The United States has some incredible protected lands open for exploration. Aside from the 63 National Parks to choose from, there are 360 other national park sites across all 50 states and US territories. That’s a whopping 423 sites (and counting) to learn about ecosystems, wildlife, history, geography, and so much more across our nation! Add in the breathtaking views and fun events and you have a recipe for making family memories that last a lifetime. That being said, visiting these sites can be a little different (and a lot more overwhelming) when you have kiddos in tow. Check out this list of questions and resources to aid with your planning process and help you make the most of your visit to a National Park with kids.
Photo Credit: Katie Fox
Where will you go?
With a variety to choose from, deciding which National Park land you want to visit can be easier said than done. Generally, I ask myself what my main goal of the trip is: Do I want to learn about a historic battle in American History? Maybe we’ll visit Saratoga National Historic Park. Do I want to teach my kiddos about and experience various ecosystems? Olympic National Park would be a great option. Do I want to stay close to home? Let’s check to see what’s nearby. You can use this link to find parks all across the United States and territories.
Check out these articles for more information on visiting some of the popular National Parks with kids. You can even make it a road trip and visit multiple sites along the way! This website has a variety of road trip options to help you plan your National Park adventure.
When will you go?
You have likely heard about the current issue with large crowds at National Parks across the nation. Summer tends to be the most popular time to visit most parks, which means crowds can get overwhelming. This is especially true when you have kids along for the ride. If at all possible, I highly recommend planning your trip during less busy months such as April or October (for most areas). You will likely save money on lodging, experience smaller crowds, and enjoy more moderate temperatures. Check out this resource from Lonely Planet for advice on when to visit some of the popular National Parks.
Photo Credit: Katie Fox
Where will you stay?
Depending on when you plan to visit, reservations can fill up fast! Whether you plan to camp, find accommodations near the park, or stay at a lodge in the park, reserving your spot in advance can be crucial. Here are some tips and resources based on the type of accommodations you seek:
- Check reviews from previous customers (especially the ones that have kiddos).
- Take note of any included (or missing) amenities. Do they have WiFi available? Do they have a shuttle to the park? Are there showers and adequate hookups inside the campground?
- If possible stay in or close to the park. Some of the National Parks are really large and the time spent driving into and out of the park means less time exploring.
- The majority of campsites will book up fast during the busy season, so planning ahead is essential.
- Websites such as Campendium and Recreation are excellent resources to find open and nearby campsites and include reviews and the amenities available.
- If all else fails, visit the National Park website for the park you are visiting. Some parks have third party vendors managing their campgrounds, and these may not show up on other reservation websites.
- Many larger parks (like Yellowstone or Olympic National Parks) have onsite lodges that are located right next to the main attractions. While they are pricey, a one-night stay may be worth it if you want to get to the popular features and trails early.
- Booking your stay during the off-season or the middle of the week can save you quite a bit of money and may help you beat some of the crowds.
- There are numerous websites to choose from to find a hotel nearby, such as Hotels.com and Expedia.
- Keep in mind the distance from the hotel to the park entrance. You may save money by choosing a hotel that is farther away but being closer to the park will allow for less driving time into and out of the park.
- Consider the extras. Does the hotel offer a continental breakfast? Do they have a pool? Do they offer a shuttle into the park? Do they have special discounts for nearby attractions? These can all be huge benefits when traveling with kids!
- This is especially convenient if you are looking for larger accommodations (family reunion anyone?) and prefer to have a kitchen during your visit. Websites such as AirBnB and Vacation Rental by Owner are great resources to find what you need.
- Read the description and reviews thoroughly. Some rentals are not family-friendly (too many steep stairs or breakable objects) while others are ideal for little ones (crib and high-chair included along with toys/children’s books available).
- Keep an eye on the extra fees. Many rentals charge a large cleaning fee that is not included in the advertised price.
Photo Credit: Katie Fox
What Will you do?
Ah yes, the exciting part! Each park has its fair share of things to see and do. A great place to start planning is by finding your destination on the National Park website and clicking the “Plan your visit” tab. This will take you to numerous recreational options along with maps and recommendations. Here are a few tips and tricks for making the most of your visit with kids in tow:
When you get there:
- Carry paper or downloaded maps since many parks have areas without cell service. You can find maps on your destination website, and most of the larger parks will have them available at the entrance gate or visitor’s centers.
- Kids love collectibles! You can purchase a National Park Passport (you can get these at the visitor centers), which you can get stamped at every National Park land you visit. They also have collectible coins, postcards, engraved penny machines, etc.
- Almost all National Parks participate in the Junior Ranger Program, which is a wonderful opportunity for kids to learn about the area while earning badges and having fun.
- Ask questions! The Park Rangers are there to help you enjoy your stay, so utilize their expertise. They can give you up-to-date information on events (such as guided tours), trail recommendations (including those that are good for little hikers), weather, wildlife sightings, etc.
Hiking and Exploring:
- Be sure to pack enough water and essentials for the whole family. Check out this article for more information on what to pack for a day hike. Keep in mind, that while most visitor centers and even a few very popular trailheads offer water refill stations, always having additional water in your vehicle is useful.
- When choosing a hiking trail, keep an eye on elevation along with distance. Even short hikes can be difficult if the elevation changes drastically!
- Using trail apps and websites such as All Trails and the Hike it Baby Family Trail Guide can be extremely helpful when determining where to hike. The Hike it Baby Family Trail Guide also includes family-friendly information, such as whether the trail is stroller friendly, other kid-approved features along the trail (such as trees to climb or water features), etc.
- Plan ahead, but be flexible enough to allow for some impromptu exploration.
- Keep in mind the Leave No Trace principles to help keep our parks beautiful and safe for both people and wildlife. Check out this article for more information on the Leave No Trace Principles.
Relaxing and Refueling:
- I highly recommend bringing a cooler to keep drinks and perishable foods cold along with plenty of snacks. While some visitor centers have food available, you may not always be close to a center, and a hangry child does NOT want to wait for you to drive back, find a parking spot, and stand in line at a café.
- Don’t forgo the nap if your kiddo still takes one. This could be a good time for a scenic drive through the park while your little one takes a car nap, or you can return to your lodging for a mid-day break.
- Scout out good places to rest ahead of time. These areas are usually noted on the map, whether it be a picnic area, shelter, or visitor’s center.
Are you planning a National Park adventure? Do you have any tips for visiting National Parks with kids? Let us know in the comments below or share your experience and tag @hikeitbaby on your favorite social media platform!
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