By Matt Villano, on May 10, 2014

Yosemite Valley family fun

More than 3 million people visit California’s Yosemite National Park every year, and an overwhelming number of them never get out of Yosemite Valley. In summer, this means madding crowds. Nevertheless, the Valley is still one of my favorite places to visit in the park.

That explains why, in the spring of 2014, when my wife and I took our girls to Yosemite for the first time as part of our “storybook” adventure, we spent all of our time in the Valley. We stayed at the The Ahwahnee. We hiked to Mirror Lake and Lower Yosemite Falls. We took the free shuttle to Curry Village, Yosemite Lodge and other spots. We even rented bicycles (in the park!) and explored the Valley with pedal power.

I’ve spent additional time in the Valley, too—as part of a multiyear gig to update a guidebook about Yosemite National Park, I’ve explored pretty much every square inch of this popular pocket of wonder.

Put simply, I know the Valley better than any other area of the park.

With this in mind, I decided to put together a list of the best family-friendly activities in Yosemite Valley as a whole. Some of the activities and destinations here aren’t open year-round, so be sure to call ahead to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. What’s more—especially if you’re exploring with little ones—make sure you are ready for anything as you wander around Yosemite; it’s always a good idea to carry a pack with rain gear, a first-aid kit and extra snacks. Now, the list…

Wee Wild Ones, courtesy of Yosemite National Park

Wee Wild Ones

Designed for kids under the age of 7, this 45-minute program is a great way to educate youngsters about the world around them at Yosemite. The free class—held before the regular Yosemite Lodge or Curry Village evening programs—includes nature- and animal-themed games, songs, stories, and crafts, and always has children smiling and laughing into the night. When we visited, Wee Wild Ones actually was held indoors, in front of one of the big fireplaces in the Great Lounge of the Ahwahnee. The subject of the night was geology, and rangers brought rocks and quartz crystals for kids to inspect up close. I wasn’t sure if my girls were paying attention, as they seemed (tired at the end of a long day and) distracted by the crackling fire. The next day, however, out on the trail, all they wanted to do was look for crystals.

Vernal Fall

You don’t need to shower on the morning you visit this 317-foot waterfall; especially if you visit early in the season, you will be thoroughly soaked by the time you pass the mist (that’s why they call the approach, Mist Trail). The waterfall itself is a dwarf when compared to Yosemite Falls, which drops 2,425 feet, but because of the way Vernal hits the rocks, it is the park’s “Super Soaker,” and is sort of like nature’s version of a water park. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the 1.3-mile approach from the Happy Isles shuttle stop is steep—I had to carry our younger girl for the last .4 of the way, and if our older girl wasn’t brimming with excitement at the prospect of getting soaked by a waterfall, she likely would have complained as well. (Also, if you go, you might notice hikers soaking in the Emerald Pool at the top of the waterfall. No matter how much your kids nag you, do not let them swim here. Rocks are slippery, undercurrents exist and people have been swept over the falls to their deaths.)

Mist Trail, courtesy of Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Museum

Fun fact: The Yosemite Museum (which was opened in 1926) was the first building constructed as a museum in the national park system. This means the structure itself is a museum piece. It also means that the facility’s educational initiatives have served as a model for parks nationwide. Today some of the permanent exhibits spotlight the geology of the park, as well as the cultural history of the people who lived in the area for centuries before it became a national park. When we visited, our girls loved the Indian Cultural Exhibit and Village, which offers a glimpse into the lives of of native Miwok and Paiute people from 1850 to the present. My older daughter, a budding artist, also appreciated a temporary exhibit of paintings interpreting the majesty of Yosemite and the Sierra. On one of my previous visits to the park (I was reporting those aforementioned guidebooks), I was lucky enough to watch a live demonstration of basket-weaving.

Curry Village Pizza Deck

Sure, Curry Village has 319 tent cabins (as well as 46 cabins and 18 motel rooms). And, yes, it has a great view of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. Still, as strange as it might sound, the best thing about this historic camp is the pizza from the Pizza Deck. This fast-food outpost is a Mecca for backpackers who hit “C.V.” for some R&R after days (or weeks!) in the backcountry. It’s also a great place to bring the kids for a cheap meal. When we went, in early April, we scored a large pizza with some toppings, two hot dogs, a pasta salad and some beer for less than $45. Because the “Deck” is teeming with people (even in the off-season), our girls also made a bunch of friends. For me, bringing the kids to the Curry Village Pizza Deck was an exercise in nostalgia; on all of my previous visits to Yosemite, I’ve dined there with friends as a major splurge. The pizza is nothing great—it’s a step up from Domino’s and Papa John’s, but still a far cry from the Neapolitan stuff upscale parlors serve today. Thankfully, after all these years, the novelty still outweighs these shortcomings in a big way.

Nature Center at Happy Isles

Wildlife is the focus at this educational learning center in the back corner of the Valley (not surprisingly, it’s a short walk from the Happy Isles bus stop). Kids will love interactive exhibits about bobcats, mountain lions, deer, bears and other critters you can see in the park. The Center also has short trails that focus on the area’s four different environments: forest, river, talus and fen. There’s even evidence of a 1996 rockfall from the Glacier Point cliff far above the facility, as well as informative signage and displays about what happened during that event, why it happened, and how the ecosystem has rebounded since. The Nature Center was closed when we visited in April but we wandered by it as we hiked the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall. When I informed the girls what they were missing, they seemed genuinely disappointed to miss out.

Viewfinder Tip: Because of the crowds in summer, the best (and most eco-friendly) way to get around Yosemite Valley is the free Valley Visitor Shuttle, operated by the National Park Service.

Brunch at the Ahwahnee

Oysters. French toast. Bacon. Cheese tortellini. Cheese Blintzes. Poached salmon. Bone-in ham. This list is just a sampling of the goodies on the menu for buffet-style Sunday Brunch in the grandiose dining room at the Ahwahnee Hotel. We had heard friends rave about the spread for months leading up to our visit to the park in the spring of 2014, but neither I nor my wife believed any brunch buffet could be that good. We were wrong. For me, the undisputed highlight of the experience was the table of home-baked muffins and pastries and croissants (followed closely by the family of deer that hung around outside for the duration of our meal). For my daughters, the highlight was the special “Just for Kids” buffet, which comprised chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese and focaccia Margherita pizza. If you have the budget and time (and interest in making reservations at least three weeks in advance), this meal is a must-do. Just be sure you go hungry.

LeConte Memorial Lodge

This stone Tudor Revival across from Housekeeping Camp served as the first visitors’ center in Yosemite, but now is operated by the Sierra Club as a conservation and natural history library and a museum on the life of Joseph LeConte (in whose memory it was built in 1903). The place also happens to have a “children’s corner” where kids can learn about John Muir, Ansel Adams, David Brower, and other luminaries who have been critical in preserving the ecosystem of Yosemite Valley. LeComte also hosts a variety of environmental education and evening programs; we missed these programs when we visited, but the schedule usually includes family-friendly storytelling, arts-and-crafts nights, and a variety of educational lectures for older kids (or mom and dad). All programs are free and open to the public.