Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity…
We recently spent a great weekend in Yosemite with our two young sons. Yosemite is only about four hours by car from the Bay Area, and we’ve been wanting to visit for a long time, and boy did we have an incredible experience. We picked a great weekend, lucked out with perfect weather, and enjoyed awe inspiring hikes and delicious meals. Not to sound too dramatic here, but visiting Yosemite is truly a life altering experience. The moment we drove around the last hairpin curve and entered the valley floor there was a physical shift in my heart. It is the kind of place that will stay forever in your memory. Here’s a review of our weekend, including our recommendations on where to stay and what to do while you are in Yosemite. Go go go, take your kids, and enjoy!
Where to stay
We stayed at the Ahwahnee, the famous old hotel on the valley floor. Overall, yes, I do recommend staying here, but it warrants a bit of expectation calibration. The prices are certainly luxe – we paid $500/night for our room – but it is a three star property at best, both for quality and for service. The grounds, lobby, and restaurants are stately and beautiful, but the hallways and rooms are not. They are old, and sadly without much charm. The walls are thin, the linens are tired, and most disappointing, the rooms are not very clean. So why am I recommending to stay here? Mostly because you do not go to Yosemite to linger in the room – you go for the one of a kind outdoor experience. Also, the options on the valley floor are extremely limited. If you want a bed, a private bathroom, and the option (and convenience) of onsite restaurants, this is really the only choice.
And the Ahwahnee has some obvious positives, too. First of all, the location is awesome. The lawn behind the lobby is huge and perfect for running and burning off energy after a long car ride. Second, the food and the service in the main restaurant is great. We had some truly excellent meals here, the best being dinner and Sunday brunch. Finally, the Ahwahnee offers conveniences and perks you can’t get anywhere else on the valley floor, namely two restaurant options, a stocked gift shop, and room service (including pre-ordered picnic lunches that are great for hiking).
Here are some tips:
1) Make reservations early. I was able to secure reservations a few weeks in advance, but we went on an off-weekend. I’ve been told it can be booked up to a year in advance.
2) Do not be afraid to speak with a manager if you have any issues. We did have a few issues, and after a very lovely conversation with the manager, our room was quickly changed to a new (much better) one.
3) Make restaurant reservations for dinner and Sunday brunch weeks in advance, and bring some spiffy clothes. Think country club garb. Jackets are not required for men, but they do have a dress code and ask for no jeans.
What to do
We had a weekend in Yosemite and wanted to do one hike per day with the kids. Although we had a backpack for Graham, we really hoped they would be able to walk and explore as much as possible. We had some help from the concierge at the Ahwahnee to plan out our days – we had the same pattern and flow both days – and it worked out perfectly. Each morning we set out after an early breakfast, spent the morning and early afternoon out on the trails, came back to the hotel for G’s afternoon nap, and then enjoyed dinner at the restaurant and after-dinner drinks (and more running!) on the lawn.
1) Lower Yosemite Falls hike.
You can easily walk to the trail head from anywhere on the valley floor, but we chose to take the shuttle bus a few stops, mostly because the boys get such a kick out of riding on busses. This trail is perfect for young kids. It’s about 1 mile out and back, mostly flat, super wide, and full of great sounds and smells. The scenery changes as you get closer to the falls. First there is a large section framed by tall sequoias, then you wind pass a babbling stream that literally sounds like the “babbing brook” channel on a sound machine. As you start to approach the lower falls, the roar of the water becomes almost deafening and you have to shout to hear each other. Bennett kept saying “do you hear the OCEAN?!” There is a giant boulder you have to wind around, and then there is no mistaking that you have arrived – the sound is so loud and the spray literally hits you in the face. Not to sound too hippy, but there is so much power and strength in the waterfall; it’s equal parts scary and awesome.
2) Mirror Lake hike.
This is a great second day hike. It is not as dramatic as the Lower Falls, but more of a meandering nature walk that ends at a beautiful pond like lake, which, as the name suggests, acts as a mirror to the mountains surrounding it. You can either take the shuttle bus to the trail head or hike in (about 2 miles). This trail is not as flat as the Lower Falls, but the incline is gentle and plenty easy for toddlers – there were even some people pushing a stroller up the path. The hike took us about two hours, as we let Bennett set the pace, so we went slowly and explored all along a white-water stream and found some super cool huge rocks to climb. It’s beautiful, peaceful, and a great way to spend a morning in Yosemite.
Tips to enjoy your hikes:
1) Think layers, sunscreen, and water. The mornings and evenings were cool and we definitely needed long pants and jackets. The days were warm, especially in the sun, so we’d be in t-shirts and shorts, sunscreen-ed up, and chugging water. A camelback is not a bad option, even if you are just doing these simple hikes.
2) Go on an off-weekend or weekday trip. We went on an “off” weekend between Easter and spring break, and I’m so glad we did. The valley floor was full of people and had a great buzzy vibe, but there was no traffic and we had no problem getting reservations for brunch or dinner. The weather was also spectacular. We were told that there can still be snow in late April, but we had day temps in the mid 70s, blue skies, and bright sun. The best part about this time is that the snow melt produces the most amazing waterfalls – they can be completely dry by mid summer, so if you want to see them, definitely head in early.
3) Bring your camera. Although the photos you take will do no justice to what you see with your eyes, looking back at the pictures will jog your memory of what it felt to stand there.
And to stand there, well, it makes you believe in God, that’s for sure.