Tips for Exploring National Parks With Kids

National Parks - ours for the visiting.

AKontheGO is proud to partner with yet another outdoor-minded business to promote and encourage travel experiences as a family. US Parks, a website dedicated to the preservation and promotion of our national park system and outdoor recreation, has asked me to contribute to their newly-formed Park Journal project. As the sole writer with an emphasis on kid-friendly destinations within reach of national parks, I’m pretty thrilled by the opportunity.

You can follow along at US Parks HERE, and join our weekly Twitter party, or jump in to share your thoughts on one of the Park Forum discussion boards. I’ve been pretty happy with the content, and I think you will, too. National parks and kids, they do go well together, and I’m looking forward to seeing just how far, and where, we’ll head, next.

Inside or out, our national parks are an educational bonanza for kids.

This week I present a few strategies for visiting national parks with kids. Check it out and add your tips, here or on our Facebook  page.


All lined up in John Day National Monument, central Oregon.

5 Tips for Exploring National Parks With Kids

The first national park I ever visited was Mount Rainier, near my childhood home in Seattle. Barely five years old, the trip stands out in my mind for the appearance of a black bear sauntering through our campsite and for the forts my brother, sister, and I created in the middle of a stand of drooping vine maples. We camped in a musty-smelling canvas tent that leaked when it rained, and it rained a lot. We cooked bacon over an open fire, went swimming in icy glacier-fed creeks, and learned about trees from a friendly ranger in an impressive hat. Hooked? Almost certainly.

Funny how 40 years later I married a Park Service employee and became an evangelist for family travel, the memories of my own childhood explorations inside national parks as fresh as the day they were made. Not only are national parks America’s Best idea, they are a family’s best tool for understanding our wild and wonderful spaces, cities, and monuments that weave together the texture of a country.

It has taken a few forays with trial and error to maximize a national park visit, however. The combination of budget and time seems to try and wreak havoc with even the most prepared family, so below I’ve got a few tips for enjoying national parks with kids. What are yours?

A ground squirrel hidey-hole is intriguing to AK Kid. Denali NP.

1. Read up. Both the National Park Service and US Parks offer comprehensive, timely information about our nation’s parks, their services, history, and activities. On the NPS website, one can use a nifty search tool to find a park, catch the latest news and events, or listen to a podcast. It’s even possible to entice the kids to become a WebRanger before your visit.

2. Pick a park that fits your family. Some people visit parks for the history, or recreation, or proximity to home. Not everyone wants to head north to Alaska and the largest park (and one of the most remote); many people prefer a park that is accessible. Whatever your interest and ability, it’s now easy to get the details before you ever leave home. Ask questions: How much are we willing to spend on accommodations? Fuel? Food? Some parks are easier to reach than others, and one must plan travel time into a trip.

3. Time is of the essence. I never spend just one day in a national park if I can help it. Even spending one night allows for more exploration with kids, and a guided hike (my favorite thing to do) to help me understand the lay of the land, its rich history, and wildlife. Decide on a list of activities in tandem with your vacation time budget, and plan accordingly. Usually, we try to spend three days in a park with ample programs and activities. Plus, we like some downtime as well, to simply observe the world around us.

4. Mix it up. The most wonderful aspect of most national parks is their diverse lineup of activities suitable for kids. From evening campfire presentations to Junior Ranger programs, national parks visitor centers and interpretive programs offer a wide variety of fun stuff; one needs only to ask. Every park is unique; take advantage of all there is to see and do.

5. Budget wisely. Inside park boundaries, food and services will likely cost more, so consider packing your own food and drinks. We love to picnic during any season, and it’ll sure save money. If tenting or RVing is your thing, do try the campgrounds – but ask well in advance of your visit if reservations are required, since many popular parks fill up fast. The good thing about a national park vacation is the plethora of free activities, at all times of day, so ask at a visitor center upon arrival. Consider vacationing during the shoulder seasons, when staffing levels might be lower, but so are rates at many hotels and lodges on the fringe of park boundaries.

Read more about AKontheGO’s national park experiences HERE.

Time-out in the soaking pool at Sol Duc Hot Springs, Olympic National Park.

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