We recently took a week-long road trip from Los Angeles to Yosemite National Park.
Here was my plan: take as little luggage as possible since it was just me, my husband and my 8-year-old daughter, and we’d be changing hotels and national park lodges frequently.
Here’s what happened: two neatly packed, tiny little suitcases left oodles of room for mountains of pillows, random shoes, sweaters and jackets, hiking boots, snacks, water, dolls, toys and stuffed animals. Oops.
And, of course, cramming all of that into our Camry Hybrid took time. So my next plan—let’s leave by 9 o’clock—turned into “I’ll be happy if we leave by noon.” We hadn’t even pulled out of the driveway and things were already off plan.
But here’s where my family planning was spot on. We didn’t just rush up to Yosemite and spend all our time in the park. I’ve done that countless times and its splendor never ceases to inspire. But this time, we got smart. Since it was a family trip, we decided to take it slow, venture out and explore around the park as well as in it, looking for attractions and experiences that our daughter would love.
What I found blew me away.
We headed north from Los Angeles toward the Park up Highway 41. That night was spent at Tenaya Lodge, a lovely accommodation complete with indoor and outdoor pools (BIG kid favorite), a game room where my daughter clobbered me at air hockey, a kitchen that serves up everything from soups and salads to gourmet fare, and an outdoor area where barbecue is served up under the stars all summer long.
Just outside Tenaya, we found two favorites especially suited for families with young kids. Model T Tours rents out convertible Model T roadsters and Model A’s for driving in Yosemite and the national forest as well as the Sugar Pine Railroad.
For my husband—a classic-car freak—there is no better way to view the breathtaking scenery than behind the wheel of Henry Ford’s finest. But plan ahead. At $400 to $450 per car, per day, it’s a splurge but definitely a once-in-a-lifetime-glad-I-did-it kind of thing.
Whether or not you’re a railroad enthusiast, a worthy experience is the steam-driven Sugar Pine Railroad. Running four miles along the route used by the narrow-gauge trains that once moved lumber out of the Yosemite area (from 1899 to1931), the track bends and turns through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. And at $17.50 for adults, $8.75 for kids 3-12, it’s an easily affordable experience.
The next day we continued on Highway 41 into the south entrance of Yosemite National Park and stopped at the stately old Wawona Hotel for breakfast. Then it was down onto the Valley floor for lots of hiking with a break for lunch at the magnificent Ahwahnee Hotel, a must-do even for children.
Plenty has been written about the splendor of Yosemite starting with John Muir himself. But our favorite find isn’t actually in the park; it’s right outside the entrance on Highway 140.
Yosemite View Lodge markets itself as a resort, but it’s more like a kid’s idea of heaven with three pools, a pizza parlor, a dining room that caters to families and, most impressive of all, the Merced River flowing just off one’s balcony.
No dealing with traffic on the Valley floor. No hassles lining up for food at Yosemite’s cafeterias. Everything’s convenient and family friendly, including the kitchenette in the room and the YART bus that takes you from the hotel into Yosemite itself.
If we had teenagers we might have chosen to leave via the west side of the park, on Highway 120. This sets you up for exploring the Gold Country right outside of Yosemite’s door, or just as enticing for kids this age, sends you out toward Lake McClure where you can rent a motor boat, houseboat or jet skis on a well-patrolled, family-friendly lake.
From Lake McClure, it’s an easy hop onto Highway 49 toward the town of Mariposa. Along the way, stop in Coulterville for a saloon-style lunch at the historic Hotel Jeffery or have a meal at the Coulter Café on Main Street.
The route is windy, but around every curve you’ll find yourself exclaiming, “It’s so gorgeous.” (In fact, my daughter got so sick of hearing me say, “I can’t believe how beautiful it is,” she told me to find another adjective.)
Mariposa County is virtually untouched by development and gives you a real glimpse back into the time when California’s natural beauty was completely unspoiled.
The town of Mariposa, located about 40 miles southwest of the park, was the most unexpected and most welcome surprise. Crammed with things to do and see—both entertaining and educational—it’s a treat for anyone who’s interested in California’s history.
Start at the Mariposa Museum and History Center where you can walk into a fully stocked general store from 100 years ago, learn about the influence and customs of the Chinese who built the railroad, and relive the Gold Rush days, complete with a working blacksmith shop and demonstrations of how ore was crushed to extract the gold.
For lunch, do like the locals do and buy from the vendors’ carts set up in the museum’s parking lot. If you need to take a load off, there’s Savoury’s for more formal fare, the Sugar Pine Café and Butterfly Café for family meals, or the River Rock Inn & Deli Garden Café (www.riverrockncafe.com), which draws European crowds in search of pastries like those at home.
Then make your way over to the Mariposa Courthouse for a one-hour tour. Built in 1854, this fully restored courthouse has been in continuous use ever since and if you visit during the week you may even get to sit in on a trial.
Then just walk the streets and drink in the feel of a town that was first built at the time of the Gold Rush and retains an authentic feel.
Late afternoon treat? Follow the crowds to Mariposa Fruit and Nut Company for coffee drinks and smoothies. Then one last stop—and a kid’s favorite: the California State Mineral and Mining Museum located at the Mariposa Fairgrounds just a couple of miles outside of town.
I love rock shops and gem and mineral museums, so imagine my joy at finding a mineral museum that is considered to have the best collection in the United States short of the Smithsonian.
As my daughter and I stood gaping at a 13.8-pound gold nugget found during the Gold Rush, we may have pondered its value, but not that of our week spent exploring Yosemite and its surrounding. That experience, as they say, was priceless.
By Jamie Simons for PeterGreenberg.com.
Looking for a place to stay? Don’t miss the Grand Dame Hotels of Our National Parks.
Check out some Great Lesser-Known National Parks.
And don’t miss America the Beautiful: Five Great Hidden National Parks.
And finally, for more family travel planning, check out our Family Travel section.