Many of my family’s best vacation memories have been made in the National Parks. Exploring the rugged terrain of Badlands National Park, scampering over giant boulders in Yellowstone, and spotting wildlife in Denali rank near the top of our experiences. A National Parks vacation can be truly rewarding, especially with some advance planning.
I think the best starting point for planning a National Parks trip is looking at pictures. When it comes to National Parks, a picture is truly worth a thousand words. Start collecting pictures of scenic views for your bucket list. Whether you do it the old-fashioned way with magazine clippings or with newer tools like Pinterest, create a collection of pictures of the amazing landscapes of the national parks, then show the pictures to your kids and gauge their reaction. When you hear “Oooooh, I want to go there!!!” you’ve got a winner.
Last-minute trips to the national parks are possible, but if you want to sleep inside the park, you’ll probably need to plan ahead–far ahead if you’re visiting highly popular parks like Yosemite during the busy summer season. For our Yosemite trip, we were advised to make our lodge reservations the first day they were available, 366 days prior to our arrival date. Denali National Park is another park that requires advance planning, even if you aren’t staying in the park. Most of the park is accessible only by shuttle or tour buses, so if you don’t have transportation reservations, you’ll only be able to travel as far as the visitor center. Most families with school-age children are constrained by school schedules and will likely want to travel during spring break or during the summer. Families with younger children should consider taking advantage of the less crowded shoulder seasons. May and September might be ideal for those families, and might not require planning as far in advance.
You will want to tailor your trip plans based on the age of your kids, but there’s no age that’s too young to visit one of the parks. While living in California several years ago, we visited Death Valley National Park with a two-year-old and a seven-week-old baby. We didn’t tackle any long hikes, but we enjoyed short jaunts. My then two-year-old (now 14) doesn’t remember the trip, but he enjoyed it at the time. If you have a long list of parks you want to visit, you might plan them based on the age your kids will be each year.
Some parts of the country have parks located close enough together that you might want to combine a few parks into one vacation. Grand Teton National Park is adjacent to Yellowstone. A trip to Badlands National Park can easily be combined with visits to Mt. Rushmore, Wind Cave, and Jewel Cave in South Dakota’s Black Hills. The difficult part of planning trips with multiple parks is deciding how many days to spend at each one. At that point in my planning I dig into the next level of detail and figure out the must-see sights and must-do activities for each park. If there are distinctly different parts of the park, I’ll make a rough plan of how much time to spend in each section. But I don’t get very detailed in our daily plans. Once we are in the parks, I like to let my children’s interests lead.
Our first stop in a national park is almost always the Visitors Center. The park rangers are usually very helpful. They can recommend sites that kids enjoy, hikes of various lengths that suit your family’s interests, and can let you know about ranger programs of interest during your stay. Make sure you take time to review safety considerations. If you’re in bear country, make sure you or a park ranger review bear safety guidelines with your kids. This is also when you should decide if your kids will participate in the Junior Ranger Program. My kids have done about a dozen of these. They are great fun if your kids are in the 7-11 year old range. My daughter loves collecting the Junior Ranger pins and even found a pink Park Princess vest to display them on at Yellowstone.
The National Parks Passport is also fun for kids. Purchase a passport at any park, then bring it along to all your park visits and stamp each park’s official stamp in your passport. (If you’re forgetful like me and often forget to bring your passport, you can stamp it on a blank piece of paper and take it home to paste in your passport.) Once you set out to see a park, relax and enjoy it. Often the things kids find the most interesting aren’t listed in any guidebook. Allow plenty of time to climb rocks, play with sticks, and skip stones. Nature fuels creativity and imagination in children. Snap pictures and capture the memories. THIS is why you chose a national park for your vacation destination.
Enjoy Terri’s book: