Today I am continuing with a recap of our family’s recent trip to Northern California. After 3 nights in San Francisco, we rented a camper van (more details on that later) and drove 4 hours to Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite is the fourth national park we have stayed at in the past few years. It seems to us that to really get to know a park, there is nothing better than living there for a few days. That experience is completely different than driving in for a day. We know, because we’ve done that before too. In 2013, we took a trip to Colorado which included three nights camping in Rocky Mountain National Park, which we absolutely loved. Since then, we have been hooked on exploring our nation’s parks as often as we can.
This year, 2016, marks the 100th anniversary of our national park system. Before I tell you about what we did during our visit, I have to take a moment to share how amazing our national park system is and the respect we have for the forward thinking people who came before us that preserved these great expanses of gorgeous incredible natural landmarks for us to enjoy generations later. I really do not believe any other place in the world has the diversity and beauty of undeveloped land that we do in this country. And for that, we should be eternally grateful to the passionate naturalists and politicians of the previous century. I know it sounds a bit cynical, but I sincerely doubt we could accomplish something of this magnitude with our current political culture. Somehow, there would be controversy and friction around it. We feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to experience these special places with our kids. Having been to the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Bryce Canyon and now Yosemite, our desire to see more has only increased.
Camping in Yosemite
As soon as we decided we would be going to Yosemite National Park, Brian started making camping plans. As I mentioned before in THIS post, this is what he is most passionate about, so he takes the lead when it comes to deciding where we will stay, what we will do and how we will do things. This works out perfectly for me because he takes care of everything and we are just along for the ride.
Being that we live in Florida and that camping requires some equipment, we have been experimenting with different approaches to camping out West. In the three times we have camped in a national park with our kids, we have tried three different ways. Once we shipped our tent, sleeping bags and equipment via UPS to ourselves. Another time we packed it all and checked it on the plane. This time, Brian wanted to try renting a camper van. The camper van came with a pop-up rooftop tent, a bed inside, and a little kitchen set-up in the back which had a refrigerator box and sink. The camper also had a propane stove, plates, utensils, pillows, sheets. Being that it was a van and not a trailer or a full-size RV, it also took the place of having to rent a car. Overall, we were really happy with the set-up and would definitely go this route for camping out West in the future.
The rooftop tent was large enough to sleep 4 people. It took Brian about 15 minutes to get it all set up at night, and a little less to close it up in the morning, which is less than a regular tent takes. Since there was a perfectly good bed inside, I slept inside the whole time. The mattress was comfortable. We did see quite a few rental RV’s around Yosemite, but they all had all kinds of logos and cheesy images pasted on them. We liked that our camper van was incognito. We also liked being able to drive through the streets of Santa Cruz, Carmel and San Francisco with no problems.
We stayed in the North Pines campground which is one of several campgrounds in Yosemite Valley. The Valley has two villages that have shops that carry anything that you could possibly need during your stay. From hiking gear, sandwich shops to full-scale grocery stores. So even though you are in the wilderness, you will have everything you need close by. This was very different from Bryce Canyon National Park which had very few amenities inside and around it. I remember there being only jiffy store type place with a very limited selection.
Brian chose the North Pines campground through a process of elimination. Initially, he thought a campground in the high country would be best for us because it is at a higher elevation and less crowded. But, the campgrounds at higher elevations were still closed because of snow. He also knew that we were going to be doing several hikes in the Valley so camping close would be most convenient. Once he knew he wanted to book in the Valley, he eliminated the two campgrounds that have permanent tents because we didn’t need that. He read that North Pines was the quietest/calmest, so we went with that.
When it came time to actually booking the campsite, it was not easy. There is a high demand for them, so if you would like a campsite, you need to prepare in advance. Yosemite opens up reservations on the 15th of the month for spots 6 months out and they fill up quickly! Once we knew our camping dates, Brian had to camp out by the computer at the precise time with our camping spot in his cart. He said within 5 minutes, all the campsites were taken. If you are interested in camping in Yosemite, THIS is the blog post that helped Brian know how to navigate the process.
One other thing to know before you camp in Yosemite National Park is that there were several bathrooms within the campground, but NO showers. There are two campgrounds, Curry Village and Housekeeping Village, that do have shower facilities. With that being said, even if we did have showers, I would not have used them. I know most people would get grossed out by the thought of not bathing for 3 days, but I am even more grossed out by the idea of showering in a public bathroom that has hundreds of people traipsing through there. I have done the same at the other National Park campgrounds and have found that my max is 3 nights without a shower. On that 4th day, it becomes very important. If not showering is a deal breaker for you, I would definitely look into staying at one of the lodges in the park.
Overall, we were very happy with our campground. While our campsite itself was not on the bank of the Merced River, we were extremely close. We enjoyed sitting on the banks watching the sun set and rise. The other cool thing about this campground is that the stables for Yosemite were located right next to it and that was something the kids loved. They kept wanting to come back and feed the mules apples and carrots.
What we did in Yosemite:
Bridal Veil Falls was the first site we went to in Yosemite. Upon driving into Yosemite Valley on the first afternoon, we stopped at Bridalveil falls since it was on the way to our campground. This is a waterfall right off the road which requires very little hiking to get to. That fact, plus the fact that it was the late afternoon, led to the fact that it was pretty crowded. The falls were cool to see but it also served as our introduction to the crowds in Yosemite. We didn’t stay too long, as we were anxious to see our campsite.
Tunnelview is a famous spot in Yosemite where you can see El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls. Apparently this spot gets very crowded with people swarming in to take photos of the three biggest rockstars of Yosemite Valley. Brian woke us up early that first morning we awoke in Yosemite, around 5:30am, closed up the tent and we were on our way to Tunnelview by 6am to watch the sunrise. There were probably a dozen people there set up with their tripods ready to capture the sunrise. Slowly but surely, the sun peeked out behind El Capitan and blanketed the valley with a golden glow. It was a beautiful sight!
Breakfast at the Ahwahnee
After Tunnelview, we stopped at a couple places in the Valley that were pretty much EMPTY at 7am and then headed over to the Ahwahnee Lodge, where Brian had made 8am reservations for breakfast for us. The Ahwahnee is not even called the Awahnee any more, it’s new name is the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, but I refuse to call it that. Apparently there was some issue with the concession company who held the contract. They trademarked a bunch of the famous Yosemite Park sites and when they got the boot, held them at ransom. The government wouldn’t pay them off, and as a result, has changed the names to several iconic Yosemite landmarks. While I do not know all the details, it just seems so wrong.
Back to breakfast at this amazing place though. Stepping into this grand lodge was such a treat. It is a rustic but elegant hotel that would be super lovely to stay in. We got there at 7:30am and we saw that the dining room was pretty empty, so they sat us early. After eating fried eggs and avocado for dinner at the campsite the night before, coming to a white tablecoth breakfast with waitstaff refilling our coffee every few minutes was glorious. If you get the opportunity to stay at the Ahwahnee ever – do it! And if you don’t, then make reservations to eat here.
Tuolumne Grove Sequoias
After breakfast, we headed out of Yosemite Valley and headed to see some Sequoias in Toulumne Grove. It was a fairly easy hike to get to the grove. The trees were as you can imagine, gigantic. The part that blows your mind is how long they have been on this earth. The tree with the hole in it used to have cars drive through it. It has been on the planet since the time of Jesus. It’s hard to put your mind around something being alive for so long. Imagine if they could tell you their thoughts of what they have seen. As we headed out of the grove, the return hike started getting filled with a lot more people. Brian made smart plans for us to get out of the crowds to explore some less-traveled parts of Yosemite after that.
The next stop on our adventure had us heading up higher on Tioga Road. Tioga Road is closed for winter and spring because of the snow. Thankfully, it had just been opened a week or two before we got there. There are tons of amazing pitstops and overlooks on this road. And very little people in comparison to the amount in Yosemite Valley. Our first order of business was finding a good spot for a picnic. We ended up at Tenaya Lake, right off Tioga Road. Although cars were pulled over and people looking at the majestic lake surrounded by snow covered mountains, we noticed there was a picnic table on the bank that required a little walking through the forest to get to. We hightailed it over there and had the place to ourselves. We enjoyed a lovely picnic lunch and then Brian and Ben started talking about getting in for a lake bath. This water was COLD. But they did it, and I am so glad I have it on video.
Yosemite Creek and Snow
After Tenaya Lake, we got back on Tioga Road and drove until we saw a pull off for Yosemite Creek. We spent time playing on the huge rocks and fallen down trees that served as bridges and climbing structures. Just like Tenaya, if you stay close to where you can park your car, you may be around other people. But if you walked along the creek for a little bit, you have the whole place to yourself. The water was roaring and very loud. Probably not the best idea to let kids balance on logs over the water, but that’s probably why they loved it.
Our last stop on Tioga Road was stopping to enjoy some snow time. Max kept wanting us to stop every time we saw snow, and we had promised him we would. He had visions of building a snowman, but it was too difficult without gloves. So they just ran around and try to peg each other with snow instead.
On our third day in Yosemite, Brian got us up early for the main event of the day. Hiking the Mist Trail. Apparently, this is a very well-known and popular trail that starts in the Valley, so he wanted to start before it got crowded. I think we started it at 7:30am, and there were really not that many people. When we were coming back, around 2:00, there were so many people starting. I was so happy we didn’t have to maneuver the crowds. As you have probably noticed, we place a high value on breaking out from large groups.
From our campground, the Mist Trail was about an 8-mile roundtrip hike that took us over 6 hours to complete. There are two waterfalls on this hike: the first is Vernal Falls and the second, if you choose to keep going, is Nevada Falls. We chose to go all the way up and reach the top of both. We came back down via the John Muir Trail. This was for two reasons. One, we wanted to see different sites on our descent, and two the John Muir Trail did not have the thousands of steps which really do not feel good when you are coming down. It is more a series of steep decline switchbacks. In the end, we were all still in pain for several days after this hike.
I think most people just hike to this spot, the base of Vernal Falls. It’s beautiful to see the water tumbling down the rocks. From here, the trail became a series of extremely steep stone stairs. It was time to start climbing to get to the top of Vernal Falls.
You’ll probably be able to see why it gets the name of Mist Trail. As you start getting close to the top, the stone steps get steeper and everything gets wet. Including you. The falls are SO close and are just blasting. It was so cool to see this powerful waterfall eye to eye. Once we made it to the top, there was large stone clearing where you could see it from above. At this point, if your destination was the top of Vernal Falls, you would be done. But, if you were going to keep going to Nevada Falls, it was only your halfway point to the top. We were going to the very top, so off we went.
After another mile and half up the mountain, we made it to the top of Nevada Falls. It felt great! We celebrated by having a picnic lunch and spending an hour resting. It was definitely challenging but rewarding. Ben and Max were the youngest people that we saw make this hike. I am not saying they are amazing hikers, but just make sure your kids are prepared for it not to be easy or quick if you are planning to bring young children.
This photo below was our view of Nevada Falls as we started heading back down. We had just been on the flat rocky surface you see to the right of the falls. Mist Trail was an extremely challenging yet memorable hike. The heat was intense too. It took the better part of a day, and that evening we were so incredibly tired. But it is something we would all do again. If you are going to Yosemite and are interested in trying the Mist Trail with kids, here are my tips:
- Start early. This will help with avoiding crowds and also heat.
- Pack a lunch, lots of snacks and fill all your water bottles.
- Take time for breaks if your kids need them.
- Make sure everyone is wearing hiking shoes. There are lots of slippery surfaces.
- Bring rain jackets. You will be getting wet.
Junior Ranger Badges
The only other thing we did on the day we hiked the Mist Trail was go to the Yosemite Visitor Center to have the boys turn in their Junior Ranger Books and get sworn in as Yosemite National Park Junior Rangers. This has been a tradition at all of the national parks we have gone to, and something we highly recommend doing if you have kids. Depending on the park, they have to complete a series of actions and activities. Once they have completed the required work, then they have to bring it back for a ranger to review. The ranger asks them questions to get more details on what they have done at the park. Most of the rangers are super easy going. We did get a super serious and nit picky one at Bryce Canyon National Park, so ever since then, we don’t mess around. The ranger at Yosemite was super friendly and quickly awarded them their Junior Ranger Badges. They even signed a special book with all the Yosemite Junior Rangers which made them feel “extra” official.
Rafting down the Merced River
On our final day in Yosemite, we booked a rafting trip on the Merced River. The Merced River is the river that ran right by our campground. Although it has a strong current, it does not have white water rapids, which makes it super safe and fun to be able to do on your own. If you are interested in reserving a raft, the kiosk is located in Curry Village, right there in the middle of everything. I would recommend booking it a day before, or coming bright and early the day you want to raft. The rafting trip was another great choice. On the river, you floated right by the most gorgeous sights and it made you feel like you were the only ones there. You pass under a few bridges and several beaches. You are allowed to stop whenever you want, too. We stopped once, and again, Brian and Ben went into the freezing cold water. This is such a fun way to explore the Valley and stay cool at the same time.
Tips if you plan to visit Yosemite:
- Plan your stay for late May/early June for the biggest waterfall flows. Make sure you go once Tioga Road is opened for traffic (around mid-May).
- Make plans to stay inside the park. Whether it is camping or in one of the lodges, it would be a shame to have to drive in with the crowds every day.
- Scout out your campground or lodge way in advance. Know the ins and outs to what you need to do to book so when the time comes you are ready!
- Research all the sites within the park. Read all about the different sites and hikes. Dog-ear the ones that you are interested in, then prioritize.
- Create a rough itinerary of 2-3 things you want to see/do on each day. Then make sure to do them first thing in the morning.
- Watch at least one show or documentary about the park with your family. It makes all the difference. I loved visualizing John Muir seeing these sights for the same time as he explored the land. Knowing the history of a place is key to appreciating it.
Yosemite is an incredible national park. Since it is one of the most well-known and popular national parks, we were afraid it might not live up to the hype. Fortunately, we were wrong. It exceeded our expectations with its grandeur and jaw-dropping natural beauty. We would go back in a heartbeat as 3 nights just scratched the surface. I credit the success of our visit to all of the planning and effort Brian put into planning ahead of time so could make the most of our time there. It was still just a peek at what Yosemite has to offer.
Have you ever been? What time of the year did you go? If you are interested in visiting some of the best national parks, you might also be interested in these posts:
- Zion National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park