National Park for Kids
May 27, 2017 5:16 AM   Subscribe

I would like to take my kids ( 6 and 8 ) to a U.S. National Park this summer. I don't think they are old enough to do any significant hiking nor would I want to put them on any cliffs. What parks could provide them an amazing experience without them getting bored or getting wiped out?

Both kids like to hike but I think anything over 2-3 miles will be too much in one go. They are both very capable swimmers. They have never been camping but have showed interest. Not sure how well that would go down. I think I would rather make sure they could retreat to a hotel and get some rest and a shower if I am going to test them physically.

We live in Austin so can get to major metros easily and go from there. Olympic National Park is on my radar but have no idea how good it would be for young kids. Please help me make some awesome memories and expose them to the beauty of the National Parks.
posted by jasondigitized to Travel & Transportation around United States (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Great sand dunes in Colorado. Bring a saucer and the kids sled down. Big! Alligator farm up the street is totally rad. From Austin fly to Denver, drive via buena vista, beautiful. In the summer it's hot so the dunes are a morning evening thing.
posted by H. Roark at 5:32 AM on May 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Pisgah National Forest is beautiful and has a natural water slide! There are a lot of beautiful waterfalls in the area, some that are right next to the road or a short walk away. You'd also be close to Asheville so you can do city things if you want to take a break from the outdoors.
posted by Mouse Army at 5:50 AM on May 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Bryce and Zion are close to each other. Bryce has otherworldly colorful rock formations that I loved as a kid. Zion has the narrows, a spectacular narrow canyon where you start on a paved path but eventually can continue further by wading upstream. Feels like something out of a video game or movie. Zion also has Angel's Landing, but that definitely is the opposite of your "no cliffs" requirement.
posted by justkevin at 6:00 AM on May 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

There's always Yellowstone. The geysers & mud pots are easily accessible, there are plenty of relatively short trails, and the megafauna visible from your car windows would be pretty cool for kids in that age range.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:19 AM on May 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

I asked a question with similar goals a while back, you may want to peruse
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:35 AM on May 27, 2017

What about Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado? My brother and I were big fans when we were not much older than your kids.
posted by olinerd at 6:46 AM on May 27, 2017

All of the National Parks I've been to are extreme family-friendly, it's part of the mission of the NPS! They tend to have visitors centers with short walks and longer but still short (1-3 miles) around them. They often have educational programs in the summer too.

Funny you should mention Olympic National Park, because your question made me think of visiting there when I was 7 and having my mind blown by the rainforest. It was just a short loop trail but I loved it.
posted by lunasol at 6:53 AM on May 27, 2017

Enchanted Rock is 100 miles from Austin and is fantastic. There is a pretty easy cave system that they could probably handle, assuming nobody is terribly claustrophobic (i am mildly claustrophobic and made it through ok) bring headlamps to make it easier if yall go through the cave
posted by Jacen at 7:28 AM on May 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Shenandoah National Park has trails of varying lengths and very few are difficult. It's a couple hours west of DC, so it makes a nice day trip, or you can stay overnight at a town at the southern end of the park (e.g. Charlottesville or Staunton, both of which are charming) and head back up the next day doing more trails. Bonus: the area between DC and Front Royal (park entrance) is dotted with pick-your-own farms, which are like magic for kids.

For the Mid-Atlantic States, Hiking Upward is a great resource -- you can filter by length, difficulty, views, and solitude.
posted by basalganglia at 7:35 AM on May 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding lunasol - the Hoh rainforest in the Olympic National Park is amazing and the trail is short enough for small children to enjoy.

Also, if you want to drive up to Hurricane Ridge (also part of the Olympic National Park), there's a beautiful mountain wildflower meadow that's very close to the visitor's center, easy to walk through for small children, and not near any potentially hazardous drop offs. And the views up there are spectacular, even just on the drive up.
posted by darchildre at 7:51 AM on May 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ooh, you're in Austin? Consider this a bonus suggestion because it's an easy day trip, not a vacation, but pop over to Waco Mammoth National Monument if you haven't already been. It became part of the NPS in 2015. It's an Ice Age dig site where you can tour a (sheltered, temp-controlled) bone bed and see partially unearthed fossils. It's not a big place, but I would've lost my mind over it when I was your kids' ages.

If you ever go, request Dava as your tour guide. She's the education coordinator and she really knows her stuff.
posted by QuickedWeen at 8:36 AM on May 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Every National Park I've ever been to is designed to cater to people that will never venture more than a quarter mile from their car. It was actually a design philosophy the last time the NPS went through a major design phase in the 60s. I doubt you can find one that won't have plenty to interest the little folks.
posted by COD at 8:51 AM on May 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

You might want to consider Glacier National Park in Montana before the glaciers are all gone. It's a spectacular place.
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:15 AM on May 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

The glaciers might last longer if everyone stopped coming from far away to see them before they melt.

I'd just go to whichever is nearest your location, everyone's right, they're all great. That's what my parents did and I was a happy camper.
posted by aniola at 9:34 AM on May 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just to add my voice to the chorus about the parks being designed for families: some of them have park shuttles, which make it very easy to get around. I just took a trip that included a day each at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, and they both have park shuttles and plenty of bathrooms. They also have a few trails that are wheelchair accessible, which I assume would also be suitable for younger kids. At Bryce Canyon, each of the main overlooks are a short distance from the shuttle stops. If you stay in Kanab, Utah*, you'll be about an hour from the Zion entrance, 1.5 hours from Bryce Canyon and 1.5 hours from the northern rim of the Grand Canyon (which was closed during our trip, so I have no idea what it's like, except that it's probably, you know, grand). The nearest airport is Las Vegas, and then it's a 3.5 hour drive to Kanab.

*Kanab is also home to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, which is awesome. The free tours are supposed to be great, and your youngest is just old enough to volunteer with the cats if you think your family would be into that.
posted by amarynth at 9:51 AM on May 27, 2017

Caves. Anything with a cave. Carlsbad is (reasonably) nearby. Go there. My experience: got there about 15 mins late for the evening bat show (where 30 million bats fly out of a hole in the ground), driving up the hill as all the other cars were driving down (d'oh!). Found the park ranger cleaning up the amphitheater. Me: did I miss the bat show? Her: yes, sorry. Me: (snicker) um, can you have them do it again? Her: (looking at me like I had grown a second head) ummm...noo. ...but there's a campground at the bottom of the hill and if you come back at dawn (which is much less crowded) you can see them all fly back in. What she didn't mention was the 30 million cave swallows that would be flying out of the hole at the same time in a series of chirping tornado vortexes. Really a magical experience. Then, I pretty much had the caverns to myself for the rest of the day as I was the first one there. Caves are cool. (Also literally, so, good for summer)
posted by sexyrobot at 10:03 AM on May 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just to note that if you start thinking about one of the big parks -- Yellowstone (/Grand Tetons), Grand Canyon, Yosemite, etc -- you should look for lodging immediately, and I would expect to have slim pickings at best.

Depending on how much time you have to spend, I'd suggest driving to Big Bend, spending a couple of days -- there's lots of stuff to do within your hiking range (or shorter in the mountains because verticalness). In particular, there's a short hike into Boquillas Canyon (at the bottom, no cliffs) that leads to (or at least used to) a big sand dune that looks like it's pouring out of a shallow cave in the cliff face. It's fun to trudge up and run/bounce/fall down.

Then shoot over to Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns, which are near each other a few hours away.

But... man, that will mean a lot of really boring driving with kids in the car.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:33 AM on May 27, 2017

Def. Shenendoah - especially the Blue Ridge Parkway. Took my wife and 3 year old kid up the entire parkway being based in Asheville, and had a wonderful time driving, light "hiking", and picnicking on the side of the road. Kid was super happy and not really high impact.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 10:44 AM on May 27, 2017

Car rides aren't really boring now for kids with devices like iPads and Leap Pads. We don't let our kid use that stuff except on long road trips, once they've exhausted all other options.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 10:45 AM on May 27, 2017

Best answer: Shenandoah National Park ends where the Blue Ridge Parkway begins, so those are technically two different parks. There are numerous trails in Shenandoah that aren't too strenuous or dangerous for kids (or for parents who are nervous where their kids are not). Shenandoah is beautiful but as parks go it's one of the less spectacular (looking north and south, roughly: park. looking east and west: cities and towns in Virginia). I wouldn't cross the country for it.

My wife and I have been to 63 NPS sites, now including the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, and Zion (all mentioned above). Zion is indeed beautiful but it rained every day we were there and we were risk-averse. As a result we didn't even try Angel's Landing or the Narrows, but the Hanging Gardens and Emerald Pools were easy and safe enough to do in the rain. Yellowstone is incredible but it is enormous and there's a lot of driving within the park if you want to get outside the major developed areas (or get from one to another). I'd definitely recommend taking your kids there at some point, but maybe wait until they're older? Also you may have missed your chance to book lodging within any of the parks that have lodges: Yellowstone and Grand Teton lodges open up for booking 16 months out (in May for the next summer), Zion and the Grand Canyon lodges 13 months out. You can watch for cancellations, but those are trips best planned well in advance.

If I wanted to take kids that age to one (and only one) amazing park without too much driving time within the park itself I'd go to Great Basin. There's a glacier, there are alpine hiking trails that skirt beautiful lakes, there's an amazing cave you can tour (buy tickets in advance for that), and if you time it right you can take part in a night sky program. The one potential problem is that while there's camping in the park, there is no traditional lodging. We stayed in an AirBNB in the town just down the hill from the park.

My second choice with kids that age might be Mount Rainier, because it's big enough to make its own weather, just the drive to the park among all the tall trees is incredible, there's a rain forest at the bottom of the park, and then there's the mountain itself at the top of it. That said, I haven't been to Olympic, so I can't say how that experience would be.

Long term I'd take them to the Grand Canyon next year or so, Yellowstone and Grand Teton around ages 10-12, and Zion when they're old enough to hike its tough-but-rewarding trails. If you have time for a longer trip you can tie together the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and even Capitol Reef, where the top layer of rock at one park is the bottom layer at the next.
posted by fedward at 1:16 PM on May 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

(But yes, all, literally all, the National Parks have kid friendly activities, and there's something to be said for visiting the closest one to you. Big Bend is supposed to be pretty great, and has some of the better night skies, if that's important to you).
posted by fedward at 1:21 PM on May 27, 2017

Addendum, because I don't have a problem, you have a problem, shut up:

Lots of parks are adjacent to towns with lodging (Zion:Springdale, Bryce Canyon:Bryce Canyon Village, Yellowstone:West Yellowstone). Staying outside the park seems like a great idea and it can be cheaper, but at those parks the lines just to get into the park can take an hour in the high season (Yellowstone has a webcam on its West Entrance – right this minute it looks great, but it was pretty bad when we exited the park that way last September). If the park is in the top ten for visitation, expect long waits at the entrance gates. Great Basin and Capitol Reef don't have lodges, but they also don't have those crowds, so staying in the nearest town (Baker and Torrey, respectively) is practical. We just did a day trip to Mount Rainier from Seattle (we got up, saw the mountain was out, and got a quick breakfast for the road) but I'm sad we didn't get the chance to stay in the park.
posted by fedward at 2:10 PM on May 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, most National Parks sites have Junior Ranger programming that kids can do to earn badges. They're often extremely well designed and as an adult, I always make a point to do the Junior Ranger badges whenever I visit a park because they usually do a great job of drawing out the interpretive highlights of that park unit. Plus, collectible badges! A lot of participating parks post their activities/booklets online, so you can take a look and see if anything looks good as you screen parks. Some park units just have written activities to fill out, but others require brief hikes, ranger lectures, scavenger hunts, or other activities. You can also get your kids park passports to start collecting stamps, which is easily a lifelong hobby!
posted by bowtiesarecool at 4:56 PM on May 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

From Mount Rainier you can also make a day trip to St. Helens. That volcano-blasted landscape with returning foliage and wildflowers is breathtakingly beautiful. But for both, the PNW weather could put a damper on your trip, so you'd want to go in July or August for the best chance of sunny skies.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:48 PM on May 27, 2017

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