There are 418 national sites across the United States, with 62 of them designated as national parks. These are areas that are protected by the US government to maintain the beauty and wonder of these sites. Whether you are looking to explore glaciers in Alaska, view the depths of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, or hike the Rocky mountains, there is something for everyone to enjoy!
National parks make great destinations for family travel and offer varying degrees of activity level, making them great from the toddler years all the way to adulthood. These parks will leave all marveling at the beauty of nature and give you a new sense of just how glorious the earth is (at least it did for us!). A group of travel bloggers compiled this list of great national parks throughout the country to inspire you to visit them!
Mount Rainier National Park
One of the best places to visit this summer with the family is Mount Rainer National Park, located in Washington State. This 369 square mile park has it all! It has waterfalls, mountain views, lakes, beautiful old grove trees, wildlife and not to mention the beast: Mount Rainier Mountain. Mount Rainier, at 14,410 feet, stands tall in the center of the park. It is the most popular attraction of the park, but there is so much more to do than stare at Mount Rainier.
One of the best things to do is to hike the extremely popular Skyline Trail. This hike is located in the Paradise section of the national park. It is one of the most popular family-friendly trails in the park. The whole path has breathtaking views of Mount Rainier. There is also a waterfall called Myrtle Falls at the end of the trail. If you go on a clear day, you can get a perfect picture of the waterfall with Mount Rainier in the background.
Another family-friendly hike is the Grove of the patriarchs trail. It is a very easy trail with beautiful forest views, a stunning bridge, and the trees are enormous! It is a great beginner’s trail for all family members. It is a very popular and fun hike. If you are looking for a less popular trail nearby with a waterfall view, try out Silver Falls. The trail is more of an easy to moderate hike but without the crowds. The color of the green-blue river is astonishing, and we were pretty surprised at how few people were there to enjoy it.
If you are looking for a fun national park where you can see cute wildlife, gigantic trees, and enormous mountains, then Mount Rainier National Park is perfect for your family.
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Redwood National and State Park
A trip to Redwood National and State Parks is a total treat for kids. Big trees you can climb on and over, and even drive through? A win all around for families since parents will also be astounded by the beauty and grandeur of the Redwoods. The region of Northern California that is dominated by Redwoods is located a couple hours north of San Francisco, where you’ll find a sprawling forest of trees that are designated as both national and state parks. While the National Park may be more well known, you won’t want to miss Humboldt State Park right by it, where you’ll find a number of drive-thru trees like Myer’s Flat that are large enough for a small SUV to fit through. Humboldt State Park is also home to the Avenue of the Giants, an epic part of Highway 101 where you’ll drive through some of the world’s tallest trees. Kids will also appreciate the numerous short hiking trails through the tall trees and even the fact that many road stop gift shops and cafes are right by massive trees and even old hollowed out logs that can be climbed through.
Families will also love the fact that a Redwood forest vacation takes you right by the Lost Coast, a stretch of undeveloped coastline that is stunningly gorgeous and remarkably secluded compared to the rest of California’s coastline. Stop in the tiny town of Shelter Cove located on the Lost Coast for an ice cream and to see its charming lighthouse. Then head down to the black sand beach for some time walking along the shore or visit the tide pools of the rocky beach beneath the lighthouse. Just be sure to always face the water since large sneaker waves can quickly come upon you. Whether you choose to spend most of your time among the giant Redwoods close to the ocean or deep within the forest, you and your family will appreciate the history and beauty the region has to offer.
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Haleakala National Park
Haleakala National Park can be found on the beautiful Hawaiian Island of Maui. Haleakala is Maui’s volcano and covers a whooping 75% of the island. There are 2 parts of the park to explore, the Kipahulu district and the summit.
The Kipahulu or coastal district can only be reached from the east side of the island about 20 minutes past the town of Hana. Here you can experience the dramatic coast line, volcanic inlets and waterfalls!
Inside the park is a drive up, first come first serve campground perfect for the family traveling on a budget. Campsites are well maintained and walkable to the pools of Ohe’o and one of Maui’s most popular hikes, the Pipiwai Trail. This family friendly hike takes you past ancient banyan trees, through an enchanting bamboo forest and ends up at a 400 foot waterfall.
Another way to explore Haleakala National park is by accessing the summit. I recommend coming for sunrise to witness the sun rise above the clouds, an experience that is truly out of this world. To catch sunrise you must make reservations in advance here.
There are a handful of hikes that take you in, through or around the crater. The Pa Kaoao Trail is a short hike that will give you panoramic views of the crater and provide several photo ops perfect for the cover of your next family Christmas card. For a more challenging hike the Sliding Sands Trail will take you down to the crater floor. You’ll feel like you are traversing the surface of Mars and is a personal highlight of mine.
Don’t forget to dress warm, as it gets cold at the summit of 10,023 feet! However you explore Haleakala National Park, you’ll leave with unforgettable memories and have a trip of a lifetime.
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Red Rock Canyon
Many people do not think of Las Vegas as a destination for families, but you will be surprised how family-friendly Las Vegas can be. Located only 30 minutes away from the Las Vegas strip, Red Rock Canyon is the perfect place to take in scenic natural views with your family. Be advised, there is a $15 charge per car and no cell phone reception once you arrive at the canyon.
If you have a little nature enthusiast, they will enjoy the exhibit in the visitor’s center. Our son is going through a rock phase, so we spent an hour at the visitor’s center learning and playing with rocks. There are lookout posts for you to see the scenic mountains and desert for miles. We were even able to spot a few sleeping desert turtles. The volunteers are very nice and are informative if you would like to know more about the Canyon. This is the perfect place for families to spend the day enjoying everything nature has to offer.
Although it is a desert the beauty is indescribable. Red Rock Canyon will give you a whole new appreciation for an ecosystem that is oftentimes forgotten. After leaving the visitor’s center be sure to fill up on cold water outside before heading for the scenic drive around the canyon. The scenic drive is 13-miles and will take 35 minutes if you drive without stopping, but if you plan on making a lot of stops prepare to be there for 2 – 3 hours. There are over 25 hikes and trails for you to enjoy with your family. The kid-friendly hikes are Willow Spring Loop, Moenkopi Loop, Lost Creek – Children’s Discovery, and Oak Creek Canyon. Why not pack a lunch and explore?
Bonus: If you go between December and April you may see the hidden waterfall. How cool is that? A waterfall in the desert.
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Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is a great place for families. The Grand Tetons are a range of jagged mountains that rise dramatically right out of the plains. The main gateway town is Jackson Hole, which is worth spending a day or two in. The entrances to the main square in town are arches made from elk antlers, which is fun for kids to see. Thousands of elk shed the antlers each year, and they are gathered and sold in the square in spring.
There are plenty of viewpoints to see the mountains. A famous view is from Mormon’s Row, with a historic barn in the foreground. Other famous lookouts include Snake River Overlook, Oxbow Bend and Schwabacher’s Landing. This is also a great place to see moose early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Sightings are not guaranteed, of course, but moose often gather in the shallow waters of the river. Another common place to see moose is the aptly named Moose Pond. Park rangers often lead guided walks to see moose grazing in grasses that grow in the pond. The walk is short and easy for kids to do. This hike leaves from Jenny Lake, which is another highlight of a visit to Grand Teton national Park. A shuttle boat crosses the lake, from where more adventurous families can do the Cascade Canyon hike. The first section of the trail is uphill, but once you get into the canyon, you are rewarded with breathtaking views and an easy walk alongside the river that runs through the canyon. Black bear sightings are possible (so take precautions) and if you are lucky, you may see river otters darting around the water. The other main lake is Jackson Lake and this is a popular spot for fishing and boating.
There are several campgrounds and cabins near Jenny Lake and along the shore of the larger Jackson Lake. Whether you go there for the mountain views; to spot wildlife; or to relax on, in and near the water, there is something for the whole family at Grand Teton National Park.
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Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park is the only park in the northeastern United States, and embodies
everything New Englanders love about Maine! Located on Mount Desert Island outside of Bar Harbor, this picturesque park combines the beauty of the ocean and beaches alongside forests and small, easily hike-able mountains. It’s a perfect location for families to camp or to spend a weekend away.
Families with children will enjoy Acadia’s size and the small hikes it offers. You can drive through the park to most trailheads and the mountains are small. The highest mountain in the park is Cadillac Mountain, which sits just above 1,500 feet! In addition to smaller hikes like Gorham Mountain Trail and Jordan Pond, Sand Beach is the perfect place to spend a day soaking up the sun or searching for crabs in the ocean. Visit Thunder Hole to see the large seaspray along the beach.
You can opt to stay at a B&B or hotel in Bar Harbor, just fifteen minutes from the park, or you can stay within the park at Blackwoods or Seawall campground for cheap. From Blackwoods Campground you can hear the ocean waves, roast marshmallows over the campfire, and later walk down to the rocks for stargazing. The campsites are well equipped and the grounds are perfect for walks, bike rides, and making friends with fellow campers.
There are many restaurants in Bar Harbor, but the closest large supermarkets will be 30-45 minutes away, so plan accordingly. Firewood must be purchased within the state of Maine to be used inside the park. You’ll need a National Parks Pass to enter the park and stay within the campgrounds, or there will be an additional fee.
Acadia is our favorite place to camp every summer, and we always come back year after year!
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Muir Woods National Monument
Located just outside of San Francisco is Muir Woods National Monument. Muir Woods has impressive redwood sequoia trees! If you are looking for the top things to do in San Francisco with kids, Muir Woods is perfect. It is very easy to get to, you can take a ferry across the bay to Sausalito and jump on the designated bus that will drop you off right at the park. Or you can drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and park directly at the park. There is an entrance fee of $15 per adult and children under 15 are free. If you have the 4th grade pass or the National Park Pass this park is included.
These trees are over 1000 years old! The tallest tree in Muir Woods is 258 ft. tall. They are truly incredible to look at. There is a wooden walk way that will guide you to the most spectacular trees in Muir Woods. The trail wind’s around the trees to two spots the Cathedral Grove and the Bohemian Grove.
There are a few hiking options:
- 1/2 hour loop
- 1 hour loop
- 1 1/2 hour loop
The 1 1/2 hour hike extends into Mount Tamalpais State Park. Muir Woods is a great refuge away from the city. It is also a great way to see the Redwoods without driving long distances to Redwood National Park or Yosemite National Park.
I highly recommend making a trip and seeing this spectacular National Monument.
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Great Smoky Mountain National Park
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, located in Tennessee and North Carolina, is a beautiful portion of the Appalachian Mountain Range. These mountains are a popular vacation spot that many Americans even visit annually. The park and its surrounding area offer a wide variety of attractions and activities so that everyone will find something of interest! The most popular activity is, of course, hiking. Whether you’ve never been on a hike in your life or if you’re a seasoned hiker, there will be a trail for you! If you have small children, Laurel Falls is a great option because it’s just over 2 miles long roundtrip. At the end of the hike, you will see a lovely waterfall that the entire family will be excited to discover! The Gatlinburg Trail is also great for all ages because it is paved and showcases some beautiful scenery.
If you would like a more challenging hike, Rainbow Falls is popular as it is about 5 miles roundtrip and takes you to a waterfall that is not nearly as busy as Laurel Falls. The Chimney Tops trail is also a favorite. It’s only about 2 miles each way, but it’s also straight up and down. This is a very rocky trail and offers rock hopping, which is quite enjoyable for adventurers! Then, there are the trails that require a bit more effort, such as one of the five trails that leads up to Mt. Leconte, one of the highest mountains in the Eastern United States. The different trailheads vary in length and difficulty, but each of them will bring you to Myrtle Point, which offers panoramic views of the Smoky Mountains.
Fortunately, hiking is only one of the many activities in the area. If you choose to stay in Gatlinburg, which is home to many of the trailheads found within the park, you will have plenty of options in the evenings, as well as on the days when you don’t feel like hiking. You can find some Ripley’s attractions, many unique shops, miniature golf, and even some other adventurous activities!
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Looking for more ideas about natural beauties to visit? Check out Prince Edward Island as told by Meals and Mile Markers.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
If you are looking for the perfect National Park to take the whole family, there is no better choice than Carlsbad Caverns National Park! This region of New Mexico embodies the best of the Southwest’s outdoor adventures, and this National Park continues the trend by excelling at combining outdoor adventure, educational learning opportunities, and unique activities all in one place, perfect for any family! At Carlsbad Caverns National Park, there is something for everybody! Children have a chance to learn and witness the wonder of some of the most unique geographical formations in the country, on a short, underground, self guided trek through the Caverns. They will likely never forget some of the whimsical creations they will see, such as the enormous Big Room, the Devil’s Den, or Iceberg Rock. Become like the early explorers and venture on a ranger guided tour, which provides even more magical and life-changing memories of exploring the Caverns lesser visited “rooms”, such as the Hall of the White Giant, Slaughter Canyon, or Left Hand Tunnel tours.
For those that enjoy above ground explorations, there are several trails that wind through the unique topography and ecosystem of the Chihuahuan desert, home to a plethora of unique species of plants and wildlife, sure to pique the curiosities and interests of any age! Choose from short and easy nature walks, like the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail, or expand your horizons on some longer treks, such as the Rattlesnake Canyon Trail. As the day winds to a close, be sure to stick around for one of the highlights of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the nightly bat flight program! This above ground dusk event includes an educational briefing by park rangers, followed by the exhilarating exit from the depths below of the Cavern’s resident population of Brazilian free-tailed bats, as they embark on their nightly ventures! Wherever your explorations of this National Park take you, be sure to bring plenty of water for the arid New Mexican environment, sturdy shoes with good traction for the wide variety of trails that exist here, and a light jacket for below ground, as the temperatures stay cool year round!
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Yellowstone National Park
One of the best US National Parks to visit with kids is Yellowstone National Park. This amazing place found mostly in Wyoming, is home to bubbling springs, steam vents, bursting geysers and unimaginably beautiful landscapes. It is also home to an abundance of wildlife and you will be hard pressed to miss some of its occupants in the form of bison.
The most famous geyser on the world is in Yellowstone, Old Faithful, so called because of its predictable eruptions. This makes it easy to visit with kids, given that the Visitor Centre close by can tell you the approximate time of the next eruption so you are not waiting around for hours. There are other geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin that are on constant eruption. As well as the geysers, mud volcanos and springs, such as Grand Prismatic Spring, there are waterfalls, hikes, rivers and plenty of Visitor’s Centres to bring the kids to.
Yellowstone with kids is best enjoyed over several days, at least three, preferably four or more. You will need a car to get around, as it gives you the freedom to stop wherever and whenever you want.
Pro Tip: Do not underestimate the driving distances between points of interest in Yellowstone. It takes a lot longer than you think to go from point A to point B in the park.
You should plan a list of things to do with the kids and then plan your itinerary accordingly. For instance, plan to drive the lower part of the Grand Loop one day, and the upper part another day. If you elect to stay outside of the park, you need to factor in driving time to the entrance and then driving time to your first stop of the day. You should also factor in time for stops as you never know when you might spot something to stop at or pull over for. Don’t forget binoculars to help the kids spot wildlife.
Pro Tip: Get into the park early for popular places like Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful and the waterfalls of Yellowstone River, mainly to grab a parking spot. Being in the park early means you will miss the crowds and get to enjoy the popular areas at your own pace.
Yellowstone is an incredible place to bring kids as it is vast and diverse. There is wildlife to spot, incredible sights from nature to see and more.
Everglades National Park
When most people think of national parks in the United States they picture sweeping scenic views of mountains and canyons. Everglades National Park, however, attracts visitors for its unique ecosystem and diverse species. Located on the southern tip of Florida, the Everglades is the perfect place to bring your kids to teach them about the importance of preserving the natural environment and fighting climate change. This ecosystem is incredibly vulnerable to rising sea levels and, according to the National Park Service, is already experiencing the effects of increasing salinity from seawater.
I recommend you start your visit at one of the park’s four visitor centers. If you only have time for a day trip, Shark Valley, which is accessible from Miami, or Gulf Coast, which is accessible from Everglades City, are good choices. If you plan to spend longer in the park, you can visit the southern centers, Royal Palm and Flamingo, via Homestead.
Unlike your typical national park, one of the most popular ways to explore Everglades National Park is by boat. Airboat tours through the mangroves are incredibly exciting and will be a hit for any kid who loves amusement rides. If you are looking for a quieter experience on the water, the park has endless trails and coastline to explore by canoe or kayak.
For hiking, there are a number of short educational trails throughout the park. The longer trails are often more wild and are not maintained by the park service due to the presence of endangered species. The visitor center at Royal Palm offers a program in Slough Slogging, or off-trail hiking through the water (ages 12 or older).
Check out this blog post for a 2-week itinerary highlighting the culture and nature of authentic Florida beyond the theme parks, including a stop at Everglades National Park.
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There you have it…many great national parks to choose from, and these are only a few! I encourage you to do some research and head out to start exploring these great locations across the United States! Before visiting be sure to read up on outdoor etiquette to make sure you are protecting these great landscapes!