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Mirror Lake is reason in itself to make a trip to Yosemite National Park. (Photo: Joel Olives/Flickr)

What’s the Best Family-Friendly Day Hike in Yosemite?

I'd love to haul my kids up the railings to Half Dome, but don't want to risk accidents—or turning them off of hiking forever. How can we have fun while staying safe in the national park?

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Yosemite is known for epic wall climbs and strenuous ascents. But what if Half Dome isn’t on the agenda and time with the tykes is? Here are a few easy-to-moderate treks, all five miles or shorter, that are accessible to the whole family.

In Yosemite Valley

At 11.5 miles, the entire Yosemite Floor Loop Trail may not be suitable for your family, but it can easily be hiked in manageable sections. The trail follows the Valley’s first east-west trails on a fairly flat course beneath Three Brothers and El Capitan. The trail often nears the Merced River, so weary kids (and parents) can easily wade in. Begin at Lower Yosemite Fall (Shuttle Stop No. 6). This trail has an optional spur to the next family-friendly trail, Bridalveil Fall.

This half-mile, round-trip trail there leads to the first waterfall visitors see upon entering Yosemite Valley. It plunges 620 from cliff to base and is known for its gauzy flow. The trail is easy, but reaching the base of the falls can be challenging, requiring scrambling up boulders that are ankle-turning and slippery even when dry. The trip to the top of another popular valley sight, Vernal Fall, may be a strenuous 1,000-foot gain, but kids can easily reach the Vernal Fall Footbridge, a 1.4-mile roundtrip with 400 feet in gain, for vistas of the falls. Begin at Happy Isles (Shuttle Stop No. 16). 

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You're ready to tackle El Cap, but are your kids? (Wasim Muklashy/Flickr)

Water play is also underway at Mirror Lake, reachable via a two-mile roundtrip trail up an easy grade. Mirror Lake reflects the surrounding cliffs and is fullest in early spring and summer. Come July, sand and knee-high grasses are more plentiful there than water. Fit families can extend the hike to create a five-mile loop tracing Tenaya Creek, past a decorative cairn field, across two bridges, and back along the south side of Tenaya Canyon. With the exception of an alabaster granite scree field beneath the flat side of Half Dome, the trail is largely shaded. Along this trail parents will also find plenty of boulders and for teaching rippers basic climbing and rappelling techniques. Begin at Mirror Lake Trailhead (Shuttle Stop No. 17).

To take in views of Yosemite Valley, follow the road to Glacier Point (which also offers incredible vistas of Half Dome) to the Sentinel Dome/Taft Point trailhead. In July, wildflowers bloom along the forest path in popsicle hues (grape, orange, cherry) along the 2.2-mile round trip route. At Taft Point, highliners harness in for aerial walks between the fissures and hikers can look upon El Cap from the south side. 

Off-the-beaten path views are the payoff for a hike to Artist Point, which offers perspectives of Clouds Rest, Bridalveil Meadow, and the Merced River. It’s the same panorama afforded at Tunnel View, without the hoards of park goers elbowing for the perfect shot. The two-mile hike begins at the Tunnel View parking lot. Hikers will likely have the route to themselves after the Pohono Trail section. 

Outside Yosemite Valley

Near the park’s south entrance, the Mariposa Grove is home to some 500 mature giant sequoias including named trees such as Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree, reachable via an .8-mile path with only 500-feet in elevation gain. Follow the Mariposa Grove Road, open April through November, to the parking area or take Wawona-Mariposa Grove shuttle. 

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A few of the 500 giant sequoias that call Mariposa Grove home. (Miles Sabin/Flickr)