We can pour over photos together, watch videos and research the web, but nothing can truly prepare a family for the unique wonders of our National Parks until we’re there in person. Each one is a magnificent gem with breathtaking vistas – and each with its own type of terrain to explore. The sheer size of the parks can be hard to fathom, making it hard to guess how foot friendly they might be for your little pack of wolves. While there is truly something for all ages in our National Parks, we’ve outlined a few size-specific adventures recommended by some of our featured family travel bloggers.
Baby on Board
Offering 260 miles of well-maintained trails, Mount Rainier National Park is a visual wonderland. Through emerald forests, flowering meadows, rolling rivers, past waterfalls and up to snowy peaks, Rainier offers enough sensory stimulation to fascinate even the most cynical 18-month-old. It’s not unusual to see little ones strapped to their parent’s backs, pointing at the next breathtaking view around the corner.
“Something that families with young kids, or even those heading to Mt Rainier but who aren’t up for crazy hiking, will appreciate is that there are several trails leaving directly from the Paradise Inn or visitors center that are paved part of the way up the mountain. This means that it’s easy to take a stroller up the mountain, or at least far enough to get to a great viewpoint.” – 2 Travel Dads
If your tot loves to stack building blocks and then delights in knocking them down, a visit to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park can surround your little architect/demolition artist with a strollers eye view of log cabins galore. Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill offer just that, as well as offer a trip back in time for parents and grandparents alike. As strollers can be a challenge in National Parks (and are not allowed in some), we like this one for its easy navigation.
“Two excellent walking trails start from the vicinity. The Oconaluftee River Trail follows its namesake stream for 1.5 miles to Cherokee. Mingus Creek Trail climbs past old farms to the Smokies high country. The easy, 1.5-mile Oconaluftee River Trail begins near the entrance to the museum. It is stroller-accessible and follows the river to Cherokee, N.C.” – www.nps.gov/grsm
Little Kid Legs
“There are so many hikes to do in Yosemite that you will never be able to fit them all in on one trip,” says blogger, No Back Home. She recommends several, including the Mirror Lake trail, where “the views of the water reflecting the surrounding area are beautiful. This is the closest you can get to Half Dome without actually hiking it. You might even be lucky enough to see some hikers on the dome. This feels the most like a hike to the kids since it is a rocky path instead of a paved path.” Yosemite offers 750 miles of hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty, many of them packed dirt and granite.
The stride of a small child is often half of our own, so in a sense, they are walking twice as far as we are. Short hikes are key. Arches National Park offers many short and scenic hikes, ranging from a fraction of a mile to just a little over a mile. The scenery at Arches is not unlike that of a Road Runner cartoon. Full Suitcase shares a few notable stops ideal for smaller kids. “The Windows area is simply spectacular and shouldn’t be missed when in Arches. The Windows Loop is an easy 1 mile (1,6 km) hike, or you can opt to walk just a part of it. You can see three impressive arches here: North and South Windows and Turret Arch. The whole area is relatively flat and is very easy to do with kids.”
Trails for Teens
Yellowstone offers 1000 miles of hiking trails, and around every corner, something new to gawk over: supernatural sights of colorful hot springs, scenic overlooks, waterfalls, geysers and more. Even the most cynical teen will have to appreciate the mind-blowing visuals, (not just for selfie backgrounds). Prepare to be among other family travelers at popular sites like Old Faithful and do your research on the many trail loop options to determine which one is right for your family, as blogger Full Suitcase did.
“The complete Upper Geyser Basin loop trail is over 4 miles, but you can choose which parts to explore and where to go, as there are so many junctions that you can make the tour as long or as short as you want. I strongly suggest walking all the way to the Morning Glory Pool (+-1.4 mile one way), we found it to be one of the most impressive hot pools of Yellowstone.” – Full Suitcase
Hiking with your teen can be a great way to instill trust, practice responsibility and reveal their ever-growing maturity (sniff). Our National Parks offer a picture postcard setting for giving them a turn to lead the way and all of the symbolic foreshadowing that comes along with that. Celebrate the Weekend and their guest blogging son shares their experience in Zion National Park, reminding readers to follow the weather report as part of your planning.
“My father and I undertook a hike up The Narrows, and the experience was much more enjoyable than the ominous name would lead you to believe. The Narrows is the narrowest section of the Zion Canyon, and most of it is submerged in water. You can hike up from Temple Sinawava or down from Chamberlain’s Reach to the Virgin River located at the base of the canyon, although to go down the river a permit is required. In addition, hiking down is the much more challenging course so it wouldn’t do for first timers.”
Planning your visit
Most, if not all, National Parks have an NPS website, and each of those websites has a “Plan Your Visit” page. Start your search at NPS.gov. Lodging can range from campsites and tents to lodges and hotels, and reservations for many become available 366 days in advance. Book as early as you possibly can to assure you get the location you want. Alternatively, you may be able to book hotels and private vacation rentals outside of the park, but remember you will all want to be as close to the natural wonders as possible. Be sure to check social media pages for tips as well.
Learn as You Go
The National Parks Service Junior Ranger Program offers kids a fun way to learn how to “Explore, Learn, and Protect,” as is their motto. At each participating National Park, kids 5 to 13 can earn badges and certificates, allowing them to join the ranks of the National Park Service as a Junior Ranger. It’s always great to have another reason to explore, especially when it offers such a wonderful learning opportunity for kids. At home, kids can get in on the game too via Webranger badges.
And if you have a 4th Grader in your family, you are in luck! The Every Kid in a Park program gives all 4th graders and their families FREE access to federal parks, lands, and waters. Mark your calendars for travel and make that 4th grade year one they’ll never forget.
A Lifetime to Explore
Our National Parks truly are “America’s best idea” and we’re so fortunate to have more than 400 to choose from. Check out our curated list of National Park posts here to help give your family their next great vacation.
How many National Parks have you visited? What’s your favorite and which one is next on your list? Tell us in the comments below and share your tips with others.
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