Having been to Yellowstone twice, I did not do research on Yosemite as I thought since both were National Parks that they would somehow be similar. I was wrong, and never have I been more disappointed in my lack of trip preparation. I love both parks, and while they do have some similarities they are also vastly different.
Yellowstone seems to have the upper hand when it comes to wildlife, thermal springs, and more easily accessible 2 lane paved roads making travel in Yellowstone more efficient. Yosemite seems to have more hiking trails and varied terrain. Yosemite is also home to the famed sequoia trees. Both parks boast gorgeous landscapes, but Yosemite, only in my opinion, is more majestic and truly a marvel to behold. Yosemite is full of natural, rugged terrain that is awe inspiring. It seemed around every turn there was another postcard view waiting. Yosemite is big (roughly the size of Rhode Island), but it is still smaller and more compact than Yellowstone. Yosemite 1190 square miles appx compared to Yellowstone appx 3,468 square miles.
I traveled to Yosemite in October with my 2.5 year old. We only spent 2 days in Yosemite which is not enough time!!! We loved Yosemite so much that my husband and I are already planning a trip back with our daughter to Yosemite, hopefully within a year, to stay at least a week in a camper van!!! What an adventure that will be!
Entrance to Yosemite is $30 per car. A yearly Yosemite visitor’s pass is $60 which is a great deal if you plan on visiting the park more than once or for longer than the 7 days allowed in the $30 entrance fee. Info can be found here: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/fees.htm
Travel: The closest airport is Fresno, and the drive will take you an appx 1.25 hours to the South Entrance. Public transit is also available from Fresno airport via Yosemite Area Regional Transit System (YARTS). From San Francisco the drive will take you appx 2.5 hours to the Big Oak Flat Entrance. We actually traveled via car from Lake Tahoe, and the drive took us appx 2.5 hours via the Tioga Pass to the Eastern Entrance. However, the Tioga Pass is closed during various times of the year as the road is not safe so this will need to be checked prior to route planning. You can call the National Park’s service for a daily update about road conditions at 209-372-0200. From the Eastern Entrance, we had to drive 2 hours to the Valley Floor where the more popular sites are, but we did stop at several stops along the way.
Logistics: The roads in/out of Yosemite are very windy. The Tioga pass was especially curvy. We were, after all, driving across a mountain. My daughter and I suffered from car sickness, and had to pull over several times on the side of the cliffs to allow ourselves to re-calibrate. This increased our travel time. Yosemite has a network of one lane roads which can be problematic if you pass your destination so keep this in mind, and mark your map beforehand.
Hotel: We chose to stay at The Yosemite Valley Lodge directly across from Yosemite Falls. The property was very family friend as is convenient right in the middle of the Valley. It has a cafeteria style restaurant on site, and a dining room with a proper menu. I found the options in the cafeteria to be very good and enjoyable. Someone travelling with us also ate in the dining room, and raved about the salmon. For breakfast they also have a simple self serve express lane in the dining room with barista made coffees in addition to the full selection in the cafeteria. The shuttle also picks up/ drops off at this hotel.
Little Cub Program: You can buy the handbook at the visitor’s center, and it encourages kids to complete the activities to earn a button as a little cub!
Junior Ranger’s Program: Geared towards children ages 7-13, you can be pinned as a junior ranger. You can purchase the handbook at a visitor’s center. Your child must complete the book, collect a bag of trash, and choose one of the seminars they offer to attend. I saw some kids really engaged in this endeavor, and serious about that pin!
Tenaya Lake: Near the eastern entrance of Yosemite on Tioga Road is Yosemite’s largest natural lake, Tenaya Lake. Due to its location appx 1.5 hours from the Valley Floor, we found this lake/area to be much less populated. The lake is absolutely stunning, and our daughter enjoyed climbing on lots of the rocks present. We also enjoyed a picnic here. There are 2 picnic areas available, but we chose to picnic on the rocks! This lake is easy to get to as well with a tot in tow as it is steps off the main road. You can also kayak and swim in this lake! The water is crystal clear! This was my favorite stop in Yosemite!
Sentintel Meadows: We enjoyed watching the sun set here in the meadow. My daughter also found it amazingly fun to run up and down the wooden foot paths. You can see a great views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome! This meadow was close to our hotel which made it a convenient stopping point for burning off energy before heading into the hotel!
Yosemite Falls: The largest waterfall in North America! A must see in Yosemite! And luckily for us, right across from our hotel. We found this hike to be easy. The entire path is paved, and we pushed the stroller the entire way. My daughter also walked for a good portion. We spent a good amount of time in this spot. Children will need constant supervision as the rocks present are very slippery. With help from my father, my daughter was able to climb to the bottom of the rocks and play in the stream and rocks for at least an hour!
Bridal Veil Falls: The stunning waterfall that you see in all of the tunnel view photos! This was an easy hike for the 2 year old and took appx 30 minutes round trip with her. We did not take the stroller. And the leaves were all falling while we were there in October, and this was the biggest hit. She collected tons of leaves and carried them with her to the falls! She kept proclaiming “beautiful” looking up at the waterfall!
Mirror Lake Hike: Due to my lack of research beforehand, this ended up being a bit of a challenging hike for us. I did not realize that there is a completely paved road that you can hike all the way to Mirror Lake which is stroller accessible. Instead, I ended up taking the stroller and daughter on the wooded hiking path, and abandoning the stroller appx 1/2 way in. My father, being gracious and benevolent, went back for the stroller and crossed the woods to bring the stroller to me on the paved pathway. So many people passed us trying to yank that stroller up rocks and rugged terrain. Now realizing the paved road runs parallel to the wooded trail makes me realize they thought us crazy. This hike took us way longer than needed, but it states the full round trip hike can be completed in 1 hour. Mirror Lake was low during our visit since it was fall. The lake has the highest water level in spring after all of the snow melts! The reflections on Mirror Lake though were still beautiful, and we could see the full reflections of the cliffs.
Swinging Bridge Yosemite Valley: This is a great easy hike across the bridge, and down to the Merced River. This is a great spot for picnicking, swimming, or wading. There is also lots of room to run. This attraction was also close to our hotel which was a perk. The bridge doesn’t actually swing though. In order to visit an actual swinging bridge in Yosemite, you would need to go to the Wawona Swinging Bridge.
Valley Visitor Center: Beware! This is quite a long walk from the parking lot! I was ill prepared for this, and did not bring the stroller. Bring your stroller if you have tots! Otherwise the visitor center is nice with a great history display. My daughter actually loved this area and spent a great deal of time climbing under the rocks and looking at all the exhibits. There is also an Indian village in the back and museum to view that is free. You can also collect your official US Parks “Yosemite” Passport stamp here!
Also of note: you can rent bikes during select times of the year at the Yosemite Valley Lodge with bike trailers! In the winter there is ice skating at Half Dome Village! We also found the Half Dome Village Gift and Grocery to be great. We were able to get lots of groceries and souvenirs including snow globes in this store!
We covered a lot of ground for 2 days in Yosemite with a 2 year old, but we also missed SO MUCH. Next go around, a definite on our list is Tunnel View. Since we entered via Tioga Pass, we missed this iconic view. Also next time, we will not miss the Sequoias! Please offer up your favorite activities with kids in Yosemite as I would love to include them in our next camper van trip!
2 ADDITIONAL TIPS: BEARS ARE A LEGITIMATE CONCERN. Pay attention to all of the warnings and information. They told us to remove even scented chap stick from our vehicles while staying at the lodge. They have videos playing of bears breaking into cars!
BATHROOMS AND HIKING WITH A TODDLER: As any parent knows, a potty trained toddler may need to potty in the middle of a drive around a cliff or during a hike where there are no facilities. My absolute favorite contraption is my toddler’s portable potty with bag liners by “Potette Plus”. It has made our life so much easier. The potty folds up small enough to fit in a purse or backpack. The liners are absorbent and easy to throw away. Do yourself a favor, and buy this potty. This is by no means a paid endorsement, I really just love this travel potty that much! The things that excite a mom! 🙂 http://potette.com/how-it-works/