Yosemite Family Camping Plan

Family Camping Itinerary in Yosemite

Yosemite can be overwhelming too. Especially if you are taking the family and the kids aren’t exactly of “rock climbing age”. So here is a simple but wonderful itinerary for how to get the most out of your time in this amazing place while not risking your kids’ lives or your sanity in the process. Yosemite National Park is amazing. This is a three-day family camping trip. It includes biking, hiking, swimming, shopping and some dining out–but most meals to be prepared at the campsite.

Yosemite National Park

The park covers an area of 761,268 acres (3,080.74 km2) and reaches across the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain chain.  Over 3.7 million people visit Yosemite each year: most spend their time in the seven square miles (18 km2) of Yosemite Valley.  Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite is internationally recognized for its spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, Giant Sequoia groves, and biological diversity. Almost 95% of the park is designated wilderness.

Some Notes:

  • We highly recommend bringing bikes and exploring that way instead of using shuttles. The whole valley is very manageable by bikes, even with kids. There are great trails and places to lock up your bike.
  • These campgrounds book up very quickly. We booked late but were flexible on our dates so we got a great spot. We also kept checking back for cancellations and were able to add a night onto our stay.
  • Here is a great map of the Yosemite Valley. Curry Village is important to note as this is where the general store is, the cafeteria, and most dining options are. It’s also where they have WiFi and other lounges and places to hang out. Think of it as the center of campus at your college. There is another store and other food options at Yosemite Village, but we tended to be at Curry Village more.

Day 1

Arrive at Yosemite and set up camp

Eat at Curry Village cafeteria-turn in early.

We stayed at the Lower Pines Campground. It has a fantastic location and the site we were on was huge. I would also stay in the Upper Pines but would stay away from the North Pines campground unless you don’t mind riding the shuttle or biking if you want to get to Curry Village or most of the Valley.

The campground is nice. Paved roads, dirt/grass sites with trees, but there is no water at the sites. You have to go to the bathroom to get any water! AND no showers.

We stayed in site #88 and it was awesome. It backs up to the meadow and we had tons of room. We have a large tent (3 rooms and we love it!) and our friends had a 2 room tent too. We could have had 3-4 more tents. We had 3 bear lockers to store our food and 2 picnic tables on one site. It is awesome. All the sites along the main road and especially in the 70s are awesome. BUT…DO NOT book any site in the loop with the restrooms (55-67). These would be miserable. The light from the bathroom shines on them. There is NO privacy, people walk through them to get back and forth to the restrooms and they are tiny. I would rather sleep in my car!

Depending on what time you arrive you might want to take some time exploring a bit or just resting after getting camp up. When we were done we headed straight to dinner at Curry Village. It was great to not have to worry about cooking that first night. We were exhausted and it was raining. Even if the weather had been good I still think taking that first night to eat out is a great idea.

There are a lot of dining options in Curry Village; pizza parlor, buffet, bar and grill, snacks, etc. We opted for the buffet. It was actually very good. There was a large dining room and lots of space for the kids to play with their little toys after they ate.

Turn in early-build up some strength for all the hiking and physical exertion coming up in the next few days.

Day 2

Yosemite Falls

Lunch – Mirror Lake – Dinner – Campfire

Have a good breakfast and pack some snacks for the kiddos. Get on your bikes and head out. Wear good hiking clothes, probably in layers and BRING YOUR CAMERA! Head out to Yosemite Falls on your bike. It is awesome!

Yosemite Falls is the highest measured waterfall in North America. Located in Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada of California, it is a major attraction in the park, especially in late spring when the water flow is at its peak. The total 2,425 feet (739 m) from the top of the upper falls to the base of the lower falls[1] qualifies Yosemite Falls as the sixth highest waterfall in the world.  
Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls

It is a short ride there and you will get a good overview of the valley.  Once you get to the trailhead it is a short hike (1/2 mile round trip) up a paved wide path. This is to the footbridge and lower falls. The upper hike is a monster and only for experienced hikers. YosemiteHikes.com is a great site that outlines all the hikes available.

Our kids loved this hike/walk. It is easy and there aren’t drop-offs on the sides so you don’t have to worry. There are lots of places to veer off the track and do some exploring. Our son Jackson had a blast climbing rocks and hunting for acorns and sticks on little trails that meandered along the main path.


We did snacks along the path and went back to the site for a brief rest. I tried to put our daughter down for a nap to no avail… so decided to go back out. If you want to stay closer to home there is a fun river that runs right along the campground and a meadow that backs up to it. Low key and the kids love it!

Mirror Lake

Again go by bike, this time the other direction to get to Mirror Lake. It isn’t really a lake, but a large swimming hole. There is sand and some great rocks to climb up in the water. Oh, and did I mention…a spectacular view of Half Dome! Since I don’t have a death wish I probably won’t be climbing it anytime soon so this is about as close as I get.

The trail is fairly easy; 2.4 miles round trip and 100′ elevation. You can ride your bike all the way up, but it is a bit steep if you are towing kids. There is a bike rack 1/2 way up you can park and walk the rest of the way. Alternatively, you can take the more scenic route along the river if you want to walk the whole way. A dirt trail meanders along the river and through the woods.

Back to the site for dinner and smokes around the fire.

Day 3

Vernal Falls (Or Happy Isles)

Picnic Lunch @ footbridge-Unwind at the  Ahwahnee Hotel-Dinner-Campfire.

This hike is defiantly more difficult. Get a good breakfast and bring a hearty lunch and snacks for the kids. Bike or shuttle to the trailhead and make your way up the stunning trail. It is 2 miles round trip with a 300-foot elevation change. There are steep sections of climbing, and there is a serious drop off on the side of the trail. I will admit that I was nervous the whole time my kids were walking. You can take a stroller, the path is good, but it is really steep at parts, and coming down is a challenge too.

Once you make it to the footbridge take some time and a blanket to have a picnic. There are restrooms and water here so you can sit and enjoy the view. If you still have the energy you can go on to the top of the falls. It is about another 1/4 mile up but much more challenging and not for kids.

Alternatively, if this sounds too tough try the Happy Isles hike that starts at the trailhead. Honestly, I wish I had done this one instead!

Happy Isles Trail Map

Ahwahnee Hotel

After the hike head back down to the Ahwahnee. You might want to put on a clean shirt and fresh socks. This is a four-star hotel done with all the attention to detail and materials. It might seem strange to find such a nice hotel in the middle of the wilderness, but it is well worth checking out. It was built to attract the wealthy and famous to ensure Yosemite would be saved.  In the early 1920′s, Stephen Mather, the National Park Service Director, realized that if these people came and saw the beauty of Yosemite then it would be protected forever.

Go to the lobby and have a drink, or just sit on the grass outside and listen to music. It is a beautiful piece of architecture and history and shouldn’t be missed. Even if just for an hour.

Day 4

Pack up

Short Hike on your way out-Dinner at Gas Station

I always plan on having cereal and danishes the day we leave. I hate cooking then cleaning then packing. So quick breakfast, breakdown camp and hit the road.

It is amazing, all these fantastic sites and more I didn’t even mention. As Yosemite Hikes puts it:

Yosemite Valley is a freak of nature. It’s only seven miles long and less than a mile wide, but it ranks higher in scenery per square foot than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Because it was formed by glaciation, the valley walls are sheer and high, leading to world-famous cliffs: El Capitan, a mountain-climbing mecca, rises more than 3,000 feet (900 meters) virtually straight up from the Yosemite Valley floor, and Half Dome looms 4,800 feet (1,600) meters above.

This is only 7 miles of the 3/4 million square acres of the park. So we like to stop on our way out and try to experience a little bit of the other parts of Yosemite. There are tons of trails, lakes, meadows, etc. Get your map out and chart your own adventure.

Lastly, if you are going home via the Tioga pass you have to stop at the Mobile Station in Lee Vining. It is like no gas station you have ever been to! The Whoa Nellie Deli is fantastic and the views of Mono Lake are stunning.

It’s a lot of adventure packed into a long weekend, but that is what Yosemite is all about.

Be sure to check out tomorrow’s post for more tips and hints about camping, Yosemite, and family travel, in this 4 part Yosemite series.

Share on: