In celebration of the 100th year of the National Park Service, I will post at least once a month in some way relating to our wonderful national park system to help bring awareness to an awesome part of our country that is so often under utilized.
Most families know of the major national parks like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. But unbeknownst to so many Americans are the other almost 400 national parks, battlefields and monuments that are also part of the National Park System.
In this month’s national park post, top family travel bloggers have shared their favorite off the beaten path national parks that all families should make time to visit.
Jump to a Heading Below
Gettysburg National Military Park
You might think that a trip to a National Battlefield would evoke a few moans and groans from kids but a visit to Gettysburg is anything but boring. If you book a tour with a Licensed Battlefield Guide in advance, you will be in for two captivating hours with someone that really knows how to bring this site to life for kids. Visitors learn about history, battlefield strategy, and what it was like to be a soldier, general, and townsperson during this pivotal moment in U.S. history. While a lot of the tour takes place in the car, you’ll also have a chance to climb monuments, hike hills and scramble over rocks. If that isn’t enough, you can also tour the Battlefield via Segway, horseback, or using an interactive iPad app. Just two and a half hours from Philadelphia, it is easy to combine a visit to Gettysburg with other historic sights in the area such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, or Harpers Ferry National Park in West Virginia.
– Tamara, We 3 Travel
Voyageurs National Park
To get well off the beaten path, you must visit Voyageur’s National Park, on the boarder of Minnesota and Southern Ontario, 5 hours from Minneapolis-St Paul. It is our favorite park as it’s water-based, so exploring is best done by hopping onto a cruise boat and chugging along, watching for bald eagles and black bears. Since it’s one of the least visited National Parks in the system, there are no crowds to contend with at any time of the year. We love this park for summer solace-seeking since the solitude and near-silence is abundant. Consider taking the time to book an authentic Voyageur paddle in a North Canoe — an interpreter will guide you through songs and stories as you float along–children will be delighted with the traditional garb your guide will don. The Echo Bay trail is flat and only 2.5 miles in a loop through some fantastic birding and swampy ecosystems. Listen for frogs and other signs of life as you walk along the boardwalk.
– Amanda, Field Guide to Parenting Outside
North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park (in Washington) is an awesome trip for adventurous and budget-minded travelers. Getting into the park is free, and you can score a waterfront campsite for $16 a night. Summer is the best time to visit, and the lakes will be warmer for swimming if you go in August. Families should definitely drive through the park on route 20, and stop at Cascade Pass. Here you can have a snowball fight in the summer, hike through an alpine meadow, and feel dwarfed by the grandeur of incredible mountain peaks. Cascade Peak Trail is short, relatively flat, and perfect for kids of all ages.
Colonial Creek Campground is a great family-friendly campground. If you have older kids, I highly recommend the Thunder Knob trail, which starts right in the campground. There’s also good swimming and a nice fishing pier within walking distance. A favorite for kids is the Skagit Whitewater Rafting trip, but they also offer family float trips that are perfectly mellow if that’s more your speed.
– Tara, Back Road Ramblers
Petrified Forest National Park
Did you know there is a magical place in Arizona, where you can see 200 million year old logs that have turned into stone? The Petrified Forest National Park is a place like no other, tucked into northeastern Arizona, and filled with history and fossils dating back to the Late Triassic Period. It’s a great pit stop between the Grand Canyon and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Spend time at the Rainbow Forest Museum, where kids will love learning about the giant reptiles that once lived in this area. Then take a hike on one of seven maintained trails that are scattered throughout the park. The family-friendly Giant Logs Trail is an easy .4 mile loop that is near the Rainbow Forest Museum. Visitors will get a chance to see many of the biggest logs in the park, including “Old Faithful.” In addition to the Jr. Ranger program, kids 5-11 can download the Junior Paleontologist guide, which includes fun facts and activities used to help earn a Jr. Paleontologist badge. As with most parks, visiting during the early morning or late evening often provides the best animal sighting and photography opportunities. When you are done for the day, head over to the nearby town of Holbrook. Spend the night at the Wigwam Motel; after all, it’s not often you get a chance to sleep in a teepee.
– Kath, Family Travels USA
Dry Tortugas National Park
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park in Utah is a great park to visit. It’s much quieter than Bryce Canyon and cheaper too. Admission is only $25 (vs $35 at Bryce!) and you won’t have to pay in Winter when the visitors center is closed. You can easily drive to most of the view points in the “Islands in the Sky” district of the park. The trails to the viewpoints are accessible and easy for kids.
– Bethaney, Flashpacker Family
Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park in Oregon is a wonderful family-friendly gem within the park system. The heart of the park is the spectacular, clear and very blue Crater Lake that stretches six miles across. There is a 33-mile (53 km) Rim Drive with over 30 lookout points around it. Families can also stop along the way and hike at over 90 miles of trails for various ages and levels including climbing some of the over 40 extinct volcanoes. Kids can also participate in the Junior Ranger program to earn badges.
We found summer to be the best time to visit for great visibility and weather and the chance to cruise on the only authorized boat to go around the lake. Water activities and vehicles aren’t allowed on the lake so this was the best way t o experience the park. Park rangers narrated the boat tour. It was a unique perspective of the lake’s history, geology and biology.
Getting to the boat dock is an adventure in itself with a 2.2 mile (3.5 km) round-trip hike on Cleetwood Cove Trail. This is the only safe and legal access to the lake’s shores and waters. Families can fish, swim and even do fancy dives in the volcanic lake. This is one of the cleanest bodies of water since there are no rivers or streams going into Crater Lake.
TIP: Cruises are only available from late June to mid-September and highly dependent on weather. Book this tour online or by calling 888-774-CRATER as soon as possible.
– Mary, The World is A Book
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is often overlooked, but has much to offer families, especially those who have only a day or two to devote to a national park. It’s located right off I-90 in South Dakota, making it ‘along the way’ for numerous road trips to the likes of Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills, but is definitely a stop in its own right. The central loop through the park gives access to 3-4 great day hikes of only a few miles length each, perfect for families with young kids, and the park geography appeals to both Star Wars fans (it looks like another planet) and geology enthusiasts. Definitely stop at iconic Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota before or after!
While in the state, make sure to visit the iconic Custer State Park as well for even more great things to see and do in South Dakota.
– Amy, Pit Stops for Kids
Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument is an amazing national park for aspiring paleontologists of all ages, located on the Utah and Colorado border. One important thing to note while planning your trip is that the Utah side of the park is where you will find dinosaur fossils. When you arrive at the Visitor Center be sure to get Junior Ranger activity books for your kids. We were told that the Dinosaur Junior Ranger badge is the most coveted in the National Park System. From the Visitor Center you can take a shuttle up to the Quarry Exhibit Hall. At the hall you will see the fossils of many different species of dinosaurs including Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodicus, Stegosaurus and more. The Quarry Exhibit Hall includes the “Wall of Bones”, a section of the quarry that they left the dinosaur bones embedded in the rock. You can get up close to the wall and touch dinosaur bones! We recommend going on the Dinosaur Fossil hike lead by a Park Ranger to see even more fossils. The 1.2 miles hike is relatively easy and perfect for kids. Be sure to bring a cooler with drinks and food. There is no place to buy food at the park. They have many great picnic areas. Visit the park after dark, or camp onsite. It is one of the darkest places in the country, making it perfect for stargazing.
– Kim, Kids and Carry-Ons
Do you have a favorite off the beaten path national park, monument or battlefield you would recommend? Share it with us in the comments! Want to explore even more National Parks? Check out Trekaroo’s list of top family friendly parks.
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