In 1872, the United States Congress established Yellowstone as America’s first official national park. In the years that followed, environmentalists lobbied for more wilderness protection via additional national parks and monuments. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service in order to manage all of America’s federal parklands under one agency.
Today, The National Park Service manages 84 million acres of land across the U.S. states and territories, with millions of visitors each year. And nothing says summer better than a trip to a national park with the entire family in tow. With 58 national parks to choose from, it can be difficult to decide which is best suited to your families’ needs.
We’ve rounded up five of the most family-friendly national parks (along with our favorite hike and accommodation option for each).
Arches National Park
Located just north of Moab, Utah and bordered by the Colorado rive to the southeast, Arches National Park is a desert oasis of beauty and adventure. With over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, visitors have been drawn to the park in search of the arches and other unique formations since it was designated as a national park in 1971.
If you’re visiting the park with younger children – or on a particularly hot day – the Scenic Drive may be the way to go. If you have an hour and a half, drive The Windows Section to see some of the largest arches in the park or drive to the Delicate Arch Viewpoint and see the park’s most famous arch – if you have three or more hours, do both.
The park is also home to a number of family-friendly hikes, many of which are conveniently located along the Scenic Drive. There are countless numbers to choose from but some fan favorites include Balanced Rock, The Windows, Double Arch, Pine Tree Arch, and Tunnel Arch.
Although the Delicate Arch hike may be too challenging for some kids, Wolfe Ranch and the Rock Art Panel are just a short walk from the parking lot. There, kids can take a walk back in time through by viewing the ancient dwelling and petroglyphs on the rocks. On warmer days, rafting down the Colorado river is a fun activity for the entire family.
Hike: The Windows is an easy 1-mile round trip hike that provides up-close views of three spectacular arches: North Windows, South Windows, and Turret Arch.
Stay: Although there is one campground at the park, we recommend staying at Aarchway Inn – the hotel is just five minutes from the park entrance and kids will definitely enjoy cooling off in the pool.
Yellowstone National Park
On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the first national park in the United States. Home to 3,500 square miles of wilderness spanning across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, the park is located atop a volcanic hotpot and features stunning canyons, alpine rivers, hot springs, geysers, and a wide array of wildlife.
Yellowstone has something for everyone: hiking, boating, fishing, camping, skiing, horseback riding, and biking. With over 900 miles of trails, a hike with the kids is a must. Popular hikes for families include the Upper Geyser Basin, Uncle Tom’s Trail, Fairly Falls Trail, Mystic Falls Trail, and Ice Lake.
In addition to hiking, be sure and take a drive to Lamar Valley or Hayden Valley for incredible views of the wildlife, including the ever-popular bison. Visit the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone – while many of the hikes may be too challenging for kids there are a number of stunning viewpoints. Another hit among kids is going for a swim in The Boiling River or Firehole River, both of which are natural hot springs. Finally, a trip to Yellowstone is not complete without a visit to the geysers – the Upper Geyser Basin contains 25% of the world’s geysers, including Old Faithful.
Hike: The Upper Geyser Basin Trail is an absolute must. The complete loop along boardwalk is about four miles long and hundreds of geysers can be spotted along the way. The trail is flat, stroller accessible, and can be cut short at any point.
Stay: Camp at the Bridge Bay Campground. The space includes wooded areas, open meadows, and views of the lake and can accommodate both RV’s and tents.
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park spans 200,000 acres in Central and Western Virginia, and includes part of the famous Blue Ridge Mountains. Located just 75 miles from the nation’s capital, the park provides a perfect escape for families looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
A popular draw for families is the Skyline Drive – it’s the only public road in the park and runs 105 north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are 70 viewpoints along the way, offering ample opportunities to take in the stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont to the east. The road is open year-round and takes approximately three hours to complete.
The park also offer 500 miles of hiking trails but the Fox Hollow Loop, Limberlost, Dark Hollow Falls, and Blackrot Summit tend to be the most popular among families and kids. Another popular activity in the park is a visit to the Luray Caverns – the largest caverns in the eastern United States. Open from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily, a trip to the caverns costs $28 for adults and $15 for children.
Hike: Dark Hollow Falls follows a series of waterfalls and is one of the most popular hikes in the park. It’s 1.4 miles round trip, with 440 feet of elevation gain.
Stay: Big Meadows Campground. The campsite is centrally located and is near many of the major facilities and a number of the park’s most popular hikes are nearby.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite tops many lists, and for good reason. Located in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite National Park first became protected in 1864 and has since gained recognition for its giant, ancient sequoias as well as its towering granite cliffs: El Capitan and Half Dome. While Yosemite is home to a number of rigorous hikes and daring climbs, it has numerous activities that are fun for the whole family, as well.
Although Yosemite is beautiful year round, the best time to visit with kids is during the warmer, summer months. There are a number of family-friendly hikes in the park but the Glacier Point Loop, Mirror Lake, and Bridalveil Falls Trail are among the most popular. After a morning on the trails, cool off in the famous Merced River – swim off of one of the sandy beaches or don inner tubes and float down the river.
Situated at the southern end of the park, The Mariposa Grove is a sight worth seeing with over 500 mature sequoias and even one you can walk through. The park also offers free Junior Ranger programs through which kids can enjoy a one-hour walk, picking up a bag of litter, and completing an activity book in order to earn a Junior Ranger badge. Finally, the park offers free shuttle services, making transportation around the park a breeze.
Hike: Bridalveil Fall Trail is our top pick. The hike is 1.2 miles, round trip with 200 feet of elevation gain and will take you to the base of the beautiful falls.
Stay: The Housekeeping Camp is the perfect blend of camping and the comforts of home and is conveniently located on the Merced River, in the middle of the valley.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Located on the Big Island, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park extends from sea level all the way to the summit of Mauna Loa at 13,677 feet. The park is home to some of the most unique geological, biological, and cultural landscapes in the states, including the two most active volcanoes in the world: Kilauea and Mauna Loa. If a trip to the Big Island is one of your summer plans, a visit to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park should definitely be on the list.
The park has two mains roads: Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road. The Crater Rim Drive begins at the Kilauea Visitor Center and passes by the Steam Vents, Steaming Bluff, and Ha’akulamanu-Sulphur Banks, with a number of stunning overlooks and optional hikes along the way. The Chain of Craters Road is an 18.8-mile trip that begins at Crater Rim drive and passes by the Lua Manu Crater, Pauahi Crater, Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs, and the Holei Sea Arch, with a number of other impressive landmarks along the way.
In addition to the scenic drives, the park is also home to a number of impressive hikes. Many of the hikes are on the longer side but some kid-friendly hikes include the Mauna Iki Trail, Kilauea Iki Trail, Petroglyphs Trail, Sulphur Banks/Steam Vents, and the ‘Ilaihi (Sandalwood) Trail.
Another popular activity is visiting the Kilauea Caldera Overlook and Jaggar Museum. At night, you can glimpse the glow from the Kilauea Caldera in the distance and explore the museum. Be sure and pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the visitor center, complete with activities that encourage kids to explore, discover, and learn more about the park.
Hike: The Sulphur Banks/Steam Vents trail is roughly 2 miles round trip and allows up-close views to sulfur deposits, the Kilauea Caldera, and steam rising from cracks in the ground.
Stay: Camp at the Namakanipaio Campground. The campground is situated among eucalyptus trees, 4,000 feet above sea level and offers camper cabins, as well as traditional tent camping.
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