Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Where to Go in Yosemite With Kids: The Indian Caves

Today’s post is part of “Where to Go in Yosemite With Kids,” a series about our favorite places to explore with kids in Yosemite National Park.

There’s a place I used to play in Yosemite as a kid that I thought had completely vanished. That’s the only explanation I had for why the Indian Caves near Mirror Lake never seem to be mentioned on the list of things to do in Yosemite with kids.

The caves, which are actually a large pile of huge boulders, supposedly got their name during the European takeover of Yosemite Valley by the Mariposa Battalion. It was then that an elderly Uzumati/Ahwaneechee woman hid at these caves hoping to avoid detection. Legend has it that her campfire smoke betrayed her presence and gave the place its name.

Of course as I kid, I wasn’t concerned with the stories. I just loved playing there – scrambling around on the rocks, wandering into the “caves” and trying my hand at some simple rock climbing.

Turns out the Indian Caves do still exist, they just aren’t on anyone's radar these days. In fact, there’s no signage to speak of.

Armed with a rough idea of where the caves were located (thanks to my memories from some 30 years back and my step-mom’s more precise instructions), we started out from the very well-known Ahwahnee Hotel. We needed to ask a couple of hikers en route if we were headed the right way, but we eventually found the place.

And what a delight to see my kids discover and explore it just as I had done as a child so many summers ago!

There was such thrill as the kids ran through the caves checking out the small, kid-sized spaces in-between the enormous boulders. The six kids we came with fought over the two flashlights we brought to see who could “discover” something first.

They dreamed up stories to explain how things they found might have gotten there (like wood in a campfire some errant camper had left behind and a particularly ornate piece of driftwood).

It’s easy enough to overlook this place, but I’m glad we didn’t. We had the entire place to ourselves, save one other family who left shortly after we arrived. There aren’t many such hidden gems left in Yosemite.

Tips for Visiting With Kids

  • Bring a flashlight. The explorers loved searching one of the caves to see what they could “discover” hidden in the dark. Flashlights and/or headlamps are a must. 
  • Look for teachable moments. We talked a lot about respecting places from the past as we discovered trash & other signs of less concerned citizens
Planning Essentials
  • There is no signage to indicate when you’ve reached the caves; they can be found about a mile from the Awahanee Hotel just off the Mirror Lake walking trail at the base of Washington Column 
  • Use common sense when exploring any caves. Be aware of where your kids are at all times & take caution in dark spaces & on large boulders
  • Bring a flashlight or two – some parts of the caves are dark inside
  • There are no bathrooms or portable toilets at the Indian Caves or along the walking path to get there
  • No picnic tables or other facilities are available
  • Crowds are few, if any
  • There is no parking lot
Finding the Indian Caves

Directions to the Indian Caves near Mirror Lake seem nonexistent. But that doesn’t make them impossible to find.

From the Awahanee Hotel, head out past the back lawn, pool and cottages until you hit the bike path headed to Mirror Lake.

Turn left and stay on the bike path until you spot the walking trail running right alongside on your left. Continue on this smaller path through the forest until you are standing almost directly in front of the base of Washington Column. The trail opens up into a large expanse that you can’t miss. Don’t bother looking for markers here to confirm you've found the place; you won’t find any.


  1. It looks like our families could be exploration buddies! Over at waddlee-ah-chaa we believe in getting our children out in the world!

    I've enjoyed reading your posts on Yosemite. You're inspiring me to head to the mountains. I have an obsession with the beach so we head to the beach year and the children explore all of the abundant sea life. We've been wanting to make a change and make the long drive to the mountains and your posts are encouraging me to plan an adventure next year. thanks!

    Great to have you at waddlee-ah-chaa. Each week we highlight and give away great children's literature. Our goal is to get books into the hands of children. :)

  2. Jeannine: Funny you mention the beach - my hubby is a huge fan of the beach so between the two of us, the kids see plenty of both places! Thanks for stopping by for a visit - we love your site!

  3. We are heading to Yosemite next week with our family. We have 5 kids ages 2-14. These Indian Caves sound fun! Is there any danger of bears around or in the caves? I hope we can find our way to these.

    1. So excited for you & your kids. It will be beautiful in Yosemite next week. :-)

      As for your question about the Indian Caves & bears ... I have never seen bears there. Of course, there are plenty of bears in Yosemite (along with mountain lions), so it’s important to be aware. But that’s the same advice I’d give to anyone visiting anywhere in Yosemite. Stay clear of the area during the cooler parts of the day (daybreak & sunset), when all animals are more likely to come out looking for food.

      Have a wonderful time!

  4. I routinely saw bears at The caves in 1970's . Didn't go to caves this trip. Nobody knew where they were. Next time!

    1. The caves are certainly not advertised. Which makes finding them that much more rewarding. Hope you get a chance to visit next time.

    2. I found your post about the Yosemite Indian caves..... I remember this place also. I went looking for them about 5 years ago. The park rangers said that they don't advertise them anymore to preserve the cave writings. I remember as a kid running and playing there in the 70's...... I am going back this spring. I'll have to go and find them again! Thanks for the info.

    3. Robert, your childhood experiences at the Indian Caves sound similar to my own. Hope you'll be able to find them again this Spring. A re-visit will warm your heart for sure.


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