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Lights, Cameras, Action! Yosemite Mariposa County for Kids

Yosemite Mariposa is one of California’s top family-friendly destinations. From rugged foothills studded with sapphire lakes and Gold Rush towns to soaring Sierra peaks, it’s a recreation-rich and topographically diverse realm with plenty of inspiring and educational fun things to do. And, just like your favorite Disney or Pixar film, Mariposa County earns rave reviews from all ages. Here’s a suggested four-day itinerary (inspired by classic kid’s films) as a “trailer” for your Yosemite family vacation.

Day 1 – Opening Scenes

road trip high-fives in the car

There’s plenty to see and do on the way to Yosemite Mariposa County. Check out some of the fun games you can play on the way.

Parents know that vacation begins once the safety belts click into place. When “Cars” reach “Life is a Highway” velocity, togetherness and excitement build for what’s ahead. Mariposa County is a max four-hour drive for most California residents, just the right length for a day of open-road family bonding (with an optional nap, or two).

Another road trip axiom: entertaining the wee folks in the back seat can be a challenge. We get it. To help manage “when will we be there?,” we’ve created Yosemite Mariposa board games to keep spirits up and minds engaged (and help those of you riding in the front to relax). Beast Mode Yosemite encourages kids to turn away from screens to the magical world passing by. Just knowing that fantastic beasts like “Brother Bear” live here is a thrill. This is the perfect game to learn about the amazing biodiversity of the region.

Hey, What’s That? A Game of Yosemite Mariposa Landmarks is another way to play. As you’re driving through the history-rich, geo-grand corners of the county and something comes into brilliant focus, you’ve bagged it! Check it off your Yosemite Landmarks board. It could be the glowing face of Half Dome as the setting sun hits just right, or the Miwuk Ceremonial Roundhouse in Yosemite Valley. Both Yosemite Mariposa board games are available for download to save and print, as well as online for digital viewing.

Day 2 – Action and Adventure

By river, land, lake and air, adventures await in Yosemite Mariposa, one of California’s ultimate kid friendly travel destinations. From splashing in rivers and reservoirs to horseback riding through ancient trees, choo-chooing on a vintage steam train and learning how to snowboard – we’ve got your “Incredibles” kids covered.

kids playing at the aqua park on lake mcclure

Find all kinds of family fun at Lake McClure and Lake McSwain – including an aqua park that’s a splashing good time for the whole family.

At an elevation of 867 feet, sun-soaked Lake McClure and Lake McSwain are nestled in the oak-studded Sierra foothills in Mariposa County’s northwestern sector. Lake McClure and Lake McSwain are fed by the Merced River and offer full-service family resorts featuring protected swim areas, day-use picnic tables and even a floating obstacle course called the Splash-n-Dash Aqua Park. Camping, fishing and waterskiing are also popular here.

The daredevil in the family will jump at the opportunity to ride at Exchequer Mountain Bike Park, with 700 acres of crunchy, chain-stretching joy overlooking Lake McClure. The nearby Barrett Cove Recreation Area is an inviting venue for a swim or lakeside camping trip.

Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad is a throwback excursion located near the Park’s South Gate at Fish Camp. Historic steam engine locomotives chug along the narrow gauge right-of-way of the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company with tall trees on either side. The on-site museum details the local logging legacy. During the summer months, enjoy a full evening of dining, entertainment, train riding and adventure when joining the “Moonlight Special” evening events.

kid goes horseback riding with Yosemite Trails

Mount up for a real western adventure riding horses along with the genuine cowboys at Yosemite Trails.

Whether you take an all-day trip through the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias or the one-hour Big Creek crossing, Yosemite Trails Horseback Adventures offers unique journeys into the woods and back in time. Happy trails ahead, just off Highway 41 near Fish Camp.

Take it higher above Mariposa County and Yosemite National Park with Airborrn Aviation Services Scenic Tours, based at the Mariposa-Yosemite Airport. View spectacular waterfalls, rivers, lakes and signature sights like Half Dome, El Capitan and more!

Does keeping both feet planted securely on the ground sound better? Guided tours from Tenaya Lodge into Yosemite covers all of the main sights to see and provide guaranteed access into Yosemite.

For “Frozen” winter adventures, Yosemite Mariposa’s snow-covered terrain comes into play. Badger Pass Ski Area, located just off Glacier Point Road with a peak elevation of 8,000 feet, is the oldest ski resort in California! Touted as one of the Sierra’s most family-friendly slopes, Badger Pass Ski Area offers downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowboard terrain park, tubing and more. It’s intimate with just five lifts providing access to mostly beginner and intermediate runs, and Badger’s heralded ski school is a great place to learn to ski.

kid sledding

Regardless of the season, there are fun and adventures to be had. Winter activities include skiing, ice skating, and plain old slip slidin’ in the snow play.

For the pre-ski set, Goat Meadow is a classic under-the-radar sledding hill, located just off Highway 41 in the Sierra National Forest between Fish Camp and Yosemite National Park. Tubing, sledding, and all-around snow play abound.

Day 3 – Wide Screen Panorama

Today we go big. The titanic grandeur of Yosemite makes it one of the world’s foremost places to visit. Carved by “Ice Age” glaciers and famed for its granite walls and thundering waterfalls, Yosemite’s elevation gradient is steady and significant, rising from about 4,000 feet in Yosemite Valley to nearly 10,000 feet at Tioga Pass. It’s “Fantasia” with a Sierra filter.

Yosemite’s a-list monuments – Half Dome, El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, Mirror Lake, Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, Bridalveil Fall, et al – are tightly clustered in Yosemite Valley, with many in full view from paved paths. Tunnel View, Glacier Point, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls all offer kid-friendly panoramas from paths accessible by strollers and easy hikes for short legs.

family biking in Yosemite Valley

Get a bit of fresh air and some epic views with a family bike ride around Yosemite Valley. (Bike rentals are available at Curry Village and Yosemite Valley Lodge.)

In Yosemite Valley, bike rentals are available during the warmer months of the year, including tandem and small bikes and trailers for children. With more than 12 miles of paved, mostly flat trails, riding a bicycle is an excellent way to see Yosemite Valley. For a cooler experience, raft rentals are available from Curry Village where the family-friendly, placid Merced River makes for a great day on the water. Looking to learn about the Valley from an expert? The Yosemite Valley Floor Tour is ranger-led and gives an open-air tour of the Valley that lays out its rich geologic history. Note: call ahead for any tours that you may be interested in. Some operations have changed due to COVID-19.

boy climbing in Yosemite

Older kids will love the bird’s eye view and excitement of rock climbing with the Yosemite Mountaineering School. What better place to rock climb?

Older kids and teens will enjoy learning the ropes from the Yosemite Mountaineering School, with half-day and longer lessons available. Instructors and guides are passionate climbers themselves, not to mention patient teachers who know Yosemite’s cliffs better than anyone. Rock on!

Kids can go full Smokey the Bear and become Yosemite Junior Rangers by completing a self-guided handbook while traveling around the park. The Yosemite Junior Ranger handbook is sold for $3.50 plus tax at stores throughout Yosemite National Park and online. When completed, share your booklet with a park ranger at any Yosemite visitor center during operating hours to receive your badge and patch.

Note: Reservations are required to drive into Yosemite through September 30, 2021. Reservations are available here. However, Park reservations are not required when taking part in a tour such as the Yosemite Valley Orientation Tour offered by Incredible Adventures and other tour companies.

Day 4 – Fairy Tale Finish

two girls dressed as butterflies for the Mariposa Butterfly Festival

Everything’s coming up butterflies at the annual Butterfly Festival.

Talk about “A Bug’s Life!” Mariposa was named by the 1806 Spanish expedition of Gabriel Moraga, when so many butterflies swarmed his camp that they nearly blocked out the sun! He named that place Las Mariposas, Spanish for “The Butterflies,” and today the annual Mariposa Butterfly Festival honors the founding flyers.

Mariposa spreads its wings for this signature celebration of music, art, food, education, and of course, butterflies! One of the event’s most anticipated moments is the release of some 5,000 butterflies, creating a colorful storm guaranteed to inspire oohs, aahs, and smiles on sky-turned faces.

Mariposa is a classic Gold Rush town with wow-worthy attractions. Don’t miss the Old Mariposa Jail, where backseat misbehavers may be sentenced, and the Mariposa Museum & History Center, a “Best Little Museum” according to the Smithsonian Institution. At Coffee with the Critters, talking to and feeding organic snacks to the Dr. Doolittle-worthy menagerie of farm animals living here is highly encouraged, while parents sip cappuccino and nibble on scones.

Roll Closing Credits

Mariposa County has a bounty of Yosemite kid-friendly hotels and accommodations, ranging from four-diamond resorts to spacious vacation homes and cabins for an additional level of privacy, space to stretch out and a kitchen all your own.

Family enjoying the swimming pool at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite

The fun doesn’t have to stop when you get back to your hotel. Indoor and outdoor swimming pools, archery, a kid’s ropes course and more await at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite.

Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite is located in Fish Camp, just a few miles from Yosemite’s South Gate entrance and set among 50 wild acres of Sierra National Forest. Two-bedroom Explorer Cabins are go-to family options. Tenaya Lodge offers over-the-top activities for the young and the “Brave” including archery lessons, rock wall climbing, ropes courses and more. Indoor and outdoor pools and hot tubs complete the grand resort experience. Timberloft Pizzeria at Tenaya Lodge is the perfect kid zone with a great menu highlighted by brick-oven artisanal pizza.

While we’re on the subject of food, Yosemite Mariposa offers a tasty and satisfying range of family-friendly travel dining establishments, from awesome burger joints to fancier settings (but not too “Ratatouille” fancy; you’re on vacation and this is Sierra Gold Country, after all). Don’t miss the June Bug Café in Midpines at the Yosemite Rustic Bug Rustic Mountain Resort, the Happy Burger Diner in Mariposa (“largest menu in the Sierra”), and the Coulter Café and General Store (kid- and dog-friendly) in Coulterville.

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