With deep valleys, glacial lakes and a network of trails through ancient sequoias, Yosemite was on my wish list long before children. However, it wasn’t until my second son arrived that we actually got there.
My first attempt (a route 101 road-trip with our 1-year-old) was thwarted by Hantavirus, a dangerous mouse-borne virus in the park. We diverted last-minute to Lake Tahoe, a tortuous drive into the wilderness, only to arrive at a town with a casino and privately owned lakefront.
Two years later, on a home-exchange in San Francisco, my husband and I decide to give it another go. We load Dylan (7 months) and Brenin (3) into our host family’s people-carrier and embark on a four-hour drive east.
As the last echo of Pixar’s Cars dies away in the back seat, and the boys finally nod off, we arrive at Yosemite, stopping to admire El Capitan, a sheer, commanding pinnacle that seems to have burst out of nowhere. There is no pre-amble; no gentle foothills, low-hanging clouds or a snake of hikers in red jackets; just a great big mountain to tell us we’ve arrived at our destination.
Yosemite is so pristine it looks like it could have been designed in CAD, which is probably why our kids fall in love with it – it is a landscape they are already familiar with from the fairytales we’ve read them at bedtime.
The park is 1,200 square miles of mountainous terrain, and receives over 4 million visitors per year, but remarkably it doesn’t feel crowded. We have to leave our car at the campsite and explore on foot or by free shuttle bus. With plenty of activities, budget accommodation and a few good eateries, Yosemite has everything we could wish for during a four-day break.
We stay at Housekeeping Camp, a collection of tented huts by the river, each with a barbecue pit and bunk beds. The beds are comfy but the floor is concrete so a bit of a challenge for the travel cot (which we have to pad out with clothing) and a toddler prone to falling out of bed!
Our days are spent attempting hikes and splashing in the river. We are surrounded by forests and mountains, but still find ourselves re-enacting scenarios from home. Brenin’s play-date at Mirror Lake goes rapidly downhill when he mistakenly takes an Oreo from a boy who was merely showing it to him. Later in the day, a hike to Lower Yosemite Falls ends in a tantrum when he declares his legs too tired to walk and wants to watch Cbeebies. Eventually we let him cry it out on what is, arguably, the most beautiful ‘thinking spot’ in the world.
Relieved to finally get back to the bus-stop, the officious bus driver then makes us fold away the buggy, which means waking Dylan. As Brenin’s tantrum subsides, Dylan’s begins and we looked helplessly at the other passengers, giving anything to swap with them just for a day.
Back at Housekeeping Camp, the boys relax and our frayed tempers melt with cold beers from the American family next door. As we discuss the intricacies of bedtime, they plan their ascent of Half Dome.
“We hope we won’t wake you when we get up at 6am” they say apologetically. We don’t have the heart to tell them that it will be our kids waking them up.
As dusk falls we head to Curry Village and the boys fall asleep in the double-buggy. We can’t believe our luck. Better parents might wake them to feed them. Not us. We sit on the wooden deck eating pizza and marvelling at the stars while all around us other visitors to this amazing place embellish stories of heroic ascents and death-defying climbs. We toast the kilometre we walked with the boys, the fact that Dylan has eaten solids, and Brenin has skinny-dipped in the river. It is still the natural paradise we’d imagined on our bucket list… just a different kind.
If there is one thing that this trip has taught us, it is that you shouldn’t go to Yosemite with infants intending to do the stuff you used to do, even if you do have a fancy baby carrier! Lowering expectations raises spirits, and just being in the beautiful park is enough.