POST-COVID UPDATE: CHECK OUT NEW RESERVATION REQUIREMENTS, INCLUDING DAY USE RESERVATIONS HERE.
UPDATE: Since we visited, Curry Village has been renamed to Half Dome Village
With its 800 miles of hiking trails and a total size of 747,956 acres, a visit to Yosemite National Park requires some advance preparation. Here is a bit of family friendly wisdom to get you started on planning your first Yosemite experience.
(We have visited the Park as part of our California road trip. Here is our full itinerary.)
BEFORE YOUR VISIT
1. Pick the right season to visit. While Yosemite is open year round, there are some seasonal “effects” you need to consider when choosing the time for your visit. Tioga Road and Tioga Pass are typically closed from November to April. Some hikes are also open only seasonally (e.g. Half Dome), as well as some nature centers. But in the summer, the waterfalls are not running and the park is more crowded. Late spring is arguably the best time to visit.
We visited in August and while a little disappointed about the falls, we enjoyed beautiful weather and did not find the crowds overwhelming
2. Plan to Stay at least 2-3 nights. You may already know that there are several distinct nature areas within the park (Yosemite Valley, Mariposa Grove, Glacier Point, Tioga Road and Hetch Hetchy), but what you may not realize is that these areas are within 1-2 hours away by car from each other . (On our visit, we planned to see giant sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove but have not realized that they were 1 hour’s drive away from the Valley where we lodged and 2 hours away from the East entrance (Tioga Road) which we used to exit the park.
We only had 24 hours in the park and spent most of it in the Valley; but since we were headed to Tioga Pass on our way out of the Park, we got to enjoy a 39-mile scenic route with meadows, sequoia groves, blue lakes, and granite domes, (and even a sandy beach at Tenaya Lake) – all of which is offered to those few visitors who take a “less travelled” Tioga Road.
3. Book Your Lodging Early (way early!). There are several lodging choices inside the park (hotel and motel rooms, as well as canvas cabins and campgrounds) but you need to book your lodging well in advance for best choices inside the park. Yosemite’s web site allows reservations one year and one day ahead. (You may also try calling them if you are having problems with your booking (801) 559-4884.) I highly recommend staying inside the Park, unless you are planning to limit your visit to certain areas (Tioga Road and Tuolumne Meadows, for example) – then some lodging choices just outside the park may be a good option. We booked our visit 3 months in advance and Curry Village (now Half-Dome Village) canvas cabins at about $170 per night were our only option inside the park (and we were only looking for 1 night stay which is always easier!) You can reserve Curry Village via this Yosemite.com link which also offers other useful info including what to pack.
We loved staying in the Curry Village tents. It provided many modern conveniences (Wi-Fi, swimming pool and the postal office to name a few) in a breathtakingly beautiful natural setting.
I also liked the “vibe” of the Village with people speaking many different languages, young deer walking right next to the terrace of the club house where you sip your morning coffee (or afternoon beer, if you so prefer.)
Note that there are 13 campgrounds at Yosemite, four of which may be reserved for summer stays via www.recreation.Gov up to 5 months in advance (the rest are first come first serve).
4. Plan your Hikes. It’s a good idea to get familiar and choose the hikes for your family in advance–especially if you only have a few days in the park. Here is a link to Yosemite’s website which offers an easy to read guide to all hikes divided by park areas and level of difficulty. We chose a moderate level hike to the Footbridge of Vernal Fall. While relatively short (1.4 miles round trip), it was considered a moderate trail due to the 400 feet elevation.
(Here is a link to a post from This is My Happiness blog with 5 kid-friendly hikes in Yosemite)
6. Plan to arrive in the Day Light as the roads leading to the Park are narrow and winding.
There are 4 main entrances to the Park:
Arch Rock entrance from the west (via hwy 140 and El Capitan) – this is the one we arrived through from Monterey;
South entrance via hwy 41
East entrance (Tioga Road/hwy 120), and
Northwest Big Oak Flat entrance (hwy 120)
7. Prepare your Car. Chains may be required anywhere in the park if there is snow on the ground. (call ahead for road conditions (209) 372-0200). Note that there is no gas sold in the park.
8. Take a Shuttle. Visitors in the Valley are encouraged to leave their cars in the Valley parking lots and use free shuttle to move around the Valley (there is also a bus to Mariposa Grove in the summer). You don’t need to be a hiker to be able to see some of the most magnificent Yosemite sights – the Shuttle takes you to the Tunnel View, El Capitan and Lower Yosemite Falls. We took a 2-hour ranger-narrated Valley Floor Tour ($25 for adults; $13 for kids 5-13). There is also a half day tour to Glacier Point. We booked our tour in the Curry Village Visitor’s Center early in morning on the day of the tour (the Centers are open year around in the Valley and seasonally in other areas of the Park).
9. Take advantage of Junior Ranger Program (kids 7-13) and all the other kids activities offered in the park. There are several nature exhibit halls throughout the Park which are made with the youngest visitors in mind. Check the Park newspaper Yosemite Guide (available in the park free of charge) for the complete list of daily activities.
10. Safety First. Despite all the family friendliness, Yosemite is a wild nature park and you have to be mindful of the safety instructions posted around the Park about stream crossing and wading (DON’T DO IT!) As far as bear encounters, the rules in the Curry Village where we stayed (and I suppose in all the Park campgrounds) were very strict about not leaving ANY food in the car and in the tent (designated metal containers are provided for storage). Hold on to your young kids on hikes with elevations. (There are plenty of leveled hikes to choose for your family, and some even allow the strollers).
Bonus Tip: Install Oh Ranger App on your smart device.
And now, equipped with all this knowledge, you can start planning your first Yosemite adventure!