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Ask Me: Which National Parks Should My Family Visit on a Cross-Country Trip?

Ask Me: Which National Parks Should My Family Visit on a Cross-Country Trip?

Hi Mike,

We are planning a trip across the country in July to Seattle/Tacoma. We have six kids (ages one to 12). We’re planning to drive all the way across and back in about a month. There are lots of places we’d like to experience, but we don’t want to just spend 30 nights in 30 different places, so we are planning spend two to three nights in the most interesting places and four nights in and around Yellowstone. We aren’t campers, don’t boat/canoe, and while we enjoy hikes with the kids, anything more than a few miles (or less if there is significant elevation change) is challenging. Given your experience and all of our constraints, I was curious which parks/areas you might recommend we visit (vs. better to visit later when the kids are older and some of those constraints are removed).

I’d also be curious, given that you live in Boise, if you thought Boise is worth visiting on our trip?  We were looking at Twin Falls and some of the surrounding areas (City of Rocks, Craters of the Moon, Bruneau Dunes) and were considering a stop at Boise as well.

We’ve driven our kids as far south as the Florida Keys, east as Cape Breton, north as Saguenay Fjord, west as the Mississippi (except for the two oldest that joined us on a visit to Portland/Seattle when they were young), and pretty much everywhere in between. We have taken our kids to more than 70 national parks, monuments, historic sites, and battlefields, as well as a dozen or so Parks Canada sites.

Thanks for any help you can provide and best of luck in all of your efforts!

Best regards,
Tony and Anne
Baltimore, MD

(Originally submitted as a question on Twitter to @MichaelALanza)

Hi Tony and Anne,

Old Faithful erupting in Yellowstone.

Old Faithful erupting in Yellowstone.

Thanks for writing and I’m excited for your family with your plans, it’ll be a wonderful adventure.

First of all, many national parks have plenty of scenery, activities, and natural features that are easily accessible for people who can’t or don’t want to walk far, as you’ve probably already discovered. We’ve taken our kids to parks since they were babies and always had fun. Having young kids doesn’t have to prevent you from visiting many parks. Yellowstone, in fact, is great for families with young kids.

That said, I would agree with your strategy of allocating your time appropriately. Here’s roughly how I’d plan to spend my time on a trip between D.C. and Seattle/Tacoma.

Although I haven’t yet visited Badlands National Park, I’ve read about it and would like to do some hiking there. Spend a day on your trip out; if you like it, you can always add a day then or on the way back.

Drive through the Needles area of the Black Hills in South Dakota—beautiful area, I’ve rock climbed there. Same with Devils Tower, in eastern Wyoming, where you might take a short walk, but not being climbers, you probably won’t feel a need to spend more than a half-day in either place.

 

Grand Teton National Park.

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton and Yellowstone are parks I have visited many times and never grow tired of. See my story “The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone” (which includes the 20-minute walk through the Midway Geyser Basin; see the lead photo at the top of this story). You could fill three to four days in Yellowstone, but spend a day in Grand Teton, too, even if you do nothing more than drive the park road and take the ferry across Jenny Lake for a short, easy hike up Cascade Canyon, or hang out on the small beach at String Lake, where you have a stunning view of the mountains.

Craters of the Moon and the City of Rocks National Reserve in Idaho are both very scenic and unusual and worth a half-day or a full day’s visit, even if you don’t intend to do much hiking. You will find they are a few hours’ drive apart because of the remote roads, and neither has much more development than a road (dirt road in the City of Rocks, but fine for cars), camping, bathrooms, and trails. Same with Bruneau Dunes State Park. I would check out photos and descriptions of all of them online and see whether you think your family would be very interested, and choose at most one or two of them, rather than giving them a top priority over the parks I’m suggesting.

We love Boise, of course, but I won’t tell you it’s national park caliber or should be a top priority on your trip. It’s a nice city and worth a stop if it’s conveniently located for a hotel night along your route. The Boise Foothills are pretty and the Downtown has a variety of good restaurants and historical sites.

My son, Nate, in the Grove of the Patriarchs, Mount Rainier National Park.

My son, Nate, in the Grove of the Patriarchs, Mount Rainier National Park.

The last national park along your drive to Tacoma will be Mount Rainier. Snow covers many of the trail well into July and not infrequently into August, although many are still hikeable, and the park roads are open, of course. You can drive to Paradise and Sunrise and have great views without hiking at all, or take short hikes from either place. See my favorite hikes at Rainier.

I don’t know whether you’ll have time, but from Seattle/Tacoma, you’re within two to three hours of Olympic National Park, a fabulous place, with areas you could visit with your family. From lodging in the town of Port Angeles, you can drive up to Hurricane Ridge, which has a visitor center and short hikes with incredible views of the Olympic Mountains on a clear day. You can drive around to the Hoh River Trail, a flat trail through some of the most majestic, old-growth, temperature rainforest in the U.S. Then drive out to the coastal area of the park for one of the short, flat hikes through rainforest to the wilderness beaches and views of sea stacks at either Third Beach (about 3.5 miles round-trip) or Sand Point (six miles round-trip). You can also drive to Ozette Lake or Rialto Beach.

You may want to scroll through all of my stories about family adventures and about national park trips at The Big Outside, and in particular see my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” “Boy Trip, Girl Trip: Why I Take Father-Son and Father-Daughter Adventures,” my “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors” and “My Top 10 Family Adventures.”

I hope that’s helpful. Good luck.

Best,
Michael

Michael,

All very helpful. Thanks again for all the help.

Tony

In Ask Me, I share my response to a reader question. Got a question about hiking, backpacking, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at mlanza@thebigoutside.com, message me at facebook.com/TheBigOutside, or tweet it to @MichaelALanza. I will answer the ones I can in a post, using only your first name and city, with your permission. I receive a high volume of questions, so I cannot always respond quickly. Scroll through my Ask Me page and All Trips pagesskills stories, and gear reviews for answers to your questions before writing to me.

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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

2 Comments

  1. Nomad

    You could stop at Cuyahoga Valley NP in Ohio, then swing north into Michigan and hit Sleeping Bear Dunes, then north into the UP, stop for a half day at Big Seney Refuge, from there to Pictured Rocks on Lake Superior.
    Then west into ND and stop at Theodore Roosevelt which we liked much better than the Badlands.
    From there stop at Little Bighorn battlefield for a day.
    You can go west and her into Yellowstone from the north, if possible you could exit north and hit Glacier then onward west into Idaho.
    Lots of possibilities and they are all good I think.

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      All good suggestions, thanks.

      Reply

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