Picture this: ice skating in an outdoor rink with the breathtaking view of Half Dome overhead; building a snowman in a sun-kissed mountain meadow; enjoying a tree-lighting parade in an authentic Gold Rush town. These are just a few of the sugar plum dreams that come alive for you and your family during the holidays in Yosemite Mariposa County.
From Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukah, to that recharging getaway before hosting your own big event back home, Yosemite Mariposa County offers families a unique chance to bond and explore. So, bundle up and get ready for four days of holiday enchantment where laughter and crackling fires help create cherished memories in a mountain setting unlike any other.
Find the Family Basecamp
The first step in a successful holiday getaway? Finding that perfect family base camp. Whether that’s a rental home with a welcoming hearth, a comfy hotel outside of the Park, or a full-service resort, there are countless places to stay and exciting things to do just outside your door. Of course, where you choose to stay will determine the distances between attractions, so feel free to mix and match the following days to make the most of your itinerary.
Day One: Valley Ho, Ho, Ho!
Excitement levels on the drive up rise with the elevation, so bringing the fam to Yosemite Valley on day one of your holiday visits makes perfect sense. And since the kids can be less than patient about getting there, the obvious first stop is the Bridalveil Fall Trailhead along Southside Drive. Here, the wildlings can play tag between the oak trees as El Capitan looms overhead, or head up the paved half-mile (round-trip) trail to see one of Yosemite’s premier waterfalls. There’s nothing like the power of tumbling water to put families into a collective state of ahh!
More winter magic awaits deeper into the Valley. The outdoor Curry Village ice skating rink is truly unique. Surrounded by 3,000 ft cliffs with Half Dome peeking through the trees, this family-friendly destination rounds out the fun with tasty food and outdoor fire pits that add to the welcoming ambiance.
Sometimes we need to use our indoor voices, and the Yosemite Museum is the perfect follow-up after running free in nature. Located in Yosemite Village (stop #5 on the free Valley shuttle), these rotating exhibits capture the art, history and natural science of where you stand.
Another way to wrangle the troops in a fun and informative way is by booking a custom-guided family tour offered by the Yosemite Conservancy. Naturalist guides share the story of Yosemite wonders such as frazil ice and local flora and fauna during half-day or full-day tours.
Pro Tip: Yosemite Valley sits at 4,000 ft elevation which means that snow accumulations can vary from several feet to none at all. Be sure to check out weather conditions and the Yosemite Valley webcams (El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls) to make sure the family is bringing the proper gear.
Day Two: Go To Town
Exploring the gateway towns outside Yosemite National Park is like taking the kids back in time. As the holidays roll around, each main street has its own warm & fuzzy vibe that lights up like Rudolph’s nose with everything from festivals, shopping and snacking.
With its Gold Rush history and colorful main drag, Mariposa was voted #2 in the country as Best Small Town Cultural Scene by USA Today. The honor is well-deserved, and during the winter holiday the Mariposa Merry Mountain Christmas Festival and Parade twinkles brightly for you and the kids. Follow the festivities to the historic Mariposa County Courthouse (1854) for the Christmas tree lighting paired with free snacks around the bonfire.
Holiday gift-giving takes on a Made in Mariposa flavor with its souvenir shops, local wines, art galleries and unique home goods. There’s something special about shopping locally that celebrates the culture while supporting the community.
Another Yosemite gateway town displaying spunky Gold Rush cred is Coulterville, CA. With more historic buildings than full-time residents, the visitors will get an authentic feel for the Old West. Check out the Sun Sun Wo Mercantile Building (1851) which served the Chinese community during the Gold Rush, or take a pic with the historic steam engine Whistling Billy outside the Northern Mariposa County History Center. When searching for culinary gold, the Coulter Cafe & General Store is the perfect family lunch spot.
Day Three: Southern Sleigh Bells
Tenaya comes to life during the holidays with festive trimmings and a perfectly wrapped collection of holiday events. Whether you’re staying on-site or want to make a crafty pit stop, the family will get a kick out of such Santa soirees as the Gingerbread Decorating Workshop, Snow Globe Workshop and Story Time with Santa. The sleigh reaches new heights during the holidays with complimentary hot chocolate and the Elf on a Shelf Scavenger Hunt (guests only) where elves are hidden around the resort waiting to be discovered. Note: The holiday workshops at the Tenaya sell out quickly so be sure to book early.
If Mother Nature has blessed the Sierra with an early dusting, nearby Goat Meadow Snow Play Area is where tasty sled runs meet snowball fights amid a chorus of giggling families. There’s nothing quite like a white Christmas in Yosemite, and there’s no better action photo op than the kids bundled up in caps and scarves as they glide downhill.
Just inside the South Entrance to Yosemite National Park, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias seems to stand with more majesty during the peaceful holiday season. The Yosemite Shuttle stops operating for the season on December 1 which may seem like a bummer but is actually a blessing for families who like to hike. The Washburn Trail takes you to the Lower Grove where such arboreal luminaries as the Fallen Monarch and Grizzly Giant hold court. Snap your family holiday pic or bring a sketch pad and enjoy some quiet time among the giants.
Day Four: Family Ski
Located inside the Park on Glacier Point Road, Badger Pass is California’s oldest resort and features a number of beginner and intermediate runs where the young’uns can swoosh to their heart’s desire. There’s also a beginner-friendly terrain park, not to mention their Pups Program (kids 4-6) taught by patient instructors. For those esteemed family members who just want to chill, a sun deck overlooks the slopes where sipping cocoa and looking good in your gear is de rigueur.
If the snowpack is belated during your holiday visit and the trails clear, the obvious plan B for outdoor activities is a Yosemite Mariposa County hike. There are hundreds to choose from, with a range of distances and beginning at trailheads throughout all our unique regions. Family bonds are sure to grow stronger as you set out on your expedition during this less-traveled time of year. Recharge complete.
Yosemite Mariposa County is a holiday escape that promises to warm your hearts and reignite that sense of wonder we all hold dear. With twinkling and jingling and starry Sierra skies as your backdrop, family connections grow stronger in a place that John Muir called a “mountain mansion” of nature’s choicest treasures. So come on up this holiday season, take a break from the madness back home, and discover these treasures for yourself.