The Best U.S. National Parks to Visit with Your Kids

Your kids read about these parks in the classroom… But to stand in their greatness and feel their history is a whole other thing.

The U.S. National Park Service offers a Junior Ranger Program for your little nature-lover. Before your trip, download your park’s Junior Ranger booklet online, or look for visitor centers where you can purchase one. Your kids will have a blast checking off the activities – they’ll be attending a short ranger program, scouting animal tracks, picking up litter, and even hunting for unique rocks! Afterwards, they’ll be rewarded with an official patch and a certificate.

There are 59 U.S. National Parks – here are the best ones to visit with your kids:

Yellowstone National Park

America’s first national park, Yellowstone is located primarily in Wyoming but extends into Montana and Idaho. And it’s the home of Old Faithful. The park is roughly two and a half hours from the airport in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Your family can look forward to seeing over 500 geysers, four dozen waterfalls, plus exploding mud pots. Over 400 species of animals call Yellowstone home including bear, bison, and over 30,000 elk. There are over 1,700 campsites within the park, or you can opt for one of the nine lodges.

Your family will have a blast boating on Yellowstone Lake and Lewis Lake. Rent your outboards and rowboats from Xanterra Parks & Resorts at Bridge Bay Marina. They even have guided fishing boats that you can book in advance. There’s no shortage of bicycling roads here – check out trails by the Mammoth Area, by the Old Faithful, and even by the Lake!

Grand Teton National Park

This park is located in northwestern Wyoming, just a stone’s throw from Yellowstone, so plan to knock both parks out in one trip.

The vast peaks of the 40 mile long Teton Range tower over peaceful valleys and lakes. Be on the lookout for wolves, moose, coyote, and an occasional mountain lion as you hike some of the 200 miles of trails – the same trails that American Indians and fur-trappers once used.

There are eight lodges located within the park and six campgrounds. Make sure to spend some time in Jackson Hole, a popular ski resort.

Grand Teton National Park is awesome for bird watching. Download their birding brochure to find the best spots for checking out the wide variety of bird species. Load everyone up in the car and go on the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive, which follows the east shores of Jenny Lake and provides magnificent views of the peaks. In the winter, try your hand (err… legs) at cross-country skiing and snowshoeing – definitely harder than it looks!

Yosemite National Park

Plan to visit this California park (three hour drive from Sacramento, California) sometime between late spring and early fall. From the southern entrance, drive up to the Mariposa Grove to take in the 500 mature sequoias. Then hike a mile to see Grizzly Giant, as well as the California Tunnel Tree – a famous tree you could actually walk through! If that doesn’t impress the kids, I don’t know what will…

In Yosemite Valley, head to Tunnel View (east end of the Wawona tunnel along Highway 41) for stunning views of El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, and Half Dome. For easy hikes, try the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail (1 mi) or the Mirror Lake Loop (2 mi), both of which will give you incredible views of the valley. There are a ton of campgrounds in the area, but make sure to book well in advance – they get packed from April to September.

Grand Canyon National Park

Fun fact: This is the 15th oldest national park! The canyon is 18 miles wide, 277 miles long and a mile deep, with the Colorado River cutting through it. Plan to fly into either Las Vegas or Phoenix. There are lodges inside the park, as well as RV parks and camp site.

The South Rim, open all year long, is the most accessible place within the park. Guests can take free shuttle buses, their own cars or mule rides (!!!) to get a great view of the canyon. If your kids are up for it, hiking or whitewater rafting are great ways to explore. Try a guided day hike for a wonderful opportunity to learn while soaking in the views.

Glacier National Park

This U.S. Park is located along the border between Montana and Canada, and features spectacular lakes, meadows, thick forests, and snow-capped peaks. With over 700 miles of hiking trails, keep your eyes open for sheep, mountain goats, bison, and grizzly bears. Fly into Great Falls, Montana – the park is about a three hour drive from there.

The park is open 365 days of the year, although certain areas are often closed due to harsh winter weather. One of those is the Going-to-the-Sun Road – come July, the famous road will open for the summer season. Along this 52 mile stretch, your family will be treated to numerous waterfalls, plus the Jackson Glacier overlook.

Glacier National Park is backpacking heaven. If you’re interested in Ranger-led activities, check out their all-day hikes and boat tours during the summer, and guided snowshoe walks in the winter!

Rocky Mountain National Park

From wooded forests to frozen tundra, this Colorado park is home to elk, black bear, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and moose. Fly in to Denver and plan on driving two hours to get there.

Enter the west side of the park through Grand Lake, and the east side through Estes Park. Trail Ridge Road, open from about Memorial Day until mid-October, connects the two. Although the road is only 48 miles long, the drive from one end to the other will take you about three hours each way. Fill up the gas tank, allow plenty of time and pack drinks and snacks. There’s no fast food along the way. There are five campgrounds located within the park. Otherwise, plan on staying in either Estes Park or Grand Lake.

The Rocky Mountain National Park offers something for every outdoor enthusiast, with over 300 miles of hiking trails. Warning: This is a high elevation park, most at over 10,000 feet, so some visitors may need to acclimate to the thinner air before any strenuous hikes.

Alpine Visitors Center is located about halfway through the park. The center has a cafe, restrooms, and a gift shop. You’ll marvel at the high snow drifts in the winter… Perfect for photo-ops!

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

This park, which sits along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, is the most visited of all the U.S National Parks. The most ideal time to visit is during the fall, when visitors are treated to over 100 species of trees in their autumn glory.

If your family wants to stay within the park, you’ll either need to camp, or hike to Le Conte Lodge. Otherwise, plan to stay in one of the surrounding communities such as Gatlinburg, TN, or Bryson City, NC.

Checking out historic buildings isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of national parks, but The Great Smoky Mountain is home to the best collection of log buildings in the U.S. We’re talking over 90 historic structures, including houses, barns, churches and schools. Look for them in Cades Cove, or on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. If your kids want to try horseback riding, head to the Cades Cove Riding Stables. If wildlife watching is your thing, Cataloochee Valley has got you covered.

Ever been to one of the U.S. National Parks? Share your experiences with us in the comments below!

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