National Parks with Kids: A How To Guide

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America’s national park system is one of the greatest assets we have in this country, and is often the most underutilized. Growing up I never stepped foot in a national park. I didn’t even know anything about them until I fell in love with Ansel Adam’s photography in high school. But even then it seemed like a distant dream to go to the places I saw in his photographs.

Only after having my son and moving to Southern California did the world of national parks open up to us. Joshua Tree was our first, which continues to mesmerize us with each subsequent visit. Our visits to the parks have sparked a great level of interest and knowledge about animals, rocks, forests and the wonderfully enigmatic world we live in for our five year old. As much as we love to travel to far off exotic lands, some of our greatest and best travel memories have happened right here in America, at our national parks.

National Parks with Kids: A how to guide

So what is holding you back? Fear of the unknown? Overwhelmed by the options? Worried that you aren’t an outdoorsy person? Think your children are too young? Wrong! The national parks system is not actually just “parks” like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. The system is filled with historical, cultural and natural places of interest. It includes battlefields, monuments, rivers and recreation areas, scenic trails and so much more. With so many options, you are bound to find a park that sparks your interest and passion no matter what it is.

We love the national parks and truly believe it is one of America’s greatest gifts to her people, so in an effort to get more of you out there exploring, here are some helpful hints to take away some of the excuses and worry of why you can’t get out there to explore!

How to Research the Parks

National Parks with kids: A how to GuideWith over 400 national parks, it is overwhelming to figure out where to go and what to do. A great resource for researching what parks are near you can be found on the National Park Foundation website. They have a plethora of downloadable handy resource guides to find out more about individual parks. We particularly like the Urban Parks and Places Nobody Knows booklets. For a great overview of the parks by region, check out the national park owners guide which lists parks in each region of the US. Once you have entered your email, download all the booklets at once, or else you will have to enter your email again.

Another handy resource to have when looking into national parks on your phone is the Passport to National Parks app (iPhone & Android versions). We love this simple, no frills app. It provides basic information such as phone numbers and addresses, whether there is a junior ranger program and links to the official park website. Anytime I read something new about a park I will bookmark it on our app as a place we want to visit. After a visit to a new park, I will make a note of when we visited.

Once you have determined which park you would like to visit, you can connect to their individual website which has a mountain of information to help plan your visit – where to stay, what to do, calendars of events and more.

Plan in Advance

National Parks with kids: A how to guideOne difficulty in planning a trip to the national parks is finding accommodation. Even though the parks are often underutilized as a whole, accommodation at popular parks are booked out 6 months in advance for the peek summer season. If you want to visit the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons or other famous parks during the summer, you need to book your trip before the end of January for the best in-park accommodation options.

Camping is typically what sells out the quickest since it is the cheapest option and often represents the quintessential national park visit. However most parks have on-site hotels, lodges or glamping as well as other options outside of the park for those of us not super into sleeping on the ground all summer!

Explore Locally

Cabrillo Lighthouse - National Parks with Kids: A how to guideTo try your hand at visiting some of the national parks, you don’t have to go far. You also don’t have to camp. It’s easy to believe that since you (and more than 80% of America) live in urban environments that there isn’t a park near you. Try again. A new guide released by the National Park Foundation lists out the national parks near to 24 urban areas. You might be surprised what is nearby.  For us in LA, we have the Santa Monica Mountains which offers great options for hiking, a beautiful visitors center for exploration and learning as well as the coveted (by my 5 year old at least) junior park ranger badge program. Within a 2 hour drive, we also have Joshua Tree, the Channel Islands and Cabrillo National Monument. In the Bay Area, there is Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Recreation Area, Muir Woods and the often not known about Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front. Even if your city doesn’t have a park locally, see what else is nearby and check it out.

Utilize Free Days

National Parks with Kids: A how to GuideIf lack of funds is something that holds you back from visiting the national parks, there are 16 fee free days this year where the national parks are free to enter. I can warn you now, they will be more crowded, but overall, we have never had a problem with the crowds other than at the entrance gate. The fee free days for 2016 are:

  • January 18: Martin Luther King Jr Day
  • April 16-24: National Park Week
  • August 25-28: National Park Service Birthday Weekend
  • September 24: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

If you aren’t sure you want to brave the crowds, but know you want to visit a few parks in a year, consider getting the National Park Annual Pass. We have had it for the last two years and it has more than paid for itself. For $80, it grants you admission to any of the national parks in the US. With ours this pass year, we visited two parks in Hawaii, Joshua Tree, the Grand Canyon, Zion and Glen Canyon.

Collect Junior Ranger Badges

National Parks with kids: A how to GuideA great way to get children into exploring and learning more about the sites and parks you visit is through the junior ranger program. The junior ranger badge is a free program located at most (but not all) of the national parks, including monuments and recreation areas. A free booklet is provided at the entrance gate or visitor centers in the park. Typically, kids (and adults too!) will be asked to do a scavenger hunt of items easily seen in the park and/or visitor center, answer questions about the area, go on a short hike or nature walk and attend a ranger led program.  Even though these are geared to children, we have found that we learn just as much as our son through these booklets that I really would recommend even adults visiting without children to check them out. This is also a great way to collect a free souvenir from all of the parks you visit.

In addition to earning junior ranger badges on site, many parks also allow you to complete the booklet online and mail in to receive a badge in the mail. This is a great option for people who live in states without an abundance of national parks nearby.

Feed the Wanderlust

National Parks with kids: A how to GuideCheck out magazines like Westways, Sunset and Outdoor Photographer for photographic inspiration on famous national parks. Search under the hashtag #findyourpark or #findyouradventure on Instagram to feed your wanderlust and see what the various national parks have in store for you. Make a list of what you want to do this year and how you can do it!

Do you want to hike through a river at Zion? Bicycle the back lanes of Yosemite with bobcats? Feel tiny amongst the big trees of Sequoia or as you peer over the Grand Canyon’s edge? Head east and search for bears in the Great Smoky Mountains or listen for the snap of alligators in the Everglades? The world is out there waiting for you to discover it, experience it and share it with others.

Lets show the National Park System that we are here to support them, that the land they govern for us is important and valuable to preserve for future generations. The only way we can do that is to visit them and instill a love for the parks in all of our children.

So, where will you go this year? We hope to make it to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons!

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National Parks with Kids: A how to guide

10 thoughts on “National Parks with Kids: A How To Guide”

  1. Love this! My husband is a Park Ranger, so we’re constantly trying to explore new parks and natural landmarks, kids included.

    • So awesome your husband is a park ranger! My 5 year old is obsessed with being a park ranger! He has no qualms about telling grown ups he sees at parks feeding the animals that they aren’t allowed to! Haha which park does he work at?

  2. Love the National Parks! When my daughters were little we road tripped to many of them. Now they are teens and we are heading to India on Friday. I’ll be checking out your archives for tips.

  3. Loved this post! It makes me want to visit some parks when we come back to the US.
    Zion national park made such an impression on me during a family vacation as a kid, the red stones and deep blue sky were so foreign from the NC pine forests I was used to. I still think about going back one day with the family. I definitely agree that you don’t have to go too far to see really awesome stuff.

    • We did Zion last summer and my son fell in love with the thought that we could hike through a river!! It was so fun and such an amazing experience. I bet there are some great gems in NC! We haven’t ventured to that side of the states yet.

  4. Love this…It just took one visit to a National Park (Joshua Tree was the first one I saw) and I turned into an addicted hiker and backpacker. The country is just so beautiful… it gives you a voracious appetite to travel and see them all, doesn’t it?

    • It really does! Cian wants to do a short thru-hike on the PCT , something I never would have imagined considering, but now we all love it so much!

  5. It seems like all of my work colleagues have been to more national parks on holiday than I visited growing up near them. We didn’t realize how much we hadn’t seen in the US, until we moved to Australia.

    Thanks for the great post, with tips that are good for park travel everywhere.

    • It’s funny that more tourists see our national parks than we do I think! Every time we are at one, there are literally bus loads of tourists from other countries. I think American culture has gotten so used to work work work and no time for family holidays.


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