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10 Incredible Things to Do at Yosemite National Park
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If there's one word that kept popping in my head to on my recent trip to Yosemite, it was "temple." Chiseled, handsome granite rock formations--the largest monoliths in the world--jut out of the pristine forest, frigid waterfalls from recently melted snow trickling down the warmed rocks playfully. Not far from that sacred valley are some of the largest, oldest trees in the world, Giant Sequoias. If you are looking for a way to teach your kids to respect nature's temple, just take them to Yosemite.
With much deliberation, I bring you the top ten awe-inspiring things to do with kids in and around the park, which is nestled into the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the eastern part of California.
Hike out to a waterfall.
The path to the foot of Yosemite Falls, arguably the most iconic, picture-worthy site in the park, is paved, which means you can drive to a parking lot then take a stroller-ready "hike" along a mossy, lazy lagoon to the misty bottom. (The roar of the falls drowns out the slew of Japanese tourists. Seriously.) If your kids are older, like in the 5- to 12-year-old range, trek up for a closer view of dramatic but serene Verno, Bridalveil, or Sentinel Falls. The best part of these hikes isn't the gush at the end, though. The forest has a deep scent from the Sugar Pines and Incense Cedars that is unmistakable. You know those tree cutouts that dangle from the rear-view? This is what they wish they could smell like.
See a meteor shower from a mountaintop.
Since meteor showers can be predicted, many Yosemite accommodations offer packages in which lodging comes with an astronomer and telescope--and transportation to a choice viewing spot for the shower. Tom McCann, general manager of Tenaya Lodge, which offers one of the packages, says the showers are the most incredible sight in the park, hands down.
Lie in a bed of wildflowers.
Spring and fall are both smart times to visit: The crowds have dwindled and the sweeping valley has been accented with a zing of seasonal color. I'm partial to the wildflower season, from around March to May. Take Highway 140 into the park, winding at a lower (less hair-raising) elevation along the gushing Merced River. Keep craning your necks to look up for sprinklings of golden yellow poppies and purple spider lipines on the mountainside. Once you are in the park, you can spy entire meadows of these flowers plus vibrant pink redbuds, azaleas, violets, evening primrose, and many more. Take the Cook's Meadow Loop, the Wawona Meadow Loop and the trails by Wapama Falls to find your own patch, then run, jump, and lie down in your own bed flowers.
Play in a Giant Sequoia grove.
Sequoia National Forest borders Yosemite to the south. You'll find trees there that dwarf anything imaginable: They're as tall as a 26-story building and the parks service estimates that they're between 1,800 and 2,700 years old. General Sherman, that largest of the giants, is thought to be the largest living thing in the world. Watching kids trying to wrap their little arms around them is an adorable sight.
Go on a moonlight hike.
The Starry Skies Over Yosemite/Wawona program offered the park concessionaires, Delaware North Company, is worth around 20 times more than the $5 admission you'll pay. (Go to yosemitepark.com for info.) Hike out to a valley with basically zero light pollution where you and your kids will lie on your backs to look up at a night sky sparkling like you've never seen it. Emily Jacobs, manager of the programs, says that when the sky is clear and the moon is full, no flashlights are needed--the group just treks out by moonlight.
Go rafting in the Merced River Canyon.
Rafting along the canyon lets you take in the park from a whole different perspective. During spring, the most rough-and-tumble time of year, the rafting will be at Levels 3 and 4, only suitable for older kids and the more adventurous. As the snow runs out in summertime, the difficulty gets knocked down to Levels 2 and 3, which pretty much everyone can get a thrill out of. Zephyr is one of the oldest operators, and manager Jimmy Gado is a kind-hearted steward of the local environment. He said his secret to keeping the kids happy is the midway stop off at a jumping rock.
Reflect on nature with an arts and crafts day.
No matter the time of year you visit the park, you're bound to experience the rapidly changing weather, one of the joys of life in the valley. When it starts to rain, or even snow (in May!), head to the Yosemite Arts Center, near the post office and museum, where classes like the "Painting Yosemite from the Heart" will give kids a chance to reflect on what they've taken in. Because painting waterfalls in watercolor is just plain fun.
Take a "green dragon" tour.
The open-air tram is a great introduction to the park. You'll hit all of the highlights, from Half Dome to Tunnel View, while getting commentary from a park ranger. Long-time locals say they still learn something every time they go.
Have a fancy lunch at the old Ahwanee Hotel.
The opulent Ahwanee seems at first to be an ironic staple of the park. Opulence and fine China in the middle of the wilderness? But the hotel was built in 1925 to draw far-flung patrons--those with more refined tastes and deeper pockets that might feel generous toward the cause of preservation. The expansive, vaulted dining area serves delightful dishes, like the Sierra Nevada beer-spiked cheddar soup, and big salads. Fight for a table next to the tall picture windows.
Go zip lining in the Sierra National Forrest.
At Tenaya Lodge, a woodsy retreat perched among Sugar Pine trees 5,220 feet above sea level, $20 million worth of renovations have recently taken place, including a new spa with products that use ingredients found on that very mountain. A 15- to 20-point zip line is also being installed that will let you and your crew (safely) shoot Tarzan-style above the National Forest. Bomb's away!