Surviving Yosemite

Things to do, and not to do, while visiting Yosemite National Park in the summertime with four kids.

Story and photos by Jen Karno

Aug, 6, 2014—Many articles have been written about family trips through Yosemite: where to go, what to do, how to keep the small people in the back seat from beating up the smaller people in the back seat. This article is going to be a little bit like those, with a key difference. Our recent trip was filled with as many “what not to dos” as “what to dos,” and I’d like to share them with you.

First and foremost, it is greatly advised not to go to Yosemite in the summer. That means at any time during the summer. However, my BFF is from Asheville, North Carolina, and her three boys—ages 12, 9 and 6—only have the summer to travel. Taking our kids (my son is 7) to Yosemite was on her bucket list. So off we went in my camper van, a.k.a. Stomper Tromper, during 100-plus–degree weather, with the El Portal Fire lapping at the doors of the park, and joined thousands and thousands of tourists in one of the most heavily visited parks in the nation.

Smart? Nope. But we made the best of it all, and here are some things we learned.

Find more kid-friendly activities in Adventure in The Bamboo Forest and Aiming To Do Some Archery?.

Kid-Friendly Lodging in And Around Yosemite

First, a brief word about travel. It is advised to make sure your vehicle has air conditioning (ours did not—big mistake) and that little pieces of toys like Legos aren’t loose in your vehicle when rounding all the curves going into the park. Same goes for drinks and open bags of chips. We learned the hard way.

As for accommodations, we embraced and made the best of the inevitable. Staying in the Valley means crowds everywhere and scarce, expensive, mediocre lodging with overpriced food and escalator-like throngs of people going up and down the trails. I have stayed in several different lodging options while in Yosemite. All have their pros and cons when traveling with kids.

On previous trips, we’ve stayed at the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort, located 30 minutes out of the park along Highway 140. It’s a great place for kids and is more affordable than lodging in the Valley. The Bug has dorms, tents, cabins and large cabins to rent and is much quieter than its in-Valley competition, Curry Village. There are many different rates depending on the season and what you rent. A cabin with a bath option can cost between $75 and $155. At the other end, the dorm rooms are $25 if you’re an AYH hostel member. The Bug also has a hot tub (literally a bathtub to soak in), a kitchen where you can cook your food, a café that serves meals and a very homey and comfortable dining room with a fireplace, some games and couches. There’s even live music sometimes as well as massage and yoga options.

The Yosemite View Lodge, located in El Portal, is close to the park entrance. The rates here vary pretty wildly, depending on the season. A room can go for $69 in the winter but $249 in the summer. It’s a bit tired and plain, so I give this place a C+, but it does have several pools and hot tubs, and each room has a kitchenette, which is great if you want to make your food and keep it refrigerated. They also have a pizzeria and a decent restaurant, though the prices are high for what you get.

I picked Curry Village for this trip, since it’s a great first-time-in-the-Park experience and convenient to all the Valley has to offer. A couple with no kids might prefer other options, but for kids and families it’s not bad. We rented a tent cabin, but there are actual rooms with a bath for rent and cabins with real walls and baths as an option too. The rates vary, of course, from $121 for a tent cabin to over $200 for a room with a bath, depending on what you want (summer rates). The mattresses on the cots aren’t very comfortable, but they’re functional. You’re given sheets and a rather scratchy, thin wool blanket. Bring extra bedding or your own pillows and comforter, etc. to make it more comfortable. (We did not.) One thing I did do that was a big success was bring a couple of strands of twinkly holiday lights and put them around the cabin. That was a hit and made the tent cabin really festive. (Truth be told, my Westy is solar-powered with an A/C inverter, so I have lights strung up in my van too! I know… it’s a bit of Vegas on wheels.)

Whether you stay in a cabin with walls or a tent cabin, you hear everything going on outside…. night and day. That means we heard people talking and walking on the gravel stones late at night and early in the morning. Bring earplugs! (We didn’t.) So, since we all woke early to the noise, we tried to head out to the trails early to beat the crowds. This is nearly impossible with four rambunctious boys, but we made a valiant effort. The earlier the hiking, the fewer people on the trail, and it’s not so hot. We brought our own food to make breakfast and lunch with, but the Village has lots of options too, albeit a bit expensive. It’s a good idea to bring some beach chairs, as there are limited options for seating outside the tent. (We didn’t.)

On The Trail In Yosemite Valley

Once on the trail, it is not advisable to wander off to the side to take a lot of artsy, unique pictures and hence lose your smaller children amongst the throngs of people. Oops—sorry, kids! Thus did we learn to do the cheesy group photo in the obvious photo-worthy spots with all the other folks waiting in line to get in the same spot. What can I say?

Read Happy Birthday, Yosemite
Read Yosemite, The First California State Park
Read David Hockney in Yosemite

Also, while on the popular hikes like the Mist Trail, it is wise not to leave any food unattended for even a few seconds, as the squirrels and Steller's jays will swoop in like sonar missiles and carry any food item away, even if you stop to sneeze or grab something out of your bag. It was pretty shocking for the kids to lose two PB&J sandwiches, some snap peas, orange slices and a bag of chips within three seconds of sitting down to eat lunch. More shock and awe occurred when they saw 30 squirrels fly out of the woods as if on cue and descend on our party, just like in The Birds.

You can also never take enough water. So we carried our own big jugs of water in the van to keep filling up our water bottles. Wipes, hats, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, towels, water shoes, snacks and swim shorts came along with us in our backpacks each day. We used them a lot.

The swim gear and towels were for use both during and after the hikes, as we’d look for a body of water in which to unleash the kids (and refresh ourselves). Curry Village has a pool, free to guests and only $5 for non-guests. The showers at the pool, the pool itself and the overall facility are quite nice, but nothing fancy. There are also many swimming holes for the kids in the Merced River, which runs through the Valley. We found ours at the Swinging Bridge Beach, the beach near Housekeeping Camp and on our way out on Highway 120. The river was low but relatively warm, so we rock-scrambled and swam in the river. Some people had inflatable kayaks, which looked like a blast.

Curry Village Recreation Center rents rafts, but not this summer, as the water levels are too low. The rental rafts cost $31, holds four and is equipped with paddles and flotation devices. The per-person fee covers one three-mile trip down the river and return trip by shuttle back to the Recreation Center. Rafts are available on a first-come, first-served basis. You’ll want to read about the rest of the policies too.

After hiking the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls, I wanted to take on a less-traveled option. I asked the guest services staff at Curry Village, and they recommended hiking around Glacier Point. So I loaded up the kids the next day and off we went. We could see the El Portal Fire from there, as well as burned trees and new growth from the Rim Fire last year. The charred black trees appeared as charcoal stripes against the bright green of the new bushes and plants. Seeing the fire sparked a conversation on how sequoias need fire to release their seeds and why fires can be helpful for the forest.

The view from Glacier Point is well worth the 45-minute drive (granted, ol’ Stomper Tromper is a wee bit slower than most cars). The rock-scrambling and hikes up there are beautiful too. We looked through the telescope and saw rock climbers on Half Dome, which was impressive. The placards and signage describe the mountain range and show all the points of reference in the Valley below. We were able to see Curry Village and tried to find our tent. It became similar to a Where’s Waldo game. We saw birds dancing in the wind, and the sheer cliff drop was breathtaking.

Kids’ Meals And Wheels in Yosemite

Back at Curry Village we heard many languages, but mostly German and French. At one point I think we were the only English speakers waiting in a long line for pizza. Since it was light so late, people at late as well. So another tip is not to take hungry kids to eat after 7pm. It was like going to the Mall on Black Friday. Go to eat before the madding crowds descend. Also there is a lovely reading room with comfy chairs on the porch where people were checking their WiFi, reading and playing games. Thankfully my phone service didn’t work and texts were hard to send. It made it much easier to explain to the boys that I had no reception and hence no electronics for the trip. That was rather hard, though, I must admit!

If we didn’t have just one vehicle I would have taken our bikes. Biking around the Valley is a great way to go, and bikes can be rented at the Curry Village Recreation Center (right next to the lodging area) or the Yosemite Lodge. They also rent strollers and wheelchairs, which I thought was really useful for international tourists and those with small children or older folks especially. The bike stands are open 9am-6pm daily, with the last bike rental at 4:45 pm. All rental bikes are available first-come, first-served—no reservations are available.

Rental rates for bikes are $11.50 by the hour or $32 by the day. Rental rates for bikes with an attached trailer are $19 by the hour or $59.50 by the day. Stroller rentals are $7.50 by the hour or $27.50 by the day. Wheelchair rentals are $6 by the hour or $19 by the day.

Also, the free shuttle has many stops and comes by frequently. It really helped us out.

Yosemite Glamor Factor

Stopping into the Ahwahnee Hotel is a glorious experience. We cleaned up the kids so they would hopefully fit into the sophisticated and elegant interior (even though I was a bit embarrassed at how I looked). They played on the outside lawn while we marveled at the gorgeous architecture and ambiance. At night people sit around the fireplace, drink, play games and read. The restaurant is expensive, but brunch at the Ahwahnee is a more affordable and very good option. The bar and grill is a little more reasonable but still in the “somewhat pricey treat” category.

We were checking out at Curry Village when the woman behind the desk noticed I was from Santa Cruz. She remarked how all the Yosemite staff members charter a bus and go to Santa Cruz when they have time off. I was a bit taken aback. I couldn’t imagine leaving Yosemite on my days off if I worked there, but it made me proud that Santa Cruz was where Yosemite workers go on their vacation. Both magical places. Sister City Yosemite—yessiree!