Planning a family vacation to Yosemite National Park? Congratulations and cheers! You absolutely should move forward in planning a trip to this spectacular west coast national park destination. Known particularly for its waterfalls, Yosemite is a splendid location for hiking, biking, and wandering in the outdoors. Whether you have babies, elementary age children, teens, college students, or grandparents with you, you all are bound to find something to love at Yosemite National Park.
FIVE ENTRANCES TO YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Before you begin, you should know that there are FIVE entrances into the park.
- Arch Rock Entrance (west of the park)
- Big Oak Flat Entrance (west of the park)
- Hetch Hetchy Entrance (west of the park)
- South Entrance (south of the park)
- Tioga Pass (east of the park)
The Arch Rock entrance puts you closest to Yosemite Valley (the most popular destination with a variety of sights & trails), while the South entrance puts you closer to Mariposa Grove. Tioga Pass is a gateway to a more remote part of Yosemite and will bring you nearest to the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center (but far away from everything else).
Our family recently returned from a trip to Yosemite and used the South Entrance so our article will mainly focus on the amenities in and near that entrance.
WEATHER IN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Elevation varies widely within the park. You can stand at about 2,127 feet in the western foothills or at 13,120 feet at the top of Mount Lyell in the Cathedral Range. Needless to say, the weather can be different depending on your location so it is wise to be prepared for any kind of weather. That being said, temperature averages for Yosemite National Park are as follows:
- Winter: 48-53 highs, 27-30 lows
- Spring: 58-73 highs, 33-44 lows
- Summer: 82-90 highs, 50-56 lows
- Fall: 57-84 highs, 32-50 lows
The area directly south of the South Entrance of Yosemite is called Madera County and includes places like Bass Lake, Oakhurst, and Yosemite Lakes. The weather there is generally a bit warmer than inside the park, but not by much.
Be sure to check the forecast before you go so that you can pack for the expected weather.
BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK: For picture perfect weather, you will probably want to book your trip in April, May, September, or October. March and November can be lovely as well. According to the National Park service, Yosemite receives 95% of its precipitation between October and May (and over 75% between November and March). Note that most of Yosemite is blanketed in snow from about November through May.
WHERE TO STAY NEAR YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
To find current and comprehensive information about where to stay INSIDE Yosemite National Park, please consult the Travel Yosemite website.
RV Parks, Resorts, and Campgrounds Near Yosemite's South Entrance
According to a representation from Visit Yosemite Madera County, the top three RV campgrounds OUTSIDE THE PARK near the South Entrance are (listed in alphabetical order):
For our most recent trip, our family brought our 24-foot travel trailer and stayed at High Sierra RV Park in Oakhurst, California. Click this link for a full Campground Spotlight, including photos.
THINGS TO DO IN OR NEAR YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad
The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad is a unique and memorable way to experience the Sierra National Forest. Tucked inside a canopy of trees, the quaint train station is about 10 minutes from the South Entrance of Yosemite National Park off Highway 41.
We highly recommend the Moonlight Special, which includes dinner, dessert, live music, and a twilight train ride. Check in at 6:30pm and wander through the gift shop, take photos next to the train, explore the one-room museum, or try your hand at panning for gold (for an additional fee). Dinner is served at around 7:00pm in an adorable outdoor seating area, with red-and-white checked tablecloths and perfectly coordinated centerpieces. You'll watch as the chicken, steak, and hot dogs are prepared on a large grill. When the meal is served, you will go through the line buffet-style and will be served your choice of the meats (which you would have pre-selected), french bread, pinto beans, and corn salsa. Our dinner was surprisingly delicious (we all ordered New York steaks and were pleased with that selection). During dinner, expect to be entertained by a local, lively band of baby boomers with guitars, fiddles, puns, corny jokes, and an interactive style that will leave you clapping, swaying, and singing along. After the dinner plates are cleared, dessert is served. The custard coffee cake, topped with homemade whipped cream, was light and scrumptious. (It tasted somewhat like a pancake, not too sweet - but incredibly satisfying). After dessert, we all boarded the train. Seating is first-come, first-served and there are no reserved seats. All seats are open-air and you'll likely find yourself sitting side-by-side with a stranger.
You will then take a 20 to 30min ride on the train at 18mph. The train will stop at Lewis Creek Canyon, where you will disembark, sit on bleachers around a wooden platform stage, and enjoy entertainment by the aforementioned band. Fair warning: you will likely be asked to sway, sing, hoot, or holler along with the musicians. After 30-60 minutes, you will again board the steamer for your return ride in the dark.
GOOD TO KNOW:
- Concerned about motion sickness? The train is open-air and puffs along rather slowly without sudden dips or turns. (I tend to get motion sickness and was totally fine the whole time). Some people do report getting motion sickness in the car from Oakhurst up Highway 41 so plan accordingly if you are prone to this.
- Lemonade, ice water, and coffee (including decaf) are self-serve and included with your dinner. Other beverages (soda, beer, wine, cocktails) are available for purchase at an open-air bar. If you buy a drink, you may bring it with you for the ride.
- If desired, bring cash for beverages or souvenirs from the on-site gift shop, which features Yosemite and railroad-themed souvenirs and an excellent collection of nostalgic toys & games.
- Depending on the season of your visit, you may want to bring and/or wear bug spray. We took the Moonlight Special in early June and noted that most of the employees were spraying themselves rather robustly prior to the train ride in an attempt to keep the mosquitos at bay. We took note and did the same.
- There are no tunnels on this train ride (much to out 4-year-old's disappointment), but the ride itself is wonderful for all ages. This attraction will be equally well-loved by preschoolers, grade-schoolers, teenagers, parents, and older adults. We saw several moms with small babies in carriers or on laps and the train seemed to be a great experience for them as well. Perfect for date night also!
- Dogs are allowed on the trains if they are well-behaved and on a leash.
- Even if visiting in the summer, bring light sweatshirts along with you as temperatures tend to drop when the sun sets.
- COST: The Moonlight Special, which includes dinner, is $63 for adults, $36 for children (ages 7-12), and $29 for young children (ages 3-6). Alternatively, you can take a daytime ride ($28 for adults, $16 for children of all ages) and purchase a boxed lunch ($8-$12) to take along with you.
- LEARN MORE ABOUT YOSEMITE MOUNTAIN SUGAR PINE RAILROAD
Bass Lake is situated in the Sierra National Forest at 3,400 feet elevation and is approximately 14 mi from the south entrance of Yosemite National Park. The sparkling lake, which is surrounded by pine trees, is almost five miles long and is a popular spot for water sports, swimming, fishing, and picnicking.
There are five campgrounds located on the south side of the lake with a combined total of over 200 campsites. There are also two group camping areas that provide plenty of room for large groups. To make reservations, contact the National Recreation Reservation System at 1-888-444-6777. Reservations can be made up to one day in advance of your arrival. * Note that Bass Lake is only about 30 minutes from the South Entrance of Yosemite so it can work as a "home base" for area explorations if you find that Yosemite is already booked for your preferred dates.
GOOD TO KNOW:
- The two best ways to enjoy Bass Lake are: (A) to rent/bring a boat or (B) to visit during the off-season when crowds are thinner.
- If you visit in the summer months (especially June, July, and August), arrive EARLY to find a parking spot and to "set up camp" for the day. It can be difficult to find parking on a midsummer day, especially since part of the lake is residential and is open to private owners only.
- Wear sunscreen, sunglasses, sun hats, and a swimsuit with a rashguard. As for footwear, water shos, sandals, or flip-flops will be best. Don't forget the sunscreen!
- Bring water, other cold beverages, snacks, and/or a picnic lunch.
- If you prefer to dine out, there are several restaurants around the lake (Ducey's on the Lake, Ducey's Bar & Grill, Marina Bar & Grill, The Forks).
- LEARN MORE ABOUT BASS LAKE
Yosemite National Park With Kids
Yosemite National Park is an amazing outdoor wonderland that is well worth visiting. The sights are spectacular and you'll be in awe of the gushing waterfalls, towering sequoia trees, peaceful meadows, and beautiful landscapes.
GOOD TO KNOW:
- Plan to spend at least two days at the park if you can. Three to five days would probably be perfect.
- The park is HUGE - nearly 1,200 miles - and you can expect to spend some time in the car throughout your stay. Rest assured, however, that there are plenty of places to get out to hike, bike, and dine along the way.
- Try your best to secure accommodations INSIDE the park. Staying at a resort or campground inside the park will grant you more time to hike, bike, and wander the trails. Best of all, you can begin each day early and stay ahead of the crowds of people who will drive in from nearby cities/towns outside the park.
- If you are staying OUTSIDE the park, wake up early to beat the crowds! It will be worth it to get moving with an alarm clock and to enter the park before 8:00am. 6:00am or 7:00am is even better. Otherwise, you may end up in a long (single) line of vehicles, waiting to enter the park.
- It is possible that cell phone reception may be spotty or non-existent within the park. If you are meeting up with friends or family, be sure to make specific plans in advance.
- The National Park Service has an app, which you can download ahead of time, to help guide you around the park if you lose cell phone service.
- It is best to be flexible about how much you can see when you visit the park with children. Instead of packing every major highlight into your itinerary, enjoy the ride (especially the bike ride if you go that route).
- If you are a planner and would like to at least put a pin on a few places on the map, consider: Glacier Point, Tunnel View and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Chapel, Sentinel Bride, Yosemite Falls, and Mariposa Grove.
- Due to COVID-19 regulations, park entry of any kind requires reservations. This includes day-use, camping, and wilderness/half-dome permits.
WHAT TO WEAR AT YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK:
- Hiking boots or comfortable trail/tennis shoes with long socks
- Athletic clothing - shorts, leggings, tshirts or tank tops.
- HOURS: Yosemite National Park is open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. You can drive to Yosemite year-round and enter via Highways 41, 140, and 120 from the west or south. Tioga Pass Entrance (via Highway 120 from the east) is closed from approximately November through late May or June. Hetch Hetchy is open all year, but may close intermittently due to snow.
- COST: A vehicle entrance pass is $35. An "America the Beautiful Pass" (which grants you entrance to all national parks in the USA) is $80 for the entire year.
- LEARN MORE ABOUT YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Mariposa Grove is a grove of giant sequoia trees, located immediately inside the South Entrance of Yosemite National Park. It is the largest grove of giant sequoias in the park, with several hundred mature examples of the tree. Two of its trees are among the 30 largest giant sequoias in the world
GOOD TO KNOW:
- Expect to hike around Mariposa Grove quite a bit. Currently, the shuttles are not running so you will likely find yourself hiking both up and downhill for a number of miles. The more miles you hike, the more trees you will see! Plan to spend several hours (possibly half of a day) at Mariposa Grove.
- Parking is available (until full) at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza. There are approximately 300 parking spaces, but it is sometimes full by mid-morning. Access to the entrance of the Mariposa Grove is via a two-mile hike (each way) on the Washburn Trail or the Mariposa Grove Road.
- Restrooms are located at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and Arrival Area, near the Mariposa Grove Cabin, and near the Grizzly Giant year-round. The restrooms at the Maricopa Grove Welcome Center are clean and well-maintained. Family restrooms are available as well.
- Drinking water is available only at the welcome plaza (year-round) and arrival area (summer only), so plan accordingly. Be sure to bring plenty of water for each person in your party.
- There are no restaurants at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza or within the Mariposa Grove. Bring snacks!
- Pets are not allowed on any trails in the Mariposa Grove.
- There are usually "lines" of people waiting to take photos in or near the more famous trees (ex: The Grizzly Giant, The Faithful Couple, or The California Tunnel Tree). It is worth it to wait. If you leave the park without photos inside the trees, you will probably kick yourself.
- LEARN MORE ABOUT MARIPOSA GROVE
Biking With Kids in Yosemite National Park
This is our #1 tip for exploring Yosemite National Park with kids: BRING OR RENT BIKES. Biking through Yosemite is enjoyable, peaceful, and invigorating. You'll cover more miles and see more sights than you will on foot - and with far less complaining! ;)
The Yosemite Valley has 12 miles of designated paths for biking (without cars!).
GOOD TO KNOW:
- Bring as many bikes as you can fit in your car, truck, or RV. Rentals are pricey and you may be more comfortable on your own bike. Don't forget your helmets!
- If you decide to rent bikes, know that all bicycles are first-come, first-served so you may want to arrive early. (You can't reserve bikes ahead of time). That being said, there are quite a few bikes at each rental location. On the day of our visit (in early June - a popular time!), there were plenty of bikes to rent - even in the afternoon.
- There are three possible places to rent bikes: Curry Village, Yosemite Valley Lodge, and Yosemite Village. You are required to return your bike to the same location where you originally rented it. All three of the bike rental locations are open seasonally, typically from April to late October (call ahead to confirm), between the hours of 8:00am to 6:00pm. The day that we arrived at the Curry Village Stand, the attendant was on lunch break for an hour so it would probably be wise to pick up your bikes in the morning or late afternoon rather than midday.
- There are a number of bike options available to rent: standard bikes, bikes with trailers, trail-a-bike/tag-along bikes, ADA bikes, and electric scooters. Strollers and wheelchairs can also be rented.
- A trailer works well with toddlers up to age 5ish, depending on the biking ability and height of the child. Our 4-year-old was not quite tall enough to reach the peddles comfortably on our most recent visit so we settled on a trailer for him, which worked well.
- If you have elementary-age children (ages 5 to 8) who may not be able to keep up on a long bike ride, a trail-a-bike is a terrific option. Your child can peddle along with you when they have the strength, but then can just hold on when they get tired as the parent does the work.
DINING IN OAKHURST, CALIFORNIA (NEAR YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK)
If you are staying in Oakhurst or Bass Lake (or anywhere near the South Entrance of Yosemite National Park), we have two excellent dining recommendations for you - and, ironically, they are right next door to each other!
El Cid Mexican Restaurant
After a long day of biking and hiking, El Cid Mexican Cuisine is just the ticket for your hearty appetite. Although the building is rather non-descript, we found the restaurant to be family-friendly with fast service, large portion sizes, and delicious entrees. Our girls (ages 9 & 12) ordered the Concha Tostada instead of opting for the kids meal fare - and it was a fabulous choice! Large enough to share too!
Reimer's Candy, Ice Cream, and Gifts
Whether you are from tiny town USA or a huge city with ice cream options galore, I dare you not to fall in love with Reimer's Candies, Gifts, and Ice Cream off Highway 41 in Oakhurst, California (right next door to El Cid). It's charming - inside and out. Meander around the store and then enjoy a freshly scooped ice cream cone on a bench outside.
OUR NEXT TRIP TO YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
For our next trip to Yosemite National Park, we might consider staying at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, which would put us closer to the park entrance. We hear they have new two-bedroom Explorer Cabins.
If we bring our RV again, we'd probably try for one of the campgrounds inside the park.
While we are in the area, we'd also love to visit Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park.
HAVE FUN IN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK & MADERA COUNTY!
Watch this page for continued updates and top tips for planning your next trip to Yosemite National Park.