Check out this ultimate guide including where to stay, what to do, when to go, and what to see on your Yosemite vacation with kids!
About 5 years ago I convinced my husband that we needed to start camping as a family. We started out camping close to home just in case things didn't go well. Last summer we made the leap and drove 4 hours to Bryce Canyon National Park and camped for 3 days. It went really well.
So this summer we decided to make the 7 hour drive to Yosemite National Park to camp for 4 days. This was the longest we'd camped and the furthest we'd been away from home. I was nervous but we ended up having a great time.
The Ultimate Guide to a Yosemite Vacation with Kids
When to Go
We visited Yosemite just after the 4th of July. Like most national parks in the summer, it was very very busy. I personally prefer to go parks in spring or fall and Yosemite would be nice at either of these times. We still had a great time in Yosemite even with the crowds.
Yosemite has quite a difference in elevations depending on where in the park you go (see below). And in the winter, roads will be closed due to weather.
Where to Go
Yosemite is huge. We drove in from the east and it took us a good 2 hours to drive the entire length of the park. We drove through the higher elevation areas like Tuolomne Meadows. It's beautiful in that part of the park, but in July it was 50 degrees so be prepared for cold weather. There is a nice lake to swim in
If you enter Yosemite from the west entrance, you will likely head to Yosemite Valley, the main tourist area of the park. This is also where Yosemite Village is located.
There are several campgrounds located in the valley as well as many places to swim in the Merced River. It's busy here so book ahead if you want to camp or stay at one of the lodges. We spent a good hour exploring the Ahwahnee Hotel and it's gorgeous.
We did not head to the west end of the park. The sequoia grove was closed for construction and it's quite a drive from the west entrance of the park.
Where to Stay
By the time we decided to go to Yosemite all of the campgrounds in the park were already full. I found a private campsite just outside the west entrance to the park, Yosemite Lakes RV Resort.
The campsite was located right on a river and had a wonderful swimming hole. We picked a campsite right near the river so we could listen to the water all night.
My daughter spent every single second she could swimming in the river. There were plenty of other kids to play, rocks to jump off, waterfalls to swim through and tiny fish that swam between your feet. A lot of campers also fished in the morning and evenings in the stream.
Yosemite Lakes offers tent camping, RV spaces, cabins and yurts so even if you're not a camper, this is a great place to stay just outside the west entrance of the park.
While we loved Yosemite Lakes, the bathrooms are very rough. While showers are free with your site, it's not nearly as nice as the showers at Ruby's at Bryce Canyon National Park.
If you want to stay on the east side of the park, check out accommodations in Lee Vining, CA.
What To Do
I've been to quite a few national parks and they are each unique. Yosemite, though, was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Gigantic trees, high cliffs, open meadows, and waterfalls are a part of this park.
We didn't do any hikes while in Yosemite because it was packed with people. But there are several paved paths to walk as well as challenging back country hikes that need permits. We stuck to the village and pulled off here and there to take photos and enjoy the scenery.
The Lower Yosemite Trailhead is paved and leads right up to a nice waterfall. You can see the waterfall in the distance in the photo above. It is located just across the street from the little church and before you get to the village coming from the west entrance. You could even hike there from the village.
There are several places you can pull off and go swimming in the river and other swimming holes. Some even have sand. So if you are in the park for the day, bring swimming gear.
Tons of people rode bikes to get around the park. This is a great option to see the park and avoid the crowded roads during summer peak season. There are miles and miles of paved bike trails in Yosemite to enjoy.
We decided to check out the Ahwahnee Hotel and it is definitely worth a visit. In fact, I'd recommend eating lunch here. It's the same price as eating in the village but the ambiance can't be beat.
The hotel is full of history and it's incredible that this huge structure was built in such a remote area so long ago. It's a nice place to take a break and just relax.
We even ran in to some wildlife on the grounds. You can sit inside or outside and enjoy this gorgeous area of Yosemite.
Our summer trip to Yosemite, and side trip to San Francisco, is probably my favorite family trip yet.