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5 Top Yosemite Family Hikes, by Age Group

Yosemite National Park offers several wilderness trails that are ideal for families traveling with children. Our expert reveals her insider tips.

 

Hiking can be family-friendly in Yosemite National Park as long as you know which trails to tackle and what to expect on each. Here are five recommendations based on my several years of family hiking experiences.

Toddlers and Older Children 

Lower Yosemite Fall

Yosemite Falls is actually a series of three connecting falls; the lower fall is accessible to just about anyone, thanks to a wide, paved trail. Pick up the trailhead just north of Yosemite Lodge. Follow the pathway up a slight incline, through smooth boulders and past dense pine and cedar trees. Cross the bridge to the east, and you’ll see the falls to your left. It’s an easy one-third of a mile walk to the base of the falls. My husband, daughter and I always make this hike when we visit Yosemite; we’ve done it in the swelter of summer and amid snow and ice with equal success.

The ferocity of the falls depends on the season in which you visit. Come during May and June and expect to be drenched with spray at the look-out points. Come in October and November and you might not even see the water. Whatever the season, resist the temptation to crawl on the boulders at the base of the falls; this is enormously dangerous, and several people have lost their lives in this foolhardy endeavor.

If you have toddlers, turn around at the bridge and return the way you came. But if you’re traveling with older kids (5 and up), continue over the bridge and catch the unpaved path that runs beside the cliff. This extended section of the trail is much less trafficked, and for that reason it’s my favorite part of the hike. After about two-tenths of a mile you’ll hit a dirt horse path. Follow it to the south (right) and meander through stands of majestic pines and over a series of pretty little bridges. You’ll soon come to a clearing with several benches that have an idyllic view of the falls. In wet weather, bring along a few plastic grocery bags to cover the damp seats.

Mirror Lake

Don’t let the name fool you; aside from May and June, you aren’t likely to find water in Mirror Lake. (In late spring, when the water level is high enough, there is a lovely reflection of Half Dome.) What you will find is a level, mostly paved trail that is easily accessible, even for babies and toddlers in strollers. The out-and-back loop is two miles, and the elevation change is negligible.

Catch the trail from the Mirror Lake shuttle stop. (Yosemite offers a free bus throughout the Valley; catch it from the Visitors Center and it’ll take you to all the major sites.) Follow the paved road (used only by park vehicles) through a dense forest of white firs, ponderosa pines and dogwoods (glorious during blooming season in May). After a mile, you’ll step out of the forest to see sandbars and enormous boulders in the lake bed. My 12-year-old is a budding rock climber, and particularly enjoys scampering up these. On our last visit, we hiked back via the bridal path loop (which is a little longer than taking the paved trail) and were thrilled to find Native American grinding stones, where generations of mothers and daughters used to pound out acorns.

Ages 5 and Up

Mariposa Grove

A slightly longer, more vigorous hike over unpaved roadway, the two mile out-and-back trail through Mariposa Grove can be a secluded, peaceful hike (especially in early morning, before the crowds arrive) and it’s a good area to spot wildlife, especially deer and bears. This is the most accessible trail in the park through the Giant Sequoias—the largest, oldest living things on the planet. Children 5 and older should have no problem handling the slight elevation gains, and all ages will enjoy the otherworldly feel of this forest of massive trees.

Pick up the trailhead on Wawona Road, about two miles east of the South Entrance to the park. There is plenty of parking as well as restroom facilities. Follow the winding trail through the big trees, over bridges and past small creeks. In less than a mile you’ll reach the Grizzly Giant, the largest sequoia in the park and believed to be at least 3,000 years old. Walk about 60 feet beyond and you’ll come upon the California Tunnel Tree, which was carved in 1895 to allow stagecoaches to pass through it.

Ages 8 and Up

Bridalveil Fall 

Bridalveil Fall is so named because it falls in a delicate ribbon that sways back and forth with the winds. It’s a little tricky to find the trailhead, which is about a mile-and-a-half after the exit of the Wawona tunnel as you travel eastward into Yosemite Valley. (Because the road that runs through the Valley is one way, you cannot approach the trailhead when driving westward.) Look carefully to the right for signs to pull off. There is ample parking along the road, as well as a large parking lot with restroom facilities.

Walk a few feet from the trailhead, and you’ll hit a fork in the pathway. Head right and climb up toward the falls for about two-tenths of a mile. During the heaviest snow melt season (late spring), you won’t be able to reach the vista overlook without being drenched. Most times of the year you’ll find puddles in unexpected places along the trail. (It’s always a good idea to carry dry socks for the whole family.) The trail is fairly smooth, but it is scattered with boulders that can present a tripping hazard and there are steep drops along the way, so this hike is best saved for children 8 and older.

Ages 10 and Up

May Lake

Just off the Tioga Road, 27 miles east of Crane Flat, you’ll find a challenging day hike through pine trees, past a buggy pond and up through craggy mountain boulders. The ultimate goal is May Lake, 1.2 miles in, which offers a beautiful spot for a picnic and good views of the mountains beyond. Swimming is prohibited, but my daughter enjoys skipping rocks and chasing dragonflies on the shore.

Look for signs to the trailhead, which is accessed via the May Lake Junction, a narrow two-mile offshoot of Tioga Road. Follow the path past Snow Flat pond, just beyond the trailhead and up through the relatively clear trail. You’ll pass two High Sierra Camps just off the pathway. This is a vigorous hike with an elevation gain of more than 500 feet. Children 10 and over who are in good physical condition should be able to make this hike without too much difficulty.


Destinations: Yosemite National Park

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking


User Comments

If you happen to be someone with ample amount of experience in cross-country skiing, you could take an overnight cross-country ski trip all the way to Glacier point. I swear it was to the highest interest I had in my life. Actually it is a good place for kids to have fun and for beginners like me to learn how to ski.

Yosemite Hikes are great I've done these hikes and the descriptions are perfect

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