By Matt Villano, on April 25, 2014

Family adventure in Yosemite

The concert began with little warning or fanfare. One minute, my 2-year-old daughter quietly surveyed the night sky from her perch in our jogging stroller, peeking out from a bundle of blankets. The next minute, blankets pushed aside, she leaned forward and belted a rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” that would have scared off the most aggressive bears.

The two of us were out for a late-night walk around Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. We went for the spectacle, to experience the quietude of nature and commune with the crescent moon up above.

Surprisingly, the serenade—which echoed off the granite walls around us—was just as grand.

This was our last night in the park, the last hurrah after two full and glorious days in one of the oldest and most famous wilderness areas in the world. I had spent the better part of my adult life daydreaming of bringing my (eventual) family here. Yet in that moment, with a smile so big it prompted a squinty cry, I realized these dreams paled in comparison to the real thing.

The rest of our trip was punctuated with similar moments—seconds and minutes of the kind of joy I’ll remember on Christmas 2035; the vibrant wonder that surely prompted John Muir, the region’s savior from development, to wax poetic about his time here more than 150 years ago. I’m not going to lie, there were other moments—mid-day meltdowns and “Daddy, pick me up!” hikes—when our decision to spend a 4-day weekend in a national park with two children under the age of 5 made my wife and I feel like the biggest idiots on the entire planet. Such is life when you travel with young kids.

All told, the experience was, at the same time, beautiful, frustrating, exhilarating, and exhausting. And in the end, the balance (or lack thereof) didn’t matter—we were together, at Yosemite. Yes, the four of us will take the 4-hour drive from San Francisco here again. But there only will be one first family visit to the wilderness of Yosemite, and I wouldn’t have scripted it any other way.

Snow upon arriving at The Ahwahnee

Making the dream come true

I always have been obsessed with Yosemite National Park. As a kid growing up in suburban New York, I saw Yosemite as everything intriguing about the West: Redwoods! Open space! Roaring waterfalls! The history enthralled me—the way Muir fought tirelessly to petition the U.S. Congress for the National Park bill that protected Yosemite (and nearby Sequoia) forever. The naturally occurring combo of dense forests and high granite summits boggled my mind.

I visited for the first time—solo—in 2003, and I was hooked. Over the five years that followed, I returned probably a dozen times. Many of those visits were with friends; trips that revolved around tent-camping somewhere in the backcountry, or canvas-walled cabin-camping at Curry Village. In 2008, I visited with a pal to speed-hike the 16-mile round-trip trail to Half Dome; we completed the sucker in seven hours and spent the rest of our journey drinking whiskey at an outside-the-park hotel.

Since then, my two most recent visits to Yosemite both had been for work. In 2011, after Compass American Guides tapped me to update portions of its guidebook for Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, I blew through the region on a whirlwind tour of site tours and factchecking. In 2013, when I accepted the same assignment for the next edition, I came back and did it all over again.

The process of factchecking can be monotonous, but on these trips, the exercise was inspiring. As I raced from one trailhead to another, jotting down observations and other notes, I found myself keeping a physical list of all the stuff I wanted to show my girls.

These “must-sees” featured a number of the “usual suspects” for first-time visits to Yosemite Valley: El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls, which, at 2,425 of drop is the highest measured waterfall in North America. It also included The Ahwahnee, a hulking stone-and-wood Craftsman lodge that dates back to 1927.

This hotel is by far the swankiest in the park. Normally, rooms start around $500 per night; well out of our family’s typical price range. But when Expedia gave me the opportunity—and a hefty travel budget—to experience and write about the “storybook” trip of my dreams, I booked immediately, and we were on our way.

Petting moss on a granite boulder

Giant rocks, cozy hideaways and ‘Pooh Cones’

The Ahwahnee proved to be a great home base for exploring the Valley. Instead of constantly moving our vehicle to see what we wanted to see, we were able to hop-on and hop-off the free shuttle service, or—better still—hike right from the hotel.

We started our first morning this way; 300 steps from our breakfast table in the cavernous Dining Room, the Big Girl splashed through her first “waterfall”: A creek that trickled across the trail to Mirror Lake.

We didn’t actually expect to make it the 2.1 miles from the trailhead to the lake; instead, we just wanted to give the girls their first taste of tromping through the High Sierra. As we inched along (the Baby, with her short legs, doesn’t go very fast), the girls marveled at giant granite boulders strewn on both sides of the trail.

“This one’s as big as Dada’s car!” the Baby yelled, looking up at a giant grey monolith.

“This one’s as big as our house!” replied her sister, pointing to one of the largest glacial erratics I’ve ever seen in my life.

At one point (and under careful supervision), the kids ventured off-trail to pet some furry-looking moss that was growing on the side of one of these boulders. At another spot along the trail, the girls wandered even farther afield (again, under our neurotic gaze) to seek out “cozy hideaways” where they might find fairies. One such hideaway comprised a copse of oak trees and a natural rock cave. Here, the kids left an offering of leaves.

After a snack of Goldfish crackers, the four of us came upon a trail sign and the Big Girl practiced her reading by announcing where we were headed and how far we’d come.

Later, on a bridge over the clear-as-glass Tenaya Creek—a spot where Muir himself homesteaded for a while when he explored the region in the mid-1800s—we collected pinecones and invented “Pooh Cones,” our own version of Winnie the Pooh’s “Pooh Sticks.” To play, my wife and the girls leaned over the upstream side of the bridge and dropped their pinecones down into the current. Then they ran to the other side of the bridge to see whose pinecone came through first. Somehow, the Big Girl won every time (not that anyone really cared who won anyway).

Viewfinder Tip: No matter where you want to stay at (or near) Yosemite, book early; summers in the park are insanely crowded and most lodging options sell out quickly.

Rite of passage

On our second full day at Yosemite, the Big Girl woke up with the sunrise, peered out the window of our hotel room, gazed upon Yosemite Falls and declared, “Today, let’s head there.” We did just that, taking the free shuttle to the trailhead for the falls and hiking up a mile on a paved pathway to the Lower falls.

Drama awaited—both the inimitable drama of billions of gallons of snowmelt cascading down a sheer cliff-face, and the inescapable drama of 4-year-old reacting to the fact that her father wouldn’t let her get as close to the eddies as some of the other (careless, IMHO) visitors were getting. All of us Villanos got soaked by the mist from the waterfall; some of us also shed a few tears.

Later in the day, when the Baby and Momma were napping back in the hotel, the Big Girl and I ventured out the back door of the Ahwahnee and a quarter-mile across a meadow toward the Merced River.

Here, from the safety of a relatively flat riverbank, we tossed rocks into the river, counting the concentric circles that resulted each and every time. Just when I thought my older daughter might be getting bored, she issued an earnest request: “Dad, can I please feel this water?”

Sensing little to no danger, I relented—much to my girl’s surprise. What followed was a Baptism of sorts; my beloved transformed from kid who tolerated nature to one who loved it. She ditched the shoes. She ditched the socks. I held her hand as she waded out into the Merced. Standing there, knee deep in the chilly water, my kid stared down at the current tickling her feet and smiled.

“Touch it,” I encouraged her. “Get in there and see how it feels on your face.”

Tentatively, she knelt down, cupped some river water with her tiny hands and splashed it on her face. Then she did it again. And again. And again. When my girl stood up, her hair and most of her jacket were drenched. She spent the rest of the afternoon giggling with delight (and since has said that her favorite part of the trip was when she got to “touch the river.”)

Getting to know an oak tree

Celebrating the quiet

That night, after the Big Girl and her mother went to bed, I strapped on a headlamp and took the Baby out for our starlit stroll.

Before her lullaby, before the valley echoed with the high-pitched voice of my adorably lispy 2-year-old, we wandered out onto the boardwalk trails of Sentinel and Cook’s meadows, parked the buggy and just listened.

We heard: Grass and wildflowers near our feet, whipping in the wind; the gentle rustling of oak and Western Azalea; the occasional bray of a bullfrog; and, in the distance, the dull roar of what I’m guessing must have been Yosemite Falls. (I admit it: At one point, we also heard a car horn; I think the driver was honking at a deer to get out of a nearby road.)

Later in the walk, after the serenade, we wandered over a stone bridge that spanned the Merced, and strained to listen to the river trickling by down below.

We concluded the night warming up back in the Great Lounge of the Ahwahnee. Here, spread out on a lovingly worn leather sofa, my younger daughter and I cuddled up in front of a roaring fireplace, mesmerized by the dancing flames. I desperately wanted to engage her and ask her about all of the trees and creeks and waterfalls and stars she had seen during our visit. Instead, the two of us just sat in silence, twitching subtly every time one of the logs crackled.

Ten minutes passed, maybe 15. My watch said 9:30 p.m., and I was certain that my Baby Girl had fallen asleep. I craned my neck around to get a status report and found her sitting happily, beady eyes wide open, still taking in everything with excitement.

“I love fireplaces, Dada,” she whispered upon meeting my glance. “I love Yosemite.”

After a lifetime of dreaming, I couldn’t have agreed more.

For another look at our storybook visit to Yosemite, check out my post about Yosemite Valley family fun.