By Michael Lanza
The crowning achievement of our National Park System is that we have preserved such uniquely beautiful and significant pieces of nature in perpetuity. But the payoff for America’s foresight in creating and expanding the system is a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable experiences awaiting us in these places—many of them entirely accessible, safe, and really fun for families with kids in a range of ages, from very young to teenagers. From Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Zion (photo above) to Olympic, Grand Teton, and more, here are 10 of the very best national park outdoor adventures with kids—and the time to start planning them is now.
But here’s an inside tip: These adventures aren’t just for families. Adults with beginner-level skills or visiting these parks for the first time will find these trips accessible and safe for their abilities—requiring, at most, a basic amount of research and preparation. And the information, gear, and any logistical support needed is generally available in or just outside the park, either from park rangers or local retailers and outfitters.
I provide suggested minimum ages for each trip below, estimating the average child’s stamina and abilities; your kid may be ready at a younger age or not until he or she is older than the age I suggest.
As you’re thinking about your first or next national park adventure, with or without kids in tow, peruse this list and I think you’ll find plenty of fun and magic to keep your family busy for quite a while. Please let me know what you think of my list and make your own suggestions in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
#1 Hike Zion’s Breathtaking Trails
For Ages 6 and Up
Even among America’s flagship national parks—gems like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone—Zion stands out for having several dayhikes that would make the top 10 list of many parks aficionados. Angels Landing (lead photo at top of story), The Narrows, the West Rim Trail, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Point, to name just a handful that begin right in Zion Canyon, offer scenery—and thrills—so unusual that no other place really compares to Zion.
These hikes and others range widely in distance, difficulty, and gut-churning excitement quotient, and comfort level doesn’t always correlate directly with age. Stop in the park visitor center for information about these hikes, including current conditions; rangers can let you know when to avoid some of them.
See all of my stories about Zion, including this Ask Me post suggesting top dayhikes in the Southwest (including aforementioned trails in Zion), and “The Best Hiking and Backpacking in Zion National Park.”
Explore the best of the Southwest. See my stories “The 10 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks” and
“The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
#2 Stand Beneath Yosemite’s Waterfalls and Hike Half Dome
For Ages 7 and Up
Yosemite Valley and its surrounding high country was an early inspiration for creating a system of national parks, and the source of that inspiration becomes clearer when you explore beyond the Valley’s busy roads, hiking to its justifiably world-famous waterfalls and the summit of one of Yosemite’s iconic landmarks, Half Dome.
Dayhike the 7.2-mile, 2,700-vertical-foot Upper Yosemite Falls Trail to the brink of that waterfall, which plunges a sheer 1,400 feet through the air; or hike only about an hour to 90 minutes uphill to a spot close enough to the base of the waterfall to feel the light rain of its mist. The 6.3-mile, 2,000-vertical-foot loop on the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail takes you through the raining mist of 317-foot-tall Vernal Fall and below and above the thunderous plume of nearly 600-foot-tall Nevada Fall. Fit hikers with good endurance can continue past Nevada Fall to dayhike up the cable route to the summit of Half Dome, a 16-mile, 4,800-foot round trip that requires a permit.
See my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite” and all of my stories about Yosemite, including these Ask Me posts about hiking Half Dome and where to backpack your first time in Yosemite, and “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls.”
Yearning to backpack in Yosemite? See my e-guides to three amazing multi-day hikes there.
#3 Feel the Magic of Yellowstone
For Any Age
Since Americans first began exploring the Yellowstone region, people have stood in awe of its marvels: megafauna like elk, bison, and grizzly bears, spectacular waterfalls, and more than 10,000 geothermal features, including hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and at least 300 geysers—two-thirds of the planet’s known total. We first took our kids to Yellowstone when they were four and two years old, and although they don’t remember that visit, they delighted in the animals and thermal features—partly because so many of Yellowstone’s highlights can be seen on short walks or hikes that are easy enough to do with young kids.
Some of my favorite spots, like Grand Prismatic Spring, the park’s largest, in the Midway Geyser Basin, require only a short stroll on a boardwalk. A walking tour of Mammoth Hot Springs, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, and even the Upper Geyser Basin (which includes Old Faithful) doesn’t require much more effort.
#4 Climb Into Natural Arches
For Ages 6 and Up
Arches National Park in southeastern Utah has many geologic wonders to recommend it, but from a kid’s perspective, one of the coolest experiences is scrambling up underneath an arch like Double Arch in the park’s Windows Section or Partition Arch in Devils Garden—the first a short walk, the second a hike of two to three hours round-trip.
For short, easy walks to several arches, feasible with young kids, start in the Windows Section, where you can get up close and personal with Double Arch, Turret Arch, and South Window. For a longer but relatively flat hike of up to a half-day (although you can shorten it), explore Devils Garden, including Pine Tree, Navajo, and Partition arches, and the park’s longest, Landscape Arch. Skyline Arch, which is a short hike but sits by itself and thus attracts fewer people, sits high on the wall of a narrow canyon, and you can scramble up the canyon’s opposite wall for a bird’s-eye view of the arch. If you have a full day, take a ranger-guided tour of the Fiery Furnace, a maze of narrow canyons.
See my story about a family hiking and backpacking trip to Arches and the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
Get the right pack for you. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the 6 best hiking daypacks.
#5 Ascend Into the Tetons
For Ages 7 and Up
Regular readers of this blog know that the Tetons are one of my favorite mountain ranges (I’ve made nearly 20 trips dayhiking, backpacking, climbing, and backcountry skiing) and I consider the Teton Crest Trail one of America’s finest multi-day hikes (and one of my top 10 favorite backpacking trips). But the TCT is a fairly ambitious and strenuous hike of at least four days. The first backpacking trip we took as an entire family, when my kids were eight and six, was a three-day hike of Grand Teton’s 18-mile Paintbrush-Cascade Canyons Loop from String Lake Trailhead.
The most popular backpacking route in the park because of its relatively short distance and easy access, it takes you through two of the park’s most stunning canyons and over the highest pass reached by a trail in the park, 10,700-foot Paintbrush Divide (which can be difficult to cross, due to snow, until late July or August). Campsites in Upper Paintbrush Canyon have views of soaring, striated canyon walls, and in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon you have a view of the Grand Teton framed by canyon walls. See my e-guide to this backpacking trip, which tells you everything you need to know to pull it off.
See all of my stories about Grand Teton National Park, including my feature about the Teton Crest Trail, my story about backpacking the TCT with my family, and all of my Ask Me posts about Grand Teton National Park.
Click here now to get my e-guide to the most beginner-friendly backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park.
#6 Descend Into the Grand Canyon
For Ages 8 and Up
The Grand Canyon may look impressive from its rim, but you really have to hike down into the Big Ditch to experience the full Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole sensation of the canyon’s awesome scale. With virtually no vegetation obstructing the long vistas, towers thousands of feet tall appear to balloon to massive dimensions as you slowly hike closer to them, until they dwarf their surroundings, then shrink into the background as you gradually hike farther away. After many visits, I’ve yet to find a mediocre view or a bad backcountry campsite.
You can get that experience on a dayhike or backpacking trip into the canyon. Hike one of the easily accessed and well-constructed trails dropping into the canyon from the South Rim, such as following the Bright Angel Trail down as far as you want—there are numerous logical turnaround points within the first few miles, or go all the way to Indian Garden (nine miles and nearly 3,000 feet round-trip) or to Plateau Point for a dramatic overlook a thousand feet above the Colorado River. Or descend the South Kaibab Trail, one of America’s most scenic footpaths, with constant, ridge-crest views of a huge swath of the canyon. Accessible backpacking options off the South Rim allow for trips of three to four days; see the stories linked below for more details on those.
See all of my stories about the Grand Canyon, including my stories about hiking across the Grand Canyon via the South and North Kaibab trails, dayhiking 25 miles from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead (a really nice, three- to four-day backpacking trip), backpacking 29 miles from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead, and backpacking 15 miles from New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point.
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#7 Embrace a Giant Sequoia
For Any Age
If you’re going to be a tree hugger, you might as well go big. The giant sequoias of California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks can live more than 3,000 years, grow as tall as a 26-story building, and have a base diameter of 36 feet. The General Sherman Tree is the largest in the world at 52,508 cubic feet (1,487 cubic meters), 275 feet tall, and estimated to weigh 2.7 million pounds. The General Grant Tree is the second largest at 46,608 cubic feet (1,320 cubic meters). Try hugging that.
The Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park contains half of the Earth’s largest trees, more than 8,000 sequoias. You can take a tour of scores of them, including the General Sherman Tree, on a hike of an hour or less. From Wolverton Road, off the Generals Highway, a half-mile trail leads to the General Sherman Tree. The 0.7-mile Big Trees Trail begins at the Giant Forest Museum.
See all of my stories about Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, including my story about a 40-mile family backpacking trip that included a walk through a backcountry sequoia grove.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
#8 Immerse Yourself in the Wild Everglades
For Ages 7 and Up
The Everglades is the kind of place that will shock you with its uniqueness and abundance of exotic fauna. Paddling sit-on-top kayaks on a placid river that flowed through mangrove tunnels, and canoes in the generally calm, shallow waters of the Ten Thousand Islands, my family watched an almost constant aerial parade of white ibises, black anhingas, tri-colored herons, brown pelicans and great blue herons fly just overhead. My son and I twisted around excitedly in our seats as a dolphin circled our canoe several times, and exchanged long gazes with a gaggle of roseate spoonbills perched in a tree.
Much of the Everglades is a vast wilderness—at 1.5 million acres, the third-largest national park in the contiguous United States, bigger than Glacier or Grand Canyon and twice the size of Yosemite—offering opportunities for remote, multi-day, water-based adventures. But there are family-friendly options, like paddling canoes for a few hours on a well-marked water route to camp on a beach you have to yourselves.
See my story “Like No Other Place: Paddling the Everglades.”
Paddling the Everglades is one of “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
#9 Hike and Camp on a Wild Coast
For Ages 7 and Up
My kids, who were nine and seven when we backpacked this three-day, 17.5-mile traverse of Washington’s southern Olympic coast, remember playing for hours in tide pools; exploring a massive boulder wallpapered with mussels, sea anemones, and sea stars; and climbing up and down thrilling rope ladders on steep headwalls. They still call it one of their favorite trips (and it’s one of my top 10 family adventures). The adults on this hike remember it for the rich sea life and birds—we saw seals, a sea otter, a great blue heron, and other wildlife—as well as the scenery, with scores of sea stacks rising straight out of the ocean, and giant trees.
It’s a surprisingly rugged trip (which goes far in explaining why fewer backpackers hike the southern stretch of the Olympic coast compared to the less-strenuous northern stretch), but kids who’ve done some dayhiking and backpacking may do just fine. Parents would have to be comfortable either guiding their kids on the rope ladders or believing them capable to managing them on their own.
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast” and all of my stories about Olympic National Park.
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#10 Sea Kayak Back to the Ice Age
For Ages 8 and Up
Southeast Alaska’s Glacier Bay is the size of Connecticut and sits at the heart of a contiguous protected wilderness the size of Greece. There are simply few places of this size that are as pristine on the entire planet. Glacier Bay has seen the fastest glacial retreat on Earth: Two centuries ago, there was no Glacier Bay, just a glacier 4,000 feet thick and 20 miles wide stretching 100 miles into the St. Elias Mountains. The ice has since pulled back 65 miles, creating a fjord with 1,200 miles of coastline that provides a living window into what the world looked like at the end of the last Ice Age.
On a multi-day sea kayaking trip, you can see massive tidewater glaciers explosively calving bus-sized chunks of ice into the sea, humpback whales, orcas, Steller sea lions, mountain goats, seals, sea otters, brown bears, and a variety of birds and wildflowers—not to mention views of some of the more than 50 glaciers covering 1,375 square miles of the park, and peaks that rise to over 15,000 feet.
See my story “Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking Glacier Bay.”
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