Updated: Jun 9, 2022
Church Bowl Picnic Area is located in the Yosemite Valley just off the road on the way to the Ahwahnee Hotel and after passing the Medical Center. In fact, most maps of Yosemite Valley don’t even label the Picnic Area by name, but rather simply mark it with the standard picnic table and chairs icon. It’s going to be the one closest to the “Medical Center” label on most maps, like this one of the Yosemite Valley issued by the park.
BUT just because this lesser known Picnic Area isn’t important enough to be given a name on the map doesn’t mean it's not worth a stop for a nice picnic lunch. I mean, after all, the National Park Service did at least provide it with a picnic icon. Also, it gets this Fat Mama’s quack of approval as an AMAZING place to explore with kids.
What You Will Find At Church Bowl Picnic Area
As far as picnic facilities, you could not ask for a nicer spot. To accompany the amazing views, you have your choice of picnicking options. There are plenty of picnic tables available to choose from. The entire area is flat so if you prefer a romantic picnic under a tree with a blanket on the ground, this is a great place to live out your rustic fantasy (or if all the tables are taken). Or you can do what we did and claim a giant boulder as your picnic island. Additionally, if you prefer to do a little cooking, grills are also available throughout the site.
Fat Mama Tip: If you plan to use one of the publicly available grills in Church Bowl Picnic Area, or throughout Yosemite National Park, check with Park Rangers first. California regularly enforces “no burn days” and the National Park Service may implement additional fire safety standards during drought, windy, or other wildfire-friendly conditions. It is best to plan your picnics and outdoor dining assuming that you will not be able to use an open flame.
Fire danger in Yosemite is a very real threat and should be kept in mind when you make your dining and activity plans. As Smokey the Bear says, “Only you can prevent wildfires.”
Church Bowl Picnic Area also boasts real bathrooms not spiffed-up port-o-potties. These are available close to the parking lot. No mad dash up a quarter-mile hill just to relieve yourself here (been-there-done-that-over-it). So for anyone traveling with little ones, or who like me, doesn’t want to have to pop-a-squat in nature, having adequate facilities with running water is always nice!
What really makes Church Bowl Picnic Area a must stop for an Adventure with Kids is all the cool stuff to see and do and climb and discover. Itsy Bitsy and E-Man LOVED the large boulders they could climb on. The trees they could run around. The wildlife they could watch (we saw plenty of birds, squirrels, bugs, and up the road driving back we even saw deer). Maybe most fascinating of all were the beginning rock climbing classes going on that the kids watched for a while.
But we almost didn’t stop here!
Our plan for the day had been to park in Curry Village, hike with the kids around Mirror Lake (as much as two 5-year olds could stand) and then find a place along the trail for lunch. Of course, as things do with 5-year olds, plans changed. The kids really enjoyed exploring the area around Curry Village.
Itsy Bitsy and E-Man found a sign warning about bears in the area, which was PERFECT because Gigi had brought counting bears which we then hid in the area for the kids to find! Rather than hiking Mirror Lake, to the disappointment of Pappy, we went on a bear hunt, to the delight of everyone else. But this meant we needed a new picnic spot.
THANK YOU LOCAL BIKE RENTAL WORKER.
I love asking locals or people who work in the area for their recommendations on places to go, things to do, or stuff to eat! You will always get a better experience by doing so and make some incredible finds. Talking to locals always pays off… read more about talking to locals in my two blogs: 9 Must Eat Places in Maui and Why do Tourists From the US Get Such a Bad Rap?
The Church Bowl Picnic Area was PERFECT … except for the wasps, there were a ton of wasps. While I am not allergic to wasp stings, I am irrationally afraid of them. But I dealt with it, we made a little improvised wasp trap with some lunch meat and a napkin, and everything was fine.
While we could have made use of the many picnic tables, our group decided it would be much more fun, (and it really was) to spread out our picnic on a GIANT flat boulder. Itsy Bitsy and E-Man had a blast climbing, crawling, jumping, walking around, exploring all over this BIG rock. They thought it was the coolest thing. Until Jackalope finished his lunch and walked along the base of the cliffs that form the Valley and the kids found even LARGER rocks they could climb.
Sure, we had a couple of scrapes and bruises. Itsy Bitsy fell off a “wobbly log” she had been trying to walk along and she had a good cry. But there was no blood, nothing that didn’t need more than a kiss and a hug. Also, it helped that the kids had their Adventure Pack gear with them. Why did this help? Well, Ducky, let me tell you…
When Itsy Bitsy had her tumble, it was easy to talk to her about how adventuring is a tough business. She herself said that adventurers have to be “rough and tumble,” and that means sometimes you’re going to fall down and get hurt but that you need to get back up again and keep adventuring.
We also talked about how good adventurers are also careful. They think about what they are doing. They make a plan for their adventures, and if necessary, run tests or experiments before taking action. We then talked about how Itsy Bitsy could have “tested” the wobbly log before going across or what she could have done to stop herself from falling.
After finishing her cry and taking some deep breaths Itsy Bitsy was ready to go. She also decided using a walking stick or asking for a grown-up’s hand would have solved the problem. Agreeing to do this next time, she was then up and ready to go adventuring again.
I am so proud of my Rough and Tumble Princess!
Fat Mama Tip: We visited the Church Bowl Picnic Area in late September, well off peak tourist dates. This meant we were able to find parking easily and the area was not crowded at all. However, I can imagine this being different during the summer and holidays. So plan ahead and pack your patience when visiting the Church Bowl Picnic Area during popular times of year.
Why I Plan To Come Back and Explore MORE
I would highly recommend making the Church Bowl Picnic Area a stop on your visit to the Yosemite Valley if not your temporary base of operations for a FULL day of adventure. That is what I plan to do the next time we visit.
The Church Bowl Picnic Area is perfectly situated in the Valley to maximize your access to many wonderful features of the Yosemite Valley. This is why it makes an ideal place to park early in the day and then either leisurely walk, hike, or bike to other destinations. The fact that it’s also a picnic area with bathrooms is a major bonus.
Motherly Advice: If you plan to leave food in your car during the day and come back to it later for a picnic, I HIGHLY recommend investing in a bear tested cooler (like the YETI one we use) or asking the Park Rangers about using a bear locker in the area … or purchase lunch from the half-dozen or so options within a 15-30 minute walk.
While the Church Bowl Picnic Area is next to a road and highly trafficked by people, that doesn’t mean it is free of wildlife. Park Rangers regularly warn tourists about bear activity and the potential danger of leaving food in cars. Please do not become another statistic in bear-car-break-ins.
By parking at the Church Bowl Picnic Area you are setting yourself up for a fantastic day of exploring the middle part of Yosemite Valley. From here* you can access hiking trails that lead to the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail (1 mile), Mirror Lake Loop Trail (2 miles), John Muir Trail (3.1 miles), and Mist Trail (3.5 miles). There is also access to the paved bike and walking path that circles Yosemite Valley floor less than half a mile away.
So, whether you are looking for a nice leisurely walk along a paved trail, a place to park for access to a day full of hiking, or a beautiful view of the valley for your ideal picnic and a little meadow exploring … the Church Bowl Picnic Area has got you covered. It really is a great place to set up as your base camp for the day. Especially if you have a large group who wants to break off and do different things but meet up later for a shared meal.
Additionally, Yosemite Village and the Ahwahnee Hotel are both about a 15 min walk away (in opposite directions) along the main road. They also happen to be stops 2 and 3 respectively on the Yosemite Valley Shuttle Route, which means you really can use the Church Bowl Picnic Area as a launching point to see anything in the Valley you like!