Updated: Jun 9
Okay so this first chronical of kid-friendly activities and adventures in Yosemite is technically just outside Yosemite in Fish Camp … but close enough. And the experience is awesome enough to make it well worth the drive from wherever you are staying in or near the Park!
The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad (YMSPRR) is a wonderful tourist destination that takes visitors back into Yosemite’s history, both commercial and natural. Reconstructed in 1965 from an old logging operation that had nearly clear cut the forests around Yosemite, the Stauffer family laid 2 miles of narrow-gauge track and constructed the engine house, ticket office, and museum before opening to guests in 1967.
Visiting the YMSPRR is a great activity for the whole family because there is so much more to do on the property than just ride the train. Although I do highly recommend riding the train, so much FUN!
We first found the YMSPRR years ago before Itsy Bitsy was born, on a trip to Yosemite for Fat Papa’s 30th birthday. Oh, were we ever that young? Knowing that Fat Papa is a BIG fan of trains, I had done some research on the possibility of a train ride through the mountains as a surprise and was NOT disappointed by the YMSPRR. On that visit we participated in their evening train ride and dinner service which was a ton of fun.
I look forward to doing the evening train ride with Itsy Bitsy when she is a little older, can stay up a bit later, and is a bit less of a picky eater. The food served was great BBQ, but if it isn’t plain chicken or a hotdog no bun, Itsy Bitsy isn’t having it (I look forward to her 5-year-old tastebuds maturing).
However, the afternoon 1-hour train ride was ABSOLUTELY perfect for Itsy Bitsy, E-man, and Bonnie, a new friend we made on the train!
Confession time. There is so much I could say about our experience and visit to the YMSPRR, but admittedly, I’m hoarding my memories a bit like a dragon with treasure. I love blogging and sharing all my family’s stories and experiences with all of you, but I also find that sometimes, I just want to hold on to a little bit for myself as well.
So I’m going to make a deal with you. I’m going to make this a short review of the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, not because there is not much to say, but because of how incredibly special it is to me and my family. In exchange I will give you TONS of photos that demonstrate FAR BETTER than my words why you should go and visit. And visit you should!
Engine No 10
There is just something special about taking a train ride on a steam engine through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. If you haven’t done it before, I cannot recommend it enough. You will not be disappointed, even if you are not a train nerd like Fat Papa or a history buff like this Fat Mama.
All the kids loved being able to ride in the open-air passenger cars where they could see the scenery going by and hear the No 10 steam engine chugging along. The 1-hour round trip narrated tour was great for all the adults in our party too. Getting to relive the magic of trains through our kids’ eyes was so special.
While the adults were mostly interested in the mechanics of the train, the history of the area, or simply enjoying the scenery, Itsy Bitsy and E-man were so excited by all the new sensations. Riding the train was like a smorgasbord for their senses. All the new sights, sounds, smells, and even tastes of the train ride were so exciting. Check out this video of the steam engine working, and you will get a sense of what I mean… get it… sense… okay bad Mama pun…
Lunch For Lumberjacks
After riding the rails, we enjoyed a picnic lunch fit for lumberjacks in the YMSPRR picnic area. After all, I don’t know how to do anything small and when I’m with my extended family then I really don’t know how to pack a small picnic lunch. I mean, we could have fed a full team of loggers, easily.
Even if we had not been so enterprising, we could have purchased lunches and cold drinks (along with adult drinks) for a wonderful meal amongst the pines. One thing I will say for the YMSPRR, I have always been impressed with their food options. Online the picnic offerings didn’t look like much, but their in-person menu was far more expansive.
Fat Mama Tip: If you plan to purchase lunch at YMSPRR call ahead and ask what will be on the menu. Online they only offer basic cold picnic sandwiches. But in person the menu can change. The day we were there the menu included chili, hotdogs, beer, and other items not listed online.
Panning for Gold
If you haven’t been able to tell, Fat Papa and I are MAJOR nerds, me doubly so with my history degree! So any time there is an opportunity for us to actually do history or try a new skill or attempt to experience what something was like way back when or just fully immerse ourselves in an experience, we absolutely jump at the chance. Even if it is just tourist gold panning.
HOWEVER, the gold panning experiences at the YMSPRR was ONE of, if not THE BEST, trough gold panning experience we have done. And that was all thanks to Gold Miner Denis. Not to be confused with a certain tow-headed precocious cartoon kid. This Denis was amazing and brought the whole gold panning experience to life for Itsy Bitsy, E-Man, Bonnie, Fat Papa, Jackalope, and the rest of us watching.
Gold Miner Denis managed to blend history, geology, and physics together to not only entertain a multi-generational group of newbie gold-panners but to make sure the focus was on the kids having fun while still achieving the goal of everyone walking away happy. I really cannot say enough good stuff about Gold Miner Denis!
I think aside from watching the steam engine do its “blowout” to clean the internal mechanisms, gold panning was the kids’ favorite part of the day. Well, I guess I kind of know it was since as soon as they finished, Itsy Bitsy and E-Man IMMEDIATELY asked to do it again to add to their new gold collections. So, since it was only $10 each for another go, we said yes and the kids now have a small, but growing, gold collection that they are very proud of!
Steamed Up For Adventure
In addition to the train ride and gold panning we also visited the Museum which the Stauffer family has been adding to and expanding since the 1960s. I think this was more interesting to the adults in our group than the kids, who were far more interested in the gift shop than the museum itself. But who can blame them? They are 5 and the gift shop was where we found their YMSPRR badges for their Adventure Vests.
Are you asking yourself "what is an Adventure Vest?" and "why are they buying badges for it?" Find out in my blog The Ultimate Kids Outdoor Adventure Packing List.
Overall, I cannot recommend the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad enough! This is a MUST visit destination for anyone who likes trains or is looking for a unique way of experiencing the beautiful scenery offered by the Sierra Mountains and the area around Yosemite. This is an absolute must-do adventure for kids visiting the Yosemite area.
Motherly Advice: Encourage your kids to make friends while you travel! I love taking Itsy Bitsy out to do and try new things. When we go out, I am always so excited to meet other families doing the same. Itsy Bitsy is such a social kid that I was thrilled when another little girl approached her and wanted to make friends.
Bonnie and Itsy Bitsy had a ton of fun playing together at the YMSPRR, and making a new friend was a big bright spot in the day. But to me, meeting Bonnie and her family reminded me that one of the reasons it is so important to travel with children is getting to meet new people.
Bonnie and Itsy Bitsy had plenty in common, and sure we weren’t visiting anywhere exotic and making friends with people from the local culture. That isn’t what it's always about.
First, meeting Bonnie was great practice for later in life when Itsy Bitsy IS meeting people from diverse cultures because she will know that it is fun and natural to make friends while you travel.
Second, Bonnie and Itsy Bitsy totally brightened each other’s days; the train experience is just that much more special for having shared it with a new friend.
Third, and most important, both girls are learning how to reach out and safely make travel partners.
It’s not a fun thing to talk about, but especially we mothers have to find ways to teach our daughters how to travel safely as women. Learning how to identify other female travelers, trusting your gut and intuition, and looking for signs of trustworthiness or dishonesty is a skill that takes practice.
I appreciate so much Itsy Bitsy getting the opportunity to practice making friends while traveling so that when she eventually travels on her own, as a woman, she will know how to do so safely… because she will have been able to practice under my watchful eye and tutelage.
I know it sounds a little paranoid, maybe a bit alarmist, but its also the world we live in. So, thank you Bonnie for being a great travel friend and joining us on this adventure. Thank you for also being part of our wonderful teachable moment about making friends while traveling and being safe with those friends!