The United States definitely does not lack in natural beauty and stunning landscapes. One of our favorite things to do with the kids for summer vacations is visiting the family-friendly national parks. From the east coast to the west, there is preserved wilderness with spectacular sights, camping, and even annual events in the parks to enjoy.
Many of the national parks are free to enter and open throughout the year. So, whether you plan on going during summer, or for spring break, or even winter break, these top 5 family-friendly U.S. National Parks will be open and ready to welcome your family. Planning a trip to a national park can be fun for the whole family, because you can get the kids involved in deciding what type of activities and adventures you’ll have at the park.
We also appreciate that it doesn’t really matter what age your kids are when you take them to the parks. There are activities to suit all ages. As little ones, short, easy nature walks are on the itinerary, but as they get older, you’d be able to tackle more difficult trails and activities like climbing.
Here are our five favorite national parks in the U.S. to visit with the family. Later in this post, we’ll give you some great info on how to get there, where to stay, and top activities.
Yosemite National Park
One of the most popular and most visited National Parks in America is Yosemite, a 747,000 acre park in California. You may look at the most popular features of the park, El Capitan and Half Dome, and immediately think it’s not appropriate for families. Those features are incredible displays of nature that are great for extreme sports enthusiasts, but that doesn’t mean the rest of this vast park isn’t prime family vacation territory.
The best thing about Yosemite is how versatile it is for families. The more adventurous can go hiking and rock climbing, or snowshoeing in the winter, and the creative ones can expand their skills in photography and drawing. Everyone will enjoy camping at the park, hiking the trails, admiring the waterfalls, and renting bikes to see the stunning landscape.
For a more planned adventure, consider trying the Great Yosemite Family Adventure. Kids can even sign up to be a Junior Ranger (ages 7-13) or Little Cub (ages 3-6) and receive a commemorative booklet.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park has been a hot spot for family-friendly park vacations for many, many years. It was, in fact, the first family vacation I went on with my family when I was young. We loaded up in the station wagon, with the camper attached, and drove from Oregon over to Wyoming, where we camped, drove around the park looking for animals to watch, and stood around waiting for Old Faithful to blow.
Surely you’ve heard of Old Faithful. Since 1870, the Old Faithful geyser has wowed tourists just like me with its eruptions, which occur on a highly predictable schedule, every 44 to 125 minutes. Great hikes for kids include the Emerald Lake trail (3.8 miles long) and the Sundance Mountain trail (1 mile long), but sometimes you just need to head out and walk around. That’s how you’ll find awesome things to see like waterfalls, geysers, lakes and valley views.
Yellowstone is also one of the few places where you can see wolves, bears, buffalo, elk, and moose roaming free. You can literally find a whole herd of buffalo hanging out near the road and just pull over and watch them.
INSIDER TIP: The in-park accommodations at Yellowstone fill up really fast. They can be booked 18 months in advance, so make sure you plan ahead, especially if you’re going in the summer. Camping sites also fill up fast.
Zion National Park
Located in southern Utah is one of the most traversed family-friendly U.S. National Parks, known as Zion. Zion is a special place. Don’t let the fact that you don’t hear about it as often as the other parks put you off. During summertime, the roads around Zion National Park are filled with cars, making it almost impossible to navigate. For this reason, you should save Zion National Park for off-season trips (around autumn and winter), when the popular trails and vistas are less crowded.
The Emerald Pools are a favorite, but kids will love finding the hidden swimming holes throughout the park. If you have teenagers, dress in waterproof hiking gear and hit the 16-mile Narrows Trail, which takes you down a gorge along the Virgin River. Though challenging, it is an adventure that is unlike any other, and one you absolutely must do.
When you’ve finished communing with nature inside the park, you’ll find plenty of other things to do outside the park, as well. We recommend staying just outside the park, so you can experience both sides of the area.
Grand Canyon National Park
This natural wonder that spans through most of Arizona should be on everyone’s bucket list. No matter how young or old you are, the views from any one of the lookout points along the Grand Canyon is just…indescribable. Stretching 277 miles, the Grand Canyon National Park has a number of excursions—like the Bright Angel Trail mule ride–that will delight children, as well as long drives to the six canyon viewpoints. For little ones, there are interpretive hikes and junior ranger programs where they can earn badges for learning things about the park.
There are also four designated picnic areas where everyone can enjoy the fresh air and astounding scenery alongside al fresco dining. You can also stay at lodging or go camping in the park, which adds to the experience. You will not believe the amount of stars you can see out there! We’d even agree to forego roasting marshmellows in order to watch the night sky without the campfire.
One of our favorite features of the park is the
INSIDER TIP: The South Rim is open year-round while North Rim is closed in winter.
Arches National Park
The Arches National Park in Utah has been the star filming location for many Wild West and modern movies. The desert landscape is decorated with over 2,000 natural sandstone arches and pillars that attract thousands of international visitors every single year. Though there are not many excursions for younger children, older kids and families who enjoy spending all day outdoors will love the Arches. The popular trails include walking to the Sand Dune Arch. An intermediate level trail that will excite kids is the Delicate Arch Trail, since the route is steep and home to long lizards.
How To Get There
It’s true that most of America’s national parks are located not far away from major airports, so you can easily fly in to the closest city. However, many people choose to drive to the national parks, either on a long road trip from their home, or by renting an RV or camper in a nearby city. Driving through the parks in an RV is a fantastic way to see the park. It will also give you the flexibility to stay where ever you want, whether a hotel or a camping site.
Where to Stay
We like to stay in camping sites because it feels more like communing with nature, which is why we went there in the first place. All of the national parks have campgrounds. You’ll want to make sure you plan far enough in advance to get a reservation – and even more in advance if you want to get a good reservation. To make reservations, go to the Reserve America website and find the park you want to visit.
At Yellowstone, there are 12 campgrounds with over 2,000 sites. That seems like a lot, until you get there and realize just how many people are visiting at the same time you are. For those who don’t plan ahead, you’ll be happy to hear that they only take reservations for 5 of those campgrounds. The others are open on a first-come, first served basis. If you plan to go this route, the summer months will be the hardest to snag a spot, so make sure you arrive at check out time, so you can scoop up a spot as someone leaves.
Planning Your Trip
We recommend planning activities loosely so you can go with the flow and take breaks when necessary. Trying to pack your schedule with activities may lead to no one being happy. You can find a lot of great information about activities and programs at each of the parks on sites like this one and this one. A successful trip is one that is planned in advance and includes things that everyone likes to do, so the whole family is looking forward to the trip.
Even when you are facing the heat of summer and crowds, these family-friendly U.S. national parks are a unique way to spend time together as a family. Within these preserved lands, you will find adventures among the breathtaking scenery that will make long-lasting memories. If you’ve got a favorite National Park you like to visit with your family, tell us about it in the comments.
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