Family Fun Along California’s Majestic Mountain Loop
Above photo: The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad takes visitors through the Sierra National Forest.
Story and photos by Megan Snedden
Three national parks in three days makes a great getaway.
Traversing three of California’s iconic national parks in a single road trip is an ambitious feat, especially with kids in tow. But this action-packed adventure along the Majestic Mountain Loop promises priceless life-long family memories.
The Loop spans multiple highways and roads and covers some 500 miles or more, depending on your itinerary. Highlights include Yosemite National Park in the eastern Sierra Nevada as well as Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in the southern Sierra Nevada. All three parks are the old stomping grounds of conservationist John Muir, who helped found each as part of the National Park Service.
This scenic road trip, comfortable in a roomy rental car, features many natural wonders and historic sites. Those aspiring to keep a fast pace can complete it in three days, which allows some time for stops at popular vista points as well as short hikes in and outside of the parks. Families that extend the journey may want to explore the parks’ gateway towns of Oakhurst and Visalia.
Hit the Trails
Each of the national parks offers a plentitude of trails for family members of all hiking skill levels. The only dilemma is deciding which trek to embark on first. In Yosemite, the panoramic views along the Sentinel Dome and Taft Point hikes left me spellbound — no wonder this road trip is considered “majestic.” Each of these trails is relatively flat and short, which helps you get acclimated before ascending higher-altitude hikes. If you head out to catch the sunset, don’t forget your headlamp for the walk back at night!
The four-mile, out-and-back Tokopah Falls hike in Sequoia National Park follows the Kaweah River up to a beautiful cascade that tumbles some 1,200 feet. Beginning at Lodgepole Campground, this moderate trail leads you through lush forestlands with towering granite peaks and verdant meadows.
Visit the Largest Living Trees
No trip along the Majestic Mountain Loop is complete without a visit to the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park. The world’s largest tree is measured by volume: it’s 275 feet tall and over 36 feet in diameter at the base. In a close second, the General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon stands at 267 feet tall and measures almost 29 feet in diameter at the base.
The two trees are only 30 miles apart, so you can visit both in the same day and still have time to drive through Sequoia’s famed Tunnel Log. In late 1937, this iconic site was created when a 275-foot Sequoia crashed down along Crescent Meadow Road and a pass-through opening was cut. When it fell, park officials estimated the tree was more than 2,000 years old.
If you visit the parks with children, look into the Every Kid Outdoors program, which grants fourth-graders and their families in the U.S. free access to the country’s federal public lands and national parks.
Take a Train Ride
Not far from Yosemite’s southern entrance, the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad whisks passengers through the Sierra National Forest for a narrated hourlong ride. Dating back to the 1950s, the locomotives are powered entirely by steam. Aboard the train, I was charmed by the lyric chugging sound of the steam engine, which harmonized nicely with the train whistle as we turned corners. The children onboard looked mesmerized as conductors moved nimbly from car to car.
Once part of California’s lumber industry, the railroad site also features a museum and an opportunity to try your hand at gold panning. If you’re looking to immerse your family in more of the Golden State’s history, don’t miss the Pioneer Yosemite History Museum in Wawona. Ten miles north of the railroad, it features relics from different eras of Yosemite’s past such as horse-drawn wagons, log cabins and a covered bridge. You’ll also find the Wells Fargo Office there, where travelers once stopped to make railroad and lodging reservations, place long-distance phone calls or send telegrams.
Get Out on the Water
Ready to slow down the pace? Take a day away from the trails and relax at Bass Lake, just 7 miles from Oakhurst. An idyllic place to kick off your hiking boots for a swim, the lake is surrounded by marina resorts that offer families many recreational options. We stopped at Miller’s Landing for a sunset kayak adventure that explored the lake’s scenic coves. The resort also rents out paddleboards, Jet Skis and boats.
Make sure to close out a day on the lake at the Ice Cream Fountain. Those with a real sweet tooth might dare to order the Fudge Bucket, a plastic sand pail filled with ice cream topped with hot fudge, whipped cream, nuts, sprinkles and cherries — and served with a shovel!
Enjoy Fresh Fruit
Whether you’re just setting out on your journey along the Majestic Mountain Loop or heading home, grab fresh snacks for the drive at one of the Central Valley’s farms. Around Visalia, there are many opportunities to pick your own fruit as well as several seasonal fruit stands and farmers markets.
Outside Visalia on Avenue 322, Big L Ranch invites you to harvest your own organic blueberries for $5 per pound when they are in season. Located on the northern banks of the Kaweah River, the 10-acre farm grows five varieties of the berries. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent.
Discover the Parks’ Gateways
Oakhurst and Visalia serve as gateways to the three national parks. With a population just under 3,500, Oakhurst is a small town that offers a lot of family fun. We stayed at the new, pet-friendly Holiday Inn Express. Kids will enjoy the pool, and a free breakfast is provided.
About 30 minutes from Yosemite National Park, Oakhurst is even closer to the Lewis Creek National Recreation Trail, which leads to Corlieu Falls and Red Rock Falls. Though this hike lies outside of Yosemite’s boundaries, the scenery is similar. Bookended by two waterfalls and meandering along the beautiful Lewis Creek, the trail is just under 4 miles long. Before leaving town, stop at Judy’s Donuts on California Highway 41 for an apple fritter.
Visalia, situated about 90 minutes from Kings Canyon and 45 minutes from Sequoia, is known as the crown jewel of the Central Valley. Home to some 135,000 people, Visalia emanates a suburban feel. Downtown, you’ll find boutiques with vintage storefronts and restaurants that serve locally sourced, farm-fresh meals. Families will enjoy the ImagineU Children’s Museum, which offers hands-on, interactive exhibits.
Whether your family spends three days or two weeks along the Majestic Mountain Loop, time spent together exploring California’s greatest treasures will generate memories that last many years for children and adults alike.
RelatedView all articles
Read more stories about California.
Three national parks in three days makes a great getaway.
Two Californians explore three national parks in their home state.
This scenic region runs north from San Francisco through Redwoods National and State Parks along Highway 101.
About 200,000 people visit annually, but the buildings have no residents.
Bigger cities such as New York or Los Angeles are well-known for their galleries, but here are five that might surprise you.
These literary spots offers a unique experience in addition to a good read.
A couple looks for romance in a Danish-themed town.
Cozy beach town is a short drive — and a world away — from San Francisco.
The city makes a convenient base to explore several beautiful national parks.
All the destinations are beautiful and within a day’s drive.
A world traveler reconnects with her California roots.
Riding waves renews joy and restores confidence after a bad mountain fall.
During a road trip up the coast, five residents share their passion for the Pacific.
A photographic journey along an iconic mountain range on the West Coast brings healing and much more.
A whale watcher dedicates nearly four decades to an unanticipated passion.
Once stricken by grief, a world traveler returns the gift of kindness on the way to Big Sur.
Parents and grandparents help nurture children’s interests on their family vacation.
College friends reunite in a desert wonderland with a deepened appreciation for each other.
On the “Mother Road,” you’ll find welcoming smiles and the guardian angel of the trail.
Road trip continues through the northern California redwoods and on to sunny SoCal beaches.
New California residents try camping, glamping and a destination hotel, all in one road trip.
A dozen spas pamper guests with mud baths, massages and mineral pools.
An easy road trip takes you from a world-class city to a top national park.
Fans of “liquid gold” can set up tasting tours at wineries and shops.
Tips on what to see, do, eat and drink on your next visit.
From roaring waterfalls to colorful trees, the park is a year-round spectacle.
You’ll feel like royalty at this unique winery in Napa Valley.
The drive from Olympic National Park to San Francisco features spectacular views of towering forests.
From San Francisco, Jess and Eddie take a weekend road trip to Happy Camp, California, to learn gold-panning.
Group proves love knows no boundaries.