Most folks visiting Yosemite National Park don't seem to realize that there's more to it than Yosemite Valley, where crowds of cars and RVs inch along the roads while their passengers stare at the 3,000-foot-high glacier-carved granite walls and the waterfalls that drop down them. Yes, you should drive past the awesome 7,549-foot-high sheer rock face called El Capitan; you should pull off the road to take the easy half-mile trails to view Bridalveil Fall or Lower Yosemite Falls. But don't stop there -- go up into the high country, where you can explore wilderness without the crowds.
The eastern half of 39-mile-long Tioga Road is open only in summer and fall, and the developed area around Tuolumne Meadows is much less crowded than Yosemite Valley. Coming from the west, Tioga Road rises up through towering pines and then breaks out on solid granite highlands dramatically furrowed by glaciers. Around Olmsted Point, the views become really dramatic -- look at a cliff jutting up in the distance, and you'll realize that the ants scaling it are actually rock climbers. Yosemite is the most popular rock-climbing destination in the United States, thanks largely to the Yosemite Mountaineering School (tel. 209/372-8344; www.yosemitemountaineering.com). The climbing school runs beginner classes daily out of its base in popular Curry Village, but in summer you can also take classes at Tuolumne Meadows. Kids as young as 10 are accepted in group classes (for your adventurous younger child, book a private lesson), and instructors will soon have your teenagers inching up the granite walls to heights of 60 feet.
Even children who are too young to scale a sheer rock face can get a little climbing experience in Yosemite's high country. From Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, a 4.2-mile trail leads to the top of Lembert Dome (take a shuttle bus back to the lodge from the trail's other end). Another option is off of Glacier Point Road, south of the Yosemite Valley loop. You'll want to drive this road anyway to get to that great Glacier Point overlook, the top of a 3,200-foot vertical cliff. But stop partway along Glacier Point Road at mile 13.2, where a trail head leads 2.2 miles round-trip to Sentinel Dome, one of many granite domes in the park whose rounded shapes were formed by glaciers moving over them. It's 8,122 feet high, the second-highest viewpoint into the valley. Taft Point is the same distance the other way from the trail head; it has weird and scary cracks as well as cliff-overhang views. The hike itself isn't threatening, but hold hands near the end.
Nearest Airport: Fresno Yosemite International, 90 miles.
Where to Stay: $$$ The Ahwahnee, Yosemite Valley (tel. 801/559-4884 or 209/372-1407; www.yosemitepark.com). $ Tuolumne Meadows Campground (tel. 800/436-7275; www.recreation.gov).