Take a break and scope out killer views at Zion National Park. (Photo: Alamy)
Hiking and biking, floating and boating, learning and exploring. There’s no doubt about it: Families of all shapes and sizes have lots of choices when it comes to choosing the perfect place for a nature-infused vacation. With nearly 60 national parks and dozens of other protected areas located throughout the United States, the National Park Service (NPS) provides the perfect playground. The only question is, which park is best for your family’s next trip?
The NPS has done a wonderful job providing parents with tools to engage their kids on a wilderness trip. Some have online activities to pique interest before arriving, and almost all have a self-guided Junior Ranger Program, driven by activity packets that can be picked up at visitor centers.
Beyond these efforts, though, not all national parks are created equal when it comes to family travel, and some are far better at accommodating groups with a wide range of ages than others. The following parks are among the best.
Zion National Park, Utah
Start a trip to Zion at the park’s Nature Center, which introduces Zion’s biology and ecology. Several simple hiking trails — the Riverside Walk, the Pa’rus Trail and Emerald Pools, in particular — allow even the littlest legs to enjoy the park. In good weather conditions, there are safe places to splash around in the Virgin River.
The park also hosts specially designed youth events, which consist of hands-on, interactive activities, from Memorial Day through mid-August. And to make the park’s highlights easier to enjoy, a free, environmentally friendly tram service means families can spend more time out in nature instead of sitting in traffic.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
Though technically designated as a national seashore, the NPS still runs this protected area, which is brimming with family fun. During the summer months, the seashore’s calendar is packed with programs, many of which are designed specifically with kids in mind, such as Seashore Arts and Pirate Times.
Beaches, in general, beg for relaxation, but Cape Hatteras encourages families to try their hand at crabbing, kayaking and snorkeling. Boating and gear rentals are available locally.
Yellowstone National Park; Idaho, Montana, Wyoming
America’s first national park is still one of the best for families. An extensive collection of materials, such as coloring, alphabet and activity books, allow parents to match the best materials to their families’ needs. Many of these are available online.
In addition to Junior Rangers, the park’s Young Scientist Program is a more focused initiative designed for five- to nine-year-old kids to hone their scientific problem-solving skills.
Beyond activity-driven opportunities, families may be interested in biking on the paved path between Old Faithful Lodge and Morning Glory Pool, watching for stars (especially during meteor showers) and looking for wildlife like bears and wolves.
Acadia National Park, Maine
America’s first eastern national park has some particularly unique opportunities perfect for families. With a GPS unit and a set of clues, the NPS-sponsored EarthCache Program helps visitors track down some of the park’s important geological features.
In addition to several easy hiking trails, Acadia also has 42 miles of rustic carriage roads, and visitors are welcome to enjoy them via a carriage ride from a nearby stable.
And don’t forget to leave time to go tide-pooling at Bar Island Sand Bar, ideal for about one-and-a-half hours on either side of low tide.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton’s outdoor activities include everything from hiking and biking to boating and floating. In the winter, families can strap on cross-country skis or snowshoes for a different perspective of the Teton Range.
What makes this park particularly suited for families, however, is the depth of kid-friendly online resources that help prep kids for the park. Interactive activities include games to identify plants and animals, coloring pages, a kid-oriented newspaper and virtual explorer presentations.