Where to Go in Yosemite With Kids: The Nature Center at Happy Isles

Welcome to the third installment in a series of posts called “Where to Go in Yosemite With Kids,” especially young kids like mine (5 ½ and 2 years). There’s more to say than I’ve included here, so if you have any specific questions, please feel free to email me at tdj2004 [at] gmail [dot] com.

Get Outdoorsy Updates

No spam guarantee.

There aren’t too many places where you can visit a Nature Center nestled along a river in the forest beneath the face of sheer granite. Welcome to the Nature Center at Happy Isles.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that although I’d been to Yosemite National Park every year growing up, I only recently discovered this little gem. But since then, I’ve come back every year. It’s a great place to show the kids what the park is all about through hands-on, kid-friendly exhibits.

Happy Isles isn’t just home to this charming Nature Center, it’s also the gateway to many of the Park’s most popular hikes, including Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls and Half Dome. This place holds many fond memories from childhood for me and I know it won’t be much longer before I start taking the explorers up the same trails I once walked with my dad.

For now, I’m content to make sure they get to know this Park well and the Nature Center is the perfect spot to do that.

The Nature Center is designed with families in mind. Many of the displays are interactive and there is plenty to see and touch. What’s especially wonderful is that displays are kept at kid eye-level. There are even stools in places where littler ones might need an extra boost.

Another perk is the small size of the Nature Center. It’s perfect for little kids – it basically consists of one large room divided into a few separate areas. This was especially helpful for me because I was trying to wrangle the big and little explorer without dad on hand.

One last thing worth mentioning is that this place is air conditioned, providing a wonderful spot to cool off the kids on a hot summer day.

Our trip to the Nature Center at Happy Isles always starts with a pit stop at the bathrooms. This year, the big explorer was eager to lead the way once we got started down the short path to the Center’s entrance.

Once we reached the Nature Center, our group of four kids all headed in different directions. The big explorer ran straight for the microscope.

Meanwhile, the little explorer checked out the large stuffed animals. It was hard to miss the bear.

He also enjoyed the deer and squirrel, which I’m sure he thought were 100 percent alive.

Things got a little crazy once he discovered the “After Dark” zone – a smaller area showcasing the creatures in the park that only come out at night. He got a kick of running from this room into the main area and back again. I think he thought we were playing hide and seek.

Luckily, the big explorer was entertaining himself just fine. He was reading all about the different trees in the park. Each tree includes a sample of both its bark and branches – and you can touch the bark! This visit was timed perfectly for the big explorer, who’d been enthralled with trees for weeks.

From there, he moved on to a table top showing several different pinecones and the names of the trees they came from.

After chasing the little explorer in and out of the “After Dark” area countless times, I was pooped. We quickly took a look at a very important exhibit, the one about bears in the park. This was a great opportunity for us parents to talk with the kids about why it’s important not to feed wild animals, plus see first-hand the type of damage hungry bears can cause.

At this point, the little explorer was in full tantrum mode and I had to excuse myself and leave. Back outside, we breathed in the fresh air and calmed down enough so that by the time the rest of our group was finished in the Center, we were ready to join them.

This is where any trip to the Nature Center at Happy Isles gets really fun: Checking out the flora and fauna you’ve just learned about inside outside.

We started at the river, which I mentioned in my first post in this series on Chilnualna Falls was much higher and stronger than in past years. Here was the view from the bridge just outside the Nature Center.

In years past we’ve eaten on the rocks beside this river, but this year we opted to look elsewhere. I was eager to check out another new spot I’d never been to – a fen (a grassy wetland I soon discovered) located just a stone’s throw from the Center.

After an exhausting lunch that included the little explorer throwing yet another tantrum (which involved tossing not just his own sandwich into the dirt but mine as well), I doubted my fortitude. Thank God for the strength and patience of friends.

Within just a few steps into the fen, both the little explorer and I were seemingly at peace again. I couldn’t believe all the lush greenery tucked away beneath the glaciers and alongside a gushing river.

There were all kinds of cool and new-to-us things to discover, like this little guy.

All of us – kids and adults alike – walked through the fen with oohs and ahhs, but also a bit of silence. There was so much to take in.

The fen gave way to a beautiful nature trail that eventually led us right back to the shuttle stop. Here’s what my walk back looked like (parent bliss!).

How I long for such beautiful, tree-lined trails back in Southern California!


  • The Nature Center is open May through September (and it’s air conditioned!)
  • Admission is free
  • A small book store and gift shop are just inside the main entrance
  • Restrooms are available next to the shuttle stop, just a short walk from the Center
  • A snack stand is also located next to the shuttle stop
  • No picnic facilities are set up within close proximity to the Nature Center
  • The short trail to the Nature Center (and surrounding offshoots) are flat and stroller-friendly


  • Explore the area around the Nature Center. Put what you learn about the park’s geology and wildlife in the Center to use by exploring the nearby river, forest, rock debris and marsh on foot.
  • Pack a lunch or snacks. Admittedly, this isn’t the best place to enjoy a picnic, but we were content with the little spot we found. Food of any kind makes for a nice break and serves as a great excuse to enjoy the surroundings outside the Nature Center.

We prefer to use the shuttle bus to get around the Valley floor. Exit at stop #16 and follow the paved path to the Nature Center.

It's always nice to share.
Share on FacebookPin on PinterestEmail this to someonePrint this page


  1. says

    @Lora: Thanks! The little explorer LOVED the earthquake machine, but didn't want to take turns with the other kids, leading to tantrum No. 1. So glad you had the chance to check it out!

  2. says

    Great post. We also enjoyed the earthquake machine. There was so much packed into this little center! The pics are great and you are right, the nature around the nature center is equally enthralling.