As one of the country’s most popular national parks, the real joys of Yosemite are found far from the crowds.
There’s no denying Yosemite’s grandeur - stately granite cliffs, deep valleys, powerful waterfalls, wide-open meadows, and groves of Giant sequoias. But I’m here to tell you, if you visit during the busy season - especially August when more than 600,000 visitors flock to the park - you’ll miss it. You’ll be too occupied finding a parking spot, cramming onto a shuttle, and trying not to step on someone’s feet as you hike to a waterfall that’s missing one important component - water.
While I’m a big advocate of summer family road trips to our country’s national parks, I’d strongly recommend that you visit Yosemite during the shoulder seasons or even winter. That being said, if school schedules have you hamstrung, and a summer visit is the only option, plan to “zig” when everyone else “zags.” Yosemite is a huge park - nearly 1,200 square miles, in fact - so head to the corners ignored by the crowds. That’s where you’ll find the Yosemite that you seek.
KidTripster Tip: Stop at one of the visitor centers to pick up your child’s Junior Ranger book and return it completed for a Junior Ranger badge; book cost: $3.50. Yosemite also has a Little Cub program for visitors, ages 3 to 6; book cost: $3. Make sure to watch the park movie at the visitor center, so you’re primed for your visit.
What to do?
Most visitors converge on the eastern Yosemite Valley. Here’s where you’ll get stellar views of rock formations Half Dome and El Capitan. This area is also home to the majority of the park’s waterfalls. Again, if you visit during the summer, you can only expect a trickle, if any water. Yosemite Falls is the granddaddy and one of the tallest falls in the world. The easy, one-mile loop trail leads to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall; the hike to the top is an all-day, strenuous affair. Better for younger kids, the hike to Vernal Fall is fairly easy but crowded in the summer. The hike to Bridalveil Fall is not so much of a hike as it is a scramble over larger boulders. It was particularly challenging for my 4-year old, but when he finally made it to the top, he smiled from ear to ear with pride.
KidTripster Tip: Looking for the quintessential Yosemite photo? It’s at the Tunnel View viewpoint on the east end of Wawona Tunnel on Highway 41. From this vista, you’ll capture El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall with Half Dome in the distance. Great family photo op! For other popular viewpoints, click here.
KidTripster Tip: Before deciding which falls to see, stop at a visitor center and ask about the flow at that time of year.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re visiting the park during mid- to late-February, try to view Horsetail Fall over the eastern edge of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley at sunset. When the sun hits it just right, it actually appears to glow orange!
The most memorable experience for my boys was casting their lines into the picturesque Merced River, right next to our campground in Wawona. We had fishing poles, but we had no idea what lures to use to catch the brown trout that we could see swimming right in front of us! It just goes to show that you don’t have to know what you’re doing to have fun!
KidTripster Tip: Kids don’t need fishing licenses to fish in the national park; adults do.
If you’ve never seen groves of ancient Giant sequoias, plan a visit to Mariposa Grove near the park’s south entrance. Or if your family is up to a two- or three-mile hike (elevation gain of about 500 feet), you can hoof it to the smaller, less-visited groves of Tuolumne or Merced near Crane Flat.
I love the variation of wildflowers at Yosemite. Because there’s a elevation range of 11,000 feet, you’re likely to find flowers in bloom most of the year - if you know where to look. Click here for popular wildflower trails by season.
While I know that you’ll visit Yosemite Valley despite the crowds, I’d strongly encourage you to spend some of your time at Yosemite in the quieter areas like Tuolumne Meadows and Hetch Hetchy. Plan your camping or lodging accordingly.
Where to stay?
When I say that finding a camping site during the popular summer months is a challenge, I’m not kidding. Yosemite has 13 campgrounds; sites at seven of them can be reserved. The remaining first-come, first-serve campgrounds usually fill up by noon (or earlier) from April through September. I’d strongly suggest going the reservations route.
But you need to plan ahead. Reservations open five months in advance on the 15th of each month at 7 a.m. Pacific time. Why am I being so specific? Because summer and weekend spots will literally be nabbed within minutes, sometimes seconds! You’ve got to be on it! Cost: $12-$26/night.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re staying multiple days, I’d recommend camping one night in Wawona, spending the next day exploring the Yosemite Valley, and then camping the remainder of your time north of the Valley.
Not into roughing it? Consider the luxurious Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite near Fish Camp. It’s an especially enchanting stay during the winter holidays. Read our review here.
When to go?
During the summer, it feels more like Disneyland than a national park: crowded parking lots, jammed-packed shuttles, and lines of people on the trails. You’ll enjoy this park a lot more during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. During the spring, you’ll have the added bonus of seeing the waterfalls spilling with actual water, as many of the waterfalls dry up by August. However, some park roads will be closed because of snow. In the fall, you’ll find empty or nearly empty waterfalls and variable temperatures but far fewer crowds.
If you’re seeking true solitude, winter is your season. The Yosemite Valley is accessible by car and from mid-December to early April, Glacier Point/Badger Pass Road is plowed to the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area, where your family can go downhill or cross-country skiing.
Yosemite is located about a 4-hour drive from Sacramento, 5-hour drive from San Francisco, and 5-1/2-hour drive from Lake Tahoe. While the park is open year-round, some roads are closed during the winter season. Also, if you’re driving an RV or trailer, check here for vehicle length restrictions on particular roadways.
Yosemite has a free, year-round shuttle that provides service in the eastern Yosemite Valley; during high season (mid-June to early October), there’s also service via the El Capitan shuttle to El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Four Mile trailhead, and the Valley Visitor Center.
You also can get around on fee-based tours or by using fee-based YARTS to certain parts of the park. Click here for more information.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s RV.