It has no rides or computertronics but Yosemite National Park has got plenty more to entertain kids.
Parents can easily be seduced by the commercial saturation of Disneyland and the smoke and mirrors of Universal Studios when plotting a Californian holiday. The two entertainment giants have cornered the Australian tourism market for parents of young children with the magic of movies and talking animals to act as a Pied Piper.
Yet there’s a far bigger attraction, all natural too, in California. It does not rely on computertronics, illusions and a rodent for promotion. Covering more than 3000 square kilometres, the greenery and scenery of Yosemite National Park rolls on and on, and visiting the area should be on every parent’s list of things to do with their children.
Spotting a black bear is a possibility, but be mindful when driving as more than a dozen bears were hit by a vehicle within the park perimeter last year. There are also deer, pygmy owls, pika and multitudes of birds to spot.
Unlike the theme parks in southern California, Yosemite National Park is not a day trip – it’s a vacation that needs some planning.
“I market our destination against the theme parks, not against other national parks,” says Yosemite National Park and Mariposa County tourism director, Jeffrey Hentz. “Families are getting more interested to bring kids and expose them to the original theme parks of the world, like Yosemite.”
The strategy appears to be working as visitors to Yosemite National Park are in excess of 75,000 a week. Many of those are of school age which is why the park aims to educate once-in-a-lifetime visitors as well as it caters for nature walkers, wildlife spotters (watch out for those bears) and for romantic weekends away.
Entrance fees are $US20 per car or $US10 per person if arriving on foot, horse, bike or motor bike. Entrance fees are waived on certain public holidays but they are also some of the busiest times.
Getting to Yosemite, especially for the Australian tourist who wants to hit the ground running from Los Angeles International Airport, is at least a day trip. An overnight stop is best and one place to stretch your legs or stopover is Bakersfield. The sleepy hollow is about two and half hours drive north of LA and will give you a taste of non-city life better than most. Even on the Monday night we arrived a karaoke bar was in full cry at midnight and an Aussie accent helped us to the front of the “queue”.
A night at the Padre Hotel, which was saved from ruin in 2010 with a stylish $20million renovation, offers 3.5 star accommodation at very reasonable rates. It’s another four hours’ drive to Yosemite National Park, which is situated within Mariposa County. Like LA, there’s no shortage of places to stay and there’s accommodation to suit every budget. Tenaya Lodge, which has a native American feel, is buried under pine trees – a movie-set retreat at the higher end of the budget, although mid-week stays are relatively cheaper. Deluxe rooms cost from $US129. During winter it even has a covered ice-skating rink and is the gateway for skiing trips.
On the return to LA, a stop in Mariposa itself is a must. Stopping is not something you would do often in Mariposa as there are no traffic lights in town. At the California State Mining and Mineral Museum effervescent tour guide Randy Bolt (that’s not a stage name either) provides visitors with a laugh or two.
The unassuming museum, located within a sports ground, houses the Fricot Nugget, the largest remaining intact mass of crystalline gold from 19th century California. Bolt was not too worried about it being stolen. “Mariposa is really low on crime. If the alarm went off here, there would be off-duty police coming from everywhere just to get involved in a crime,” he says.
Crime may be low in Mariposa, but the number of things to do are high!