For a family hike that takes in all of the Valley’s splendor, park and then catch the shuttle to Sentinel Bridge. The entire hike is 2.8 miles, but it’s easy walking all the way.
Start by walking across Sentinel Bridge, then at its end, turn right, get on the paved walk and head toward the park’s oldest working building—the Chapel. Maybe you’ll get lucky and spot a wedding party.
Photography tip: For a picture-perfect union of the Merced River and Half Dome, stop on the bridge, point and shoot.
To continue, walk across the Chapel parking lot and take the trail that borders the meadow. It will join a trail that runs along the southern valley wall. Follow this trail to the right through dense forest that will eventually parallel the road. At this point, start looking for the bridge across the Merced River. Cross the road at the crosswalk, then cross the bridge and you’ll be rewarded with an amazing view of Yosemite Falls as it thunders down the mountainside—this season its stronger and bigger than its been in years. Look to your left and you will see Cathedral Rocks. Look to your right and you’ll be staring at Half Dome. Once you are over the bridge, continue on toward Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. From here, Half Dome, Clouds Rest and Royal Arches will be on your right.
If it’s lunchtime, keep an eye out for a trail that takes you down to a sandy beach. For our family, one of the great joys of Yosemite Valley is picnicking along the Merced River. No matter where you look it’s breathtaking—and often quiet—as this takes you off the beaten path. One note: all the park rivers are running strong and high at this time of year so stay away from the water’s edge.
If you’ve detoured for lunch, get back on the main trail until you come to the road, cross at a crosswalk, then follow the sidewalk east (to your right) to Yosemite Falls. Our favorite way to view the falls is to start on the walkway at the western-most end as it offers the very best views of the entire falls.
Photography tip: Only the western end of the trail offers you a chance to shoot the falls from top to bottom all in one shot.
As you walk along the Yosemite Falls trail you’ll be following in the footsteps of environmental giants like John Muir who once worked a sawmill near its base. But the biggest thrill for kids is the huge drenching spray that comes off the falls.
Parent tip: You might want the family to don windbreakers and baseball caps for this part of your hike. Those snowmelt waters are cold! Another bit of parent info: the bathrooms on this walk are terrific. Just look for the log building.
After you come out at the eastern end of the Yosemite Falls trail, look for the paved walk that leads through the meadow (you’ll have to cross the street to get to it). This will head you back to Sentinel Bridge.
If, however, you are ready for a little detour before heading back, here’s what we do: when our daughter was small, we’d make a beeline for the playground of the Yosemite Valley School. She loved the swings and slides. We liked looking out at Half Dome and watching the deer graze on the soccer field. To get there, look straight ahead as you get to the forested part of the Yosemite Falls trail. You’ll see the school and playground straight ahead although you’ll have to get out to the main sidewalk and head across the soccer field to get to it.
Once our daughter was older, we let nature provide the playground, leaving her free to walk across logs, examine the tiny streams and climb the rocks that lie just off the Yosemite Falls trail. We always make sure we are in an area where our footprints won’t hurt the vegetation and we keep a sharp eye out for her safety.
Alternate ending: True confession. We often go another way back to the car. As huge fans of The Ahwahnee, we either walk along the sidewalk (not the bike path) that leads from Yosemite Falls to the hotel or we grab the shuttle. After a bite and a stroll around the grounds, we catch the shuttle again outside of the hotel and take it back to our car.