After our five days in Lake Tahoe, we drove four hours South to Yosemite. That’s where we spent the remainder of our Spring Break. I feel the need to tell you that we picked Yosemite because a few people mentioned it on Instagram when I was raving about Big Sur last year. Basically saying, if you think Big Sur is beautiful, you have to see Yosemite— the most magical place in the whole state of California! Or something like that. We knew we were going to Lake Tahoe to visit my stepbrother and then looked at a map to see what was in driving distance. I spotted Yosemite and was like, “That’s it! That’s our place!” I’m not sure I ever told Mike it was based on an Instagram recommendation. Shhh.
Mike did the research for accommodations and discovered a new(ish) hotel called the Rush Creek Lodge. It’s located right outside the park in Tuolumne. The second we pulled up into the Rush Creek Lodge, I knew I was going to love it. And honestly, it just got better and better the more we explored. Since we were partnering with Visit California on this trip, they helped us get a few of the nights in a villa on the property for free.
Each villa has a main bedroom/living area, a balcony and a second bedroom with two twin beds— perfect to put the kids in and then close the door when they go to sleep.
Our balcony is pictured below. We were in Villa 1, which I highly recommend, because of it’s close proximity to the rest of the hotel and also because we had an excellent view of the sunset.
Regular rooms are pictured in the building behind Harlow below.
Once you walk through the reception area, it lets you out into the backyard, where you are greeted with this round wooden structure. We learned later that at the right time of day, you can see the sunset right inside that circle.
Behind the wooden circle is a fire pit, where they have all the ingredients for you to make free s’mores every night from 6pm-8pm. They even have two pronged marshmallow skewers so you can properly melt your chocolate right in between.
I think this might be Mazzy and Harlow’s favorite selling point of the whole trip.
In back of the fire pit are two hot tubs and a large heated pool. You can also see the sunset from that hot tub, which is a treat.
Behind the pool is where it gets really exciting. They had an awesome playground with a huge chess board, a really long slide, cool swings, and a larger than life connect four board.
Best of all? They had ZIP LINES.
Not the zip lines where you hang on for dear life with your hands, but zip lines where you sit on a big ball as you swing across the expanse of the yard. There were three zip lines— a mini one and two bigger ones, so Mazzy and Harlow could do on at once. Mike and I took turns too. It was FANTASTIC.
On the other side of the pool was a big barn shaped building that contained the restaurant, the bar, a library and a rec room.
The rec room had toys for little kids and a climbing space for bigger kids, along with air hockey, pool, foosball, shuffle board, and an old school wooden pinball machine.
Just outside on the deck, there was darts and ping pong. This was awesome for many reasons.
1) If it rained, there was plenty to do inside.
2) After you ordered from the restaurant, the kids could play in the rec room while the adults sit at the table and relax with a glass of wine.
3) After dinner, there were many families sitting around tables in the library room playing various board games from their rather large selection.
I should also mention that the rooms have WiFi but no television, which was initially disappointing for the girls, because one of the perks of hotel living for them is watching the TV from their bed. But, with everything they had to do at Rush Creek Lodge, Mazzy and Harlow got over the loss really quick. Plus, I loved that I read to them at bedtime just like at home instead of everyone passing out to the Disney Channel.
The Rush Creek Lodge is just three years old, but they have a sister lodge in the park called the Evergreen Lodge, that’s been there for over 25 years, so they know the area and know what they are doing. They had daily activities like guided hikes, crafts for the kids, pre-dinner yoga and star gazing once it got dark. The whole place had a rustic modern vibe and I would recommend it to pretty much everybody, whether you are more comfortable in a luxury hotel or a more rustic setting.
Okay. Now that I’ve extolled all the virtues of the lodge, let’s move on to Yosemite National Park. I’m not sure you should follow our itinerary day by day, because it was largely influenced by the weather. The first day it was raining (and snowing heavily once we got to higher elevations in the park) so we did way less than one could accomplish on a normal day. We also had zero visibility, so we didn’t really see any of the sights until the following day when we drove through the park again.
This is what the road looked like when we drove into the park. Pretty insane considering it wasn’t even snowing just ten minutes back at the hotel.
Once we went got down into the valley, the snow disappeared and we were in fog and rain again. We did an easy hike up to Bridal Veil Fall that first day and you can see by our outfits that it was pretty wet and cold.
Still, the waterfall was beautiful, and in the end, I wasn’t sure where the rain stopped and the waterfall spray began.
After walking in the rain, we headed to Degnan’s Kitchen for lunch. Degnan’s is in a big beautiful space in the middle of the park, and since we were there off-season, it was pretty empty, so we got prime seating.
In general, I found the facilities in the park to be surprisingly modern and well designed. Everything seemed very well thought out and like it had been recently built.
After lunch, we went to the Yosemite museum, saw a movie about the park and wandered around the general store. Again, it was pretty rainy so it didn’t seem to make sense to hike to things when the rocks would be slippery and we wouldn’t be able to get such a great view.
I should also mention that before we left for California, I was really worried about the off season thing. A few things in the park were closed and the weather report was chilly and unpredictable. The upside was that there were way less crowds than normal. Also, even though the forecast was for rain every day of our trip, it miraculously cleared up by our second day. We woke up and it was sunny, crisp, and beautiful. Phew.
We decided to hike through a sequoia forest, the two most famous being the Tuolumne Grove and the Mariposa Grove. We picked Tuolumne since it was a lot closer. We selected a lot of our hikes based on what Harlow could handle. For instance, the hotel offered a bunch of organized hikes, but minimum age was eight, so we were on our own in a car every time we went into the park. Most of the major sites do not require that much hiking unless you did so by choice.
Tuolumne Grove was probably about a two mile hike down a hill, through the woods and then back up, but since it was covered in several feet of snow, the whole thing took close to three hours from start to finish. The kids loved every second of it though, and I think the hike was especially fun because of all the snow.
Do you like Mountain Mike? Everyone on Instagram kept telling me that with his beard, he looks like Bradley Cooper. Sometimes I see it, most times I don’t.
There are a few sequoias on this trail that are real showstoppers, like this sequoia trunk with a tunnel carved into it. I’ve seen pictures without the snow and the roots are pretty spectacular.
The other really fun sequoia was a fallen tree that you could literally crawl inside the trunk and then crawl all the way through to the other side.
Kind of freaky but we witnessed another family do it first so we felt safe. All throughout the hike, Mazzy and Harlow were throwing snowballs at each other and at us, because the weather in Yosemite made for perfectly packable snow.
Out East, we always get snow and then it melts or turns to ice the next day, so it was great to be in an environment with soft snow piled high, especially since the weather got pretty warm. By the end of the hike, the kids took off their jackets and tied them around their waist. Just kidding, they made me carry them.
The whole trek was pretty glorious.
That afternoon, we drove to Hetch Hetchy which is a reservoir with a dam on one side that leads to the Tuolumne River.
You can walk across the dam and through a tunnel that leads you out to a trail around the reservoir.
When you come out the other side you can hike around the reservoir, where there are tons of rocks to climb, beautiful trees and several waterfalls along the way.
Harlow took the photo below. One shot and she handed my phone back to me with this cocky look on her face. “Got it,” she said and walked off.
The weather was gorgeous and although it was only a half hour drive from the grove, there was no snow whatsoever and it felt like we were in a totally different climate. I don’t know if it was the natural lighting, the mountain air or the perfect sweater weather, but don’t we look so at home here? Also, Mike forced me to buy hiking boots at a Dick’s Sporting Goods on our drive up to Yosemite, and I actually started to like them. He’s been trying to get me to buy hiking boot since we met eleven years ago.
Believe it or not, below is our first family selfie. Instigated by Mike, taken by Mazzy. It’s such a relief having other photographers in the family now!!! Also, I think this photo totally reflects how happy we were on this day, and on this whole vacation in general. We ended up having four beautiful days of hiking and waterfalls and I would highly recommend the off-season experience.
I also would like to add a note about Mazzy’s hat. She purchased this spray painted wolf trucker hat at the Yosemite gift shop. During the trip, she wore it constantly and unironically. She also thinks I hate it. I don’t hate it. I just think it’s going to be one of those things that in 15 years she’s gonna be like, Mom! How did you let me walk around in that thing???? My answer will be, It was your choice and I chose to let you be who you wanted to be. Or maybe I’m wrong and Mazzy will always think a wolf trucker hat is the coolest thing ever. Maybe I’m wrong and it IS the coolest thing ever. Who knows?
On our way back from Hetch Hetchy, we stopped at the Evergreen Lodge for dinner. That’s the sister lodge to Rush Creek that I mentioned earlier. It’s smaller and more cabin-like, but equally well thought-out from a design perspective.
Basically, if you were to do a search on Pinterest for the quintessential cabin accommodations, I bet Evergreen Lodge would pop up. There was also a playground in the back (although not quite as adventurous as the one at Rush Creek) and a rec room with toys, games, pool, ping pong, etc.
Dinner at Evergreen was fantastic. The restaurant is in a log cabin bar with a big corner fireplace.
I had the homemade gnocchi and it was my favorite meal by far on the trip. There was nothing “small cabin” about it.
We got back to Rush Creek just in time for sunset, s’mores, and late night ping pong.
The next day we drove into the Yosemite Valley again and had our biggest day of hiking. First up, was Tunnel View, which is the view that Yosemite is best known for. It’s called Tunnel View because if you are heading into the park from Wawona, it’s the view that slaps you in the face when you come out of a long dark tunnel through the mountain. Since we were coming from Tuolumne, which was the opposite direction, I didn’t understand why it was called Tunnel View until the following day.
Tunnel View consists of three main Yosemite sites in one gorgeous landscape— El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridal Veil Fall. Mazzy kept saying that Yosemite looks like a desktop screensaver which is VERY ACCURATE. Also, I’m so glad the weather cleared up so we could see it! I still can’t believe my kids and the weather cooperated on the same day. Look at the photo below! Everyone is smiling. Even Mike!
We did a little bit of hiking around that area and then hopped back in the car to hike more in the valley.
In the photo above, the large flat rock that they’re standing on is much steeper than it looks. Climbing up there was a big mistake. Each one of us ended up slipping and sliding down the surface of the rock at one point. Thankfully, nobody got hurt!
I’m honestly not sure where we pulled over next, but there was a stream with rocks to jump, a walking bridge and a huge log for the kids to balance on, all with El Capitan in the background. We also saw a family of deer and a coyote. Pretty much anywhere you go in Yosemite, you can pull over and take a hike.
After that, we went to the Majestic for lunch. The Majestic is this huge fancy hotel in the middle of Yosemite Valley that has been there forever, although under a different name. Fun fact! It is the inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in the Shining. Apparently, Stanley Kubrick had sets built that were almost identical. You can see why as soon as you walk in. It is a very austere looking place.
And there is nothing grander than the main dining room, where we had lunch. Windows stretched two stories tall and everything was VERY FANCY.
The food was fine, but the setting is really not to be missed.
After lunch, we went into the backyard of the Majestic, where it was pretty stunning to see the hotel against the mountain backdrop.
There were tons of trees and forest area to explore back there. We ended up on the side of a beautiful stream by a stone bridge.
Next, we headed over to another area in the valley for a hike up to Yosemite Falls. This one was tons of fun, surrounded by trees with cool paths around rocks and logs to climb over.
The hike ended at the falls, which were spectacular.
I was just going to settle for a photo in front of the falls, but then Mazzy wanted to climb up the rocks a bit, which we saw a lot of other people doing. I followed her and then Mike and Harlow followed us. It was a fun and easy climb. Mazzy is a very competent climber but I still have minor heart attacks every time I trust her to go higher.
My favorite moment was when Mazzy found another purpose for her hat!
She actually got this idea from an older Japanese woman who was posing for a pic while pretending to catch Yosemite Falls in her purse. She must have been about 75 and climbed pretty high in the rocks to get that shot! All I could think was— I bet that woman has the best Instagram account.
Also, I posted the picture below on my Instagram story with a joke saying that we bumped into Bradley Cooper there and about five people direct messaged me without realizing it was a joke and said— “OH MY GOD! That’s so cool!”
After the trip up the falls, it seemed like the perfect time to head back to the hotel. That’s what was so great about Rush Creek— the kids were always excited to go back to the lodge because they wanted to have time on the zip lines, in the pool and in the rec room. We piled back into the car and turned on some music.
We spent a lot more time in the car on this trip than usual, and while driving in the park, there is no cell or radio reception so we couldn’t use Spotify or Pandora. Instead, we were stuck listening to a handful of random songs that happened to be downloaded on Mike’s phone from about ten years ago. One of them was Rockstar by Nickelback.
Having absolutely no frame of reference for how Nickelback is universally mocked on the internet, the second time it came on, Mazzy and Harlow spent the entire song making fun of the lyrics and relentlessly trashing the lead singer. First Harlow said, “What is this guy even talking about? Not everyone wants to be a rockstar. I want to be a baker!” Then she added, “And what kind of person wants to play baseball in their bathroom?” After the second chorus… “He sounds like he’s riding on a horse playing a guitar without his shirt on.” And then, “Fifteen cars! That’s so wasteful!!!” And, “Why is he taking a dictionary to a private room? Is that the bathroom???” The best was Mazzy at the end, “Mom? Dad? Is he supposed to be bad at music?” I don’t know, kids. Your parents don’t have the answers to everything.
That night, we went in the pool and relaxed in the hot tub until the sunset.
Then, miraculously, we showered and changed in time for dinner, where Mike and I ordered wine, while the kids searched for a board game for us to play during dinner. We had only one full day left. We had been so nervous about the rain and the snow before we came to Yosemite, and honestly, besides the first day, we could not have asked for better weather. I think being there on the off season really made it into that much more special of a trip. There were no crowds to block the view and it was much easier to hike with a cool breeze.
Miraculously, we finished dinner with enough time to get S’mores. The kids loved the entire trip but I think they will miss the free s’mores most of all.
They even learned that you absolutely do not need a TV on vacation. I’m not saying we had no screen time. I mean we had WiFi and iPads, but it was way less. And the one night we spent back in the room, they actually made a movie with their iPad instead of watching one. TEAM NO TV!
One the last day, we decided that we would take it pretty easy. We hung out at the lodge for most of the morning and then drove into Yosemite Valley to have lunch at the main base camp in their food court. Then we walked around a bit and decided to drive toward Wawona, so we could turn around and drive back to get the real Tunnel View experience. It was quite a sight.
We hopped out to take one last photo and there happened to be a team of wedding planners setting up for a shoot. It was just styling so there was no bride and groom. Harlow encouraged us to go over and ask what they were doing and then, you know me— I can’t resist a photo op!
In an alternate reality, I got married to Bradley Cooper in a small ceremony in Yosemite over Spring Break. Weather was perfect. The setting was beautiful. Mazzy and Harlow made appropriate “ewwww” noises when we kissed. THE END.
On the last day, it was raining and we drove to the airport, so nothing exciting to report, but the trip in general really exceeded my expectations. I do not think of myself as an outdoorsy person but my family had so much fun that I’m now looking up all different National Parks to see what I want to hit up next. As far as whether you should visit Yosemite off-season or not, I can’t really say, because going in March was our only experience. I think being at the park without that many people around made the experience feel very special. It also probably helped a lot that we never had to wait on lines at any of the restaurants or food courts in the park. But maybe, the park is that much more beautiful in the summer, with bigger faster waterfalls and bluer skies. There are also additional activities like white water rafting and horseback riding to consider. But ultimately, we were very happy with the timing of our trip. Hikes in sweater weather beats a sweaty tank top and shorts any day.
You can read all about our five days in Lake Tahoe here.
Thank you to Visit California for helping us organize our Spring Break vacation. We were going anyway so it was such an added bonus to be able to promote the great state of California while we were there! You can also check out my family itineraries for Monterey, LA and San Diego.