Toddlers and National Parks
June 10, 2019 7:38 PM   Subscribe

With a 1.5yr old, would you vacation to Redwoods National Park, Yosemite, or Lassen Volcanic Park?

We’re debating a trip flying from East Coast to San Francisco and then doing a road trip to one or two of the national parks in Sept/Oct. I think Lassen looks really interesting, so maybe doing that one with one of the other parks.

Is this crazy to do with a toddler? Should I be thinking of something else? She’s pretty good in cars, having done a 2 hour drive before. We have a hiking pack that she’s done well in for a 5 mile hike so far.
posted by inevitability to Travel & Transportation around California (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
this crazy to do with a toddler?
Not exactly crazy but what’s the rush? Will be much more fun and rewarding to do a trip like this next year imo, ymmv.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:53 PM on June 10, 2019

I would not do this.

I have done multiple 1400-1600 mile road trips with a toddler by myself, but that's because that's the only way that I (and my daughter) can realistically visit my family, who are scattered throughout the great lakes region. This also means that we have multiple houses stocked with grandparents and cousins along the way to stop at.

Something that I kept having to remind my family when I lived out there is that California is BIG, and there are mountains in the way of things. Lassen and Redwoods 5-6 hours of drive time with no traffic. Yosemite is slightly closer. To do Lassen and Yosemite from SFO is 14 hours of highly optimistic butts-in-seats time. If you did Avenue of the Giants, it would be like 12.5. Redwood national park would be more like 14 or 15. Both of those assume you take the 101 freeway all the way south- if you take the far more scenic but far slower highway one, it will take longer. You will be stopping regularly for diaper changes, snacks, playgrounds, meals, meltdowns, etc etc etc. I was flying solo, but I generally budgeted 45-60 minutes in the car, and then 20-30 minutes not in the car. You are also hoping that you won't have to deal with some kind of poopsplosion.

If I were you, I would do Lassen another time, and instead explore the areas closer to the Bay Area. Big Basin Redwoods are really cool (and far less crowded than Muir woods), the Cal Academy Coral Reefs are fantastic for toddlers, you can head up to Point Reyes and hike along the coast, or stick even closer with the Marin Headlands and Angel Island, which are also beautiful

Do the big parks with the big drives in a couple years.
posted by rockindata at 8:26 PM on June 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

Muir Woods is close to SF and has a nice "boardwalk" that is stroller accessible. However, watch out for the parking situation.
posted by oceano at 8:32 PM on June 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I live in the bay area and have been to all of those parks and I would not do what you're thinking of with a 1.5 year old, especially as the bay area itself has beautiful, accessible state parks. None of the parks you mentioned are within easy striking distance of SF.

A morning spent tidepooling at low tide at Fitzgerald marine reserve, say, or day hiking at Big Basin, or checking out the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo... a hike at Point Reyes National Seashore or Marin Headlands as mentioned above... a ferry excursion on the SF Bay or a whale watching expedition out of Moss Landing... are all memorable, exciting experiences that people travel great lengths to get to, and they're all with an hour's drive of SF and could reasonably be enjoyed in do-able time chunks by a family with a little toddler. (You'd want a backpack that could fit your kid, if you wanted to hike, obv.)

Lassen and Yosemite and Redwoods are all wonderful, and all will eventually be worth a trip when your kid is old enough to be able to hike a bit and enjoy the outdoors.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:41 PM on June 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Wow, I'm really surprised by the responses thus far. We live in the Bay Area, and have taken our now 3-year-old to Yosemite... eh, 5 or 6 times so far? Maybe more. Not at 18 months (because that was mid-winter), but we've hit up the park spring/summer/fall throughout his life. And he's been to at least half a dozen other National Parks. And now we've got a three-year-old who cheers when he hears we're going camping or hiking and fucking loves nature and it's awesome.

Yes, the areas that folks have mentioned closer to SF are lovely, but they are not National Parks - NPs get that distinction because they're some of the most scenic places in the world! Spend your vacation doing seeing them, if that's what you want to do!

The way you do driving with a young toddler to get to these more remote places is that you time the driving around nap time - leave about 45 minutes before nap time, distract with snacks, let kiddo nap as long as possible while you book it, when they wake up distract with more snacks, eventually stop for wiggle time and a bite to eat for the adults, get back in the car after an hour break, and then you're soon there. I *would* recommend just choosing one National Park (I would vote Yosemite or Redwoods, personally), and taking more time to really explore that park (any of them could eat up the better park of a week, easily) to decrease the driving time, because, yes, it is a tad slower. Use the same techniques for hikes - time it for a nap, let the kid walk when they want to, distract with snacks/leaves/twigs/songs if you need to get moving and keep the toddler happy in the pack.

To breakdown the pluses & minuses of visiting the parks you've mentioned with a toddler: Yosemite & Lassen could be getting chillier by October (elevation), but should still have nice weather in September, while Redwoods will be its typical year-round foggy and cool - or, if you get lucky, it might be nice & sunny (fall tends to be the best there).

For Redwoods I would recommend slowly meandering up the coast over the course of a few days checking out the various parks that make up the whole state & national Redwoods park system, maybe moving every night or two, but never driving more than 90 minutes per day once you get up to Humboldt proper. There are plenty of small towns, so you won't ever be super isolated (although you can easily find solitude) and can supply up often. There are many trails that will be excellent for a young toddler to explore, checking out big trees and ferns and small streams. Also good tide pools and coastal views (and cold but fun beaches). Other than waves at the beach there's almost nothing dangerous to worry about in Redwoods - not even much in the way of poison oak.

For Yosemite you can choose one base camp spot and then do different hikes in the different parts of the park (the Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, Mariposa Grove) - there's easily enough beauty to spend several days in each area of the park. If you can stay in the Valley, you really should; if you have to stay outside the park, note that there can be bad traffic getting into the park if you get a late start to the day, so plan to get up & in early. Yosemite is the most busy park of the three, by far, so you have to choose to hike on an uncommon trail if you want to get away from the crowds, although it shouldn't be too bad by Sep/Oct. Note that the water level in the waterfalls is going to be pretty low, if that's a particular draw for you (but still nice!). Yosemite is also super family friendly - shuttle buses around the valley floor, paved trails that are good for a stroller, decent-ish eateries inside the park itself. The granite domes in Tuolomne are pretty cool for a toddler to wander around (the non-steep ones, that is). Safety concerns with a toddler are primarily falls (if you go up on a steep & high trail or overlook) and the rivers/waterfalls, but, you know, just don't let your young toddler play in the rushing water.

Lassen I know the least well, so I'll just note that I think there is a bit less to do than the other two, but it's the most remote and least visited of the three, if that's a strong draw (or turn-off). You'd probably want to look into whether there are any areas where you'd need to be extra careful with due to geothermal activity.
posted by Jaclyn at 10:12 PM on June 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

If you were going to be in the bay area anyway for whatever reason and know you won't be back again for a long while, sure, strike while the iron is hot. But dropping a couple-few grand to do this now? Unless you're rich enough that money basically doesn't matter and you afford the same trip whenever you want, I'll echo: what's the rush?
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 3:36 AM on June 11, 2019

Response by poster: Thanks, all. We have family there so were going to say hi, then head out since we’ve been to SF a lot. Sounds like maybe we can do one national park and then maybe explore some of the local recs that are toddler friendly. We’re definitely learning to adjust our travel style!
posted by inevitability at 4:27 AM on June 11, 2019

Just one more note. We had a heavy winter of snow in California. The road through Lassen is still not open and many of the trails are closed due to snow. I agree, save it for later, and check road and trail conditions before you come. The road can be open as early as mid May or as late as mid July so you will need to plan accordingly.
posted by eleslie at 5:57 AM on June 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Just jumping in to say Lassen is spectacular. There are hydrothermal features there to check out, the peak is tremendous, the crowds nonexistent. My daughters particularly loved camping just by the south entrance- there’s a visitor center there with bathrooms that are open all night (flush toilets! Hot water!)
posted by carterk at 6:22 AM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I too love Lassen but it's likely that some of the roads in the park will not be open until August this year. No, really. Check road status before you go. Also my favorite part of the park, Bumpass Hell, has been closed for trail reconstruction.
posted by Nelson at 8:26 AM on June 11, 2019

I think that my answer depends on what you mean by "toddler friendly". Hear me out.

If by "toddler friendly", you mean "my toddler will be actively engaged with it and enjoy it," I'm not so sure; Yosemite has mind-blowing scenery and landscapes, but for a toddler, everything is mind-blowing, so they aren't going to necessarily remember Yosemite with any greater weight than they would remember a trip to the bank. So if your expectation is that you will be making a cherished early memory, I'm not sure that's gonna happen.

But if by "toddler friendly" you mean "there is the wherewithal for two parents with a toddler to get around and do things without too much hassle," then Yosemite could work, particularly if you stick to the main valley or other main visitor areas; there's a lot of facilities there in terms of food/restrooms/that kind of stuff, and one or two of the "hiking trails" are short and paved, so they're stroller-able and with good views at the end still. (They may be crowded, though.) Yosemite also has a couple of internal buses that can bring you around to some of the various landmarks pretty easily, which may be worth looking into as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:44 AM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I haven't been to Lassen or Yosemite since I was a kid, but we went to Redwoods last year with our then-4 and 7 year olds. It was amazing for kids. We stayed at Jedediah Smith campground. The self-guided trails within the campground were fantastic for the kids to explore and wander on. The river was accessible and lovely. The people in the visitor center were friendly, and there were tons of other families with small children. I strongly recommend it!

And absolutely travel like this with your little one! You know your kid and your family -- the more travel you do, the easier it will be to keep traveling as the kid grows.
posted by linettasky at 12:42 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

My experience of Lassen is that you have to do a lot of hiking to see much of it. That might not be your speed for having a toddler--it wouldn't have been mine when my child was that age. It's also crazy remote from most services. Contrast that with Jedediah Smith, a quick drive from Crescent City, where you can chill out on the river bank and enjoy some much shorter, easier hikes.

The Redwood parks up north are much better than those that are close to the Bay Area, but take careful consideration of what the drive times really are and whether your family can handle it.

If you're seriously intrigued by Lassen, I recommend going there when the kids are older and at the same time consider also visiting the overlooked gem of Lava Beds National Monument.
posted by polecat at 1:24 PM on June 12, 2019

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