It’s no secret we love the US National Parks. In fact, after we had our first taste of the national parks in California, we fell in love with the idea of visiting all the national parks in the United States before my oldest graduates from high school. Taking a US National Parks vacation with your kids is a great way to create lasting family memories. Even if you don’t have the ambitious goal of visiting the entire US National Parks list, these 11 must do before the kids move out US National Parks should definitely be part of your plans.
A few of my favorite reasons to love the national parks in America include the Junior Ranger program and the physical challenge of reaching an amazing vista point which encourages endurance, hard work,and a love for the outdoors.
By the way, if you purchase the America The Beautiful National Park Pass through REI.com, they will donate 10% of the proceeds back to the National Parks! This is a great way to support the parks without it costing you any extra. The pass is well worth the money if you plan to visit more than one park a year.
What to Pack In Your Day Pack
Before we share our picks for the best National Parks for Kids, let’s talk about a few day hiking essentials you should pack in your backpack. While most of our hiking and trekking in the national parks are low impact easy hikes for families, you still need to be prepared. We learned the hard way that the difference between a 0.25 mile hike and a 7 mile hike with the kids (and the adults for that matter) comes down to being properly prepared for the day. Here are a few tips and ideas that we have found to make the day easier and more enjoyable for everyone involved.
- Navigation- Trail maps and a compass are always essential, even on the so called shortest trails, sometimes signs and trail markers have been moved or damaged.
- Water, water, and more water! I can’t stress this enough. Your kids will not make it without enough water, and frankly, neither will you. I don’t care how short the trail is. The absolute BEST INVESTMENT I have made in hiking gear was when we purchased kids hydration packs. I also purchased an Osprey Hydration Pack for myself and love it. This single purchase was the difference between the quarter mile hike and the 7 mile hike I mentioned previously. The great thing about the Camelbak Mini Mule and Scout is that they come with age appropriate storage space for those all important snacks. You will be surprised what a kid will do to earn a handful of skittles!
- Merino Wool Socks! Trust me, you will thank me for introducing you to these. Before we began hiking with the kids, I had NO IDEA HOW GREAT WOOL SOCKS are! I’ll be honest, after we began wearing wool socks to hike, I came home and replaced all my daily wear socks with wool. Yes, they are that great. Don’t believe me? Well, try them for yourself. DarnTough (made in America…yay!) or SmartWool are great options.
- Great Hiking Shoes- It’s no secret that my favorite hiking shoes of all time are CS Ultra Salomon shoes. I have also fallen in love with my Keen Rose sandals. You can read more about my recommendations for hiking shoes for men, women, and children in my Wide Toe Box Shoes post.
- Hiking Clothes- I am in favor of simplifying my packing on all my trips whether they be National Parks vacations, beach trips, or camping. Here are a few of my favorites. I generally just search for similar items for the kids as well. You can shop my Amazon store to get a better idea of all my favorites.
- Snacks-Okay, I know this is no brainer, but just trying to be complete here. My kids have nut allergies so I have to be creative, but we always bring Skittles for that added incentive of going when we can’t go any more. Of course, we bring healthy snacks too like Quest protein bars for the non-nut allergic crew, and Enjoy Life Trail Mix for the others.
- National Park Specific Essentials-You simply have to pack a Your Passport To The National Parks book. I also recommend trail maps, national park guides, and outdoor nature pocket guides for birds and plants specific to the region.Finally,don’t forget your National Park Pass. (Yes, sadly we have done this…smacking head against dashboard as we pull up to the gate and pay AGAIN 🙁 ) They are $80 per year and will get you and
all passengers in a personal vehicle at per-vehicle fee areas or up to 4 adults at sites that charge per person (kids 15 & under get in free). REI will donate 10% of sale proceeds through 2019 to the National Park Foundation!
These other National Park & hiking with kids posts might interest you.
- Visit Glacier Point Yosemite and The Pioneer Yosemite History Center With Kids
- The Last Guide To The Smoky Mountains You Will Ever Need
- Visit Jackson Hole & Teton Village
- Sequoia National Park For Families
- Best Kids Hydration Packs
- Tips For Hiking With Kids
- Gifts For Hikers
Best US National Parks For Families
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Okay, you got me. My bias is clear here. If you’ve read my blog very long, you know that I consider the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to be my “home”, but don’t think that I am only suggesting it based on that bias. In fact, I’m in good company since over 11 million other folks have the Smoky Mountains on their must do list of US National Parks every year!
There is seemingly no end to the list of family friendly things to do in the Smoky Mountains. Our family favorites include hiking to Clingmans Dome, visiting Cataloochee Valley, and driving through Cades Cove in search of bears. If you are up for a real adventure, consider riding ATV’s at Bluff Mountain In Pigeon Forge or white water rafting on the Little Pigeon River.
Can you really say that your family loves national parks and not visit the Grand Canyon? No, of course not. It was pretty easy to compile the list of national parks we had to visit first because they were the ones that had been on my list since a child. I dare say if you ask any American child to name some National Parks, the Grand Canyon is going to be on the list. It did not disappoint.
We visited the Grand Canyon in early May so the roads were not open to the Grand Canyon North Rim yet. However, this did not diminish our time in The Grand Canyon as you can see the Grand Canyon South Rim is stunning to behold!
I’m still baffled by the amount of Elk we saw in the park. If anyone can explain to me how it is that we saw more Elk in the Grand Canyon where there is no obvious water source, than we did in the Rocky Mountain National Park, I’d love to know! Even the park rangers couldn’t answer that question!Grand Canyon Adventures up to 30% Off. Book now on Viator.
In addition to the amazing views and the wildlife, the kids will also enjoy watching the Grand Canyon train pull in and out of the depot.
The Grand Canyon Railway runs daily from Williams, AZ taking passengers on an amazing journey into the Canyon.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Don’t let the thought of insurmountable summits and rugged terrain keep you from taking the family to the Rockies! There are plenty of beautiful scenes that can be enjoyed from the car, but there are also plenty of great Rocky Mountain National Park hikes that can be enjoyed by even the youngest in your crew.
Bear Lake Trail and Alberta Falls
Our multi generational crew enjoyed two hikes in the Rocky Mountains: The 0.6 mile loop around Bear Lake is an easy hike that even strollers can access as there is a negligible elevation gain. The second hike to Alberta Falls was also only 0.6 of a mile with only a slight elevation gain, however, strollers would not be able to access this trail as there are several rugged areas. It is hard for me to decide if the falls or the trail itself were more beautiful. Either way, Rocky Mountain National park is beautiful and has something for every member of the family to enjoy.
Zion National Park
Despite seeing pictures and reading articles, nothing can truly prepare you for the beauty of Zion National Park. The red rocks and red roads are surrounded by lush greenery. The day we arrived was clear and crisp making our surroundings feel almost animated. You can literally feel your breath being taken away as you drive through Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel Road catching glimpses of the canyon ahead which opens up and bursts before you as you exit the tunnel.
We enjoyed several Zion National Park hikes while visiting as a family. We skipped the most famous Narrows hike as we felt it was too much for our youngest, but the trail leading up to the Narrows known as the Riverside Walk is a perfect hike for families. Be warned, however, if you head out in the spring early in the morning as we did, DRESS WARMLY. We had to ride the trolley for a few hours to kill time and wait for the temperatures to rise. However, once they came up…they stayed up..and it warmed up tremendously. The key word for hiking in the dessert in the spring is LAYER! LAYER! LAYER!
Despite the cold early morning weather, by the afternoon the temperatures were in the 90’s and the river was a welcome play area on our afternoon hike.
Yellowstone National Park
No list of iconic US National Parks would be complete without including Yellowstone National Park. The geysers, the mud pots, the buffalo, oh my!
Yellowstone Mud Pots
From the moment we entered the park til the moment we left, our senses were enthralled with sights, sounds, and yes, SMELLS! Your kids will definitely have a few things to say about the smells coming from the bubbling mud pots.
Yellowstone is a massive park with so many different features. We recommend a minimum of three days, though I would have planned for five days if I had it to do over. There will be a lot of walking and despite it being mid May, the temperatures felt pretty hot by mid day so plan accordingly.
Yellowstone Travel Guide
We also recommend you consider purchasing an easy day guide to help you. Despite having done a lot of research beforehand, I found it helpful to have a small book with day to day itineraries that I could use to plan our time wisely. I used a book called Yellowstone In a Day that I picked up in the National Park gift shop. Here is a book specifically for touring Yellowstone with kids you might want to purchase. If you want a completely different perspective and you have time, consider a scenic float tour on Yellowstone River.
A mention of Yellowstone National Park wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t introduce you to the Buffalo we affectionately call, Mr. Happy Feet! Yellowstone is very exciting for kids (and adults) most of all because of the numerous opportunities to view wildlife, especially Buffalo (or Bison whichever you prefer 🙂 ). As we waited on Mr. Happy Feet to cross the road, we couldn’t help but notice it looked as though he was dancing, and we all had a good laugh. Enjoy!
Yosemite National Park
And this is where I was bit with the National Park bug! After our first major road trip with the kids through California, I was hooked on the idea of taking the kids to all the National Parks. Our time in Yosemite certainly played a big roll in that decision. My kids’ wide eyes as we stood before El Capitan and gazed down into the Canyon will forever be etched in my memory.
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We were fortunate enough to visit Yellowstone National Park in early spring after a particularly wet winter so the waterfalls were in full force. In fact, we were told there were waterfalls where there are not usually waterfalls.
Lower Yosemite falls is a great hike for families. Despite being completely level and stroller friendly, it is, in my humble opinion, one of the most spectacular sights in the park. It was particularly stunning the spring we were visiting and we found ourselves lingering for quite some time taking family pictures.
If seeing the waterfalls in Yosemite is important to you, then we recommend you visit in the early spring when the flow will be at its highest. It can vary from year to year depending upon the previous winter snowfall and rainfall counts. The National Park website states that some of the falls, even Yosemite Falls, can be only a trickle by August so if this important to you (and we think it should be) visit in May or June.
If you aren’t camping in Yosemite and would prefer a bit of luxury after a long day in the park, read our full review of Tenaya Lodge Yosemite.
Acadia National Park
I’ll be honest, our time in Acadia National Park was very brief. We arrived in the area for only one night and it was Labor Day weekend. However, despite our brief time, we still had an amazing time and came away with some stunning pictures. It’s definitely on our repeat list, and we think it should be on yours. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Grand Teton National Park
The beautiful, majestic, Grand Teton National Park! I feel like I’m repeating myself with the phrase, “takes your breath away”, but really, isn’t this why we have preserved these places as National Parks in the first place?
Sadly, we arrived at the Tetons in the Fall of 2017 during a season of forest fires to the west of us in Glacier. The fires were so bad that the smoke had been making its way to the Tetons and the peaks were obscured. I can’t tell you the disappointment I felt when I finally made it to Colter Bay to view the infamous Teton peaks only to be barely able to see them.
Colter Bay Village Breakfast Cruise
However, my disappointment was quickly put at bay when we booked a breakfast cruise at Colter Bay Village to Elk Island. While we still had an obscured view of the mountains the next morning, the cowboy breakfast, tour guides, and family memories more than made up for the loss of visibility. We will make it back to the Tetons one day to explore some more, and the first thing we will do is book the Colter Bay Breakfast Cruise to Elk Island and you should too!
Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park was, perhaps, the most fun national park for my kids. They (as was I) were mesmerized by the “giant trees”. Before we even reached any of the ‘go to’ sights and hikes, we pulled the car off the side of the road, hopped out, and just had fun playing hide and seek behind these monster trees.
Make sure you do all the “must dos” while visiting Sequoia National Park such as visiting General Sherman and driving through Tunnel Log. We have a complete Sequoia National Park for Families 2-day itinerary to help you plan your family trip to see the big trees.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park doesn’t make the National Park Service’s top ten most visited parks, but we still think it belongs on your ‘must do with the kids before they move out list’ and here’s why.
Arches National Park has a great collection of slightly technical, but still very navigable, hikes. This makes for a lot of fun and opportunity for adventure for the kids. Our kids loved the hiking at Arches National Park. Who wouldn’t love crawling through slot canyons and underneath arches that create cave like environments? It is this reason that Arches National Park is a super fun park for the kids. If you are really up for an adventure, consider a 4×4 tour while you are in Moab.
Our favorite hike EVER was Sand Dunes Arch. It is like a giant sand box! Mom and dad had as much fun as the kids on this one!!
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde means “green table” and you will understand why it’s named Mesa Verde National Park when you visit. As much as we enjoyed our Southwest Road trip through Utah and Arizona, after all those red rocks, a girl wants to see some green trees! When we arrived in Colorado at Mesa Verde National Park, we were greeted by beautiful green all around along with some red rocks. 😉
Park Point Trail
If you are short on time, make sure you don’t miss Park Point trail. It is an easy 0.4 out and back paved trail that leads you to the highest view point in the park. (This is not the longer Point Lookout Trail so don’t get confused). While it is a bit of a steep climb, everyone in our party could manage the trail. We recommend taking breaks and water, but when you reach the top on on a clear day your will see mountain ranges of all the the Four Corners states – Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.
Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings
There are three cliff dwellings that you can tour with purchased tickets. However, if you only have one day, you will not be able to tour Long House as it requires that you purchase tickets a day in advance. Learn more about the dwellings and the ticket purchases on the NPS website. We arrived rather late, however, after a very long journey so we opted instead to view the cliff dwellings from above. We then, spent time exploring the visitor center and the museum and, of course, getting our Junior Ranger badges. You can make it easy on yourself a book a guided day tour of Mesa Verde with Viator.
Have you been to any of these US National Parks? We’d love to hear about your favorite activities or other US National Parks you think should be on the list of “must do US National Parks before the kids move out!”
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