The National Park Service is a terrific resource for families. Affordable, educational, and filled with opportunities to explore and adventure, any national park can be kid-friendly and all of them are worth a visit.
A few, though, are especially good for the younger set—here is a list of our top 10 national parks for kids, plus a bonus national monument.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is a wonderland for rock climbers of all skill levels; if you have kids who love to climb and scramble, this park will be a huge hit.
There are plenty of easy trails to discover: Barker Dam and Hidden Valley are great choices. The Discovery Trail, near Skull Rock, has signs written by and for kids and is a great way to learn more about the ecosystem here.
***Be aware that joshua trees are extremely fragile and should never be climbed on, hung from, or even leaned on (even the downed trees are nursery trees for new plants and shouldn’t be climbed or sat on. The visitor’s center is a great place to learn more about why these trees need protecting!)
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 and has tremendous variety. A place of extremes, from the 11,000 ft. Telescope Peak, to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, there are loads of adventures waiting to be had in this park.
The terrain ranges from colorful badlands at Artist’s Palette to beautiful slot canyons such as Marble Canyon to the bizarre crystal formations of the Devil’s Golf Course. Star Wars fans will love seeking out the filming locations in the park, too!
Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest is a hidden gem in the national park system. Located in northeastern Arizona, the park has miles of off-trail hiking in colorful badlands, petroglyphs and pictographs for learning more about Native American history in the region, and tons of gem-colored petrified wood.
What makes this park especially great for kids is that this petrified wood is nearly indestructible, so they are free to touch, hold, climb on and otherwise thoroughly explore this fossil resource. Just don’t take any pieces home!
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is a perfect park for kids. Stroller-friendly boardwalks wind around bubbling geothermal pools and geysers that will delight visitors of all ages. You’re all but guaranteed to see bison, and have a great chance of seeing other wildlife, from moose, bear and wolves to darling marmots and swooping bald eagles.
The park is also one of the more-developed ones in the national park system, which means there are a wide range of options for dining and accommodations, making for an easy and comfortable visit.
Acadia National Park
The East Coast boasts fewer national parks* than the West, but it is home to one of our favorites: Acadia.
What makes this park so great for kids is its variety of activities: you can spend a morning biking through the woods around Witch Hole Pond, play on the beach and tide-pool in the afternoon, then end the day with a spectacular sunset on Cadillac Mountain. You’re never far from the comforts of cute harbor cities such as Bar Harbor, but there’s enough nature to completely forget how close you are to civilization.
Acadia also has our son’s favorite hike in the National Park system: Precipice Trail. It’s a bit of a scramble and has some challenging ladders to climb (and you’ll definitely want to keep hands on small children!), but it’s loads of fun and has a beautiful view from the top.
*What the East lacks in national parks, it more than makes up for in protected state parks and historic sites. The NPS manages hundreds of important historical spots, and any one of them makes for a terrific, educational place to visit.
Pinnacles National Park
One of the newest parks in the national park system, Pinnacles is a central California gem.
It’s small enough that you can experience a good deal of it on a day or weekend trip, and there is plenty to delight the youngest visitors: caves to explore, boulders to scramble over, and—a highlight of any Pinnacles trip—a sighting of the critically endangered California Condor, for which this park is a crucial habitat.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
When visiting Hawaii, it might be hard to drag your family away from the beach. But one of the best reasons for doing so is a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on the big island of Hawaii.
One of the most geologically active spots in the country, Hawaii Volcanoes is a prime spot for seeing active lava flows, hiking over hardened ones, and learning all about volcanoes and geothermal activity.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Several national parks protect America’s cave systems; our favorite of these is Carlsbad Caverns.
Exploring this subterranean dreamland is sure to be a hit with your young adventurers; from late May to October, you can attend a free bat flight program, in which up to one million bats leave the cave at sunset to go on their nightly hunt.
Redwood National and State Parks is one of the best places in the country to learn about conservation; the battle to protect these stands of ancient trees was hard-fought and quite recent. Even the youngest of visitors can appreciate why these rare giants should be saved.
And there’s something beautiful about parents and kids both being dwarfed by the world’s tallest living things. Redwood also protects beach and wildlife habitats, and it sees fewer visitors than many of the other parks on our list.
Arches National Park
Utah is home to five spectacular national parks and lots of other protected lands, any of which are eminently worth visiting. But our favorite for kids is Arches: a combination of easy trails, sandy washes to play in and crazy rock formations makes it a sure bet for a fantastic trip.
Dinosaur National Monument
Not a designated national park, but run by the National Park Service, we couldn’t leave this list without mentioning Dinosaur National Monument.
The site of some of the most important fossil findings in the world, this park and its fossil quarry is will delight your dino-obsessed little one. There are also great trails to hike, rivers to float or swim in, pioneer history, and breathtaking scenery.
A few general tips for visiting any national park site with kids:
Don’t skip a stop at a park visitor’s center!
These places are great resources, with maps, films, exhibits and rangers who can help you plan your time in the park. The more you know about a place, the more you will be able to appreciate it during your visit!
Take advantage of the Jr. Ranger program!
Every NPS site has a jr. ranger program, in which kids can get a booklet with fun activities that will help them explore and learn about the park. After completing some of the booklet and, at some parks, doing a few other activities, kids can take a pledge and receive a badge or patch and the official designation of National Park Jr. Ranger.
When hiking with kids, we’ve found a few things to be enormously helpful:
Make sure everyone has sturdy, comfortable shoes
Play games together along the way, such as Eye Spy or 20 Questions
Take it slow and let kids stop to take a closer look at things along the way
Where possible, choose hikes with varied terrain and plenty of visual interest—rocks to scramble around, water to dip toes in or float leaf boats down, animals to spot, etc.
Teach kids the importance of Leave No Trace principles!
It’s vital that anyone visiting a national park or natural site learn how to protect the places they’re seeing. Visitor’s centers and park rangers are great resources for learning the specifics of protecting each landscape.
As a general rule, always stay on established trails, stay 25-100 yards from wildlife (depending on the species), pay attention to posted signs and rules, pack out any trash, and leave all natural resources where you find them.
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