The opportunity we have had to visit some of the most beautiful places in this country has been priceless. Going to national parks has somehow become a part of what we do. We had no idea when we started out on this crazy adventure that going to national parks was to become such an integral part of our whole experience. They are all so unique and amazing, each one is different and we are surprised to keep finding that we love all of them. Visiting them with our children has created some unforgettable memories for our entire family. Having our kids right there with us is not always easy, but totally worth every moment.
Our most recent national park stop was at Great Smokey Mountains. The decision to see this park was a last minute change of plans because originally we thought we would see it while we were in Tennessee. Upon our arrival we found out there was going to be some adverse weather conditions during the first few days of our stay. We decided to stay anyway and I am glad we did as it turned out to be a nice time to visit the area. The weather wasn’t all that bad, but it did rain an entire day which kept us inside the trailer. The campground we stayed in had no hook-ups which means no power. Typically we spend most of our time in national parks hiking, we decided that hiking in the pouring rain with three kids did not sound fun. At other camps we might spend a rainy day watching a family movie, but here we had no power. We made the best of it by playing games using the lantern, the kids worked on their junior ranger books, and we played some Legos. Being in the Great Smokey Mountains was great and it is such a beautiful place that it made me want to share some of the things we have learned that make visiting national parks with three young children an awesome experience.
Camping- We have found that whenever possible, especially for the larger national parks, it is great to stay right in the park. Not all national parks have campgrounds and some have tent only sites, but we always try to stay within the park when we can. This makes it more convenient to get to hiking trails, ranger programs, and visitor centers. Some of the parks are very large so even staying in them it takes time to drive around, so if we can’t stay in the park we stay nearby. When we are already in the car so much anything we can do to limit driving time is a plus.
From on the beach to a parking lot, the National Parks Campsites are just as varied as the parks themselves. It is nice to be right in the park though with a hike just a short distance away. Just make sure your setup will fit because some of the parks have a length restriction.
Visitor Centers- Before we started out on this adventure we never really went to visitor centers when we went places. We were really missing out. These places, especially the ones in the national parks, are amazing! They have so much information and they always have hands on educational activities for the kids. We can learn a lot before we even get out in the park, the rangers are always nice and helpful. This is also where we pick up their books for the Junior Ranger Program. It is always our first destination after we arrive in a national park and usually the last when we turn the books in.
Junior Ranger Program- This program is great for younger children. It is fun and educational. The activities are varied, they try to include a little of everything. Some parks even have different books for different age groups which is nice. When they complete the required activities they can earn a badge or a patch which is pretty exciting and for my kids it never seems to get old. I recommend getting the books right away to get an idea of what is in them. They often have specific places in the park that needs to be visited to get the information to complete some of the activities, so it’s nice to have them sooner than later. It’s also nice to have a few days for some of the parks to finish the books so you don’t have to rush through it. I require my kids to do most if not all of the book because it is part of their school lessons. This is a wonderful program and it is usually free, though we have encountered a few parks that charge a small fee for the books (one being Great Smokey Mountains).
Ranger Programs- Attending a ranger program is often a requirement for the junior ranger program and we have enjoyed them from the beginning. They don’t always have ranger programs going on so you have to check online or at the visitor center, but I recommend attending at least one (yes even with young children). They usually have a variety of programs from short talks on plant or animals to full hikes or even bike rides. Most of the time they are free all you have to do is show up. It’s nice when they have several so you can choose one you are interested in. Most of the rangers bring some visual aids or something hands on which they love to use to encourage participation especially with the little ones. They are a great way to learn about the park you are visiting.
Water and Snacks- If you read our earlier post you know that we bought hydration packs for the entire family early on. We have never regretted this purchase, in fact it may be one of the best we’ve made. It is so nice that everyone has plenty of their own water. We don’t have to worry about carrying water bottles around on hikes. They are easy to carry plus everyone can hold their own snacks. Which brings me to the snacks, kids are always hungry (especially right after they eat), so the fact that they can carry their own snacks is great! I used to try to encourage them to wait to eat while we were hiking, but I have learned they do much better (less whining) if I just let them snack while we hike. They don’t seem to think about the hiking while they are eating so they go much further. So when hiking with children always bring plenty of snacks and water.
Hiking- We like to see as much of the national park we are in as we can. The hikes we want to do and the hikes we can do are not always the same. Our youngest son is now five, he was four when we started out, and he can hike three to four miles, depending on the trail, unassisted. If we hike any more than that he has to be carried and he is only getting heavier! Usually we try to pick two hikes that are around two miles each, this is obviously very dependent on what is available. We try not to go too fast or push the kids too hard when we are hiking because we want it to be fun. It can be difficult sometimes when we want to do more or go further than the kids are able to. It can sometimes be limiting to what we can see, like when we were at the Grand Canyon and couldn’t hike down into the canyon. Our little one was so young we did not even attempt to go a short way down. This was fine though as just getting to see the Grand Canyon was really more than we ever expected to do. So choose the easier hikes, don’t mind the other visitors, and enjoy being in one of our nations most beautiful places!
From glaciers to swamps, from forests to mountains, this countries national parks are protected places for a reason. I would encourage everyone in this country to visit at least one. Please remember to take care of them while you visit and leave no trace behind. Whether you do it on your own or with your family I think it will be an experience to remember. Just be aware that you might become hooked and want to visit them all, it happened to us. We have visited twenty-two so far and we plan on seeing as many as we can, so let us know if you have a favorite national park we should visit.
Instead of listing links to all the National Parks we have visited, I will just say that every National Park or Historic site has a website.
If you want to find your park here is the link:
Here is a favorite shot of mine. Sarah and the kids working on Junior Ranger books at the top of Ross Dam, a beautiful place to spend sometime learning a thing or two!