Planning on a visit to Yosemite National Park? Here’s a fun guide on things to do in this exceptionally beautiful park.
I am so excited to share today’s post with you, as the subject is very dear to my heart. It’s actually the reason why I came to the United States, which changed my life forever. As you can guess from today’s post title, it’s Yosemite National Park (ヨセミテ国立公園)!
Let me tell you a short story first. When I was in high school, I spent the summer break in the U.S. to study English. I stayed with my American host family and they took me to Yosemite for a week. I absolutely fell in love with it, and in fact I wanted to be a park ranger as my future career. It influenced my decision to major in environmental science for college and know everything there is to know about this wonderful and magical place. The part I didn’t know then was that only American citizen can become a US National Park ranger. Oops! Anyways, are you ready for the road trip? Let’s go!
On the Way to Visiting Yosemite
Yosemite National Park is about 190 miles (305 km) from where my family lives and it takes about 4 hours to get there. Along the way, we enjoyed the many sights of California, including wind generators, many different type of fruit trees, fields, and animals grazing.
During the non-peak season, the route to the park is actually not crowded at all and empty for stretches at time as you see in the photo above.
As you drive past the old western town of Groveland, the entrance to the park is 25 miles away. Almost there!
10 miles past Groveland, you’ll pass by Vista – Rim of the World on route 120. Stop and take in the amazing view of scenic area around South Fork Tuolumne River.
Finally, after a bit more than 5 hours (with a stop for lunch), we’re at Yosemite National Park. So, let me digress a bit before we enter the park. A few reasons why I am motivated to write this post:
- For those of you who do not enjoy hiking and parks: Mr. JOC did not really want to go on this trip. In fact he had been pushing it off for 10 years as I continued to beg and ask that we go. He finally gave in begrudgingly as the vote was 3 to 1, the kids were on my side. I am happy to say after the trip was over, he absolutely loved it and even bought the rock climbing documentary Valley Uprising because he was so interested in the history of the park. He’s been to Yosemite twice when he was a child and completely bored both times, but this time it was fun and different.
- Yosemite is for everyone; from hiking, camping, to rock climbing, there are some activities for people of all ages. This post is written for families with children 6-12 and it is my recommendation for enjoying the park.
- I wanted to share my favorite place in the world with my dearest readers!
On the way to the valley, there are a few vista points you can pull over and take pictures of the park and the Half Dome.
As you get closer, you see the valley before your eye and how expansive the park is. So, before we go further, let’s go over the brief layout of the park. The park is really big, roughly 1,168 sq mi or 3,000 sq km (about same size as Hong Kong). However most visitors spend their time in just 7 sq mi area. Quite a large area of the park is covered by snow in the winter time so the only time they are available is after summer begins. Click the map to enlarge.
I used to go to Yosemite and camp in the High Sierra with friends, away from the crowds in the Valley and enjoy the wilderness. This time since we are traveling with my family, we stayed to the more commonly visited area.
4 Day Plan for Visiting Yosemite
Day 1 in Yosemite Valley
As you enter the park, if the route is open (late May – Oct/Nov) I highly recommend you to visit Glacier Point first. Glacier point is 3,000 feet above the Yosemite and you get an amazing unobstructed view of the valley. It’s also a bit of a drive from the valley, so instead of losing 2 hours of travel time going back and forth from the valley, go to Gracier Point first when you enter the park. Click the map to enlarge.
On the way up to Glacier Point, you can see Bridalveil Fall. It was so pretty with the colors of the rainbow as you observe the water flowing.
Here is another view of the valley with Bridalveil Fall on the right, El Capitan on the left, and the Half Dome in the background.
On the way to Glacier Point, even though it was late April we could see some snow.
At Glacier Point, you can park your car and walk to the different vista points as you tower over the entire area.
View of the Half Dome and the valley from Glacier Point.
Just take in the view and enjoy the majestic view.
Here we are looking down at the valley from Glacier Point, 3,000 feet above.
Here is the top down view of the Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall.
Our little amateur photographer taking pictures in her zen pose.
It was slowly getting dark so we head down to the valley. It was interesting to see layers of mountain peaks after one another.
On the way into the valley, we saw the mighty El Capitan. What an amazing creation from mother nature. So the first day, after we arrived in the valley we checked in the Lodge at the Falls and celebrated my daughter’s birthday dinner. I’ll cover the lodging and food options in Yosemite in Visiting Yosemite Part 2 post. Let’s move on to fun activities to do!
Day 2 in Yosemite Valley
As you wake up in the morning, I recommend grabbing a quick bite and head to Yosemite Falls. It’s a super easy walk on paved road and even wheel chair friendly. Get there early if you want to take some great photos as it gets very crowded. What’s cool about Yosemite Falls? It is the highest waterfall in North America, so yes, you can check that off your list.
Along the trail you see huge boulders. Here you can see how large the rocks are compare to a child.
After the brisk walk to the waterfall and back, it’s time to tour the valley. We rented our tandem bikes from the bike rental shop near the lodge, and it was amazingly fun. There are many scenic spots where you can only get to on a bike, so ditch your car and enjoy the many views of the park many people miss. Click the map to enlarge.
As we were getting ready to go, a few deer came to say hello to us. It’s obvious they are very used to human. They just went about eating their meals as if we weren’t even there.
Our children can ride bikes, but we were not sure how crowded the bike trail would be. So we decided on tandem bikes instead. Also our plan is to bike about 10 miles, and our children have never done more than 2 miles so we didn’t want to exhaust them. Starting from the lodge, we headed southwest towards the Swinging Bridge
The weather was quite warm so our kids took a few minutes to play in the Merced River.
View of the river with Yosemite Fall in the background.
As you follow the bike trail, there are many areas such as this view point you can only get to with a bike. The clear blue sky, the gigantic rock formations, and the green trees below. It makes you forget about our modern busy life and really just appreciate the beauty of mother nature.
As you ride along the bike path heading east, you’ll pass the campgrounds on your left and Curry Village on your right and get to start of John Muir Trail.
Our biking adventure continues on to Snow Creek Trail, where we saw the roots of a tree that has fallen.
The path takes you back to Northside Drive and here you see the vehicle traffic and other visitors.
Time to take a break at the Village Store. Here you can buy some snacks, drinks, souvenirs, and of course ice cream!
My son’s favorite collection is rock and he was so happy when we bought him a small bag of rocks to bring home from the Village Store. My daughter who is a Harry Potter fanatic got a snowy owl stuffed animal, which she carries fondly around the house pretending she’s a wizard. At this point, we returned our bike and checked into The Ahwahnee. I’ll talk more about the hotel stay in Yosemite Part 2 post.
Day 3 in Yosemite Valley
The next day was the big hiking day. We tackled Vernal Falls as a family. The hike to the top of Vernal Fall is 2.4 miles (3.9 km) round trip, which is not too long. However the elevation gain is 1000 ft (300 m) and is considered a strenuous hike.
There is no parking near Mist Trail, so you need to hop on a shuttle and get off at stop 16.
Our children who wanted to look professional found walking sticks as they see other hikers with them.
The trail is paved and runs right along the river. Even though it was a warm day, the sound of the river flowing immediately cools you down.
Along the path, we took a few stops so our children could catch their breath. It is fairly steep at times and remember to bring lots of water and snacks for the little ones so they’ll keep going. The view from the path is mostly greenery and mountain views.
After 45 min, we arrived at the Vernal Falls footbridge. Here you can refill your water packs from the fountain and there is a restroom as well.
There is a huge rock near the bridge, my daughter felt like it was appropriate to do her dance on the rock.
Yay! We made it, the water was flowing at full speed at Vernal Falls. It got really cold and wet as we approach the water fall. Remember to bring waterproof wind breakers or some warm clothes. At this point we turned around, perhaps next time we’ll go all the way up to Nevada Falls.
For the 3rd night, we actually spent it outside of the park in Oakhurst. Oakhurt is near the South Entrance and Mariposa Grove. So a bit of bad news. This part of the park is currently closed to visitors until Spring 2017. It is currently going under the Mariposa Grove restoration project which will improve the grove’s dynamic ecology and make it stronger for generations of future visitors to enjoy.
Day 4 in Mariposa Grove
The Mariposa Grove is about 30 minute drive from Oakhurst. It has several hundred matured Giant Sequoias and a few that are the largest in the world. This part of Yosemite is completely different from the valley, as the giants rocks and boulders have disappeared and in their place trees that are thousands of years old tower hundreds of feet into the air.
A few of the larger trees in the Mariposa Grove have names and I’ll introduce you to them. After you park in the parking lot, there are a few trails that will take you from the Lower Grove to the Upper Grove. It’s not a difficult hike but do plan on taking some snacks and lots of water. It’s about a 5-6 mile (8-10 km) hike and close to 1,000 feet (305 m) in elevation. Click the map to enlarge.
Yes, the walking sticks are ready!
At the beginning of the trail, you’ll see the Fallen Monarch. Do you notice that for such large tree their roots do not go deep into the ground. Instead it spreads out near the surface to capture water. The trails is pretty clearly marked most of the way and you’ll get to see all the famous trees hiking up.
Did you know that scientists can understand climate change and how wet and dry the past years were from studying the rings of a tree?
Bachelor and Three Graces… not referring to the family. They are the names of the trees behind us.
After hiking up 400 feet (122 m) in elevation, you’ll see the Grizzly Giant. A tree so famous it even has its own Wikipedia page! It is the 25th largest giant sequoia living in the world today. The giant sequoias are not the tallest or the widest trees in the world. However, volume wise these trees are the largest living things on the earth as we know today.
Very close to the Grizzly Giant is the California Tunnel Tree. The tunnel at the bottom of the tree was created in 1895 to let horse stages through.
To make our trip more fun, we didn’t take the main route on the way up so we could enjoy different scenery. It was a bit of a mistake as the route we took was very steep at times and the children weren’t too happy. This is when the treats in our backpack comes out to bribe them to keep going. Since we took a smaller route on the way up, we won’t visit most of the famous tree until we head down the hill.
So on the way up, we saw a lot of the trees that were burnt. Can you guess why? When people discovered the Sequoia Grove, to protect them natural fires were put out. This caused other plants to quickly spread throughout the forest. When these plants covered the soil, sequoia seedlings couldn’t get the direct sunlight it needs to grow. The National Park Service does “prescribed burns” in the spring and fall to allow these new sequoias to grow and thrive.
Here’s the meadow near the museum, almost at the top! The museum was closed when we visited so we continue our trek.
Here we are at the Fallen Wawona Tunnel tree. It’s hard to tell from the roots what it was but it is extremely large.
As you take a few steps back, you could see where the tunnel used to be. The tunnel was created in 1881 and the tree collapsed in 1969 under heavy snow.
Heading back down, you’ll see the Telescope Tree. As you look up you could see the sky through its center. This giant sequoia is still alive and producing seeds today.
At the Clothespin Tree, the tree looks like it’s walking towards you with its two long legs. Kind of reminded me the scene from Lord of the Rings movies with the walking trees. Unlike the 2 tunnel trees, this tree’s tunnel was created by natural fires.
One last picture in front of the Faithful Couple before we head back to the Bay Area. This unique tree was formed by two trees which become one at the bases, but at the top they are still separated.
I hope you enjoyed our 4 day trip visiting Yosemite. If you visit California, don’t forget to enjoy this amazing beauty that mother nature has created. Try to avoid the summer season as the park becomes extremely crowded and it could ruin your experience. When we went in late April, the park was not too crowded and we had an amazing time. We’ll be back with information about the accommodation and food in Yosemite Part 2 post!