My first full day ever in California, and I was in Yosemite National Park with my family. We woke up early as advised to beat the traffic, and when the mountains came into view, I actually choked up. Half Dome, El Capitan, and the meadows of Yosemite Valley were so beautiful that they literally took my breath away. Sure, I’d seen pictures and movies of the park, but being there in person made all the difference.

Yosemite selfie

Yosemite selfie

It made an impression on my oldest, too; he took one of his first selfies (but just missed getting Half Dome in his shot).

Yosemite is considered by many one of the best, if not the best, park in the US national parks system. It’s the place that many families think of as the ultimate family outdoors vacation, a “must-do.”

Even if you don’t think Yosemite is all that, you should at least add it to your family travel bucket list because it’s amazingly gorgeous, it’s easy to get to, and your kids will thank you (if not now, then when they get older).

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley

When to plan

So once you decide you’re going to Yosemite, then what?

My advice: plan one year in advance.

That’s right — if you want to go to Yosemite next summer, start planning and request your dates at a Yosemite lodge or campground now.

One of the tricky things about visiting Yosemite is the timing. Because Yosemite is immensely popular (it had 5.2 million visitors in 2016), lodges and campgrounds fill up quickly from spring and into fall. Spring and summer are when most tourists want to be there because in spring, the snow melts into the rivers and creates the best chance of seeing those magnificent waterfalls that Yosemite is famous for. (Some of the waterfalls can dry up later in the season.) Summer is when most kids are out of school and have the chance to travel, and also when winter road closures are finally over. So when you want to be in Yosemite, so does everyone else.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

When not to plan

You don’t have to start planning a year ahead if:

  • You’re doing just a day trip, obviously
  • You’re backpacking
  • You have a bigger lodging budget
  • You don’t mind staying outside of the park in vacation rentals, inns, or small chain hotels in neighboring cities

You will need a wilderness permit if you’re backpacking, and you’ll need to prepare your supplies, so that does take some planning.

But if you have the money, you might be able to find a place to spend the night in the park this same week because oftentimes, the only rooms left in the lodges on a short notice are the most expensive.

Why planning for a Yosemite trip was right for us

Bridalveil Fall

Bridalveil Fall

I am all for spontaneous travel, but when it comes to Yosemite (and other large, popular national parks), I find that advance planning helps.

Planning our Yosemite trip a year (OK, 11 months) in advance allowed us to get the lodging we wanted. Once we secured that reservation, we built a road trip around those dates. We also used that time to watch travelogues, read books and sites, and decide what we really wanted to do there. We were driving from 3,000 miles away — we wanted to make our time count! (We are doing the same thing now for a trip to a different national park next summer. We got our reservations nearly a year in advance, and even then there were only three types of rooms left — one of them too expensive for us, and the other without a private bathroom.)

One resource that helped was the Deluxe Visitor Kit for Yosemite, sold by the Yosemite Conservancy, and I’m not getting anything from recommending this. It includes books, maps, and a DVD, which our family watched before the trip. The maps were super helpful once we were on the trip, and we referred to the books a few times too. We knew we wanted to see as many waterfalls as we could, so the waterfall guide was great, and the day hike guide helped us decide which ones we thought our crew could handle.

Other helpful sources of information include the official Yosemite National Park site (linked above) and My Yosemite Park. It seems there are dozens of free Yosemite apps, and they might be helpful, but we found it difficult to get a signal in the park.

Even with planning, nothing prepared me for the feeling of being in Yosemite. And that is why we travel as a family.