Kids are drawn to the outdoors—whether they’re playing in someone’s yard or asking, “Are we there yet?” during a family trip. They are one hundred percent sure there are hidden gems waiting to be discovered outside, and I can’t say that I blame them. Some of my best memories were created while exploring the outdoors around my neighborhood.
And after the past few years we’ve had, it’s certainly more than just kids who are drawn to the outdoors. In fact, the National Park Service had a record number of visitors to their most famous parks in 2021. If planning a trip to a national park is on your family’s bucket list, we want to help!
Read on for everything you need to know about traveling to a national park with your kids—from the best time to visit to what to pack for your adventures. Plus, one mom who’s visited six national parks with her kids is sharing her tips for making the most out of your family’s national parks trip.
Choosing a National Park for Your Family
According to the National Park Foundation, there are over 400 national parks in the U.S. I know, that’s a lot. With so many options to choose from, you and your family should discuss what kind of climate, atmosphere, and/or local activities you’re interested in. For example, if you have kids who are interested in the country’s history, you can travel to the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia or the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. If animals are your kids’ passion, consider visiting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—described as the “Serengeti of North America”—where you may spot (safely from a distance) bears, deer, moose, elk, eagles, and bison. Note: Yellowstone did sustain significant damage from historic flooding this year, so be sure to check what’s open in the park before planning.
Since you’ll be traveling with your kids, it’s important to make sure the park you choose has kid-friendly activities. Based on your child’s age, it’s probably not a good idea to take them on a two-hour nature trail if they’re easily distracted or won’t be able to find a place to use the restroom. Here are a few of our kid-friendly picks:
Located in sunny Florida, the Everglades National Park is around 2,400 miles which makes it the third-largest park. You and your family can enjoy bike trails, a boat ride through the Everglades where you can see alligators and manatees, and hiking. There are also three different entrances to the park—Homestead, Miami, and Everglades City—where you have access to various ranger-led programs.
If you and your family are certain you want to hike but aren’t sure about long trails, Joshua Tree National Park, located in California, is the perfect place to visit. With over 300 miles of trails, it’s easy to find something short that you and your family can enjoy. There are trails like Bajada, which is only 15-20 minutes, and Cottonwood Spring, which is only 10 minutes. If you don’t mind trails that are a little longer in length, you can always visit Joshua Tree National Park’s hiking page for more options.
If you have a few days to spare, the Olympic National Park in Port Angles, Washington is great for experiencing different scenery. The Pacific Coast offers several beaches such as the Mora and Rialto while the various rainforests give you a chance for solitude away from crowded areas. What’s amazing about this park is that your kids will be able to see wild animals IRL like elk and whales.
The National Park Service also offers an online tool to help you find a park nearby that suits your family’s needs.
Deciding When to Visit
Some parks are only open during certain seasons, so it’s important to know this before planning travel. National Geographic suggests visiting a park that’s open as the kids head back to school or when summer break is about to begin. The summer season may attract many tourists who have the same idea, but you can choose peak times to start your adventures—early in the morning or in the evening—given that there is still daylight.
Planning Your Visit
“National Parks are BUSY. Failing to plan is planning to fail,” said Rachel Visser, an ER Nurse, mom of four, and Founder of June Baby Clothes who has traveled to six national parks with her family. Mapping out your days are essential. “Planning ahead of time with hiking options A, B, C, etc. can save you a lot of time not sitting in traffic or circling a parking lot. Start early if possible,” she said.
Be Aware of Park Regulations and Limited Cell Service
Just like amusement parks have regulations, so do national parks. Following posted safety regulations and clean-up requirements are a given, but be sure to check out any COVID policies for visitors as well. Also, check whether reservations are needed ahead of your visit.
“A lot of the more popular National Parks require entry tickets that sell out quite quickly,” said Rachel. “Parking lots also seem to fill up by 9 a.m. if not earlier. Print out maps ahead of time as a lot of National parks have limited cell service.”
If you plan to film or take videos, you should check to see if a permit is required.
Choose Accommodations Nearby
While some parks offer lodging onsite, accommodations may be limited. This is a great time to think about possibly renting an Airbnb. For example, there are a few top-rated cabins and cottages near Yellowstone National Park that offer amenities like self-check-in, free parking, and more. As Rachel mentioned, there’s a chance that your trip may require some significant driving (including some on winding roads) and parking considerations, so be sure to look at a map of the park you choose so you have a good idea of its layout.
Check for Junior Ranger Programs
Nearly every park has a Junior Ranger Program where your kids can take an oath and earn badges. What’s even better is that you are able to see what activities are available in this program and can download a pamphlet to have on hand. According to the National Parks Service, most Junior Rangers are typically between the ages of 5-13, but people of all ages can participate.
Daily Park Packing Essentials
Choosing what to pack may be subjective for individual families, but it’s a good idea to try to pack as lightly as possible. Essential items your family will need to explore the park are:
- Water bottles
- Energy-boosting snacks such as bananas and granola
- Hiking shoes
- Sturdy backpacks
- Biodegradable toilet paper if you plan on hiking
Since you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors, make sure you and your family are properly hydrated as well as protected from the sun’s rays. Additionally, Rachel added, “Buy kids cheap digital cameras or binoculars. [And bring] ALL THE BRIBERY CANDY!”
Be Mindful of Unpredictable Weather and Wildlife
While most parks will update information on their site about the weather and wildlife sightings, you and your family should still have a plan in place in case of unpredictability—they are in nature after all. Remember National Parks do not “belong” to visitors, so unlike a theme park, the weather and wildlife could interfere with your plans. But they might even enhance your experience!
“My 3-year-old daughter would chase an animal off a cliff if she could,” said Rachel. “After a very wild animal dense hike, I was exhausted and told my daughter to just sit on a rock and don’t move. About five minutes later, she calls out ‘mommy, a goat’ and there was a wild mountain goat just sitting next to her.”
No matter which national park you choose to visit, you and your family are sure to have a memorable adventure. Don’t worry if you don’t get a chance to complete all of your planned activities or if your kids suddenly have a meltdown—these things happen on any family trip. Be flexible and try to focus on what you can control. Do your best to stay present and soak up the magnificent nature around you.