National parks make for memorable family vacations, but some are better suited to children than others. Some parks sit in more remote areas or have steep climbs, making it difficult to bring the little ones along. But others, such as Joshua Tree and the Great Smoky Mountains, are easier to visit and navigate as a family. Here, a few tips for seeing these American treasures with the kids—and plenty of snacks—in tow.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Tip: Consider a scenic drive.
Rocky Mountain National Park’s extensive road system takes visitors through four ecosystems, from meadows to aspen groves, at up to 12,000 feet in elevation. Families may want to consider combining a drive along the park’s 48-mile Trail Ridge Road with stops for smaller hikes and walks along the way. 1000 U.S. Hwy. 36, Estes Park; 970-586-1206; nps.gov; seven-day pass, $30 a vehicle
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Tip: Take a hike.
With younger children, trekking mile upon mile is often unrealistic, so enjoy the journey along shorter trails. You can head out to see the 2,200-year-old General Sherman Tree via the paved, half-mile General Sherman Tree Trail, or spot other giant trees along the adjacent two-mile Congress Trail. You can play a game of I spy with the trees or wildlife, spotting chipmunks, deer, and even black bears. 47050 Generals Hwy., Three Rivers; 559-565-3341; nps.gov; seven-day pass, $35 a vehicle
Shenandoah National Park
Tip: Become a junior ranger.
Children can earn a junior ranger badge at all national parks. The informal process entails picking up an activity booklet at a visitor’s center, returning with it when completed, and pledging an oath to serve as a steward of the land. Additionally, a few parks—including Shenandoah—have designated family-friendly TRACK trails (it stands for Trails, Ridges, Activities, and Connections for Kids), an initiative by the Kids in Parks Foundation, which encourages children to get outdoors by creating self-guided scavenger hunts and other adventures. Shenandoah’s Limberlost, Blackrock Summit, and Fox Hollow are all TRACK trails. 3655 U.S. Hwy. 211 E., Luray; 540-999-3500; nps.gov; seven-day pass, $25 a vehicle
Joshua Tree National Park
Tip: Build in some time to play.
About 140 miles east of Los Angeles and about 35 miles east of Palm Springs, Joshua Tree is a convenient pick for families in Southern California. Among its attractions: the quirky-looking namesake trees, of course, but also the jumbo boulders scattered throughout the park. The 1.5-mile Barker Dam trail is a family favorite and gives kids the opportunity to scramble and play among the rocks. Come nightfall, both children and adults are bound to love looking up at and identifying the twinkling stars with SkyView (apps.appple.com; $1.99), an educational stargazing app. 74485 National Park Dr., Twentynine Palms; 760-367-5500; nps.gov; seven-day pass, $25 a vehicle
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee and North Carolina
Tip: Head for the water.
The sight of a stream with tadpoles, a creek to take a dip in, or a cascading waterfall may be enough to keep small legs going. The Great Smoky Mountains offer dozens of trails that lead to swimming holes or waterfalls, including the four-mile Big Creek, which has a side trail that runs to the 45-foot-high Mouse Creek Falls. Time your visit for the fall, when foliage colors are at their peak, or for the springtime, to catch wildflowers in bloom. 1420 Little River Rd., Gatlinburg, TN; 856-436-1200; nps.gov; admission, free
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: August 2019