By Michael Lanza
“What national park adventure should we take with our kids?” That’s a question I get frequently from parents. It’s a tough one to answer, given all the great choices. But my advice always focuses on the ages of kids, because that’s how I’ve always thought about picking the right trips for my kids. I ask myself: What’s the most fun, inspirational, and safe adventure we can take them on at their ages?
I’ve compiled below five recommendations for absolute, must-do national park trips for families (with links to my story about each for more info and photos), arranged in order from the easiest, for younger kids, to the most challenging, for older, more-experienced kids.
But keep this in mind, too: One of the finest aspects of our National Park System is that most of the parks have areas that can be seen and enjoyed by just about anyone, regardless of age or level of mobility. Feeling wonder in nature knows no age restrictions.
Each of these adventures should be on the tick list of everyone who loves the outdoors or who wants to raise kids that do. Now go outside and play.
Any Age: Ultimate Tour of Yellowstone National Park
Our kids don’t remember the first time they visited the world’s first national park—they were just four and two. But I remember vividly their awe at seeing bison and elk and gurgling geysers and mud pots, and how they burst into uproarious laughter at the sight of Old Faithful erupting. (I’d never realized before just how funny Old Faithful is.) They’ve been back three times since, in summer and cross-country skiing in winter—not bad for kids that young. Yellowstone delights all ages, and you’ll want to go back again and again. See my “Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone.”
Don’t Miss my ever-popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”
Age 4 and Up: Paddling the Everglades
Paddling kayaks through mangrove tunnels, on a placid, brown river, we watched snowy egrets, brown pelicans, great blue herons, and other exotic birds fly just overhead, and alligators floating listlessly (they’re largely inactive in mid-winter, the best time to go). We spent three days canoeing in the Ten Thousand Islands, where our kids had a wilderness beach to themselves and we saw ospreys, brilliantly pink roseate spoonbills, and a dolphin, and watched awe-inspiring sunsets into the Gulf of Mexico. Bigger than Glacier, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite, Everglades is one of Earth’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries and a surprisingly easy family adventure. See my story “Like No Other Place: Paddling the Everglades.”
Age 4 and Up: Floating Through Canyonlands National Park
Our son was six and our daughter barely four when we took a five-day, five-family float trip on the Green River through Stillwater Canyon in southern Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Our flotilla of rafts, two kayaks, and a canoe quickly morphed into a slowly drifting party of water-gun fights and occasional swims to cool off, interspersed with frequent moments of gazing at brilliantly red canyon walls rising hundreds of feet above us. The flat water is ideal for beginners, campsites are spacious and lovely, and the scenery is out of this world from put-in to takeout. See my story “Still Waters Run Deep: Tackling America’s Best Multi-Day Float Trip on the Green River.”
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Age 7-8 and Up: Hiking to Yosemite Valley Waterfalls
For adults and children, the majesty of Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls plunging over sheer cliffs with a roar that could drown out a freight train always induces speechless awe—followed by laughter of delight when you walk through the mist created by the waterfalls, raining from a blue sky. Kids with good hiking stamina will love the aptly named Mist Trail to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, and feel a powerful sense of accomplishment after ascending the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail to the brink of the 1,430-foot-tall waterfall, one of the 20 tallest in the world. See my story “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls.”
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
Age 7-8 and Up: Backpacking the Wild Olympic Coast
Tide pools to play in. Boulders wallpapered with mussels, sea anemones, and vividly orange or purple starfish. Bald eagles flying overhead and sea otters and seals cavorting just offshore. Stone towers, or “sea stacks,” erupting from the ocean. Giant trees in a primeval forest. Ascending and descending rope-and-wood ladders on cliffs (where I guided my kids for safety). Backpacking the Olympic coast is like nature’s aquarium, water park, and amusement park all rolled into one—an unforgettable and strikingly beautiful adventure for adults and kids. See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast.”
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