There's really only one reason to go to Yosemite National Park: the scenery. Spectacular granite cliffs, plunging waterfalls, verdant meadows and some of the world's most awe-inspiring trees lie within its 1,200 square miles. What a thrill it is to share that beauty with grandchildren!
The sheer scale of Yosemite and its relative remoteness mean that you don't pop in for an afternoon visit, not unless you happen to live very close by.
You'll need to plan carefully to be sure that you get what you and your family members want most from your visit. Yosemite is probably best suited for children whose ages are in the double digits, but I have seen many families with younger children enjoying it. And while vigorous individuals will have more options in the park, many of Yosemite's delights are accessible to all.
You can find an immense amount of information about Yosemite on the National Park Service's website, and a plethora of information can be found in other places, but it's easy to overlook something that you really need to know. As a grandparent who has visited Yosemite multiple times, I have a few tips about what you should know before you go.
Yes, There Are Bears
There are no grizzlies in Yosemite, but there are several hundred black bears, most of them actually brown in color. On our last trip, we saw one that was a beautiful gingery brown.
Bears in Yosemite are seldom aggressive toward humans, but they do aggressively seek food. It's vital that you not leave food in your car, even in your trunk. If you stay in the canvas tent cabins as my family usually does, you will not be able to eat or store food in your cabin. Bear-proof boxes are supplied for food storage.
If you are traveling with young children, the presence of bears adds a bit of a challenge to the trip. Your grandchildren may not understand why they can't snack in the car, for example. And although there have been no deaths or even serious injuries caused by bears in Yosemite, you'll still want to watch your children closely.
Other Reasons to Watch the Children
Yosemite is chock-full of enormous boulders that children love to climb, and I've seen dozens of children scramble around on them without being injured. Near waterfalls, however, rocks can be very slippery, either from algae growing on them, from the action of water smoothing them or from the mist that often envelops the falls. On our last visit, a ranger was warning visitors away from the rocks near Lower Yosemite Falls, which looked dry and safe to walk on but that were actually quite treacherous.
On the topic of waterfalls, they are one of the most beautiful and yet most deadly features of Yosemite. Every year visitors lose their lives after being swept over the falls. Usually they are climbing on the rocks when they slip and fall in, but swimming in the water above the falls can result in being caught in a current and carried over the falls.
Many other locations in Yosemite feature swift water, especially in the spring and following rainfall. A simple tumble from the bank into the water can be fatal, especially to children.
Grandchildren should also be warned not to try to touch squirrels, chipmunks or other small mammals that can carry diseases. In 2012 an outbreak of hantavirus in Yosemite was traced to deer mice nesting in a particular type of tent cabin. If you see evidence of rodent activity in your lodging, notify management immediately.
It will cost you $30 per vehicle to get into Yosemite --$25 November through March -- but that's good for seven days. Of course, our national parks are still our biggest national bargain. And if you are over 62 -- they are a downright steal! Your Senior Pass costs only $10, and it provides free admission for you and everyone in your vehicle, as well as other discounts.
Getting Around Yosemite
Yosemite has excellent roads, although the terrain makes speed limits of 25-35 mph a necessity in most places. The low speed limits and large size of the park mean that getting around takes a while. From Yosemite Valley, the centrally located, most-used part of the park, it can take up to two hours to reach other points of interest.
Because Yosemite is a heavily visited park, especially in summer, parking lots are frequently full. Shuttle buses operate in Yosemite Valley, and using them is preferable to driving one's own car and trying to find a place to park it. Trust me, once you find a good parking place in the valley, you'll be reluctant to move your car at all!
You will need to use your car to get to the more remote areas of the park, and you should, because those areas are not to be missed.
You really should stay multiple days when you visit Yosemite, and that means finding lodging. There are three general solutions to Yosemite lodging:
- Stay in a hotel or motel inside the park. This is a pricey option. Rooms at the lovely Ahwahnee Lodge go for $500+ per night by the time taxes are added. Rooms at Yosemite Lodge are $250+. The historic Wawona Lodge has rooms with a communal bathroom for $155 and rooms with a private bath for $226. Besides being relatively expensive, these lodges fill up rapidly. Reservations are open a year in advance, and the last-minute visitor is unlikely to find any availability.
- Find lodging outside the park. Gateway communities offer a variety of lodging options, from motels to resorts to cabins. Just remember that you will have significant travel time to get to Yosemite Valley and more if you want to visit a point of interest on the other side of the park. There are a few private accommodations available inside the park as well, but these tend to be on the outskirts of the park as well, and they book very early.
- Find last-minute lodging. If you get an urge to visit Yosemite, want to stay in the park but haven't made a reservation, you may be able to pull it off if you are willing to sleep in a tent. Tent cabins -- permanent tents on a platform base -- are available at several locations in the park, including a large number at Curry Village in Yosemite Village. They start at $139, and you don't get much luxury for that price, just a bed with bedding and one blanket, one overhead electric light and towels that no one would be tempted to steal. You'll be using the communal bathrooms and showers. But, hey! You're staying inside the borders of one of the most beautiful parks in the world. Hints: The tents are close together, so bring earplugs. Bring a flashlight for nighttime treks to the bathroom. Bring an extra blanket if you are cold-natured and are in an unheated tent. Another hint: All tent cabins are unheated during the summer.
- Try housekeeping camp or campground. If you are a camper, Yosemite also has several beautiful campgrounds. Spots in some campgrounds can be reserved. Others are first-come, first-served. One of the most unusual options is an area in Yosemite Valley known as housekeeping camp. The units are formed with three concrete walls, one curtained side and a tarp on top. They contain a bunk bed and a double bed. Two cots can be added so that the units will sleep 8. Some prefer these units to the tent cabins because you can cook in this area, although food must still be stashed in bear boxes. Also, you can park your car outside your cabin. These units start at a bit over $100.
Time to Eat!
Eating can also be a pricey proposition inside Yosemite, even if you avoid the fancier sit-down restaurants. On a recent visit, two breakfasts and two cups of coffee at the dining pavilion at Curry Village set us back $24. For that reason, we ate most of our meals on a picnic table. (The picnic grounds are remarkably uncrowded. Swinging Bridge was our favorite.) We carried a couple of single burners and bought the propane bottles to fire them on site. With our ice chest, we were able to pull off full breakfasts for much less than $12 a person, as well as enjoying hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches and cheese-and-fruit feasts. Four of us did polish off a pizza from the pizza deck at Curry Village for what we considered to be a reasonable tariff of $25.
Besides food, you'll need plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. The Curry Village dining pavilion has a cold water station with free cups. The coffee shop has a hot water dispenser but no cups. If you bring your own cups and tea bags or single-serve coffee bags, you can have hot beverages for free. We also rinsed out and refilled our water bottles at the tap near our tent.
Not to Be Missed
Take a hike. If you and your grandchildren are capable of a fairly serious hike, don't pass up the hike up Sentinel Dome. It's only a 2.2 mile round-trip, but the last section, where you climb up the bare rock dome, is fairly tough. You'll be rewarded at the top with 360 degrees of visibility and a spectacular view of some of Yosemite's domes and waterfalls. Allow a couple of hours for the hike, more if you linger (as we did) at the top.
Check out the views. There are many breathtaking viewpoints in Yosemite, but most find the viewpoint at Glacier Point to be the most awe-inspiring. Still, Washburn Point on the way to Glacier Point is definitely worth a stop. If you enter the park from the south, you'll never forget the first time you see Tunnel View, possibly the park's most iconic viewpoint.
See big trees. The Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias also falls into the not-to-be-missed category, but the National Park Service is reworking the access to Mariposa Grove, and it will be closed to most visitors for the next two years, until July of 2017. Giant sequoias can also be seen in two other locations in the park, both less accessible than the Mariposa Grove location but worth the hike if you are up to it.
Beat the heat. Temperatures can hit 100 degrees in Yosemite Valley in the summer. You'll find it to be much cooler outside the valley, especially at the higher elevations.
Keep up with your party. If you are traveling with a large group in more than one vehicle, it can be challenging to stay in touch. Phone service is spotty in Yosemite. You'll have better reception if you are with a major provider such as Verizon or A T & T. But even with a major carrier, you'll lose reception on remote roads, but texts sometimes go through when phone calls won't. It's a good idea whenever you set out on a trek to designate a meeting point and time in case you get separated. You can also communicate through notes left at your hotel desk, or posted on the door of your cabin.
Bring the bug spray. In spite of its northern location, mosquitoes are common in Yosemite in the summer months, although we have never found them particularly troublesome.
Get on line. Yosemite Valley has wireless service in a couple of locations. One of them, the Curry Village Lounge, also has an assortment of puzzles and board games that are fun for kids. It also has a wonderful porch with rocking chairs, but these are seldom vacant.
Even if you didn't read this article and went into the experience totally unprepared, you'd probably have a great time at Yosemite. It's just one of those unique sites that everyone should visit. But with these hints, you and the grandchildren should have a trip that's beyond awesome.