There’s no contesting the fact that the U.S. National Parks are some of the most valuable treasures we have as a country. Though the National Park Service oversees a variety of properties from seashores to monuments, only 28 states have designated National Parks. Each of the 58 National Parks in the U.S. have something unique and special to offer.
Trips to these iconic places top many a family bucket list: quality time together in the great outdoors (let’s not forget about those Insta-worthy vacation photos), exploring new regions of the country, and learning about the parks’ flora and fauna. Countless experts are encouraging families to spend time in the wild–it’s said to help reduce anxiety and ADHD symptoms, it gives kids an appreciation for nature, and they’ll form a long-lasting connection with the outdoors and our country’s cultural heritage. Kids can burn off steam free from distracting devices (and it’s cheaper than an amusement park).
The National Park Service wants parks to be accessible for everyone and runs a variety of programs ranging from free admission days to discounted passes. Senior citizens get a pass for just $10 and passes are gratis for veterans and people with disabilities. Fourth graders get a free parks pass valid for family use at any National Park they visit during the school year, making it the perfect time to cross a couple of parks off your list. And then there’s the Junior Ranger program, where kids can do a project in the park, learn what’s unique about it, then get a badge from the park in exchange (a collection of them make a nifty backpack decoration).
We chose a dozen of our country’s most iconic National Parks and highlighted just what makes them so spectacular for kids. Read on for Grok Nation’s guide to getting the most out of your family vacation to our National Parks.
The first designated national park in the United States, Yellowstone National Park offers incredible attractions such as wildlife viewing, spectacular vistas, and geothermal features. Best bets for families: Take boardwalk trails to get an up-close view of geysers and paint pots. Hike one of the umpteen miles of trails in the park—little hikers will enjoy the 2-mile Yellowstone Lake Overlook trail, while older kids will enjoy the 4-mile Lost Lake Loop. Seeing the park while on horseback (followed by a chuckwagon dinner at Roosevelt Lodge) is a must-do. Reserve early morning and just before sunset for wildlife viewing: It’s the time the park’s animals are most active. Camping in Yellowstone (think s’mores, tall tales, and campfire songs) is a no-brainer and adventure seekers will love mountain biking, white water rafting, and kayaking.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Skip the crowds on Trail Ridge Road, Bear Lake, and Longs Peak and opt for Wild Basin, where waterfalls, placid lakes, camping, and climbing can be done without vying for elbow room. Lily Lake is a popular loop hike for families, and Alberta Falls’ Trail will lead you to 30-foot falls in less than a mile. Wildlife abounds—the park is especially popular in the fall for aspen leaf peeping during elk mating season, when herds of elk wander the park, bugling and locking horns. Trail Ridge Road is a classic RMNP drive, with a great photo op at the top and attractions like the Alpine Visitor Center and the Holzwarth Historical Site, a preserved former pioneer homestead. Pro tip: In the winter, the park has a popular sledding and tubing hill complete with a warming station open on weekends—pack a thermos of hot cocoa.
Mesa Verde, Colorado
This park is one that is a must for everyone at least once. Its draw is the cliff dwellings built by Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the area from 600-1300 A.D. The dwellings require a pre-ticketed, ranger-guided tour to view, but Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House can all be explored up close, though they require climbing kiva ladders and crawling through tunnels. Petroglyph Point trail is challenging but gets visitors an up-close view of glyphs and the canyon landscape. Be sure to dine (or stay) at the Far View Inn, where picture windows show off a stunning panoramic view. The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum contains a beautifully curated curated collection of artifacts.
Acadia National Park, Maine
This 48,000-acre park southwest of Bar Harbor is made up of woodlands, rocky beaches and peaks. Centered around Mount Desert Island, it’s home to moose, bear, whales and seabirds. The park boasts 127 miles of hiking trails or 45 miles of carriage roads for bike, walk or ride horseback. Insider tip: The Island Hopper is a free shuttle that stops at the park’s top sites. Don’t miss popovers and tea at the Jordan Pond House, a tradition since the 1890s. And hit the Bar Island Sand Bar for tidepooling at low tide.
A completely unique biosphere, the ‘Glades are known for their marshes and wildlife (gator alert!). The Gumbo Limbo Trail winds through a jungle full of fauna. Ranger-led canoe trips are a popular way to tour the park, as are “slough slogs,” or off trail exploration of cypress domes. Winter is Florida’s dry season and is the best time to visit (less bad weather and less mosquitos) while on the lookout for manatees, marsh birds, and of course, alligators.
Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts
Okay, Cape Cod is not technically a national park, but it is managed by the National Park Service. The 68-square mile stretch of seashore was designated protected by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and includes not only stunning family-friendly beachfront but ponds and woods with miles of bike and walking trails criss-crossing the park. Don’t miss: a dune tour and a day at Race Point Beach, easily accessible by shuttle bus in Provincetown.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon, California
Home to five of the 10 largest trees in the world and the General Sherman, a 275-foot tree that’s the largest living thing on earth, Sequoia and Kings Canyon will stun children (and adults!) of all ages. The parks has 800 miles of hiking trails and is home to many species of wildlife from bear to cougar, squirrels, deer and birds. In the Giant Forest, the 5-mile Trail of the Sequoias is a challenging loop that takes hikers over ridges, through meadows, and to an 1860s sequoia cabin. Marble Falls is also a pretty hike with a waterfall at the end.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
18 miles wide, 277 miles of river long, and one mile deep, the Grand Canyon lives up to its name. Explore the North Rim to avoid the crowds, where you can do the 6-mile North Kaibab Trail to Roaring Springs where a waterfall awaits. If you’re feeling really adventurous, take a mule into the canyon and stay at the Phantom Ranch (but book early!). Several rafting outfits bring visitors over the rapids as well. Another classic place to stay is El Tovar, which is full of history of the area.
Bryce Canyon, Utah
Breathtaking red, orange, and white rock formations called hoodoos spire in the canyon, making for a photographer’s paradise (tip: sunrise and sunset are prime times). The park has almost no light pollution, so the park is well known for stargazing, which can be done with a ranger guide. There are 3-4 hour horseback rides that will take visitors into the canyon and hikers will want to get the panoramic vista from Rim Trail. Pro tip: Take the family in February and snowshoe or ski. Discounted hotels, a winter fest, and horse-drawn carriages await.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
The only city within a national park, Hot Springs is known for being a health destination at the turn of the century with bathhouses lining the main street. It was a favorite haunt of Al Capone’s, who ran a gambling and bootlegging ring there. Check out the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, the racing at Oak Lawn, the museums dedicated to the town’s history. Don’t miss a soak at one of the two remaining family-friendly operating spas and take a picnic to the top of the Grand Promenade.