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This guest post was written by Liana Minassian for Travel-Wise.
As outdoor-oriented family trips go, Yosemite National Park consistently ranks as a top national park destination in the United States. The most popular national park within California, it’s often included and as the third most popular national park in the country, Yosemite has a wide array of outdoor activities, lodging and dining options.
California travel practically demands you make a stop here on your tour of the state, however the park really deserves a trip all on its own to explore everything it has to offer.
As a highly sought after vacation destination, many reservable activities can book up around six months in advance or more. However, with a little bit of planning and patience, you’re sure to have a trip full of memories that will last a lifetime.
Where to Stay
Yosemite offers accommodations across a broad spectrum, from budget-friendly to luxury.
13 different campgrounds are available within the Yosemite Valley and surrounding areas. Most are first-come, first-serve and cost between $12-26 per day.
Fire pits and picnic tables are the norm, making s’mores and finger food a must for the kiddos.
Be aware that only a handful of campsites are open year round, due to weather conditions and the availability of rangers and nearby facilities.
If roughing it isn’t your family’s style, there are canvas tent and wood cabins that are a slight step up from the traditional campgrounds. White Wolf Lodge, Half Dome Village, and Housekeeping Camp offer these kinds of facilities, where setting up a tent is one less thing you have to worry about.
Since the cabins here can accommodate four to six guests, they’re the perfect camping alternative for larger families.
Amenities at each location vary, but in general, each tent cabin at least has real beds with provided linens. Some wood cabins also have electricity, additional furniture and plumbing, but as these are not standard, cabins with these offerings will go fast.
As a general rule, cooking is not allowed in cabins, but boxed lunches and prepared dinners are available in addition to a variety of restaurants on location.
Hotel accommodations are also offered within Yosemite National Park and range from standard to upscale. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, a national landmark, has rooms from around $400-$500 a night with views of some of the most stunning highlights in the park.
With a heated swimming pool, balcony rooms and pillow top mattresses, the hotel can act as a mini retreat, perfect for relaxing after a long day exploring the great outdoors.
If you’re looking for a hotel alternative with a lower price tag, both the Yosemite Valley Lodge and Big Trees Lodge have rooms for less than half the cost of The Majestic. Both lodges also have swimming pools and Yosemite Valley Lodge has family rooms with bunk beds, DVD players, and private bathrooms.
All of the hotels in Yosemite have in-room refrigerators where you can store your own groceries or keep leftovers from the fabulous food offered in one of their elegant dining rooms.
Things to Do
There are plenty of kid-friendly things to do in Yosemite ranging from hiking to arts and crafts.
One of the best hikes for families, especially if you have stroller-age children, happens to be the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, which loops around the giant rushing Yosemite Falls waterfall.
Kids will love getting sprayed with water on the footbridge and trying to yell above the roar of the falls. Other easy trails in the area are the Bridalveil Fall Trail, Cook’s Meadow Loop and Mirror Lake Loop.
Older kids will enjoy the rush of whitewater rafting, which is suitable for those weighing over 50lbs and who are at least nine-years-old during low water season. Many tour operators provide full and half day packages, which you can combine with your trip to Yosemite National Park.
For non-thrill-seeking families, regular rafting and kayaking rentals are also available down the Merced River.
Two of the lodging facilities at Yosemite, Yosemite Valley Lodge and Half Dome Village, offer bike rentals if you can’t bring your own. Adult and children’s bikes are available along with bike trailers to take the little ones for a ride.
Over 12 miles of bike paths are located inside the park, with many passing through the valley and along lakes, providing excellent views of the many natural wonders in the area.
Multiple learning facilities exist within Yosemite National Park that will keep the kids’ minds sharp even in the summer. At the Yosemite Art Center, kids can paint, draw and craft during their daily open studio hours, with many of the supplies provided for free.
Art classes are even offered for those 10 and up, with fees as little as $15 per person. Free camera walks are available too, beginning at the nearby Ansel Adams Gallery.
Staff photographers can advise your family on how to take better photographs, covering essentials like exposure and composition.
Kids can even go through Yosemite’s Junior Ranger (ages 7-13) or Little Cub (3-6) programs, at the Happy Isles Nature Center. A booklet for purchase will lead you and your children through various activities including participation in guided programs and conservation efforts.
Upon completion they’ll receive their very own badge and get to take the Junior Ranger oath!
Making the Most of Your Time
Rivaling the entire state of Rhode Island, the park’s size may seem like a challenge for families with children, but it’s entirely doable if you take your time and pay attention to the needs of your family members.
Even in peak season, there’s no need to rush from one location to another since most of the attractions are natural ones that aren’t going anywhere. Best of all, Yosemite National Park has a free shuttle system that stops at all major lodging locations, shops and sightseeing points, a welcome offering for tiny tired feet.
For this reason, it’s best to choose a lodging location that’s central to the main things you want to do. Yosemite’s hotels and lodges are usually preferable for families, because of the wide variety of amenities offered.
While you could potentially stay in your hotel room and the surrounding grounds all day at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, a trip to one of the best and most visited national parks in America should focus on enjoying the outdoors.
To make the most of your stay, try to get up early at least once during your trip to watch the sunrise over one of the park’s bodies of water. It’s a perfect time to practice your photography skills as a family and enjoy all the beautiful colors reflected back in the smooth mirror-like water.
Before embarking on a day within the park, look at a map, preferably an illustrated one, and involve the kids in the decision making process. You may not even realize it, but they too will have preferences and interests in certain things.
Letting them pick activities will build anticipation and make the experience more fun (and less stressful) for everyone. When traveling with kids who may not remember the trip when they are older, this is an especially great way to ensure they still get value out of the experience.
But most of all, don’t forget to stop and smell the flowers. Take a moment to just enjoy each other’s company and encourage your children to use all five senses to experience the beauty and wonder of Yosemite National Park.
I’ve said this before, but I am not generally a fan of flying at night. It has to do with my slightly irrational (OK, very irrational) fear that if I can’t see the wings, they might not be there any more, and I generally like being able to see the ground. On a slightly less crazy note, I know many parents who don’t like to fly at night because they’re afraid that their little ones won’t be able to sleep, and will therefore be overtired and cry the whole time. This was definitely a fear I had the first time I took a red eye flight with my son as a baby, especially since he would only ever sleep in a crib with complete dark and quiet. Luckily, he slept through that first flight like a champ, and I was able to have a few hours to myself to watch a movie and eat something – quite the luxury with a young baby! Since then, I’ve taken countless red eye flights with my kids, and I’ve actually come to enjoy them; my kids have mostly slept the whole way, and it’s nice to not have to bring a million things to entertain them! I’ve learned a few things about taking a red eye flight with a baby over the years, and here are some of my best tips:
Think about the time of the flight
When booking a red eye flight, I always try to plan the flights to leave at a certain time. My kids go to bed early (around 7pm most nights) and both of them struggle to stay awake much beyond that without melting down. I know that booking a red eye at 11pm would be a disaster, with hours of airport meltdowns and two very overtired kids on the plane. I actually try to book flights for a little before the kids bedtimes, since there’s always a chance that delays will occur, and the only thing worse than a delayed flight is a delayed flight with exhausted kids!
I also give some thought as to the length of the flight. A red eye flight that takes off at 8pm and only lasts five hours will have us landing at 1am (at least according to our body clocks) and trying to get a sleepy baby off a plane is not an easy task. I try to make those overnight flights as long as possible, allowing little ones (and ideally myself!) as much time to sleep as they can get before we have arrive at our destination; at least eight hours is perfect.
Plan in advance
Packing a diaper bag for a red eye flight with a baby is a totally different ball game than packing for a day time flight. I still bring some entertainment for little one; you never know if the flight might be delayed, or baby might not sleep as early as they do at home and need something for the first hour or two. I usually bring books, coloring, stickers, or some other quiet activity so they don’t get too overexcited, and nothing too noisy to bother other passengers trying to sleep. I also pack anything else that they usually need for nighttime, as well as anything they might need come morning at our destination. This might include a change of clothes (especially if going somewhere very warm or very cold), a small snack that will serve as a portable breakfast, and basic toiletries like a baby toothbrush.
Get them ready for bed before the flight
When we have an overnight flight scheduled, I make sure we have enough time at the airport to get my baby all ready for bed before we board the plane. I pretty much go about our regular bed time routine, just in an airport! I change him out of his regular clothes and into his pajamas, then brush his teeth, wipe his face down, and maybe read him a story. Then I settle him into his sleep sack as I normally would. If he’s still nursing or has a bedtime bottle, I’ll usually try to hold off on the nighttime feed until take off (to help his ears deal with the pressure) or at least until we’re on the plane and he’s able to get comfortable. If he’s eating solids, I’ll give him little snacks to keep him going until then.
Bring anything they normally sleep with
My baby sleeps in a sleep sack at home, and I bring at least two of those in my carry on bag for an overnight flight (a back up of anything important is necessary on any flight with a baby!) My eldest son always sleeps with a stuffed Dumbo the elephant, and my youngest still sleeps with a Paddington Bear blanket; I would seriously rather reschedule a flight than get on board without those two comfort items! I also try to bring a baby blanket, even though my babies never slept with them; airplane blankets aren’t always particularly warm or comfortable (or clean!) and we’ve had overnight flights where they weren’t offered at all. A soft, cozy blanket for a little one to snuggle up in will keep them comfortable and warm throughout the flight.
Consider where you’re seated
I always try to sit by the window on a plane as it is, but I find it even more important on a nighttime flight. Once we’re on board and everyone is settled in, I find I am much less likely to be disturbed if I’m sat by the window instead of on the aisle, and this is especially true when flying with a baby. The space is typically quieter, with no beverage or food carts passing by, and no other passengers walking up and down the aisle. It may also be darker by the window, and there is the added benefit of having the plane wall to prop your arm up against to keep baby secure and comfortable for the flight. There is also a chance that I can lean my head against the wall and get a little sleep myself! Just a word of caution: keep the window blind shut! I love to fly with the window blind open so I can look outside (the best part about the window seat!) but on our latest red eye flight, we awoke very abruptly with the sun streaming in as it rose over the clouds! I think our whole row was taken aback by how bright it was, and we were all very awake after that!
Be prepared for arrival
Have a plan for what you’re going to do when you arrive at your destination. If you’re lucky, the flight will have been long enough that your baby will have slept well, and will be well-rested and happy. On the other hand, your red eye might have been just a few hours, and you might be getting off the plane when no one is really ready to wake up. Baby might be very sleepy, or very angry, or both! Be prepared for a few tears (aka hysterical screaming) when the lights turn on and everyone starts moving around and making noise in what your baby considers to be the middle of the night. I actually usually tried to wake my little ones as we started our descent into our destination airport; I would nurse them or give them a bottle to wake them up (and help their ears adjust), and let them wake gradually. It would also allow me to move around a little to get my stuff together in preparation for getting off the plane, rather than having to keep still so baby didn’t wake up. For more tips on dealing with arrival in a new place with a baby and the best way to combat jet lag, read through this post.
When things go wrong
Chances are, you will have at least one red eye flight where baby does not do what they are supposed to. I’ve had a 4-hour overnight flight where my baby did not sleep one wink; we must have walked up and down the aisle 100 times as I tried to rock him to sleep (while he smiled and waved to the passengers and didn’t look the slightest bit sleepy!), as well as a delayed red eye flight where my little one screamed like a banshee for the first hour because he so wanted to sleep, and just couldn’t get comfortable. It was one of the longest hours of my life, and I have never been so grateful to see my little one’s eyes finally close, but the flight attendants were very sweet and the passengers were very understanding. As with any flight with a baby, things might go wrong, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Know that as bad as it is when your baby is screaming or not cooperating, the flight cannot go on forever, and chances are that you’ll never see the other passengers again in your life!
What are your best tips for a red eye flight with a baby? Let me know in the comments!