There's no better family road trip than the one leading up to and into one of America's great national parks, especially those with activities for kids.
Everyone has heard of Yellowstone in Wyoming and the Everglades in Florida, as they are two of the best known National Parks found throughout the United States. However, with celebrity come the crowds. A national park vacation should not be similar to one at an amusement park; with hundreds of recreational areas, monuments and over 50 parks to choose from, you shouldn’t have to wait in line to go on a hike with your family. For families with a sense of adventure, a trip into the uncharted, lesser known territories of the National Park system may be the perfect ticket. Here are a few known and a few less frequented options that I enjoy.
California, Nevada, Alaska & Texas
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Did you know that the world’s largest living tree is found in Sequoia National Park? The German Sherman Tree is among many of the largest trees that flood the forests of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The two parks are located in between Yosemite and Death Valley National Park in Sierra Nevada, easily accessible for California families. Convenience is key on a short outdoors vacation, especially if your trip differs 180 degrees from your last vacation in the Bahamas. If you are staying for a few hours, a few days or a few weeks, you will find an activity or fun fact to pique your interest. And don’t miss a tour through Crystal caves; a build-up of unique marble slabs. Tours begin in May and go on through October. In addition to large trees and marbled caverns, Hume Lake just north of Kings Canyon National Park is a great place to swim, camp, and lay out a blanket or two for a picnic lunch, at any time of year.
Before the Grand Canyon completely loses its charm, just head to Great Basin National Park. Intimacy is the best policy when you are dealing with nature. Get closer to the hikes, lightly visited trails, stargazing and hundreds of species of wildflowers that Great Basin is known for. While Great Basin is enough in itself, the close proximity to other great parks including Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon make it that much more convenient for a longer vacation. The Lehman caves are among the 40 nearby caves and one of the many activities to do while visiting. The park guides give cave tours, but it is essential to reserve a spot ( 775/234-7331 x 242).
Great Basin gets extra points for the wide range of physical and educational outlets its rangers have designed to include children, such as dig at the Baker Archeological Site or explore Wheeler Peak, the second highest summit in Nevada. The glow-in-the-dark stars kids have in their room at home are nothing compared to the star show they will experience at Great Basin. Bring your astronomical charts, because of the high elevation and low humidity, Great Basin has some of the darkest skies in the U.S. There are four developed campgrounds And campsites are limited when it’s busy, so it’s best to plan ahead. Don’t be ashamed if camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other parks to choose from that will fit your needs.
Alaska doesn’t need to feel so foreign or far away, although it is possible to get lost when you have 13.2 million acres to sea kayak, fly to backcountry airstrips, and float the rivers at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. It’s so large that nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States are found here and it is possible to go for days without seeing another person. (There are actually more caribou than people). With millions of acres of mountains, glaciers, wildlife, and old mines, children can enjoy wildlife in its purest form. Outfitters realize that visitors need to stock up on gear, so there are plenty of services and guides for however adventurous your excursions might be. It might take a bit more planning to see the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve than it would a park in the continental U.S.A., but it dates back nearly 200 million years and is a destination that is well worth the flight.
Kids kids kids! Visit the exhibits and touchable maps of the park at the Panther Junction Visitor Center, Fossil Bone Exhibit area, hot springs, sand dunes in Boquillas Canyon and Mountain Lion Exhibit. Big Bend is BIG on guided hikes, slide programs, bird walks, and various park features. Sunscreen is a must whatever outdoor activities you are involved in, which range from a half-day float down the Rio Grande to a seven-day excursion, or bicycle trips on paved and unpaved paths stretching from 13-35 miles. Being the 15th largest National Park means this place is busy; reservations can and should be made at any one of the 43 sites at Rio Grande Village Campground from the middle of November to the middle of April for peak summer visits. More information can be found at www.recreation.gov ( 877/444-6777).
Tennessee, North Carolina & Maine
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee, Kentucky is also big on family fun. The ‘little engine that could’ becomes reality at the Big South Fork Scenic Railway where children can ride authentic trains to their hearts content. Despite the alcoholic name, children are more than encouraged to swim and play around in Brandy Creek as summer in Tennessee can bring on the heat. Big South Fork has a plethora of activities to go around, from sandstone arches, cliffs, and rock-shelters to an annual Storytelling Festival that includes school presentations, storytelling, craft workshops, and music. If the kids haven’t had their share of fun after the trains and music, 180 miles of horseback trails are sure to make bedtime easier.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, bordering the North Carolina and Tennessee border, is a hiker’s paradise with over 800 miles of trails and plenty of room for camping, fishing, and picnicking. It’s close enough to civilization to draw 9 million visitors each year, yet big enough away to provide some seclusion Smoky Mountains has the most biological diversity of any area in the world’s temperate zone, with 1,500 bear residents. Kids can hang out at The Great Smoky Mountains Institute, which is a year-round residential environmental education center in the Smokies offering workshops and programs that include hikes, slide shows on flora and fauna, mountain music performances, and wildlife demonstrations. To reserve a spot in the program you can contact The Smoky Mountain Field School ( 865/974-0150).
Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park in Maine is a little diamond on the Eastern coastline known for its beautiful scenery. Hiking granite peaks, and biking old carriage roads are just two of the hands-on activities Acadia utilizes to help guests discover the park’s unexplored forests, animals, and history. There are four different park ranger-narrated boat cruises providing families with a little background information on all the amazing wildlife. Touch and see seals, porpoises, and bird life with cruises that vary from 2-4.5 hours. If boats aren’t your thing you can go cruisin’ the whole day when you take a trip through the Nature Center. On land, the park has 125 miles of trails that vary from easy to strenuous for hikers, along with 45 miles of carriage roads for walking and biking.
To finally bridge land and sea, the two primary park campgrounds are heavily wooded yet within 10 minutes of the ocean. One quality Acadia has that differs from some of the other featured parks is an Earth Cache program. This activity is used as a guide to some of the parks geological resources using GPS, allowing visitors to wander with a sense of purpose and direction to some least-expected finds. If Acadia does become a bit busy or overwhelming, only 50 miles away is the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. If you plan on going, bring some binoculars because the range and mass of the seabird population — as well as bald eagles — are sights to see.
My Favorites: Wyomng & Hawai’i
Grand Teton National Park
This is more than a park; it’s a painter’s paradise! Forget your tent and camping gear and bring your imagination and some canvas, or better yet bring both. Although Grand Teton National Park is close to Yellowstone, it has a secret unrivaled quaintness. In summer, along with the wildflowers, the park is exploding with new visitors ready to bike, backcountry camp, bird watch, climb, and go boating, horseback riding, fishing and wildlife viewing. The weather is usually clear enough all-year-round to revel in a scenic drive on the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. The drive is an ideal time to check out views of the mountains and epic ski slopes. In winter, families can feel like cross-country skiing pros, as skis glide effortlessly across some of the best snow in the country. The park also has a nice separation between camping and lodging, allowing visitors to choose which vacation they would like. If you can’t decide, the park has five visitor centers including an Indian Arts Museum to help you make up your mind. For more information on lodging, visit this website.
Located on the Big Island, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park has much more to offer than just surf and sun. The National Park is a perfect way to get to know a little bit about Hawaiian culture and how the islands were formed. There are always plenty of events going on for the little ones, from hula lessons, to tours of geological rock formations. You can watch some of the lava as it erupts and flows into the ocean, even at night, as this park is open 24 hours a day, all year round. The best place to stay is the Volcano House, Hawaii’s oldest hotel which offers a traditional aloha experience. Take in the fragrance of flowers, 90% of which are only found on the Hawaiian Islands. The Big Island has two other National Parks to choose from, featuring turtles, songbirds, and lizards if not the spectacular volcanoes.
Pick one, or pick a few and you are well on your way to discovering some of the best parks and parts of the United States, and its diverse peoples, landscapes, and endless opportunities for exploration.
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