Our Military Family’s Trip to Yosemite National Park

Written by Poli Dimitrova

Military spouse Poli and family at Yosemite National Park

As outdoor enthusiasts together with my husband, we have always enjoyed spending time in nature and traveling to new destinations. We used to be the spontaneous couple who took a weekend camping trip on a whim and traveled through Europe with just a backpack. Slightly more than two years ago, we found out we were expecting our first child. Little did we know at the time what the reality would be when we promised to keep our adventurous spirits alive and introduce our child to the outdoors as much as possible.

Now 17 months old, our son has already visited several national parks and traveled both domestically and internationally. During every trip, we face new challenges to overcome but all his smiles and giggles as he explores a new place for the first time are incomparable to anything else.

Whether you’re a military family that’s traveled extensively or just getting started, here are my top tips for visiting Yosemite National Park, what we gained from the experience, and details about a special military family giveaway by the Armed Services YMCA in partnership with the National Park Service. This initiative, “Heroes in the Great Outdoors,” gives military families the opportunity to recharge, reconnect, and rediscover the wonders of nature.

Challenges of Traveling with a Toddler

Poli's service member husband and their son hiking in Yosemite

The challenges of traveling with young children are not new to military families. PCS moves, international flights, long road trips with crying babies, and fussing children are inseparable parts of military life. It is no wonder parents decide against unnecessary travel to avoid additional meltdowns and lugging around four suitcases for a short weekend getaway. Despite this, our adventurous spirits took us to Yosemite National Park.

While the challenges are inevitable, here are some tips to ease taking a trip to Yosemite National Park with a toddler:

  • Bring a hiking carrier or a child carrier hiking backpack since toddlers can get tired quickly
  • If you have the space you can also bring a stroller as there are many paved, stroller-friendly trails in Yosemite
  • Sunblock and hats are essential to avoid sunburn for the little ones
  • If planning on visiting the waterfalls during the spring months pack raincoats as well
  • Snacks, snacks, and even more snacks! Make sure to grab these before you enter the park
  • Bring your pack-and-play and an inflatable bathtub for your little ones
  • Staying inside the park is a huge time-saver
  • Use the park shuttles — fun for the kids and less carbon emissions
  • Pack a small first aid kit in case your toddler gets an “ouchie” while running around

 

Yosemite National Park: Hikes and Sights

Yosemite National Park is a sanctuary millions visit yearly, drawn to its stunning waterfalls and majestic landscapes. In April 2024, we revisited this iconic park with our toddler to experience the spring season’s full glory.

Whether you’re visiting with toddlers or older children, Yosemite offers a range of family-friendly hikes and sights:

The pristine lake in front of the grand Half Dome in Yosemite

Hikes

Embark on a journey through some of Yosemite’s most accessible and stunning trails. From the misty spray of majestic waterfalls to the tranquil paths through verdant meadows, these hikes are

perfect for families looking to immerse themselves in nature.

  • Lower Yosemite Falls — A gentle 1-mile walk leads to the base of the tallest waterfall in North America, an ideal short trek for families with small children.
  • Bridalveil Fall — Only 0.5 miles, this easy hike offers a spectacular view of one of Yosemite’s most iconic waterfalls.
  • Happy Isles — A quick 0.5-mile loop that is perfect for little legs, featuring educational exhibits on the area’s natural history.
  • Mirror Lake — A 2-mile round-trip that offers serene lake views, especially beautiful in the early morning or late afternoon.
  • Sentinel Meadows and Cook’s Meadows — A 2-mile easy walk through lush meadows with fantastic views of Yosemite’s high country.
  • Yosemite Valley Loop — At 11.5 miles, this longer loop can be customized to your family’s preferences; it’s also bike-friendly and offers several stops for picnics.
  • Mariposa Grove — Home to over 500 mature giant sequoias, this 2-mile hike is a must-see for its awe-inspiring trees.

Scenic Overlooks

For those who wish to soak in Yosemite’s grandeur without the hike, these overlooks provide unforgettable vistas that are accessible by car and require minimal walking.

  • Tunnel View — Provides one of the most famous views of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall, perfect for memorable family photos.
  • Glacier Point — An accessible overlook with a breathtaking panorama of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and the High Sierra.

Other Must-See Attractions

Yosemite is filled with more than just trails; it offers a variety of activities and programs designed to enhance your park experience and deepen your connection with nature.

  • Tioga Road Drive — A scenic drive that offers numerous stops with short walks and stunning views, great for families who prefer less hiking.
  • Tenaya Lake — Known as the jewel of the high country, Tenaya Lake has beaches where families can relax and swim.
  • Junior Ranger Program — A fantastic program for kids aged 7 to 13, focusing on learning about nature and conservation.
  • Yosemite Wilderness Center and Museum — Offers educational exhibits and the chance to learn more about the park’s history and wildlife, enriching for both kids and adults.

 

Mental Health Benefits of Being Outdoors

One of the biggest benefits of being outdoors is how much it helps my mental health. Taking at least one long walk each day with my son has been part of our daily routine since he was a newborn. Becoming a mom has been an absolute rollercoaster for me and no matter how thrilled and overjoyed I felt at first, I also felt a huge level of stress and anxiety. Even now, 17 months later, I still have days (especially when my son is teething) when I feel like a ball of emotions. Getting outside and feeling the sun always improves my day tremendously. I can clear my mind, lower my stress, and be in a much better mood.

Taking the trip to Yosemite National Park was taking a step further into reconnecting with nature and recharging both our minds and bodies. Being away from the house and our normal daily routines, we gained a new perspective on what is important and valuable for us as a family. Even though we were with our son, together with my husband we were reminded of the adventure couple we once were. How

we plan and travel might have changed, but how nature makes us feel hasn’t.

Taking the Time to Unplug

Away from home, we found a different source of comfort and relaxation. We left the trivial daily grind behind and had the meaningful conversations we sometimes do not have time for. With no signal and Internet, we put the phones away to spend quality time together. With barely any toys to play with, our son was waking up with a smile every morning immediately pointing at the door of our cabin to go outside and play in the dirt. And that is okay because he was having fun and experiencing his childhood. Late at night, he would fall asleep within just a few minutes, tired from all the new adventures and emotions of the day. And to my surprise, he slept better than at home in his room and crib!

Lessons From Nature for Military Families

Poli and her military family looking at a waterfall in Yosemite.

Our experiences in Yosemite taught us valuable lessons about resilience and adaptability — qualities that resonate deeply with military families. Children are more capable, resilient, and adaptable than we think. They do not need many toys, just a few sticks and dirt to play in is enough to make them happy. Being fully present in the moment with no distractions is essential to building a strong connection as a family. Clearing up your mind, breathing in the fresh air, and just enjoying the scenery for a moment equals a better mood. I know my son will not remember any of this, however, I will forever cherish the moments of him exclaiming “wow” seeing a waterfall for the first time and giggling as the sprinkles touched his face.

“Heroes in the Great Outdoors” Military Family Giveaway

Military families are the backbone behind our service members, often facing tough challenges like frequent moves, enduring long deployments, feeling isolated from their communities, and living on a single income. These hardships can make even a simple family vacation feel out of reach.

Every military family deserves a break to enjoy nature and spend time together.

That’s why the Armed Services YMCA, in partnership with the National Park Service, is offering a special chance for a military family to win an all-expenses-paid trip to one of the most amazing places in America: Yellowstone National Park.

All active duty junior-enlisted U.S. military families (E-6 and below) are invited to join the Heroes in the Great Outdoors Military Family Giveaway, starting June 24, 2024. Just share why your family loves the great outdoors, along with a family photo. The family’s story that receives the most votes wins an all-expense paid trip to Yellowstone National Park!

Let’s celebrate the spirit of adventure and the healing power of nature together.