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Yosemite has to be one of the most scenic National Parks in the USA. With sheer white granite rocks, beautiful alpine lakes and far-reaching views, it is a photographer’s dream. We have selected some of our favourite views to give a taste of what awaits you in one the USA's oldest National Parks.
Tunnel View, on the main approch road into the valley. Early park authorities constructed a tunnel that ended at this viewpoint just to give it an extra wow factor. You can see the half dome in the distance, and the contrast of pine forest against the white rock is very stunning.
Located in central California, Yosemite National Park is a breath-takingly beautiful place with vast sheer granite cliffs, lush green meadows and fast flowing waterfalls. Established as a national park in 1864, it has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1984. Most of its tourism is focussed on the main valley, however the park actually stretches over 1,200 miles. With views to rival the Grand Canyon and a huge amount of ‘must do’s’ in the guidebooks, it can be a little bewildering to know where to start, especially when you are visiting as a family. Children have only so much tolerance for views and sight seeing in National Parks, especially when they are constantly in and out of cars, so based on travel with our own children, we have put together our highlights which combine a mixture of views and activities.
Even the most cynical of kids can’t fail to be amazed by the views at Yosemite. The key is not to drag them round to each and every view point, but pick out the very best. If you are going to one and only one, then Glacier Point offers fantastic views of the valley and the iconic Half Dome. During peak seasons, there is usually a ranger there with a telescope through which you can see climbers on the rock. We suggest you beat the crowds and go early, take a picnic with you and enjoy your breakfast with a spectacular view.
Whilst exploring under your own steam can be a lot of fun, we do recommend a day with a guide who can take you off the beaten track and away from the hordes of other visitors. There are some lovely day hikes that you can do, from the Panorama Trail offering stunning views of the valley, or a hike up to one of the many waterfalls in the park. Your guide is very knowledgeable about the geology and history of the area and will go to great efforts to make sure that everyone in the family is involved and enthused about the area.
The floor of the valley is flat and with a excellent network of bike paths, it is an excellent place to hire bikes and explore on two wheels. We recommend this activity later in the day, when the crowds have gone and it is a bit cooler. Passing over rivers and through meadows and forest you are surrounded by the huge rock formations which can give you an amazing sense of the sheer scale of the place.
If you are visiting in the summer months, then Yosemite valley can get very hot. With much of the day spent in the car driving between view points, a swim can be very welcome and fortunately there are plenty of opportunities in the valley. River beaches are marked on the map given to you when you first enter Yosemite and parking is easy. The water is surprisingly warm and views are second to none, so make sure that you always have towels and costumes in the car when you head out.
In the south of Yosemite you can view some of the largest and oldest trees in the world. The largest of the Giant Sequoias is the Grizzly Giant. Estimated to be over 2,000 years, this tree is over 64 metres tall. Another draw is the California Tunnel Tree, which you can walk through. There are several walking options in the Grove. We suggest visiting early to make sure you get a parking space and to beat the crowds.
If you are one of those people who is truly allergic to other people, then you might want to consider our wilderness trek in the Ansel Adams Wilderness area. Hiking 6 miles into the wild, you will set up a base camp by an alpine lake where you can swim and relax, far far away from anyone else. Your guide will take you on day walks from your camp, scrambling up peaks or to other lakes in the area, but the focus of the trip is really about getting back to nature and away from modern life. Your bags and camping equipment are all transported by mules, so you just have to hike in with your day gear.
One of our favourite days on our trip to California was when we rented bikes to cycle the Golden Gate Bridge. With amazing views of the Bridge and also the city, the ride has a few hills, but nothing that young legs can’t handle. In fact the children absolutely loved having the chance to be active and do something a little different. Bikes of various sizes are available, for adults and children. Younger children can ride in seats, tagalong bikes or trailers. More active families can ride all the way to Sausalito, where it is possible to return to San Francisco by ferry. Those with less energy can ride to the bridge and back.
The resident sea lions at Pier 39 are something of a San Francisco institution. The Fishermans Wharf area is brimming with buskers and artists and whilst it is a little touristy, many people enjoy wandering along until pier 39 to get a glimpse of the sea lions basking in the afternoon sun and to listen to them barking. Pier 39 itself is full of touristy shops, there is even a shop dedicated to people who are left handed!
Possibly one of the most iconic means of transport in California, if not the world, the cable way is one of the must do attractions in San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, this is a popular (and expensive) way of getting around town, so queues are busy and prices high. We suggest getting up early to ensure you don’t have to wait too long.
Viewing San Francisco from the water is a real treat for adults and children alike and there are plenty of ferry companies to choose from. We recommend a later afternoon cruise so that you can watch the sun setting over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Older children may enjoy a visit to Alcatraz Island, the world-famous prison where Al Capone was famously incarcerated. Audio tours are available, as are guided tours with park rangers. To get there, you need to catch a ferry from Pier 31. In the summer months, it is highly recommended that you book in advance.
I’m not really a horse rider, I’ve done a bit of pony trekking in my time, but nothing hugely significant. My daughter Milly, however, like many 7 year olds, fancies herself as something of a future equestrian so when we were offered the chance of trying out some horse riding on our recent trip to South Africa, we jumped at the chance.
After a rather eventful car journey (think pot holes, untarred roads and I will leave the rest to your imagination) we arrived at Ant’s Hill in the Waterberg Mountains north of Johannesburg. We arrived just in time to go for a sun-downer, so our guide grabbed some blankets and whisked us off for a short game drive to a view point to watch the sun setting whilst sipping one of the best gin and tonics of my life. As I sat back and chatted to our guide, my daughter was absolutely transfixed watching a snake like procession of caterpillars on the pathway.
Because Ant’s Hill is primarily a riding destination, there are no predators on site, but an array of over 40 species of animals including giraffe, rhino, buffalo many species of antelope in addition, of course, to the many birds and insects. And this is actually a positive. When you’re in Big Five territory, it is easy to ignore the smaller things, but actually they are just as fascinating.
Over dinner we discussed riding abilities around the table with the other guests. This was what I had been most nervous about. I had had a lesson at home before I left, when my instructor told me he had never seen anyone with quite as little talent for trotting as me (he added that if it was any comfort to me, my daughter was a natural. It wasn’t a help) I nervously admitted to my complete lack of horse riding talent and was immediately put at ease. The guests ranged from very experienced riders to complete beginners and we were divided up accordingly. Milly and I were teamed up with another family and straight after breakfast the next day, we were off. They have 90 Horses on the farm and we were all paired with horses to match us. The other members of the group went for a canter and we walked off at a more sedate pace. Within minutes we had spotted some giraffes grazing amongst the trees and all of the nerves dissipated. We rode on for about 2 hours, spotting rhino, antelope and yet more giraffe along the way. And I was hooked. Arriving back at our accommodation later on, we had lunch and then some time to lounge around the heated pool before retiring to read books from the terrace by our own private pool.
Even now several months later, Milly still remembers the horse riding as one of the highlights of her trip to South Africa. And surprisingly, so do I. After having done many game drives in a Land Rover, it was like a breath of fresh air being in the great outdoors, with no noises apart from the wildlife around us. Ours was only a very brief stay, but I am convinced that if I had been able to stay there for a few days, they might even have coaxed some sort of horsemanship out of me. As for Milly, a pony now features very high on her Christmas list!
The key to the perfect Family safari in Africa is balancing the needs of everyone in the family. Some children can sit for hours in a game drive vehicle day after day, watching game and getting excited about every single animal. Other children will start to get bored and restless after a couple of game drives. We have one of each type, so know how hard it can be. Rather than making the holiday of your life time into an ordeal, here are a few recommendations to help you plan your holiday.
By paying extra, you can often have a ranger and game drive vehicle just for your family. This has the benefit that you can go at your own pace and that you don’t feel self-conscious exposing your children to other clients. It also means that the guide’s focus is on pacing the safari for your family, rather than needing to please all of the people in the vehicle.
Some lodges opt for communal dining, others have a more formal approach with rigid dinner times. Some lodges have lounge areas close to the dining room, or even children’s lounges where your children can go and relax whilst you are lingering over a glass of wine and chatting to your fellow guests. If you prefer privacy, then you might prefer to choose somewhere where you can arrange private dining just for your family.
Some lodges have swimming pools, which can be a real bonus for the more active children. For the most part, however, these are not heated, so be aware that if you are travelling to South Africa in their winter, then the pools will be very cold.
When choosing your lodge, it is also worth considering how your child (ren) behaves. If they are naturally quite loud and active then you might want to choose a larger lodge with a good array of children’s activities. If you have older children who are very happy to relax with a book in-between game drives, then you can happily opt for a lodge that is smaller and quieter.
Sleeping arrangements are also crucial and, again, completely dependent on the age of your children. With teenagers, you probably want separate rooms / tents and privacy. Families with younger children will almost certainly all want to share.
Between us, we have visited a large range of lodges across Africa and are very happy to take the time to find the perfect place for you to stay.
The schedule of your stay at a lodge is fairly regimented with early starts and late nights. You tend to have two game drives a day and each one will be around 3 hours long. After a few days of sitting quietly, many children (and adults) will be wanting to be more active, so we recommend combining your safari with something a little different. We have tried and tested all of the below with our 7 year old who was born with lots of energy to burn off, so can confidently say that each one ticks the box for an active adventure which both children and their parents can enjoy.
If you like horse riding, then you could spend a few days at a horse riding safari centre in the Waterberg area north of Johannesburg. With over 90 horses, there is a horse to match you and you will be taken out for rides according to your ability. Non-riders can have lessons, or if you prefer to stay on the ground, then there are walking options and game drives instead.
If you are a family who likes nature and walking and are going to South Africa, then we suggest our Blyde Canyon experience where you spend a few days with a guide exploring the world’s 3rd largest canyon. Your local guide takes you well off the beaten track to hidden view points, undiscovered caves and swimming holes. The more active and adventurous you are, the more you will get out of it. An absolute highlight.
If you want something completely different and wild, then we suggest that you go and stay at Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya where you can combine adventure walks, swim, raft and fish in the river and scramble and climb on nearby outcrops. The owners have three of their own children on camp and will suggest a programme designed to suit you.
If you like a mix of culture and activities, then you should consider combining your family safari with a visit to Cape Town. Our signature Cape Town experience includes a cycle tour of the V&A Waterfront, guided Table Mountain hike and township experience.
If you want to properly kick back and relax after your safari, then the beach is going to be your best option. Depending on the time of year of your visit and where you go on safari, we have some fabulous options in South Africa, Zanzibar, Mauritus, Malawi and Kenya.