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Travel Guide: Yosemite National Park with kids

We've been asked a lot for our tips on Yosemite National Park, especially for advice on accessibility with kids, and photography locations. This guide has everything you need to know.

The stunning Sentinel Dome lookout at sunset.

By Grace Koelma

The magical place that is Yosemite

Yosemite National Park is arguably the most well-recognised national park on the planet... situated in the western Sierra Nevada of Central California. The only national park more globally famous would be the Grand Canyon.

You've likely have heard of Yosemite (pronounced "Yow-sem-it-tee"), but what you may not know is that it's the oldest national park in the USA, opened officially to the public in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln (thanks, Abe!) 

Yosemite is known for its sky-scraping, jaw-dropping cliffs and striking landscapes, and it really does feel like another planet when you're there. The park attracts over 4 million visitors a year, most arriving in the summer months and exploring mainly in the Yosemite Valley area.

Yosemite Valley's Meadows - stunning all year round (this was in October)

Adventure-seekers and extreme sports enthusiasts often go further afield are drawn to Yosemite because of its challenging natural climbing landscape. Raising your eyes from the valley floor to see climbers (tiny red and blue dots) scaling the sheer, 3000 ft tall rock face of El Capitan - Yosemite's most striking cliff - will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. As incredible as the climbs are, there are hundreds of accidents each year, so if you're thinking of climbing, make sure you follow the park's safety guidelines carefully.

The park is huge (an impressive 748,436 acres) so there is a lot to explore, including giant sequoia forests, lakes, waterfalls, and vast meadows. We would recommend 4-5 days as a minimum. We only had a 3 day window, and it was far too quick. That being said, if you only have 3 days, we would 100% recommend driving out there from San Francisco, because it is a place that has to be seen to be believed.

Put simply, Yosemite is a destination everyone should visit at least once in their life. Read on - this guide will give you all the info you'll need to plan your visit.

A road winding into the Yosemite Valley

Getting there

Yosemite is located a fairly long way from major towns. Here is a run down of the various ways to get there.

By car 

The simplest, hassle-free way to get to Yosemite (bar a private helicopter!) is by car. If arriving from interstate or overseas, you can fly into San Francisco International airport (SFO) and pick up a hire car, or drive your own car. 

  • From San Francisco International airport it takes roughly 4 hours to reach Yosemite Park's outskirts and 5 hrs to reach Yosemite Village (the centre of the action).
  • From San Francisco downtown area it takes about the same time (or longer sometimes, if you're leaving in peak hour traffic).
  • You can drive your car into and around Yosemite, though the park encourages visitors to use shuttles in some areas.
  • Fees: see below for advice on entry fees for vehicles.
  • We drove our RV into the park, and would recommend this method of transport if you're traveling with little ones, as it's far more convenient. If you're visiting Yosemite as part of a West Coast roadtrip, you can also find campsites in the National Park, which is a fantastic option for affordable accommodation (see the Accommodation section below).

By flight

Here is a list of the commercial airports closest to Yosemite, arranged by distance (nearest to furthest) to Yosemite Valley. You'll need to research rental car options and public transport individually for each airport, as it's available seasonally, depending on snowfall.

  • Merced airport (MCE) - 2 hrs to valley
  • Fresno-Yosemite International airport (FAT) - 2.5 hrs to valley
  • Mammoth Yosemite airport (MMH) - 1 hr to Tuolumne Meadows (2.5 hrs to Yosemite Valley) when Tioga Road is open (typically late May or June until November). 
  • Stockton Metropolitan Airport (SCK) - 2.5 hrs to valley
  • Oakland International (OAK) - 3.5 hrs to valley
  • Sacramento International (SMF) - 3.5 hrs to valley
  • San Francisco International (SFO) 5 hrs to valley

See the full list of nearby airports and public transport schedules here.

By public transport

Bus services are available to Yosemite Valley (and, during summer, to some other areas of the park) from cities throughout California and the rest of the United States. Amtrak and Greyhound also have services to the park.

By private tour

There are a range of private tours available leaving from San Francisco and major central Californian cities, too many to list here. Simply search 'Yosemite tour + [city of your choice]' for options.

Yosemite Valley Meadows

Park entry fees

  • If you drive into the park, you'll need to pay the $35 entry fee (valid for cars, vans, trucks and RVs for 7 days).
  • Alternatively, you can purchase an annual pass for $80 (the best value if you're doing multiple national parks, as it gets you into all the USA National Parks). 
  • You can purchase passes in advance here.
  • You can also pay the entrance fee or purchase an annual or lifetime pass at any park entrance station. If the station is unstaffed when you arrive, you can pay on your exit. You must display your 7-day or annual pass clearly in your windscreen window at all times. Rangers do patrol.

Seasonal info

Yosemite is open all year and visually stunning in every season, though some areas of the park are inaccessible by car from approximately November through May due to snow. Check the park's website for condition updates before you visit (even if you think you're coming outside of snow season.)

We visited in October, which was perfect because the nights weren't yet too cold, but there were far less tourists than summer. If you're visiting in spring or summer, you may also be able to see wildflowers and wildlife in the meadows in and around the park. Check out this National Parks guide for information on how to spot them, and taking care around the native plants.

Top photography locations

An iconic sunset view in Yosemite: From the top of Sentinel Dome, featuring El Capitan on the right.

Location #1: Sentinel Dome

Without a doubt, this was our favourite location in the park, both for views and photography. You'll need to drive up Glacier Point Road, and park on the side of the road near the Sentinel Dome trailhead - you'll likely see lots of cars parked nearby. I've included a map pin of the location below. 

Our tips for Sentinel Dome

  • The walk only takes about 15 minutes, and leads up a large rocky outcrop to a dome. Make sure you keep children close as there are steep drop offs, but it is safe if you use caution.
  • Make sure you get there about an hour before sunset, and sit with a picnic or drinks to let the spectacular show begin.
  • You can also drive up to the far more popular Glacier Point Lookout (at the end of the road) which has stunning views as well. Here's the Google map pin.
  • There are a bunch of other moderate hikes off Glacier Point Rd that we didn't have time to explore, but look incredible. Check those out here.

Sentinel Dome Gallery

Just in case you need more convincing 😉

Make sure you keep small children close at the top.

The trail up to Sentinel Dome

Location #2: Tunnel View

This has to be the most iconic view of Yosemite, shot at the lookout point for Tunnel View. The lookout point is located about 45 minutes drive from the Oakhurt and Mariposa borders (map pin here), and you'll see the viewing platform on the left after you come out of a long tunnel.  There are carparks on the left and right, but take the right one if you're in a larger car, bus or RV.

Our tips for Tunnel View

  • Go for sunrise like we did, it's totally worth the 6am wake up (earlier in summer) to drive the 40 or so minutes from the outer campgrounds. If you have kids, sunrise is an excellent time to see this view.
  • Watch the light as it moves over El Capitan, it is truly breathtaking. By going at sunrise you'll also beat the crowds.
  • Take your breakfast outdoors and enjoy the view.
  • Pro photography tip - underexpose your photos and set the light balance to get light on the peaks without washing them out - you can brighten the foreground detail later in Lightroom. 
  • (Check out our photography course for tips for photographing with kids, learning to shoot on manual settings and learning to edit in Lightroom. It has rave reviews!)

Sunrise at Tunnel View - Light on El Capitan

Tunnel View Gallery

Our 3-year-old enjoying his cereal with this stunning view.

It was chilly in the mornings - October in Yosemite.

Behind-the-scenes: Tunnel View

The carpark as you exit the tunnel.

The viewing platform, photographers waiting for sunrise.

Location #3: Yosemite Meadows

Located on the Valley Trail, the Yosemite meadows are absolutely breathtaking. Take a bike (there are designated bike paths) or wander by foot. Just pay attention to signs as there are some areas you are not allowed to leave the trail on.

Behind-the-scenes: Yosemite Meadows

Cycling along Cook's Meadow Loop

Northside Dr - the valley loop Rd. From here you can see climbers scaling El Capitan.

Location # 4: El Capitan Meadow

Take a drive around the valley loop, which comprises of Northside and Southside drives and stop in El Capitan Meadow. It's a one way road, so you'll need to follow signs carefully. 

Parking by the side of the road on Northside Dr and taking a photo in front of El Capitan is a classic Yosemite experience.

Prepare for some jaw dropping views - the loop drive takes about 30 minutes without stopping but you'll be pulling over to take photos a lot, so factor in 2-3 hours here if you want time to see it all. There are loads of spots to park on the side of the road, and picnic areas too, so pack a picnic lunch!

Other notable photography and viewing locations around the valley loop are:

  • Valley View Yosemite
  • Bridal veil falls viewpoint
  • Cathedral beach picnic area
  • El Capitan picnic area

Having an RV that you can stand on doesn't hurt either! 😉

Yosemite is family-friendly

Trails and walks suitable for kids

  • Lower Yosemite Fall Trail: 1 mi / 1.6 km (entire loop). This is a very accessible trail for families traveling with kids, flat and easy. We recommend walking the loop in a clockwise direction for best views of Yosemite Falls. 
  • Cook's Meadow Loop: 1 mile (1.6 km) loop. This is a lap around the Valley Floor, starting at the visitor information centre. We cycled this as there were bike paths. Allow 1-2 hours, and bring a picnic as there is a lot to explore.
  • Bridalveil Fall Trail: 0.5 mi / 0.8 km (round trip) Bridalveil Fall is often the first waterfall you'll see when entering Yosemite Valley. This easy trail takes you right to the base for a spectacular view of the rushing torrent of water.
  • You can see a list of all the hikes available (moderate - strenuous) on the Park's Website here.

Kids' Junior ranger program

Yosemite, like most National Parks, has a Junior Ranger program and loads of educational opportunities for your little ones. Find out more here.

Where to stay

There are a range of accommodation options inside the valley, with styles to suit every budget.

Hotels

  • The Ahwahnee (formerly known as the Majestic Yosemite Hotel) has to be one of the most iconic establishments in the valley, with its historic architecture and magnificent grand dining hall. It's the only lodging in the park boasting a 4 diamond rating and while the rooms will set you back a few hundred dollars, it's definitely worth a visit for afternoon cocktails on the back lawn.
  • Other options are Yosemite Valley Lodge, Curry Village (tent cabins), and the Wawona Hotel.


RV and trailer campgrounds

  • Yosemite has 10 campgrounds that can accommodate RVs and trailers, including 5th wheel.
  • Sleeping in vehicles in non-designated campgrounds is prohibited throughout the park (like all American National Parks), though there are a number of free campsites just outside the park perimeter. Download iOverlander to find them.
  • Wawona Campground - we stayed in our RV at Wawona Campground, which was about 45 minutes from Yosemite Valley. 
  • From April - September campsites are $26 and reservations are required. You can reserve campsites online. Reservations during the Summer months are hard to come by, and campsites are usually booked out. Be sure to book early.
  • From October - March it's on a first-come-first serve basis, so we recommend arriving before 10am to get a spot. Registration is self-serve and is $18 a night, payable in cash.
  • Information on Wawona Campground here.

Our RV site in Wawona campground

Wawona campground

Surrounded by large trees with ample shade.


Campsites

  • Camping is perhaps the most magical way to experience Yosemite, as you are so close to nature and can watch the million stars at night, and wake up to misty views of the towering cliffs each morning.
  • There are 13 tent sites in Yosemite National park. See them all here.
  • The 4 sites in most demand are right in the centre of Yosemite Valley, and each have incredible views of the canyon. These sites are Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines and Camp 4. Reservations are required in advance all year and if you don't get in early, they will be booked out. Make reservations here.

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Grace Koelma

Grace is a writer, designer, digital nomad, mum (otherwise known as toddler chaser), slow traveller, wild things appreciator, culture immerser, coffee opportunist... She frequently uses big words (some of which are definitely made up), likes long walks and even longer books, and her focus on wellness in 2017 means she is learning to obey her FitBit. Except when she's glued to her computer!

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