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Western National Parks, National Parks in the West

National Parks to Visit near 6 U.S. Western Cities

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The National Park Service is celebrating its centennial in 2016 and seeing record number attendance. Most of the over 400 parks, historic sites and monuments are usually in locations that require road trips and week-long itineraries. But, there are also parks and national monuments near urban centers worth exploring and within a 2-3 hour drive. If you’re visiting any of these western United States cities, look into these day trips to enjoy our country’s natural treasures.

1. San Diego, CA

Starting with one close to my home, Cabrillo National Monument is a few minutes drive from downtown San Diego. This park offers a stunning view of the city, a lighthouse, hiking trails and a chance for kids to learn about Spanish explorers including trying on armors and costumes. There is a lookout to spot migrating whales from December to April.

My kids’ favorite part is the tide pools. Ensure you’re visiting during low tide when the ocean reveals numerous marine creatures that will entertain and educate the family for hours.

Western national parks, National parks in the west - Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, CA is a natural gem filled with tide pools, scenic views and overlooks.

Read more>> San Diego With Kids – Attractions For Varied Interests

2. Los Angeles, CA

Drive north from Los Angeles, about 70 miles along the coast, to Channel Islands National Park which has been dubbed as the Galapagos Islands of North America. These five islands have over 2,000 plant and animal species, and 145 of these can only be found at this location. This national park is only accessible via park concessionaire boats and planes or private boats. There are plenty of hiking, snorkeling, kayaking and bird watching opportunities on the islands. Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands are the two places visited the most. The Visitor’s Center in Ventura offers a fantastic glimpse of what the park has to offer.

Or, head east from the city, about 50 miles past Palm Springs, to the unique Joshua Tree National Park. This park is filled with thousands of trees that are actually giant Yucca plants only found in the Mojave Desert. The countless rows of Seuss-like trees against a desert landscape are quite a sight. There are numerous hiking trails and plenty of boulders that make this a popular place for rock climbers. My kids love scrambling around the rocks here, and this national park makes for an excellent natural playground.

Western national parks, National parks in the west - Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs, CA features thousands of Seuss-like trees, found only in this region, and giant rock boulders.

3. San Francisco, CA

Drive about 30 miles north from San Francisco along the coast, and Point Reyes National Seashore showcases beaches, cliffs, diverse wildlife and plants. It’s a park filled with endless beauty and history. Plenty of trails will keep families busy. December to June is prime time to spot the gray whale migration. Don’t miss the iconic Point Reyes Lighthouse and the Tule Elk Reserve where hundreds of elk roam freely.

In addition, Muir Woods National Monument is close to the city and easily accessible. It is home to the towering redwoods, which are some of the tallest trees on earth. There are several trails to hike and explore the redwood forest but the Main Trail Loop is the most popular. Go early because parking is limited.

Western national parks, National parks in the west - Muir Woods redwood Trees

The redwoods are known as the tallest trees on Earth. Find them along the California coast and Muir Woods National Monument near San Francisco.

Read more>> Exploring Muir Woods National Monument with Kids

4. Tucson, AZ

Cacti plants are ubiquitous in Arizona. Saguaro National Park features about 1.6 million saguaro cacti only found in this desert area. Saguaros are giant cacti that almost look like trees growing as tall as 50 feet. It’s a peaceful drive through the cacti forest. There are several trails to see the cacti and other desert flora up close and even some Native American petroglyphs. The visitor’s center is a wealth of information to learn about the saguaro’s interesting life cycle and the park’s wildlife. The park has two districts with one of them only 30 miles from Tucson.

Western national parks, National parks in the west - Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park, near Tucson, AZ, features about 1.6 million giant saguaro cacti only found in this desert area.

Read more>> The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

5. Las Vegas, NV

Death Valley National Park is located about 120 miles away from Sin City. Despite its morbid name, this national park has plenty of interesting attractions. Badwater Basin is the country’s lowest elevation, at 282 feet below sea level, with honeycomb-shaped salt flat formations that stretch for miles. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes was a giant sandbox especially for kids. There are numerous hiking trails and scenic drives to see multi-colored canyons and rock formations like Artist Drive/Palette.

Las Vegas is a great starting point to explore other parks like the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. The Grand Canyon Skywalk, a couple of hours away, is a glass-bottom overlook into the park’s western rim for a preview of the canyons.

Utah’s Zion National Park is a land of red sandstone cliffs, canyons and amazing scenery. The park offers plenty of hiking trails, horseback riding, canyoneering, birding and biking. Riverside Walk, Canyon Overlook and Emerald Pools are some of the best family-friendly trails.

Western national parks, National parks in the west - Temple of Sinawava Zion

The Altar and the Pulpit rock formations at the Temple of Sinawava amphitheater inside Zion National Park in Utah.

Read more>> Day Trips from Las Vegas

6. Seattle, WA

Olympic National Park has three diverse areas including glacier-covered mountains, meadows and rainforests and 73 miles of coastline. Families can choose between enjoying the beaches and exploring tide pools or hiking one of the over 900 scenic trails. Olympic is a huge national park, and many one full day itineraries focus on Hurricane Ridge for wildlife spotting and mountain views and the impressive Lake Crescent carved by glaciers.

Mount Rainier, an active volcano, is an imposing backdrop in Seattle. Visitors have options for scenic drives, fishing and hiking on 240 miles of picturesque trails that include glaciers, snowfields, wildflower meadows and waterfalls within the national park. Winter activities include guided snowshoe walks, cross-country skiing and snowboarding/tubing.

Western national parks, National parks in the west - Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier, as seen from Seattle’s Space Needle, is an imposing backdrop but also a wonderful western national park to visit from the city for a day trip.

Tips for Day Trips to Western National Parks:

  • Start early. Research online for one-day itineraries and visit the Visitor’s Center for must-see attractions as soon as you enter the parks.
  • Save money with free national park days throughout the year. The Every Kid in a Park program gives fourth graders and their companions free entry to the parks. Look into the annual National Park pass if visiting multiple parks.
  • Get the Junior Ranger Program booklets for kids to earn and collect badges.

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Mary lives in San Diego, California with her husband, 13 year-old daughter and 10 year-old son. She was born in the Philippines, grew up in the U.S. territory…

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