All across our country, the National Park system offers free and frugal family fun for you and your family. Many national parks, national forests, and national monuments are free all the time, and those that charge a fee are usually $25 or less per carload for a week-long pass.
Our family has enjoyed our time in many of our country’s national parks, and we’ve got several more on our bucket list for the coming years. National parks are great as a vacation destination, or even just a stopping point as you pass through. They’re great places to learn about history and nature, and to take in some of the natural wonders of our country. Here are my best tips for enjoying national parks with kids:
- Junior Ranger Program: This fantastic program is offered at each national park, and it’s a lot of fun for school-aged kids. They’ll receive a booklet with activities, and when they complete it, they can be sworn in as a Junior Ranger and receive a badge. Many of the booklets are available online and can be printed out in advance. We like to do some of the activities as we travel, both to get the kids excited about what we’re going to see, and because some of the activities (like word searches or crossword puzzles) are stuff you want to get out of the way so you can actually see the things you came to see when you get to the site!
- Ask a Ranger for advice: Park rangers are super helpful, and they can point you in the right direction for cool hikes for kids that aren’t too long. They can also help you find handicap-accessible trails (which are also stroller-accessible!). Rangers are also happy to direct you to kid-friendly programs, and can suggest the best spots in the park that capture kids’ attention.
- Stamp your Passport to Your National Parks: For around $11, you can get a little blue National Parks Passport booklet in almost every National Park gift shop, and each National Parks site has an official cancellation stamp in the visitor center. It’s divided up by regions, so you can see where you’ve been, when you were there (each stamp is dated), and where you’d still like to go!
- “Hike” from the car: This is one of my favorites, and we’ve taken advantage of it the past two summers. On the Blue Ridge Parkway, in Rocky Mountain National Park, and in Yellowstone we were able to drive one-way dirt roads that switchbacked up the mountains. We saw some amazing views, were off the beaten path, and were able to keep the kids in the comfort of their car seats and A/C (meaning we didn’t have to carry one or more up a mountain!). It’s a great way to get part of the experience of a mountain hike without wearing out little kids or yourselves.
- Prepare the kids for hiking: If you’d like to take advantage of the many beautiful hikes in national parks, do a little “training” at home. Head to a local nature preserve or park in the months/weeks leading up to your trip, and get the kids ready for hiking. This includes building endurance, and also teaching them to stay on the trail, not touch plants, and walk carefully on uneven ground.
- Follow the kids’ lead: Take your time and let them experience the things that capture their attention. I felt like my kids wanted to climb on every rock in the whole Rocky Mountains, which seriously slowed our progress on the trails, but it’s their favorite memory of that park. You never know what will be the special thing that creates a memory.
- Bring plenty of food and drinks: If you’re doing a lot of hiking, the kids will get hungry, and they’ll need to stay hydrated. Bring their favorite portable snacks, and plenty of water and Gatorade for the whole family.
- Dress appropriately: Bring layers for mountain parks, as it gets colder in higher altitudes. Also consider long pants and long sleeves to protect from bugs and poison ivy. Comfy shoes for everyone are a must if you’ll be hiking or doing a lot of walking.
- Sunscreen and bug spray: Enough said!
Some of my favorite National Parks for kids that I’d highly recommend include:
- Great Smoky Mountain National Park (border of Tennessee and North Carolina): Beautiful drive through the mountains, tons of waterfalls, trails of all lengths and difficulties
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore (North Carolina): Kids 6+ can climb the Cape Hatteras lighthouse! Beautiful seashore all along Hatteras Island
- Wright Brothers National Monument (North Carolina): See where the Wright Brothers first took flight—cool museum with a replica plane, and a monument to climb
- Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway–Shenandoah National Forest (Virginia and North Carolina): A beautiful drive with lots of scenic overlooks and easy hikes. Visitor centers have displays and programming about the area.
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio): Close to home for local Sisters and Misters–lots to do without traveling far.
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial National Memorial (Ohio): Another one that’s not too far from home in Put-in-Bay
- Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (a.k.a. the St. Louis Arch): Cool free museum at the bottom of the arch tells about the country’s westward expansion, and the ride to the top of the arch is fun for all ages!
- Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): Amazing views, just keep the kids very very close—lots of places with no guardrails! Several visitor centers with information, and handy shuttle buses that are fun for kids to ride .
- Mesa Verde (southwest Colorado) and Montezuma Castle (near Sedona, AZ): Cliff Dwellings from ancient native people. Really impressive to see, and you can take guided tours and climb into the ones at Mesa Verde.
- Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorodo): Loved visiting there this summer! Beautiful to drive through (especially the unpaved Old Fall River Road), plenty of short, accessible hikes to cool stuff, and the best Junior Ranger booklet and programming we’ve encountered in any park. Can’t wait to go back!
- Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana): Oh my word–breathtaking views, and the best variety of geothermal features anywhere in the world. Don’t miss Uncle Tom’s Trail for an incredible view of the Lower Falls of Yellowstone, and of course, Old Faithful. Another one I can’t wait to see again.
- Mount Rushmore (South Dakota): My kids loved learning more about the presidents on the monument, and the fascinating history behind construction of it. The Junior Ranger booklet here is pretty cool, and between the museum and walking near the base of the monument, it’s a great way to spend the afternoon.
- Jewel Cave (South Dakota): The third-longest cave system in the world, about 30 minutes from Mount Rushmore. The cave tour was really fun, and the kids got a huge kick out of being over 300 feet underground!
Did I miss your favorite “fun-for-kids” national park or monument? Please leave a comment and share what you like about it!
Have you checked out our other Travel on a Shoestring posts?
- Road Tripping with Kids series: General Tips, Behavior Tips, Road Trip Fun for Kids, Avoid Emergencies
- Northeast Ohio Staycation & Summer Fun Ideas
- Nationwide Staycation & Summer Fun Ideas (check the list to find free & frugal fun near your vacation destination!)
- Vacation Planning on a Shoestring
- Travel on a Shoestring: Feeding your family away from home
- Travel on a Shoestring: Fun for the family without busting the budget
- Travel on a Shoestring: Staycations (general staycation ideas)
- Travel on a Shoestring: Disney World
- Travel on a Shoestring: Lodging and Transportation
- Travel on a Shoestring: Road Trip Shopping List