If you are looking to spend some serious time in nature, look no further than Yosemite National Park. Less than four hours from the Bay Area, Yosemite will give you the fresh air, big trees and time away from technology that you’ve been yearning for. We have the full scoop on all there is to do in the park and why the winter is a great time for a visit (hello, firefall!). Follow our guide below and you’ll be ready for the most epic national park trip with your kids!
Yosemite 2021: What You Need to Know
Reservations are required to drive into Yosemite National Park as of February 2021 (unless you have a reservation inside the park, enter via YARTS bus or enter with a registered tour). One reservation is needed per vehicle. Book your reservation in advance as they are limited in number. Masks are required.
Yosemite in the Winter
Trust us and book a winter visit to Yosemite. The crowds are minimal and you'll see the park's magic in a totally different light. Consider renting snowshoes and bringing them with you so that you can explore the park's trails through the snow (rental operations are closed at the park and nearby for the 2021 season).
For winter 2021, Badger Pass Ski Area is open for snowshoeing, cross country skiing and sledding only (no downhill skiing). Just a quick drive up the mountain from Tunnel View, you'll find that the parking is easy and the kids will love a day spent sledding down the hills. Bring your own sleds from home and snacks—there's nothing open onsite this year. Portopotties are your only option and be sure to bring chains as chain restrictions can be in force here after a snowfall.
Late February is also the time of year when you might be able to catch a glimpse of the famed Horsetail Falls Firefall. This natural phenomenon occurs when the perfect conditions come together to make the Horsetail Falls appear to be flowing with fire. The park has designated a specific parking area at the Yosemite Falls Parking Area for those hoping to see the firefall. It's a 1.5-mile walk to the viewing area.
Mariposa and the El Portal Entrance
We love the ease of visiting Yosemite via Mariposa and the El Portal entrance. Whether you travel through Livermore and then Merced, or head south to Gilroy and then east through Los Banos, the drive there is pretty easy even for kids who tend to get car sick. The road doesn't get windy until you pass Mariposa and start to head into the park. The drive from Mariposa to Yosemite is about an hour and you'll have another 30 minutes to get to the valley from the entrance.
From the El Portal entrance you can easily make your way to Bridalveil Falls, Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley and the Badger Pass Ski Area.
Where to Stay Near the El Portal Entrance
Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort
Families looking for the perfect combination of rustic and convenient will love the Yosemite Bug. Located in Midpines on the road between Mariposa and the El Portal entrance, you'll be perfectly located for Yosemite adventures. The Yosemite Bug offers lots of different lodging options—cabins, rooms with private bathrooms, rooms with shared bathrooms, glamping tents, camping spots and even hostel rooms. There's a shared kitchen onsite that's available for your use if you'd like to cook a meal and laundry facilities for when your kid gets his favorite pants soaked on Day 1. There's also an onsite spa.
The property also has the June Bug Cafe if you'd rather have someone else cook for you. We highly recommend taking advantage of this option as the meals are delicious and large enough to share. The dinner menu changes from day to day with vegan and vegetarian options always available (plus options like pizza for the kids). Order up your trail lunch at breakfast time and you can take it with you when you venture into the park.
Yosemite Bug has trails on the property that will lead you down to a waterfall and swimming hole (be careful as the trails are steep and difficult for little ones). You can rent out snowshoes in the winter (as available). The kids will love the outdoor ping pong and foosball tables and parents will love that the rooms do not have TVs (because, nature!).
6979 Highway 140
What to Do in Mariposa
You should definitely plan to spend some time exploring Mariposa while visiting Yosemite. This quaint, mountain town has lots of great restaurants and we particularly recommend 1850 Restaurant for their burgers, wings and brews (snag a growler to go).
You'll want to plan some time to visit the Mariposa Museum and History Center. Named by the Smithsonian Institute as the best small
museum west of the Mississippi River, the Mariposa Museum and History Center brings Gold Rush History, Native American History and the Yosemite region’s tourism history alive in one of the most extensive museum experiences one can have. The outdoor/indoor setup allows for visitors to walk through time and we know the kids will love it.
Another fun spot to visit is the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. Kids will love walking through the mine tunnel and checking out the “Fricot Nugget,” a rare and beautiful 13.8-pound piece of crystalline gold found in the American River in 1864. Because this museum is also a state park, kids can participate in the onsite junior ranger program.
Coming Soon: We got a sneak peak of the brand-new Yosemite Climbing Association Gallery and Museum and can't wait for families to be able to visit (hopefully soon!). Kids will love seeing the progression of the sport of mountain climbing through this massive collection of photos and gear. See how the first climbers of El Capitan and other Yosemite big walls were able to accomplish such feats with minimal gear. Pro tip: If you are able to book a private tour with museum director and rock climbing legend Ken Yager, definitely take advantage of it as he is full of enthusiasm for the sport as well as information about the artifacts in the museum.
Editor's note: Mariposa Grove is currently closed after high winds downed a number of trees. Check for updates before you go.
We love the South Entrance to Yosemite because the drive from the Bay Area is less windy than via the Big Oak Flat Entrance. It's also the preferred access point for those travelling from Los Angeles. As soon as you enter the park, you'll be right by the parking lot for the Mariposa Grove. Park here and take the shuttle bus to the grove entrance. We love it here because Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is the largest sequoia grove in Yosemite and is home to over 500 mature giant sequoias.
Little ones or those with strollers can take the paved Big Trees Loop Trail and see a number of the park's famous trees. A longer path will take you to the Grizzly Giant, a massive tree with branches the size of large tree trunks! There are lots of other trails to extend your hike if you have older kids. We recommend taking the Mariposa Grove Trail up to see the pair of trees called the "Faithful Couple" as they merged together at their base! You can swing by the Mariposa Grove Cabin to learn about the park's early history before heading back down via the Perimeter Trail.
Where to Stay Near the South Entrance
Explorer Cabins at Tenaya Lodge
Make it easy on yourself and book a family cabin at Tenaya Lodge for your Yosemite visit (you can thank us later). The Explorer Cabins opened this summer and they are perfect for families as they are less than three miles from the Mariposa Grove South Entrance.
Family cabins have two bedrooms—one with a king bed and one with a twin-over-full bunk bed. The living room has a small kitchen, fireplace and a pull-out couch that can sleep two more. Family cabins are gathered together around a central fit pit that is lit each night for s'mores. It's a great opportunity to invite another family or grandparents along to share the beauty of the outdoors!
Kids will love the opportunity to try out the brand-new Kids Adventure Course that's located up by the main lodge. The course is designed for little ones ages four and up that are between 30 and 100 pounds. They get the opportunity to try out six different elements that include bridges, swinging logs and rope challenges. Right next to the course you can play a game of horseshoes as well as rent mountain bikes and sleds.
Other Tenaya Lodge activities include guided flashlight hikes, nightly dive-in movies, spa treatments and fishing (with equipment available to rent). In winter the big draws are the massive sledding hill and ice skating. The main lodge has a seasonal outdoor pool as well as an indoor pool where the dive-in movies are shown.
On-site dining includes the family-friendly Jackalopes Bar & Grill, upscale Embers (that's perfect for a night when you utilize the on-site childcare service) and the seasonal Timberloft Pizzeria and Summerdale BBQ. There's also a deli that sells snacks as well as to-go lunches for your day at Yosemite.
Explorer Cabins at Tenaya Lodge
1122 Highway 41
PO Box 159
Fish Camp, CA
Big Oak Flat Entrance
If you enter Yosemite via the Big Oak Flat Entrance, the Tuolomne Grove Nature Trail is right there. It's a kid favorite because you are rewarded with some massive Giant Sequoias, including one you can walk through. It's a mile downhill from the parking lot to the grove where you then take a half-mile loop to see all the sequoias.
The mile climb back uphill can be a little bit challenging for little legs but the route is paved and there are info stations along the way that explain the history of this road in the gold rush days. In the fall you'll find all shades of reds and oranges from the Dogwood trees.
A favorite hike for park visitors is the Mist Trail as you have the opportunity to see two waterfalls. Park at the Half Dome Village lot and take the free shuttle to stop 16. Walk across the bridge and you'll find the trailhead. The hike is uphill for about a mile to reach the footbridge where you can get a great view of Vernal Fall, especially when the water level is high in spring and summer. The trail can get crowded but there are scenic spots to stop along the way for a snack and a hiking break.
Beyond this point you can continue to the top of Vernal Fall via a steep, granite staircase. This can be challenging for little ones so the footbridge is a good turnaround point. Ambitious climbers can continue on to Nevada Fall via the Mist Trail.
After you return to the trailhead, you'll find a great spot to stop along the Merced River to have lunch and enjoy the water. Take the shuttle from stop 16 to stop 20 to return to the parking lot.
Where to Stay Near the Big Oak Flat Entrance
Rush Creek Lodge at Yosemite
Families looking for an amazing spot to stay while visiting Yosemite should book a villa at Rush Creek Lodge. Just outside the west park entrance, Rush Creek offers amazing views, rooms that are perfect for families and more on-site activities than you could imagine.
Hillside villas sleep up to six people—one room with two twin beds (or a king) and a second room with a king and pull out couch. All rooms come with a fridge, coffee maker and huge bathroom. You have tons of space to store your snacks and hang your coats when you walk in the door.
One thing you won't find in your Rush Creek Lodge room is a TV. This deliberate effort to get people to head outside will be just the electronics break you need. If you need something to keep the kids busy while you enjoy a cup of coffee on your deck (we can all dream, right?), each room is stocked with games like Barrel of Monkeys and Yahtzee.
Venture to the playground to ride on kid-sized ziplines, a massive slide and swings for the little ones. You can also play giant-sized games of Connect Four and checkers. Pull up an adirondack chair and enjoy the sunset as the kids explore.
Warning, you might have a hard time getting the kids to venture off property when they see the massive game room and playground that awaits them at Rush Creek. The game room has a climbing "tree house" as well as pinball, shuffle board, pool, foosball and pretty much every board game you can imagine. Out on the deck you'll find ping pong and darts.
The Recreation Team has daily activities planned from stargazing to tie dyeing to geode breaking. Evenings include s'mores by the outdoor fire pit (yes, nightly s'mores!) as well as fierce games of BINGO. The Rec Team can also suggest hikes, book you a massage or reserve you a spot on one of the hotel's guided tours in Yosemite.
Other amenities at Rush Creek include a heated salt water pool, two hot tubs, both a tavern and a restaurant, and a lobby gift shop that serves fancy lattes and DIY trail mix pretty much all day. You can find laundry facilities and microwaves in the main lodge.
Rush Creek Lodge at Yosemite
34001 Highway 120
Editor's note: Many of the Yosemite Village facilities are currently closed due to COVID-19. Please check before you visit.
Make sure you set aside some time to spend exploring Yosemite Village. Grab some lunch fixin's and souvenirs at the gift shop (it is huge—perfect to stock up on everything from hot cocoa to wine to grilling supplies). Take a break to watch the Spirit of Yosemite film at the visitor center to give the kids all the background info on Yosemite and how it came to be a national park.
The Yosemite Museum has hands-on exhibits where kids can learn all about the cultural history of Yosemite's native Miwok and Paiute people from 1850 to the present. If you are lucky, you may even be able to see traditional skills presented by historians. Outside you can walk through a replica Miwok village to see how they lived.
Ranger programs are available throughout the year and seasonal activities (like ice skating in the winter) are also hosted at the village.
Insider tip: Do you have a 4th grader in your crew? Grab your free pass to the national parks through the Every Kid Outdoors program and you'll save yourself the $35 cost to get into the park.
From the Bay Area you'll be taking highway 120 to reach Rush Creek and Yosemite via the Big Oak Flat entrance. This drive will take you through Stockton where you can stock up on veggies and fruits from various farm stands along the way. If you are looking for an opportunity to get out of the car for a bit, swing by Harris Orchards in Ripon to see what's in season. Our fall stop had apples, pomegranates and persimmons ripe for the picking! Summer bring stone fruits, cherries, grapes and more.
The drive to the South Entrance will take you through the grapevine along 152. Los Banos is a good place to stop as there are tons of fast food options there.
—photos and story by Kate Loweth
Editor’s note: This trip was paid for by Mariposa County, Tenaya Lodge and Rush Creek Lodge but all of the opinions belong to the writer.