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Tucked in the spectacular Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite is home to inspiring scenery, including the highest waterfall in North America (Yosemite Falls) and the world’s largest living organism (the giant sequoias). After exploring the area in 1868, John Muir, a passionate environmentalist, lobbied for its National Park status. Soon after, Congress officially established park status in 1890, becoming the third official National Park in the US.
Since then, the park has gained popularity among nature enthusiasts, hikers, climbers (if you’ve seen Free Solo, you’ll recognize El Capitan as the infamous peak featured in the film), campers, and fishing enthusiasts (the territory includes more than 2,000 glittering lakes). Yosemite welcomes nearly 2.2 million visitors each year to discover the wonder of the mountain peaks and glimmering streams.
Though the park is open year-round, Yosemite transforms with each season. There are a few factors when choosing the right time of year to visit like climate, crowds, and which natural features you don’t want to miss.
Summer is most popular when all scenic roads are open, and trails aren’t icy. However, you’ll be sharing treks with plenty of others, as it can get quite busy during these peak months.
Fall is shoulder season, and the trees are enchanting. There are far fewer visitors, so you’ll have hiking trails to yourself to peak the golden aspen trees. However, it can get quite chilly at night for those hoping to camp out. You’ll also miss out on the waterfalls, as most of them dry up by the end of summer.
Winter is perfect for snow sports lovers. Badger’s Pass, California’s oldest alpine ski resort, opened here in 1935 and still operates. There’s also fantastic snowshoeing and fishing. You’ll find plenty of lodging available during Winter, and far less crowds.
The 25 pooling waterfalls are most spectacular in the spring, but it begins to get busy during this time of year. Be sure to check what roads and trails are open as many territories close due to weather. The National Park Service does a fantastic job updating their page here.
No matter when you visit, there are plenty of incredible hikes, viewpoints, and scenic drives for all types of travelers. We recommend booking any accommodation early; Yosemite is one of the most popular National Parks in the United States. Though permits to visit are not required, keep in mind that in the summer months accommodation within the park is booked out far in advance. If you’re hoping to stay within the park (which we highly recommend, there are beautiful campsites and accommodation options available to immerse yourself in the abundance of nature), planning ahead is key!
Yosemite territory is expansive, coming in at about 3,000 square miles. That said, many of the most popular activities are located in Yosemite Valley, a seven mile strip where tons of hiking trailheads begin. If you’re traveling with kids, there are plenty of accessible hikes and activities to explore the dazzling canyon. Ideally, you’ll have a couple of days to space out the longer treks. Below, we’ve compiled a list of the “must-see” stops for visiting Yosemite with the family, so even if your time is limited, you can still see the highlights.
As far as transportation goes, there are tons of breathtaking sights to see by car. For those with younger children, taking the scenic routes and planning out stops along the way is a great way for kids to save some stamina. Along Highway 41 and Tioga Road, you’ll find awe inspiring scenery just a few steps from your car. Note that the park has limited wifi and cell service, we highly advised that you download all maps and GPS navigation before beginning your journey.
In the park there is a great public shuttle service for visitors. The Yosemite Valley Shuttle system will take you right up to the trailheads and highlights. For more information check out the NPS website here.
Before you visit, Yosemite National Park, it’s helpful to understand the importance of the area to the Native Americans who call this home. The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation people are one of the original tribes of Yosemite National Park and the surrounding areas of what is now California. There is evidence these people have lived in the secluded, sweeping landscapes for 5,500 years. Due to westward expansion and the Gold Rush, the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation suffered from violent dispossession, relocation, and economic disadvantage in their ancestral homeland. Despite these events, The Southern Sierra Miwuk people still reside in parts of the valley, and this extraordinary landscape continues to be the heart of their tradition, spirit, and culture. Read on to learn ways for you and your family to engage with their rich culture and tradition.
Though this area is just seven miles long, it contains many of the park’s best-known features. Here, most of the lodges and campgrounds are tucked away amongst the dense forests and beautiful meadows. The valley is an ideal place to spend the majority of your time, as there’s so much to do in the concentrated area.
Image from: Nate Foong
While driving into the valley, don’t miss the stop at Tunnel View for an epic panoramic snapshot of the canyon right off Highway 41. No hiking is necessary; here, you can see the infamous Half Dome peak and El Capitan welcoming you into the park.
Image by: Jeb Buchman
This dazzling two-tiered waterfall includes Bridalveil fall, the highest waterfall in North America, with waters dropping a stunning 2,425 ft. It’s an easy 30-minute walk up the base. If you are in the mood for a more adventurous hike, Mist Trail will take you right into the praying water and follows between Vernal Falls and Nevada falls for a rainbow-speckled hike along 700 granite steps. Though smaller kids might find it challenging, it’s an engaging trail and worth it for the magnificent views! Walking through the mist of Yosemite Falls is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Image from: Tiago Velloso
Looking for a swimming hole to cool off in the summer? The Merced River flows around two islands and makes a great picnic spot in Happy Isles. Perfect for kids, an easy path leads to an accessible boardwalk and is terrific for strolling through the marshy land. Nearby are the Yosemite Museum and the Happy Isle Art and Nature Center, with loads of educational activities for the family.
The former site of the largest tribe in Yosemite Valley is located behind the Yosemite museum. With ceremonial spaces, cabins, the chief’s house, and more, the village is an important heritage site that members of the community still use. It’s a great stop to learn more about the history of the Ahwahnee Miwuk peoples’ way of life and historical relationship with the land.
Image from: Wei Ren Kon
Mirror Lake trail is a moderate hike for kids, only about 2.4 miles round trip. It’s the closest visitors can come to Half Dome (unless you’re hiking it, which does require a permit). If you visit during spring or early summer, you may be able to dip in the majestic, reflective waters. Luckily, it’s a beautiful trail no matter the time of year.
Leaving the valley, other park activities are scattered throughout the High Sierra Mountain range. Driving through the winding roads through pine forests and wildflower meadows, the endless itinerary of nature to explore continues to higher elevations, so grab a jacket and your camera!
Image from: Jeff Hopper
It takes about an hour to drive from the valley to Glacier Point, and experiencing the 360 lookout is an absolute must. The point offers indescribable views of the valley, majestic falls, and peaks of the high country mountains all in one. Take it all in as you admire the park from 3600 feet.
Image from: Jeffrey Eisen
You can drive to this stop or hike the moderately easy 2-mile loop trail. Sentinel Dome is a perfect sunset spot and a fantastic way to end your trip, reflecting on the journey with the valley below. Bring a picnic and soak in the panoramic image of the High Sierra Mountains.
Home to the largest living organisms on earth, you absolutely must see the Mariposa Grove when visiting Yosemite. There are more than 500 mature sequoia trees in the park, some of which are over 2,000 years old! There’s a few options for walks in the forest:
Short and sweet, the Big Tree Loop is 0.3 miles and wheelchair (and stroller) friendly.
The Grizzly Loop is a fan favorite. It’s a 2 miles trail taking you to Grizzly Grove. A beloved Yosemite staple, this massive sequoia is the 2nd largest tree in the park and weighs roughly 2 million pounds.
Mariposa Grove Trail to Wawona Point is a fairly strenuous 7 mile hike through the forest of iconic trees. Think of it as a museum of seqouias, from the Bachelor and Three Graces, the Faithful Couple, and the Clothespin Tree, take your time wandering through this earthy forest from the past.
No matter what time of year you plan to visit Yosemite, you’re guaranteed to be swept away by the park’s natural beauty. From the jagged mountain peaks freckled with adventurous climbers, to the glittering waterfalls cascading down the cliff faces, there is so much to see in this nature-lovers paradise. If you are bringing the family, kids will love splashing around natural swimming holes and catching rainbows in the mountain mist. With so many spectacular and rewarding hikes for all ages, your days will be packed with endless exploration and awe.
Finally, whenever you’re in a national park or anywhere in the outdoors, remember to practice the 7 principles of Leave No Trace. When embarking on your adventure:
NEXT UP? Check out Sequoia National Park, one of the oldest national parks in the U.S. just down the road from Yosemite. Find out the 7 must-see things every family should have their travel list here: https://wilderdad.com/must-see-things-in-sequoia-national-park/
Margo Strifert is a travel writer and photographer based in Chicago, IL. She specializes in outdoor adventure travel. Margo began backpacking when she was young, and has since had the privilege of visiting countries throughout Asia, The South Pacific, and Europe in pursuit of new experiences and a deeper understanding of the world. Leading with values of cultural exchange and cultivating a relationship with the earth, she hopes to use her voice to empower other young women to push their comfort zones, as well as elevate marginalized voices through the art of story telling. Learn more about her at www.margostrifert.com and follow her travel adventures on Instagram @capturedontheway.