Yosemite National Park is the perfect place to vacation this summer while social distancing. It is absolutely expansive with ample space to explore and stay away from crowds. If you’ve been, you’re probably itching to get back. If you haven’t been, you need to put it on your bucket list right now!
We recently spent three days there with our family of seven, and it was delightful. It was our second time visiting the park, and after a great visit last year, we were able to improve on our experience with some tried and true tips from longtime Yosemite lovers and lessons learned from our previous visit.
We live in the San Francisco Bay area, about 3 hours from the park, so we built that driving time into our first day. Depending on where you’re traveling from, you can adapt your itinerary but we felt like ours worked out pretty perfect. Before you go, make sure you download offline maps for the greater Yosemite area, including wherever you decide to stay. You will definitely lose service in some parts of the park, and the offline maps will be a lifesaver!
Day 1: Wawona Area
We opted to drive on past the closet entrance to the park on our first day there to explore the southern end of the park where we hadn’t been before. We passed through the town of Oakhurst (which could be a really great place to stay!) and entered the south end of the park via Hwy 41. We arrived at the Mariposa Grove welcome center just after 12pm, and ate a quick lunch in the car as we unloaded, applied sunscreen, etc. We had planned to visit Mariposa Grove to see the giant sequoias (redwoods are our favorite), but we didn’t realize that with the shuttles not running this summer, the road would still be closed to get to the trailhead for the grove. Cars with a handicap placard can drive through and park at the trailhead, but all others still need to park at the welcome center. This meant getting to the trailhead to see the giant sequoias required an extra two mile hike (one way). We decided to do it anyway, and we’re so glad we did! The trail to the trail was so beautiful, and it had much more of a wilderness feel than the more developed trail through the actual redwood grove. Be sure to fill up your water bottles at the welcome center before starting the hike, though, because water is shut off at the actual grove, so you won’t have another opportunity for a good long time.
It ended up being about 6-7 miles total round trip, which was quite a lot for our crew of kiddos. If you have young hikers, I’d definitely recommend a hiking backpack or baby carrier for this one. We carried our one year old in the hiking backpack most of the way, and our four year old ended up on my husband’s shoulders for a good portion of the hike as well (mostly because he was moving way too slow for us!) We did see a family using a stroller on the trail, but I would not personally recommend it, as it was not paved or flat at all. The views were beautiful, and a highlight was checking out the giant pinecones along the first stretch.
Taking them home is not allowed, but my kids had fun choosing their favorite, before leaving it behind. Once we arrived at the Mariposa Grove trailhead, we rested a bit, used the outhouse style bathrooms (no running water right now), and had a snack to re-energize for the hike we had been hiking to. The grove is beautiful and very impressive, even to us, who’ve visited lots of redwoods before.
There is a short loop that has a built up boardwalk, and it’s lovely, but after hiking two miles to get there, it’s only fair to really get what you came for. There is another, longer loop, but the best strategy with kids is to hike to the Tunnel Tree, and then turn around and head back the way you came. The rest of the loop leaves the forrest, isn’t very shaded, and has an elevation raise, so you’re not getting a lot of bang for your buck by completing it.
Once you’ve hiked up about a mile and a half, you’ll see the Grizzly Giant, which is a stunningly beautiful, enormous tree, and just a hundred yards or so beyond it is the Tunnel Tree. Both are excellent photo ops, and very awe inspiring.
After you’ve admired both trees, head back down. You’ve still got another 3+ miles to get back to the parking lot, but it’s downhill this time, and was much easier for all of us.
At this point, our kids were exhausted, but so proud of themselves for completing such a rigorous hike. And let me tell you, if we can do it, chances are you can do it too! We had wanted to visit the nearby Chilnualna Falls, but were running short on time.
My sister was able to go a few days later, and they loved it, so we’ll definitely make that a priority next time. What we did do, though, should probably be at the top of your list. There’s a fun swimming area under a swinging bridge with a natural rock water slide that was the highlight of our trip. After we got home, all my kids told me that part was their favorite, so that’s telling. It’s not super well known, or well marked, but remember the google offline maps I told you to download? Here’s where they come in! There’s a pin on google maps called (wait for it) “Swinging Bridge Vault Toilet”. If you navigate there, it will take you through a back road to an outhouse in a dirt parking lot (just a 15 minute drive from the Mariposa Grove Welcome Center parking lot). Walk about 1/4 mile down the trail, and you’ll find the swinging bridge that goes over a gentle, shallow part of the Merced River. There’s a somewhat steep but short opening in the trees where you can access the river before the bridge, and there’s a nice sandbar in the river where little ones can play and easily splash in the shallow water.
There are some deeper areas nearby, though, so keep a close eye on babies and toddlers, and maybe bring floaties or life jackets for pre-swimmers. If you cross the bridge, you can walk down to the river at the top of a very small, gentle fall that is basically a natural water slide. I’d definitely recommend bringing inner-tubes to go down, as the rocks aren’t completely smooth, and you could get some bumps and bruises if you go down without one. (A few people in our party attempted it, and while it wasn’t necessarily dangerous, it certainly wasn’t comfortable). Inner-tubes make it easy and so fun, so they are definitely worth bringing!
We ended up being there close to sunset, which was absolutely beautiful, but I must warn that the bugs were out in full force. Pack your bug spray for this outing! My all-natural repellent didn’t seem to help with this particular variety of mosquito, and we all got plenty of bites before switching to the 40% DEET spray that my sister had with her. Going earlier in the day might also help, but we thought golden hour was worth the bugs. Before it was dark, we hiked back to our cars and headed out of the park. We packed in both lunch and dinner on this day, since there are no food options in this part of the park, but you could also stop in Oakhurst for a quick meal on your way out of the park if needed.
Day 2: Yosemite Valley
I’ve shared all the details on our day in Yosemite Valley in this post, but be sure to rest up, because you’ll need to get an early start, and it will be a jam packed day! Details on getting reservations to enter the park are also included in the Yosemite Valley Post.
Day 3: Tuolumne Meadows
By this point, everyone was tired, so it was nice to not have to rush out the door too early since we weren’t going to be looking for a parking spot in Yosemite Valley. We decided to keep the day pretty simple, since we were also traveling home that day, so we kept it to one main destination. Tuolumne Meadows was stunning. While not as popular or iconic as Yosemite Valley, it was beautiful and felt untouched. If you’re approaching from the west, you will pass Tenaya Lake on the way there, which is definitely a worthwhile destination in and of itself.
We just stopped to take a quick look, but we saw people relaxing on the shore, paddle boarding, and otherwise enjoying the gorgeous mountain lake. When we reached Tuolumne Meadows, we parked on the side of the road near some outhouses, and then set out to find the perfect picnic spot. It happened to be Father’s Day, so we wanted a good place to celebrate my husband and my brother-in-law, and boy did we find it!
We ended up crossing the most beautiful, crystal clear stream to get to a stand of trees with some fun boulders and smooth rocky terrain for climbing nearby.
We picnicked, hiked around the boulder area, and played in the stream. We didn’t see another human until we got back to the street where we parked, and it was an all around gorgeous day. The area is massive, with lots to explore, so I’m sure everyone’s experience will be different, but if you’re wondering if Tuolumne Meadows is worth the drive, I’d say if you have the time to get there, definitely yes! I wouldn’t choose it over, say, Yosemite Valley, but it was still pretty spectacular, and the drive there was breathtaking, so that time in the car is definitely not wasted.
We headed home tired but happy, and so grateful for a beautiful weekend spent in one of the most majestic corners of the earth.
Itinerary at a glance:
Day 1: Wawona
12pm arrive at Mariposa Grove Welcome Center (quick car picnic lunch) and start hike to Mariposa Grove trailhead (2 miles one way to the trailhead)
1pm Arrive at Mariposa Grove, and hike to Tunnel Tree
3pm Return to parking lot at Mariposa Grove Welcome Center
3:30pm Drive to Chilnualna Falls, short hike up to waterfall
5:30pm Drive to Swinging Bridge and swim/slide in Merced River and eat a picnic dinner
8pm Drive to lodging and rest up for tomorrow
Day 2: Yosemite Valley
(See schedule here)
Day 3: Tuolumne Meadows
9am leave lodging for park and drive to Tuolumne Meadows
11am Park at meadows and explore. Water shoes are a bonus for wading across a rocky river bed.
12pm enjoy a pristine picnic area, explore the rocks and boulders and the gorgeous scenery
3pm leave Tuolumne Meadows and head to the exit gate nearest your home or the day’s final destination.