10 Tips for Visiting National Parks with Kids
The National Parks have been dubbed as “America’s Best Idea.” The 400+ parks, monuments, historical sites and seashores in the National Park Service offer great affordable family vacation options, as well as educational opportunities and outdoor adventures. We’ve been exploring these majestic treasures since my kids were toddlers. The parks hold many special travel memories for us. Here are some tips for visiting National Parks with kids that can hopefully help make your trip easier, more fun and memorable.
1. Plan it out
A little planning goes a long way when visiting the parks. Get the kids involved and look through the National Park Service website or individual park sites to see which attractions you want to see. Some of these parks are vast with many trails and attractions so you may need to set priorities for what you’d like to see and do. Unlike our other trips, we’ve found that taking it slow and steady with plenty of stops is the best way to see the parks.
2. First Stop: Visitor Center
The first stop should always be the national park’s Visitor Center (after that obligatory tourist picture by the park sign). These Visitor Centers offer a wealth of information with exhibits, maps and even movies. Look out for recent animal sighting notices within the park. The Park Rangers are very helpful and can recommend family-friendly hikes and attractions. There are always free ranger led activities like stargazing and nature walks and talks to enhance the park experience. Some parks also loan special explorer packs for kids.
3. Become A Junior Ranger
We’ve always thought of the parks as outdoor classrooms and we love the Junior Ranger program. Kids can get age-appropriate activity booklets to help them “Explore, Learn, and Protect!” the parks. They earn badges or patches along with reciting the Junior Ranger pledge with the park rangers once activities are completed. My kids enjoyed collecting these “rewards” over the years. Children can also become WebRangers, which is an online program to learn about the parks long after their visits. Get the packets at the Visitor Centers.
4. Save Money
Visiting the National Parks is a very cost-friendly family vacation. Only 127 of the parks charge admission. The most expensive entry is $25 per car for seven days. If you plan to visit over four parks in a year, get the $80 annual pass good for everyone in the car. Some parks have a special entry line for pass holders to save time. There are about several designated fee-free days throughout the year so mark your calendars. If you have a 4th grader, they can participate in the Every Kid In A Park program to get free admission to the parks along with the family.
5. Pack food and drinks
Many parks require long drives from the Visitor Center to the attractions. Food concessions are non-existent in most places. Pack plenty of food, drinks and water before entering the park. There are usually picnic spots along meadows, rivers or overlooks with some amazing views. Bring extra water especially when hiking or biking during summer. It is highly recommended to bring a gallon of water per day per person or two gallons when hiking. Follow the park rules for food storage so as not to attract animals.
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6. Bring restroom necessities
Bathroom breaks aren’t the most pleasant experiences in the parks. The Visitor Centers usually have modern toilets, but count on outhouses and portable toilets for the rest of the parks. Our restroom kit includes toilet seat covers, toilet paper and hand sanitizer. We always bring baby wipes for cleaning up. They’re great for temporary cooling off during the summer too.
7. Reserve in Advance
Check if the attraction you want requires advance reservations. If you’re traveling during the summer or the holidays, ensure you buy tickets for attractions that require reservations or have limited space well in advance. This includes climbing to the Statue of Liberty’s crown, going to the top of the Washington Monument or the summer cruise on Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park. This also applies to campgrounds, lodging in the park or hotels near the park entrance.
8. Leave only footprints
While it may be tempting to take home some red rocks or pine cones, the park emphasizes to take only memories and leave only footprints when visiting these treasured lands. But, the kids can still remember their visit with some souvenirs. Get the Kids’ Passport to Your National Parks to collect passport stamps from parks they’ve visited.
Another cheap souvenir is the pressed pennies. For 51 cents, they can have a nice keepsake. Kids can also send a postcard to themselves. Give the kids a camera or your smartphone. It is always amusing to see the parks from their perspective. Print it for their scrapbooks, travel journals or travel walls. Some parks also have a wonderful collection of books. My kids loved singing along to the Songs for Junior Rangers CD.
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9. Don’t be a Touron
There have been many stories lately of visitors getting too close to the wild animals, particularly in Yellowstone National Park. According to urban dictionary, a touron “combines the words ‘Tourist’ with ‘Moron’ to describe any person who, while on vacation, commits an act of pure stupidity.” Unfortunately, we’ve seen some incidents of tourons at the parks over the years including a visitor, who was within yards of a black bear, trying to take a picture with his phone.
Teach the kids early to respect the parks’ rules and keep your distance from the animals. These wild animals are not for taking selfies or for petting. Don’t write on anything in the park. It’s sad to see nature being vandalized. Stay on designated boardwalks, trails and fenced-in areas. That fence separating you from the canyon below is there for a reason. Rules were put in place and enforced for decades for everyone’s safety.
10. Avoid the crowds
It’s inevitable to be at the parks during the summer and holidays when the kids are out of school. Wake up early or go around dusk, and you’re guaranteed to have some trails to yourselves. Consider other times of the year too. We’ve found Winter and Spring visits to the parks the best times having some trails to ourselves. Some flecks of snow on the red rocks at Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon are magical.
You may also enjoy:
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- Glacier National Park for the Day with Kids
- Visiting Cape Hatteras National Seashore, NC
- 24 Hours in Death Valley: A Detour to Nowhere
- 3 Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
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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…