There’s a reason Yosemite National Park is one of the most sought-after parks in California—the mountain views, forest landscapes, cascading waterfalls, and endless nature-rich adventures are enough to fill our souls back up with the awe, gratitude, and adrenaline we could really use from time to time. It’s an exercise that feels particularly powerful when bestowed upon the next generation of travel and environmental stewards.
Instilling an appreciation and respect for nature and the outdoors is a journey we started early with our kids, toting them on trails in carrier backpacks as babies and teaching them to hike on their own through state and national parks as more independent toddlers. This past fall we sought to take the process one step further when we brought our five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter to Yosemite to experience not only the majesty of the park but also to engage in an annual cleanup event called Yosemite Facelift. Unfortunately, we missed the event due to our son not feeling well, but it’s worth bookmarking for those interested in giving something more to a national park that gives us so much.
No matter what time of year you decide to take a family or group trip to Yosemite, there’s plenty to see and do, including hiking to popular waterfalls such as Vernal, Nevada, and Lower Yosemite Falls, and visting the park’s most famous view points, Glacier Point and Tunnel View. There’s the bopping Yosemite Village (for food, souvenir shopping, and stocking up on supplies); Mariposa Grove to walk among the giant sequoias; and Hetch Hetchy reservoir to experience a controversial but stunning piece of Yosemite history (in the early 20th century a contested dam was built, submerging the beautiful lower portion of the Hetch Hetchy valley).
While there is no shortage of natural wonders in and around Yosemite, we found that our lodging was a very important part of the trip’s success. We stayed at Rush Creek Lodge, a 143-room hotel situated on 20 acres that opened in 2016; it is a sister property of Evergreen Lodge, which is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year.
With a younger toddler who still naps and us always needing a bit of a downtime in the afternoon (so that nobody loses it), we often spend our mornings out and about and our afternoons back at our hotel. What we loved about Rush Creek is that no matter how much time we spent there, it didn’t feel like we were “missing out” on time we could (or should) have been spending in Yosemite—while Rush Creek is only a half-mile from Yosemite’s western Highway 120 entrance, it’s about a 45-minute drive to the heart of the valley, which for us means only one trip into Yosemite proper per day until.
We arrived at Rush Creek early evening, midweek, and headed straight to dinner at Rush Creek Tavern, the property’s lodge-chic casual dining venue. The menu features salads, cheese and charcuterie plates, burgers, cioppino (my favorite), steak frites, and fish tacos. For younger diners, there is a reliable kids’ menu with chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and cheeseburgers.
After that, we checked into our room, one of the property’s two-bedroom hillside villas that are ideal for families—one bedroom has either a queen bed or two twin beds, and the other serves as both a master bedroom and common room/sitting area with a patio or balcony. Other accommodations include lodge rooms and suites located in the main buildings and one-bedroom villas. Even though it was already dark, we headed straight to the heated saltwater pool after dinner for a quick swim—a pool is always a huge draw for our kids and one they often don’t let us wait to experience.
After grabbing coffee and pastries at Rush Creek’s General Store, the next day was spent exploring the grounds. In addition to the pool and very large Jacuzzi, there is a great outdoor playground (I so wish more hotels had these) that includes an adult and kid zipline and a huge hillside slide. There is also an indoor play area, complete with an oversized Connect Four board, foosball, pool table, shuffleboard, and a climbing feature. Our kids loved the indoor play space so much we were able to use it as a bribery tool. There are ample hikes for all abilities around the property and bikes you can borrow for exploring.
My kids are all about embracing the little things, so for them even simple details like the small creek that ambles through the property and the pond where my son could hunt for bugs were big wins. There are numerous classes and activities during the day, such as “crack the geode,” learning about animals, trivia, and bingo. In the evenings, the firepits are lit up for cooking s’mores. You won’t get bored.
Another unique family-friendly feature I have yet to see at another hotel or resort is family use of the spa facilities, available from 8 to 11 a.m. daily (free for kids under 5, $40 for kids 5–12, and spa day use is $60 for adults). I could totally see embracing this when my kids are a little less crazy, er, I mean older. The recently overhauled indoor/outdoor spa is also a dreamy escape for tired parents looking to relax on their own. I have my eye on the warm river rock beds for our next visit.
Rush Creek puts a strong focus on wellness and adults looking for more ways to shed their stress can also sign up for yoga classes led on a hillside platform among the trees and what the property calls “boga” classes, a combination of yoga, pilates, and strength training that take place on standup paddleboards in the pool—I witnessed a “boga” class and the participants looked like they were truly having a great time. Both are $30 per person.
Rush Creek’s original sister property, Evergreen, is no less enticing. The 100-year-old lodge has more of an old-school summer camp vibe complete with 88 individual cabins dispersed across the 20-acre property and a more woodsy landscape. It, too, features an all-important heated pool, an outdoor playground, ample hands-on crafts and activities, and is a hit with Team AFAR.
“They care about kids: They had a stool in the bathroom, they had s’mores, they had ranger books, they had a kids’ menu, and they had places to play. What could be better for kids?” said six-year-old Willa, daughter of AFAR editor in chief Julia Cosgrove, after a recent stay in summer 2021. Like my kids, Willa was also a big fan of the pool there.
Both properties are also well set up for gatherings with scenic and charming venues (such as ceremony sites among the trees) for weddings and reunions.
Another thing we loved about Rush Creek and Evergreen—and that made us feel truly great about our stay—were the properties’ commitment to the environment. For instance, both lodges are reusing 100 percent of their gray water through innovations such as irrigation systems supplied by guests’ shower water. Imagine taking a shower and seeing that water go directly into the landscaping around your accommodations. It’s a sight to behold and was so inspiring my husband and I started talking about what it would take to implement something like that in our own home.
Book Rush Creek: From $285 per night, expedia.com
Book Evergreen: From $210 per night, expedia.com
The best time to go to Yosemite
While spring (for the lush waterfalls) and summer (for the ample sunshine) get all the attention, Yosemite can be utterly charming in fall (with pretty leaves and fewer crowds) and early winter (hello, gorgeous snowy landscapes and even fewer crowds). Rush Creek and Evergreen both offer holiday programming, including Thanksgiving dinner and special Christmas and New Year packages and events.
Yosemite reservations and COVID precautions
Yosemite National Park was requiring reservations for entering the park between May 21 and September 30, 2021, but that requirement has concluded for the year and if it’s brought back in 2022, it will likely not start before spring.
Rush Creek and Evergreen naturally lend themselves to physical distancing with well-spaced cabins, villas, suites, and guest rooms and a focus on the outdoors. There are outdoor dining options for those who don’t feel comfortable eating inside.
During our September 2021 stay, unvaccinated guests were being asked to wear masks in common areas, and there was about a 50/50 mix of guests and staff who were wearing masks and those who weren’t.
Other family-friendly Yosemite accommodations
Whether you’re looking for a specific location within or near Yosemite or simply want more options, here are a couple other Yosemite properties that are welcoming to families.
In 2019, Tenaya Lodge became a particularly attractive option for families when it unveiled the Explorer Cabins at Tenaya Lodge, 50 two-bedroom cabins for larger groups of up to six people traveling together. The cabins include a living room with sleeper sofa and fireplace, a partial kitchen (with a fridge, microwave, and sink), and a private deck. Some have bunk beds, and some are pet-friendly as well.
The cabins are about a half-mile from the main Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, a 353-room property near Yosemite’s South Gate. Those staying in the Explorer Cabin complex have access to the main lodge (and its restaurant, spa facilities, and both outdoor and indoor pools—the latter being clutch for colder weather) as well as to the Explorer Clubhouse, a common space with grab-and-go breakfast and evening wine and charcuterie. Explorer cabins start at $719 per night and include daily breakfast and the evening wine reception.
Book now: From $160 per night, expedia.com
While technically not a lodge, we wanted to include this property because it is unique—not quite a campground, not quite a hotel. There are few things kids like more than something a little quirky or out of the ordinary, which is why they are likely to enjoy staying in an Airstream camper or a cozy cabin at the playful and design-forward AutoCamp Yosemite, a collection of Airstreams, cabins, and glamping tents. The property has a central clubhouse where guests can get some grub or stock up on supplies for cooking at their own elevated campsite, and there is also a heated pool. AutoCamp is about a one-hour drive to Yosemite Valley.
Book now: From $189 per night, expedia.com