which took us to the top of the falls.
By the top we were a bit puffed and were ready for a rest. It took us about one hour to make it this far. We found a rock in the sun to sit and eat our sandwiches. The kids were entertained by the overly friendly squirrels who were keeping an eye out for dropped food while finding and hiding nuts for the winter.
We continued on the trail further up the stream past Emerald Lake. The crowds had noticeably thinned out now with most people going back down. This allowed us to hike mostly on our own which I think is a more pleasant way to experience the wilderness. In a short time we came to a viewpoint at the bottom of Nevada Falls. Another spectacular waterfall, with the water falling initially and then running down a steep slope. It was quite mesmerising to watch as the water slowed down and spread out when it hit the slope.
We followed a steep path that wound it way up the small valley to the side of the waterfall. The path was mostly made up of rocky steps formed on impressive stacked store. This was a bit steep and the kids struggled a little but we were cooled off nicely by the mist from the waterfall. Once at the top we enjoyed the fabulous view back down the valley. Next to the waterfall there is a guard rail on the cliff edge you can look over it and straight down. This made me a bit weak in the knees.
To walk back down, we followed the John Muir trail, which is a little more gentle in gradient and winds its way down the valley away from the river. It is a pleasant walk through tall trees with great views of the back of the Half Dome, probably the most iconic mountain in Yosemite. The trail was a bit crowded and we powered down overtaking people as we went.
By the time we got back to the trailhead we had covered over 7 miles (11 km) including over 2300 ft (700 m) of vertical gain. We made good time completing it in 4 hrs plus a lunch break. We were all a bit tired and it had been a great effort from the kids to complete the hike without much complaining. I think this is partly due to the beauty of the climb. The low levels of water and mist was compensated by the lovely autumnal colours. There was so much to look at the time flew by. It is a must do hike.
Bears live here
On our first day in Yosemite, we parked at Curry Village before hopping on the shuttle bus to our hike. Here we were confronted by a number of signs warning us not to leave food or toiletries in your car because it will attract bears. Given we were in a Jucy campervan, we had a lot of food on board. I was willing to take a chance and hope the bears stay away due to all the people around.
However, Rachel was a bit concerned and when I saw the pictures of bears ripping cars apart it convinced me not to take the risk. We put all of our food in the provided steel food lockers. We had to buy some ice to keep our refrigerated food cold but I am glad we did it or I would have been worrying about it for the day.
Sentinel Dome Hike
On our second day after visiting the renowned Yosemite Falls, we drove up out of Yosemite Valley on the south side and stopped at a viewpoint before the tunnel, creatively called Tunnel View. It is well worth visiting here for the impressive view down the valley with Bridalveil Falls in the foreground, then El Capitan and Half Dome in the distance. It was hazy due to smoke from nearby fires but still amazing.
The road continued to climb unrelentingly from the valley and eventually turned onto Glacier Point Road. Along here we passed quite close to some burning forest fires. These fires were under control but had been burning for months.
We eventually arrived at the Sentinel Dome car park and set out on our short hike to the top. There were plenty of people hiking the trail which is quite short but it certainly felt a lot less busy than the Mist Trail. Most people go to Glacier Point which is a little further along the road but at a lower elevation. The trail led around the base of the Sentinel Dome which is a big granite dome protruding perhaps 200 ft (70 m) from the trees at its base.
The hike was reasonably unremarkable but the last part of the hike is fun as you scramble up the rock face to get to the peak. The kids had a lot of fun along the way finding enormous pine cones, looking for sticks and playing games.
On the peak of Sentinel Dome you are rewarded with jaw dropping 360 degree views over Yosemite Valley and the high Sierras. At 3500 ft (1000 m) above the valley floor, we looked down (a long way) to the Nevada Falls we hiked up the day prior and across the valley to the Yosemite Falls. The view of the Half Dome was particularly amazing. This was only a short hike of 2.2 miles (3.5 km), and we did it in 45 minutes plus time at the top to enjoy the view.
On our third day we visited Merced Grove to see the famous massive Sequoia trees. Mariposa Grove is the best example in Yosemite but it was closed for restoration at the time we were there. A ranger suggested we go to Merced Grove because it has fewer visitors than the other option, Tuolumne Grove. The hike was on a fire trail that descends for a little over a mile through a pine forest. The reward is a small grove of the most enormous trees we have ever seen. They are ridiculously big. The wise old men of the forest. Wow.
We drove the length of Tioga Road on our way out of Yosemite. The Pass is only open for part of the year due to snow but is renowned as one of the most spectacular drives on the East Coast. The road starts at Crane Flat at around 6000 ft and continues for 59 miles (95 kms) as it climbs to 9943 feet (3031 metres) at Tioga Pass which is the East entry to the park.
The first part of the drive is through thick pine forests with not much to see. But as you climb the scenery changes with rocky peaks and escarpments breaking up the trees. We stopped at Olmsted Point to admire the lovely view across to Half Dome.
Further on you start passing steep rocky peaks and pass the pretty Tenaya Lake. We stopped here briefly to see a number of people fishing and canoeing in the cool waters. This would be a lovely spot to stop. There are also a number of hikes that start along this road.
Once you go through the pass the scenery almost immediately changes. The grey rocky peaks are replaced by brown rocky peaks with snow sitting on the north-eastern faces. The road descends steeply down to the arid valley floor far below. This was a bit of a hair raising drive as the brakes on our campervan were shuddering violently by the bottom.
Despite the huge number of visitors, we loved Yosemite National Park. The scenery is spectacular and there are great hikes for all abilities. Perhaps in the peak of summer the crowds would be a problem but in October it was OK. I would go back in a heart beat.
Have you been to Yosemite National Park? What was your favourite hike? Let us know in the comments below!