5 Classic (Age-Appropriate) National Park Adventures for Families
By Michael Lanza
What national park adventure should we take with our kids? That’s a question I get frequently from parents. It’s a tough one to answer, given all the great choices. But my advice always focuses on the ages of kids, because that’s how I’ve always thought about picking the right trips for my kids. I ask myself: What’s the most fun, safe adventure we can take them on at their ages?
I’ve compiled below five recommendations for absolute, must-do national park trips for families (with links to my story about each for more info and photos), arranged in order from the easiest, for younger kids, to the most challenging, for older, more-experienced kids.
But keep this in mind, too: One of the finest aspects of our National Park System is that most of the parks have areas that can be seen and enjoyed by just about anyone, regardless of age or level of mobility. Feeling wonder in nature knows no age restrictions.
Each of these adventures should be on the tick list of everyone who loves the outdoors or who wants to raise kids that do. Now go outside and play.
Any Age: Ultimate Tour of Yellowstone National Park
Our kids don’t remember the first time they visited the world’s first national park—they were just four and two. But I remember vividly their awe at seeing bison and elk and gurgling geysers and mud pots, and how they burst into uproarious laughter at the sight of Old Faithful erupting. They’ve been back three times since (not bad for kids that young!), in summer and cross-country skiing in winter. Yellowstone delights all ages, and you’ll want to go back again and again. See my “Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone.”
Age 4 and Up: Paddling the Everglades
Paddling kayaks through mangrove tunnels, on a placid, brown river, we watched snowy egrets, brown pelicans, great blue herons, and other exotic birds fly just overhead, and alligators floating listlessly (they’re largely inactive in mid-winter, the best time to go). We spent three days canoeing in the Ten Thousand Islands, where our kids had a wilderness beach to themselves and we saw ospreys, brilliantly pink roseate spoonbills, and a dolphin, and watched awe-inspiring sunsets into the Gulf of Mexico. Bigger than Glacier, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite, Everglades is one of Earth’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries and a surprisingly easy family adventure. See my story “Like No Other Place: Paddling the Everglades.”
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Age 7-8 and Up: Hiking to Yosemite Valley Waterfalls
For adults and children, the majesty of Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls plunging over sheer cliffs with a roar that could drown out a freight train always induces speechless awe—followed by laughter of delight when you walk through the mist created by the waterfalls, raining from a blue sky. Kids with good hiking stamina will love the aptly named Mist Trail to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, and feel a powerful sense of accomplishment after ascending the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail to the brink of the 1,430-foot-tall waterfall, one of the 20 tallest in the world. See my story “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls.”
Age 7-8 and Up: Dayhiking and Backpacking The Needles District of Canyonlands
On a mostly easy, overnight backpacking trip in the Needles District of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, our group of five adults and four kids scrabbled up steep slabs to a notch between Big Spring Canyon and Squaw Canyon, overlooking an expanse of cliffs and towers in more shades of red than Crayola has yet replicated. Later on that spring-break trip, we dayhiked amid the 300-foot-tall sandstone candlesticks of Chesler Park (lead photo at top of story). The Needles District harbors the kind of geological oddities that fascinate both kids and adults, and a trail system conducive to backpacking and dayhiking. See my story “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.”
Age 9-10 and Up: Sea Kayaking Alaska’s Glacier Bay
We paddled two-person sea kayaks over glassy waters in a vast bay surrounded by snowy mountains soaring thousands of feet overhead. Bus-sized blocks of ice calved explosively from the snout of glaciers up to a mile across. Brown bears wandered rocky beaches. Seals swam near our boats, gazing at us curiously, while bald eagles observed us from snags on cliffs. Scores of sea lions carpeted one rocky isle. When your family is ready for the kind of truly pristine wilderness experience that’s found today in few places on the planet, take a multi-day, sea-kayaking trip in Glacier Bay. See my story “Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking Alaska’s Glacier Bay.”
Note: See also my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You,” “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors,” and my story “Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself.”
Did you enjoy this story? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, and I appreciate connecting with my readers. I invite you to subscribe to this blog by entering your email address in the box at the top of the left sidebar or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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