Who’s up for a last minute visit to Yosemite with young kids during the super busy summer months? We are! Capitalizing on our successful Norther Ca trip, we rolled the dice on our final full day and drove our family two hours west to explore Yosemite for the day. With plans to rendezvous at my uncle’s rural 1910s family cabin situated on original Yosemite roads, we left early in the morning with a full tank of gas, fully charged iPads, open minds, and lots of food.
Yosemite National Park spans nearly 1200 sq miles in Eastern Ca, making it about the size of the state of Rhode Island. It reaches across the Sierra Nevada mountain range and is mostly known for its mammoth granite cliffs, waterfalls, giant sequoias, and diverse plants and animals. The geology of Yosemite National Park is a result of a combination of volcanic activity, uplift, erosion, exfoliation (responsible for the dome-shaped granite areas), and glaciation that happened over 25 million years ago. Starting in the 1850s, explorers, artists, and writers advocated for preserving Yosemite Valley and slowly expanded the protected area to include nearby forests and mountains. Yosemite switched from a state park to a National Park shortly after the National Park Service was started in 1916. We visited 100 years later!
Since the Yosemite trip was last minute, intermittent cell service limited my mobile-friendly research as we drove through harrowing switchbacks and rural towns. Following my aunt and uncle’s advice, we headed to the popular Valley area of Yosemite in hopes that we could catch glances of El Capitan, Half Dome and some of the waterfalls. Driving from Sonora, Ca we drove along 120 East through Groveland and the Big Oak Flat Entrance. The drive through Yosemite starts out hilly with dense conifers and then becomes hillier with sparse shrubs, dead underbrush, sand, rocks and old dying pine trees. Then, suddenly before crossing into the big tunnel, the massive granite rocks explode before your eyes. You catch really quick (yet far away) views of El Capitan and Half Dome before going through the tunnel. After the tunnel you wind through switchbacks catching different views of the granite formations. Yosemite is enormous – it takes at least 40 minutes to drive from the main entrance to the bottom of the park.
Bridalveil Fall Trail
Knowing the park would be busy, we aimed for short hikes easy in difficulty and with easy access. Using the simple Yosemite Valley day hike chart, we hiked the 0.5 mile (round trip) Bridalveil Fall Trail on our way into the park. We parked at the trailhead and follow the paved path to the 620 ft waterfalls. Since we visited in late summer, the waterfalls trickled, but I imagine in spring time after snow melts the falls are quite a spray. Other visitors climbed along the large boulders to the bottom of the light waterfall. Even though the waterfall spray was barely visible, it was amazing to look up at the massiveness of the rocks and feel so tiny.
After Bridalveil Fall Trail, we parked in the main parking areas near the Visitor Center/Museum so we could scope out the center and easily hop on the free shuttle buses. In my little research, I learned the shuttle buses were key to getting around busy Yosemite Valley. The trailheads and points of interest are spread out so we either walked along the wide bicycle paths or rode the bus. Wishing for more time in the museum and to see the short Spirit of Yosemite film, we pushed on and walked about a half mile along the bicycle path to access the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail.
Lower Yosemite Falls Trail
Lower Yosemite Falls Trail is a one mile paved trail with little elevation change making it an easy walk for everyone. The path is mostly shaded with giant sequoias and huge slabs of granite rock making for nice photo backdrops. About half mile into our walk we arrived at the observation bridge of the falls. Lower Yosemite is the bottom waterfall section of the three-part Yosemite Falls. Unfortunately, with it being late summer the waterfall sprayed a mere trickle, but we tried to imagine the command it carries in spring after the snow melts. Before leaving the falls we admired, in jaw-dropping fashion, as pea-sized rock climbers scaled the mountain.
Views of Half Dome
Wanting to get closer to Half Dome I quickly researched places within the valley to catch a glimpse. I learned the meadows behind the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel) provide good views of the massive mountains, so we rode the shuttle bus to stop #3 outside the hotel. The hotel was built nearly a century ago with the design influences of Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern, and Arts & Crafts Movement. We walked to the back of the hotel, through a small path and turned left on the pedestrian path. Before crossing over the pedestrian bridge we arrived at the best spot we could find with a good glimpse of Half Dome (elevation 8800ft) in the background. Even from so far away it’s amazing to imagine people (including my crazy aunt) hike the 16-mile round trip.
After capturing a few pictures with Half Dome in the background, the girls and I splashed around in the crisp, cool Merced River that flows behind the hotel. We were hot and tired from the long day and we felt refreshed after a quick dip.
Driving out of Yosemite Valley, we followed my aunt’s handwritten directions for meeting them at my uncle’s rural cabin. After a harrowing 7 mile drive up original access roads into Yosemite, we arrived at the cabin. I immediately relaxed after enjoying a beer on the hammock and we took in the beautiful sites of the meadow from the back deck. My aunt and uncle planned a delicious steak dinner with all the trimmings – it made for a very memorable early birthday celebration! After a restful night’s sleep, we left for San Francisco the next morning feeling very accomplished as a young family of four and thankful to experience Yosemite! We can’t wait to return to Yosemite and spend an entire week camping and exploring the different trails – maybe one day we’ll even hike to the summit of Half Dome!
Looking Ahead & Tips For Young Families
Having spent only about 5-6 hours in Yosemite, we definitely maximized our visit with seeing a few waterfalls and catching a glimpse of Half Dome and El Capitan (on the way out). The girls pushed through the early afternoon hour when they’re usually quietly relaxing, but felt refreshed with our backpack snacks and a quick ice cream treat.
- Plan ahead and stay for a few days – camping spots in the park fill up months in advance, so plan your trip early or stay outside the park
- Less is more – bring a small backpack to carry around the park with essentials and snacks; visit the convenience stores and restaurants to refill with snacks and treats
- Bring a good camera – I’m kicking myself for not having my big camera with me
- Park & ride – park your car in one of the main lots and ride the bus as much as you can
- Do some swimming – there’s lots of options for cooling off in the creeks and Merced River
- Visit in late spring when the waterfalls are at full peak
- Wear your patience pants – if visiting in summer be aware of the large crowds and take breaks accordingly
Thumbs up: breathtaking views, massive rock formations, free shuttle bus rides, bike/pedestrian path connecting many points of interest, paved trails provide accommodations for everyone
Thumbs down: little time for planning on my part, drier waterfalls in summer mean less dramatic views, busy summer crowds