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California is finally starting to open up after months of lockdown due to Covid-19, and we decided to get out of the house and spend a long weekend in Yosemite. It’s basically the perfect place to go while social distancing, because it’s absolutely expansive, and they are letting only half the usual number of people in each day, so it’s less crowded than normal. (Wearing masks is still encouraged in more crowded areas where it’s not possible to maintain physical distance, but not necessary for hiking, biking, etc.).
After our Yosemite trip last year, we made a few tweaks, and this year, basically had the perfect day in Yosemite Valley that included all the must-dos without being way too much for the kids. It was magic. And I’ve got all the details you need to plan your own trip.
Reservations: This year, reservations are mandatory for day use of Yosemite National Park. They open up a month before, so on July 1, the reservations for August will become available, but June and July are basically full. There’s a loophole, however, that can snag you the reservation you want. Two days before any given day, the last 20% of the reservations become available at 7am Pacific time. So we logged on right at 7am on a Wednesday morning to get reservations to enter the park on a Friday. You can make reservations here, and it’s a good idea to make sure you have an account with nps.org beforehand so you can get through the reservation process quickly. Obviously this would be risky if you were planning to travel from far away to get to Yosemite, but if you’re within driving distance and flexible enough to add some last-minute plans to the mix, it’s a great option. You’ll have to pay the entrance fee upon making your reservation, unless you are an annual or lifetime pass holder (or have a 4th grader!), in which case you just pay a $2 reservation fee. Once you have a day reserved to enter the park, that reservation gets you in for seven days, though you do have to enter on the first day of the reservation for it to be valid. Camping and lodging inside the park appears to be fully booked, though you can always try to snag a cancelation. Otherwise there are many options of places to stay outside the park. Last year we camped in Groveland, and this year we booked an Inn in Mariposa. There are lots of lodges and airbnbs available, so book whatever seems best for your family. Just keep in mind that Yosemite is huge, and the various entrances are hours apart in driving time, so when you book lodging, check for the nearest entrance and how close it is to the parts of the park you’d like to visit. It’s normal to drive for over an hour to get from lodging to Yosemite Valley, but if you’re 3 hours away, definitely rethink your location!
Getting around the park: Once you have a park reservation and a place to stay, you need to make a plan for your time in the park. I’m a pretty spontaneous person, but as I mentioned, Yosemite is enormous, and if you don’t do any research beforehand, you’ll probably end up pretty frustrated. So you’ve come to the right place! Yosemite Valley is the most popular part of Yosemite National Park, and features the most famous attractions like Half-Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Vernal Falls, and Mirror Lake. Typically, shuttles run all throughout the valley, since parking is limited, and simply not available at all of the locations you’ll want to see. But due to Covid, shuttle are not running this summer. So you can either park and walk miles to each trailhead where you’ll hike more miles, or ride bikes. And if you’re going with kids, bikes are the only way to get around the Valley without losing your mind. If you have bikes and a bike rack, you can definitely bring your own to the park. We didn’t plan ahead for that, but decided to rent bikes there (around $200 for our family of 7 for one full day, and completely worth the money!). We rented five bikes and one trailer that our youngest two rode in. It was awesome because it had enough cargo space for us to tote our lunch and other supplies around. If you are planning to rent bikes, I’d plan on arriving to the park early, because they are first come first serve. Actually, just plan on arriving early either way, because even with the number of park guests drastically down, parking still fills up, and the last thing you want to do on your day in Yosemite is drive around, and around, and around looking for parking! We left our Inn in Mariposa around 7:30am to arrive in the Valley by 9am. We parked at Half-Dome Village (also known as Curry Village) and rented our bikes right there. That allowed us to access everything Yosemite Valley has to offer, while saving ourselves hours of walking and whining kids. There are paved bike trails throughout the Valley that are mostly flat and easy to navigate. We went with my sister and her family, so our group had 10 bikes total and we had no problem getting around. Plus, riding bikes through the incredible scenery and in the shadow of such majestic mountains as Half-Dome is sure to be a highlight in itself.
Itinerary: From Half-Dome Village, load up whatever you need for the day in your backpack or bike trailer and head to Yosemite Falls. If you stop near the bathrooms at the trailhead, there are bike racks (no bikes allowed on the trail to the falls), and there’s a huge boulder that has a natural slide on one side. My kids love climbing to the top and then sliding down over and over.
The walk to the falls is mostly paved and has just a slight incline, but the payoff is huge! Lower Yosemite Falls is absolutely gorgeous! Enjoy the view, snap some photos and head back the way you came, or complete the loop trail when you’re done.
Hop back on your bikes and head toward Mirror Lake. If you packed swimsuits (you should) consider changing into them at the Yosemite Falls bathrooms. If you’re not ready for that, or don’t want to change yet, there are bathrooms at Mirror Lake, but they are outhouses, so not quite as pleasant. We stopped on the way to the lake for a picnic, but you could easily picnic there as well, just depending on when you’re ready to eat. If you rent your bikes, they are not allowed all the way up the hill to the Mirror Lake trail. It’s a pretty easy walk, so not a problem to stop at the bike racks at the bottom of the hill, but if you bring your own bikes, you can ride to the top of the hill to the trailhead. There you will find the outhouses, and a beautiful and popular swimming area.
But if you walk a bit up the trail, there are more opportunities to swim that might be less crowded.
All of it is pristine, and has shallow areas gentle enough for toddlers to play as well as deeper areas where the more adventurous can swim and jump off rocks. This paradise in the shadow of Half-Dome is not to be missed!
At this point, you have a couple of options. A very popular hike in Yosemite Valley is the Mist Trail leading up to Vernal Falls. It’s fairly steep, and features a long series of stone steps that lead up the mountain alongside the beautiful falls. They tend to be wet and can be a bit slippery, and you’ll need to plan on getting wet (it’s called the “Mist Trail” for a reason). On cooler days, bring ponchos, or just stay in your swimsuits on a hot day. It’s about 1.6 miles to the lookout point, but fairly steep, and this summer to promote social distancing, the steps are one-way only (up) from 9am to 4pm, so if you go between those hours, you’ll have to continue up for several more miles of steep trail with no shade to loop around to the John Muir trail. I wouldn’t recommend that with kids, so the best bet is to start the hike around 3pm. You’ll arrive at the lookout by 4pm and then are free to turn around and go back down the way you came. My sister and her family chose to hike the Mist Trail this way, and it worked out great.
We did this hike last summer, and it was definitely a highlight, but since we had completed a really strenuous hike with our kids the day before, we opted for a different adventure, which is equally majestic, and possibly a better option if you have really young kids or unenthusiastic hikers.
We opted for a “Tour-de-Yosemite”. We loaded our littles into the bike trailer, and rode the entire bike path around Yosemite Valley. It might have been my favorite activity of the day. It was a breathtaking ride, and we got familiar with parts of the park I hadn’t seen before.
As a bonus, our toddler and preschooler both took a nice nap in the bike trailer while we rode, and woke up refreshed for more adventures, since we packed the day really full. We stopped at Yosemite Village for popsicles on our way back to Half-Dome Village, which was the perfect refreshment for our kids and a nice reward for many miles logged on those bikes.
Daily rental bikes are due back by 5:45, so we met back up with my sister and her family around 5:30 to return bikes and grab dinner at Half-Dome Village. There is also a nice eatery at Yosemite Village, so if you weren’t meeting back up with another party you could easily get dinner there on the way back. I’ve eaten at both villages and they both had pretty good food, but Degnan’s Kitchen at Yosemite Village is the newest and nicest of the options I’ve seen, so that’s a great place to grab a pizza, sandwich or wrap.
We wrapped up dinner around 6:30, and jumped back in our cars (conveniently parked right there), and headed up to Glacier Point. It’s about an hour drive straight up from Yosemite Valley, and offers the most iconic views of the park. Sunset is arguably the best time to go, since the setting sun casts an orange glow on Half-Dome and makes the waterfalls sparkle. It’s pretty spectacular and well worth the drive. When we arrived at the top, we changed kids into pajamas before enjoying the view and the sunset together.
This area will likely have more crowds than many other parts of the park, so consider bringing your masks, or just stay away from the more crowded viewing areas.
We left Glacier Point by 9pm, making sure to use the bathrooms there before starting the drive back to our Inn. Day use of the park requires exit by 11pm, so make sure you have time to reach your desired gate by that time. All our kids were sound asleep before we got down the mountain, but once we were back in the valley, we made sure to pull over and get out to stargaze for a few minutes. Another huge payoff for a very small effort. That night sky is incomparable!
We got back to our Inn by 11, carried our sleeping kids to their beds, and then collapsed into ours after a full, perfect day!
Top 10 Tips for a Family Day in Yosemite Valley:
- Bike through the Valley! I’m never going without bikes again, shuttles or no shuttles.
- Pack lunch (and lots of water and snacks) and buy dinner. It’s nice to have the flexibility to picnic wherever for lunch, but buying dinner lightens up your load a bit.
- Arrive at the park EARLY! Aim to be at the gates by 8am so you don’t miss out on parking spots.
- Bring swimsuits. There are so many incredible water features, and on a summer day kids and adults alike will want to jump in! We skipped the towels to save on space though, and just air dried.
- Download the greater Yosemite area to your google maps before going. You will definitely lose service in parts of the park, and navigating by map can be a bit confusing, so having offline maps will save you!
- Don’t forget the sunscreen and insect repellent. I generally prefer an all natural insect repellent, but 20+ bites later, we went for the DEET (in moderation) and that seemed to do the trick with those extra-wild bugs at the park.
- If you have anyone with sensitive feet, water shoes will make the water activities much more pleasant. Here are some good ones for little kids, a nice pair for bigger kids, and my husband swears by these for adults.
- Pack extra clothes and pajamas for the kids. You can leave them in the car, but they might come in handy!
- Be prepared if any of your kids experience motion sickness. There are some curvy roads to be driven. We like using these anti-nausea wristbands (this version is a fraction of the price of the name brand, and works just as well!) Or, consider using children’s dramamine.
- Bring a portable phone charger. Even though you’ll lose service in parts of the park, many parts of Yosemite Valley will have coverage. You’ll probably be taking lots of pictures and videos and which can run your battery down, so an extra charge can save you in case you get separated from your group and your battery is running low. This is a great one.
Perfect Day in Yosemite Valley At-A-Glance
8am- Arrive at the entrance gates
9am- Park at Half-Dome Village (Curry Village) and rent bikes and pack up for a day of adventure.
10am- Bike to the trailhead for Lower Yosemite Falls (climb on boulder at trailhead) and walk to falls
12pm- Bike to Mirror Lake. Have picnic lunch and swim and play in the lake.
2:30pm- Bike to Mist Trail trailhead and hike to Vernal Falls (start hike around 3pm, moderate difficulty) OR ride bikes around the long loop through Yosemite Valley (easy).
5:30pm- Return rental bikes and grab dinner at Half-Dome Village
6:30pm- Drive to Glacier Point for sunset.
9pm- Leave Glacier Point to head out of the park. Pull over in the valley to stargaze, before exiting the park by 11pm.