National Parks! Where? How?
November 15, 2018 5:57 PM   Subscribe

I have a 4th grader so we can go to US National Parks for free this year. Where to go?

We live in Seattle. We could drive. Maybe we could fly. We could possibly camp. Where should we go?
posted by k8t to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

Mt Rainier is right next door to you, as is Olympic Nat'l Park.

The West Coast has a lot of options, but if you ever feel like coming East, we've got Acadia in Maine down to Everglades in Florida. My favorite is Shenandoah, which isn't glamorous but has a lot of personal memories, and it's near enough DC that you could turn it into a historical/nature-y spring break trip or something.

Find Your Park has a filterable list by activity and state
posted by basalganglia at 6:10 PM on November 15, 2018 [3 favorites]


This answer assumes you know nothing. Presumably you know things, please don’t take offense.

Close to Seattle, both the Olympic NP and Rainier NP make stunning day trips if you don’t mind 5 hours in a car, and assuming summery weather. Hurricane Ridge is spectacular, even if you just bring a picnic lunch and hang out marveling at the spectacular view. This is particularly attractive if you bring along elderly or disabled family who might not be able to day hike. Both Paradise and Sunrise locations in RNP are similarly gorgeous. All three locations have day hiking available- those trails are almost always packed with other hikers: if this is your objective, stop at visitor centers for advice about trails with less congestion. REI usually has a ranger who can help you plan a trip, upstairs. Summer weekdays are better than summer weekends.

Further afield: oh my god. Glacier in Montana is beyond belief. Utah is absolutely incredible, Zion/Bryce is mind-blowing, but there’s tons more between there and the Grand Canyon. All the famous spots are slammed all summer long, sorry to say. We went to Zion in April twice- once blessed with great 70s weather, once grey wet and cold (40s).

And the there’s the Sierras. My advice is that Sequoia National FOREST didn’t have the very biggest trees but was way more rewarding than SNP, which was full of Winnebagos and snow-cones.

What else? Crater Lake! Mt. St Helens! North Cascades! Yellowstone! It’s all so beautiful.
posted by carterk at 6:23 PM on November 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

White Sands National Monument. Unbelievable.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:25 PM on November 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

What types of activities does your child like to do?

If into animals: Yellowstone has a ton to do and you're SO CLOSE (literally driving through the park right next to) buffalo, deer, and other large wildlife. You can see grizzly bears if you're patient and there's amazing bird-watching as well.

If into adventuring: head to Zion to hike the Narrows! I've taken school trips with high school-aged kids there and that hike was definitely the highlight of the trip. We traveled over Memorial Day, and it wasn't nearly as crowded as I expected.

If into big hikes: Arches is beautiful and there are a variety of difficulty levels of hiking. Rocky Mountain National Park also has amazing hiking and Estes Park (the city right next to the national park) has a lot of kid-friendly activities.
posted by orangesky4 at 7:19 PM on November 15, 2018

Fly to Anchorage, and drive north to Denali and then south to Kenai Fjords. Animals, gorgeous sprawling wilderness, camping, room to roam. Summer is best.

You also cannot go wrong with Zion/Bryce. Spring or fall is nice because it’s not so hot.
posted by charmedimsure at 7:39 PM on November 15, 2018

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - it’s just reopened. Go in the dead of winter at home.
posted by mdonley at 8:18 PM on November 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lake Ozette wooden plank trails through quasi rainforest wide beaches bald eagles , some shipwrecks last time I hiked the loop and beach.
posted by hortense at 8:52 PM on November 15, 2018

Some of these are probably already booked solid until 2020. You have the choice of going at the shoulder seasons (probably right before it opens) where there will be less people, but there will be less ranger programs and open facilities.

Yosemite: Has a good mix of short and long hikes, great views. Going to Half Dome would require a permit, but it's probably too far for a fourth grader anyway (12+ hours).

Yellowstone: Has tons of unspoiled wilderness and animals, crazy thermal areas. So large it's logistically difficult. Will be packed with tourists during peak season. Right next to the Grand Tetons (never been, but highly recommended).

Zion: The Narrows are a neat novelty hike. Other hikes are also interesting, but not a ton of facilities.

Bryce: Interesting rock formations, but I thought it wasn't as good as Zion. Very low amount of facilities.

Grand Canyon: Looks amazing, but hiking into the Canyon is rather miserable (and dangerous) during the summer months. The south rim is basically a mini-city but the north rim is basically one building.
posted by meowzilla at 9:29 PM on November 15, 2018

Keep in mind that not all parks have an entrance fee and thus a gate.
My child was super excited about the act of getting the parents in for free, and was disappointed at parks with no ranger there to take the pass.

Remember, the pass is good at all (non concession) Federal lands, so you can use it for entry into National Monuments, Heritage Sites, etc. Don't limit yourself to just the few National Parks.
posted by madajb at 11:44 PM on November 15, 2018

Also, if you haven't already, you can trade your paper printout in for an actual plastic, hangable pass.
It's much cooler than the paper printout, and makes the whole thing more "official".

Keep in mind, your child has to be there to sign their pass, you can't do it for them.
(It's pretty quick, though).
posted by madajb at 11:47 PM on November 15, 2018

* pulls up chair and sits down *

You are indeed right near Olympia National Park, but I'm still going to suggest starting with Yosemite as your Official Kickoff of the grand tour I am about to lay on you. (You can do Olympia as a teaser preview if you like, or fit that in whenever.) Yosemite is not just gorgeous and huge, it is historically significant - a camping trip Teddy Roosevelt took through Yosemite Valley with John Muir is what lead to our national park system in the first place. Allow at least a week for Yosemite - it's the size of Rhode Island, with a lot to explore. And do explore - 95% of visitors only check out the most famous bits in Yosemite Valley, but that's only about the size of....Providence. Go check out the rest of the park. If lodging inside the park is scarce, there are some surrounding towns that have little hotels and decent AirBnBs that market themselves as being on the Yosemite doorstep, and that's not a bad option; no matter what you want to do, you're looking at a fair bit of driving to get to it, so an extra 30-40 minutes won't kill you - especially since you're driving through some jaw-dropping scenery.

Then: go to Moab, Utah, because that one town is right bang in between TWO parks - Canyonlands and Arches. Canyonlands is another case where there will be some driving - not because the entry gate is far away, but because the visitor center is itself far from the entry gate. Arches' visitor center is a little closer to the entry gate, and the route to the big stuff-you've-seen-on-the-postcards is lined with other scenic overviews and small trails. Both the entry gates to Canyonlands and Arches are about a 15-minute drive from Moab itself; I'd stay there instead of in one of the parks, since it's turned itself into an outdoor-sports hub, so it has a lot of mountain bikers, shops, restaurants, and other services. The non-national-park area around Moab also is worth a look - there's a couple Utah state parks that are also worth a visit, and about a half hour outside town there is a fantastically kitschy site called "Hole "N The Rock" that'd be good for a break if your kid wants a break to do something goofy (it's the site of a house that a retired miner carved out of a cliff, but it also has goofy souvenirs, a petting zoo, and the usual tacky roadside stuff).

Moab is not that far off from Zion Canyon national park, but not close enough to stay in Moab and drive there as a day trip. If you want to do a Grand Tour Of The Southwest, it'd be like your next stop. And Zion, in turn, is not far from The Grand Canyon.

As a general note: the first park you hit up, stop by the gift shop and check out the National Parks Passport program. All 418 national parks, recreation areas, and historical sites have unique passport-cancellation-style stamps at their visitor centers, and visitors can stamp something with it as a sort of free souvenir. Officially, you're supposed to stamp the inside of a "Passport to the Parks" book that they also sell in the gift shops (not a separate book each time, there is a single book and you can stamp repeatedly all over the inside several pages), but since they change the design of the cancellation stamps frequently, and since there are so many units, a lot of people stamp a scrap of paper instead. It sounds dippy as hell, but I picked one up at a national landmark site near me on a lark and it's actually encouraged me to check out some nearby landmarks and parks "to get the stamp while I'm there". Your kid may get caught up in the whole Pokemon-like "gotta get all the stamps" aspect, so he may need reminding that "let's actually ENJOY the park we're visiting first for a little while", but it could be a kid-friendly hook.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:36 AM on November 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Not to be too much of a downer, but I think for now I'd try to focus on experiences that could be lost soon due to climate change. That would mean seeing glaciers, for example at Glacier National Park (obviously) but also Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park or Wheeler Peak at Great Basin National Park in Nevada. Great Basin is one of the least visited parks and the span of stuff you can see there (from a glacier and alpine forest with natural lakes, to a really cool cave tour) is incredible in such an off-the-beaten-path location.

Yellowstone is incredible but its wildlife is under threat for multiple reasons (recent NYT feature), not just climate change. I would make a point of visiting it now while it's still likely you'll see wolves and elk, and maybe bears (the bears already require some luck; if you go to the right place at the right time with the right binoculars you have a better chance with the wolves). It will still be beautiful if the landscape changes due to invasive plants, but the changes that are already underway threaten a number of species that are endemic to the park. And if you go to Yellowstone you can also visit Grand Teton National Park (to the south) and see more wildlife. We saw more bears at Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton than we saw anywhere in Yellowstone.

Our 12-year-old nieces said the highlight of a trip with us this summer was seeing all the stars at the Grand Canyon. We took them out after dark, with no moon, and the skies were clear enough to see the Milky Way stretch from one horizon to the other. A number of parks now make a point of reminding visitors "Half the Park is After Dark." Good night skies depend on both good air quality and lack of light pollution. The Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Great Basin are all great for this (Arches and Canyonlands should also be good, but I haven't been to vouch for them personally). Yellowstone's skies can be affected by smoke from wildfires, Death Valley might have both wildfire smoke and particulates from populated coastal areas, and Joshua Tree's skies were definitely affected by air pollution from coastal southern California the night we tried to watch a meteor shower. If you're planning on including stargazing in your itinerary, make sure you check something like ClearDarkSky for visibility forecasts.
posted by fedward at 6:04 AM on November 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

In addition to the recommendations above, consider Lassen NP. It’s just over an hour off I-5, which you might be driving anyway to get to Yosemite and etc. Its one of the less visited parks, but still very dramatic, with some of the volcanic features you’d otherwise expect to see in Yellowstone. High altitude, no light pollution, the stars were punishingly bright when we’ve been there (Crater Lake also a good choice for star gazing, if the air isn’t thick with smoke.)
posted by carterk at 6:19 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also if you create an addict (my wife and I are clearly adult addicts and our nieces have the bug now) the awkwardly named America the Beautiful - National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass (often called a public lands pass or interagency pass) is good for twelve full months, plus the remainder of the month in which you buy it (in other words, buy it any day in November 2018, and it will expire December 31, 2019). Even after recent price increases it's still worthwhile. The fees to enter many of the major parks (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, etc) are high enough that the pass costs less than the cost of visiting two of them. Not all parks have fees, and not all entrance gates are manned even at the parks that do have fees, so sometimes you lose out on the thrill of being welcomed and praised, but still. It's a deal and a worthy cause.
posted by fedward at 6:25 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Craters of the Moon National Monument (Idaho) is on the way to Glacier National park and I would also highly recommend it. (It does indeed feel like the moon.)
posted by typecloud at 7:18 AM on November 16, 2018

If you want the bluest water you've ever seen in your whole life, head to Crater Lake.

It's particularly fun to go in late spring/early summer -- there's still enough snow on the ground to make a serviceable snowman, but it'll be warm enough to barely need a jacket.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 8:49 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Out of your way, but it is my favorite place on the planet.

Stay at Tara's Wharf in Ranier, MN, across the river/lake from Canada. Swim at the beach. Fish from the docks. See giant river otters lounging (and pooping) on the docks outside your window. Eat ice cream from downstairs and try craft beer across the street. Rent bikes to ride (or rollerblade) to town for shopping and movies. And go on tours of Voyageurs National Park by boat or canoe and see wild roses, bald eagles, loons and gold mines. Have dinner on the deck overlooking Voyageurs and feed chipmunks from your hand at Sha Sha's.
posted by jillithd at 9:09 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm going to make a pitch for Olympic National Park in the winter - like maybe over Christmas/New Year's? I know it sounds wacky, but the Hoh Rain Forest is positively magical in the winter, it's so quiet - I especially like the Hall of Mosses. Also, if there are storms, the beaches at Kalaloch are awesome places to stormwatch - just stay off the logs as the tides come in! We live in Kitsap County, and like to drive in to the park via Port Angeles and along Lake Crescent, and out via Hoquiam/Aberdeen. You see such different landscapes each way. Also near to Port Angeles, you can see the newly restored Elwha river - a dam recently removed has provided amazing changes to the landscape - from delta to the upper river.
Also, if you're in the southwest, the El Morro National Monument is really a treasure - it's small (only 7 campsites I think), out of the way, and stunning. The water seep at the base of a sandstone bluff is the only fresh water for hundreds of miles, and people have been there since there people arrived in the area - and have left their mark in the sandstone.
posted by dbmcd at 9:14 AM on November 16, 2018

Listen, no one is wrong in this thread. All those parks are great.

But I'm going to go against the trend and suggest rather than (or in addition to) the big parks like Yosemite, Glacier, Zion, etc., you head to some of the smaller National Parks, Monuments, Historic Sites, Recreation Areas, etc., in your area. The problem with the big parks is that EVERYONE goes there, they're crazy busy unless you are there in an off season, and high visitation numbers take a toll on parks.

There's a ton to learn about and enjoy at smaller units. This is the NPS - the level of scholarship involved in preserving and interpreting these places is generally quite high, even the smaller sites, so you and your 4th grader are unlikely to be disappointed.

It's a little hard to find, but NPS maintains a list of all units within each state. Here it is for Washington State. NPS uses a standard web address format so for other states just replace the two-letter state code in the URL. Every park unit website has logistical information, a calendar of events and information about the park's environment, history, and culture your 4th grader can look at ahead of time to get the most out of the visit. You could even give your kid the website and let them research and choose destinations!

[But I'll also second jillithd's suggestion of Voyageurs NP, just because it is also my favorite NP and I've been to many of them.]
posted by Preserver at 9:40 AM on November 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

A cool thing I forgot to mention about White Sands National Monument is that you can go sledding on the dunes.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:16 AM on November 16, 2018

But I'm going to go against the trend and suggest rather than (or in addition to) the big parks like Yosemite, Glacier, Zion, etc., you head to some of the smaller National Parks, Monuments, Historic Sites, Recreation Areas, etc., in your area.

This is a big "why not both?" from me, but then I'm spoiled because I live in Our Nation's Capital and visiting NPS property is as common for me as waiting for the bus. Literally: the bus stop for a route we take is located on Sherman Circle, managed by NPS as part of Rock Creek Park*. I also go for hikes in the park itself, and we take out of town guests to the National Mall pretty regularly. Most cities don't have the sheer number of NPS units DC has, but the smaller, less popular locations can still be really rewarding. On the same trip we took our nieces to the Grand Canyon, we also visited not just Saguaro National Park but a number of National Monuments and National Historic Sites. A couple highlights from those detours were Montezuma Castle and Sunset Crater Volcano. We saw maybe a dozen people at the former and perhaps 50 or so at the latter. For that matter, we didn't see too many people at Saguaro, but we got there right when the visitor center opened and left before it got too hot.

* Amusingly, my wife answered a phone survey this week that turned out to be all about visits to NPS units. Early on, the survey asked about her most recent visit, considering all units of the Park Service. "How many times in the past year have you visited Rock Creek?" (Uh, eighty?) "Thinking about your last visit to Rock Creek, did you participate in any ranger programs or otherwise interact with a ranger?" She eventually said to the guy, "I think for the purpose of this survey I should have used our trip to the Grand Canyon instead." On the bright side, when the guy started asking if we'd visited specific sites in our area she could say yes to basically all of them. Pennsylvania Avenue? Yes. Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail? Yes. President's Park? Yes.
posted by fedward at 8:12 AM on November 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

« Older What sort of tradesperson do I call about a...   |   Is it safe to put the front of a treadmill up on... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.