Words by Kevin Gray
The weather is warm and school’s ending (if it hasn’t already for you), which means you have to do something with your kids and all that time. And in general circumstances the answer would not be “pile the whole family into the car for an extended period of time.” But there’s nothing general about America’s National Parks.
Our country’s parks and forests provide unlimited opportunities for adventure, from rugged hiking and camping to more luxurious stays and experiences. And while it’s hard to go wrong with such a variety of natural beauty and activities available, every park is different, so read up to find the best fit for your family. (And take advantage of their free days, half of which are in August.)
To help narrow your choices, here are, in no particular order, our 10 favorite National Parks for family vacations.
Redwood National Park, California
For Tree Lovers
This makes it to the top of most lists for good reason—its famous swath of trees are some of the tallest in the world and are impressive to adults and kids alike. More than 200 miles of trails weave through the old-growth forests, so you’ll have plenty of ground to cover—but don’t miss the James Irvine Trail. This popular 4.2-mile trek runs along Godwood Creek and swings by the spectacular Fern Canyon, a World Heritage Site that’s lined with towering walls of ferns.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
For Budding Geologists
This is the biggest desert park in Utah and it’s filled with unique topography and natural rock formations. Two in particular you have to see: Island in the Sky and the Needles. Island in the Sky is a mesa that sits 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain and makes for a great vantage point. The Needles were formed by millions of years of water and wind erosion, plus movements in the Earth’s crust, to form the colorful, vertical rock spires that you see stretching upward. Both are accessible by foot (even little ones) or four-wheel drive roads, and deserve to be explored.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
For Fish out of Water
Crater Lake is America’s deepest lake, and considered to be one of the cleanest and clearest bodies of water in the world. There are no shortage of activities throughout the park, but dedicate your time to the lake. Your three musts? 1. A dip in the icy water. 2. A boat tour to Wizard Island in the middle of the lake. 3. And a trip to the rustic Crater Lake Lodge for some lunch and a well-earned beer on the terrace.
Glacier National Park, Montana
With more than 700 miles of trails, Glacier National is one of the country’s premier hiking destinations. Your two best bets are the three-mile Hidden Lake Overlook trail with its spectacular views of the lake (plus the occasional mountain goat sighting) and the 11-mile Grinnell Glacier hike, which ends with an up-close look at the famous glacier. Because you can’t visit Glacier National Park without paying tribute to an actual glacier.
Maroon Bells, Colorado
Located inside White River National Forest, and just 10 miles from Aspen, Maroon Bells is one of the most scenic destinations in the country. Explore the two snow-capped peaks (aptly named Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak), then hit the reflective Maroon Lake at the base of the mountains for some fly-fishing. Area hotels and outfitters can set you up with the lessons and equipment you’ll need to go angling for plentiful schools of trout and bass. With a little luck, you just might catch your dinner.
White Sands, New Mexico
For Those Who Miss Winter
One doesn’t expect to walk barefoot on 275 square miles of sandy white beaches in New Mexico, but that’s exactly what you’ll find at the White Sands National Monument. The world’s largest gypsum dune field is easy to access for daytrips and backcountry camping. But no matter your larger plans, carve out some time for sledding. That’s right, bring a sled (or get one in a gift shop) and barrel down those dunes atop a plastic saucer like a kid on Christmas.
Channel Islands National Park, California
For Future Marine Biologists
This nautical natural wonder is comprised of five islands off the coast of California. And if the fact that they’re home to plants and animals you’ll find nowhere else on Earth doesn’t interest the youngest members of your family, chartering a boat and exploring the islands certainly will. Keep your eyes peeled for the incredible wildlife like whales, seals and bald eagles, as well as native animal species, like the island fox.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Seventy million years of eruptions and evolution have carved out a scenic landscape at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which features two active volcanoes: Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. The former has been constantly erupting since 1983, and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. For a safe peek at the glowing lava fields, take the scenic Crater Rim driving tour up the volcano—it includes designated points where you can pull over, hop out of the car and gaze upon the eruption to give your kids something to brag about once they’re back at school.
Everglades National Park, Florida
For Those Who take it Easy
The largest subtropical wilderness area in the country, Everglades National Park is a cornucopia of water and wildlife. Get your bearings by embarking on a canoe or kayak trip—you can opt for guided day tours or multi-day unguided trips—and see all that the area has to offer. Paddle among the Ten Thousand Islands, a labyrinth of small land masses and mangroves, and disembark to stretch your legs whenever the mood strikes.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
For Wood Nymphs
While worthy of its own visit, Shenandoah National Park is an easy getaway for Washington, DC tourists looking for some outdoor family-friendly recreation. Hike your way to one of the gorgeous waterfalls dotting the landscape—some of which lead down to swimming holes. At 93 feet, Overall Run Falls is the largest waterfall in the park, and features a few swimming spots downstream. Or make your way to the extra scenic Whiteoak Canyon for a dip—then sun yourself on the surrounding rocks and break for a picnic.
Canyonlands image courtesy of National Park Service