Last year’s 100th anniversary of America’s national park system put national parks on the travel radar of a lot of families. Many have discovered what so many others have known for so long – national parks are unique and breathtakingly beautiful destinations that have the added benefit of being budget-friendly. It is no wonder attendance is up nationwide.
My husband worked in Yosemite National Park when he was in college so we were not exactly among the national parks uninitiated. Having babies and toddlers for the past several years meant we had been vacationing elsewhere for quite some time. The prospect of hiking, camping, and roughing it with little ones in tow seemed a bit daunting.
Once we started taking our kids to national parks, however, we were bitten by the bug for sure. And we wondered why we hesitated in the first place! We’ve taken the kids to the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Great Smoky Mountains, Lassen Volcanic, Zion & Bryce Canyon, and Saguaro National Park all within the past 2 1/2 years (and I’ve snuck in a solo trip to Haleakala too).
We’ve learned quite a few tips and tricks in our many national parks trips, particularly when it comes to experiencing national parks with younger kids. Whether you are taking babies, toddlers, or older children on a national parks adventure, here are 9 things that beginners to national parks travel need to know to get started.
9 National Parks Tips for Beginners
1. Understand the National Park System Basics
Beginners to the national parks often don’t quite understand the various terms thrown about, so let’s start there. The National Park Service (NPS), a division of the US Department of the Interior, manages 59 full-fledged national parks.
Many of these you’ve probably heard of even if you’ve never set foot in a national park – Yosemite, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park etc. Many of these are probably new to you unless you happen to live nearby one of them – ever heard of Pinnacles National Park? How about Congaree? Or the Dry Tortugas? They all have the same classification as Yellowstone even if not quite the fame.
The National Park Service also manages a several hundred other protected areas that are not national parks. These include national monuments, national memorials, national historic sites, and quite a few other designations. The NPS does not manage national forests, which are handled by the U.S. Forest Service.
2. You Don’t Have to Rough It (Unless You Want To)
A lot of travelers shy away from National Parks because they don’t like to rough it. I feel you. I’m not super outdoorsy myself and I definitely do not love to camp overnight. I prefer to get dirty hiking and exploring all day long and retreat to a hot shower and warm bed at the end of it all.
Luckily, for the vast majority of national parks, you don’t have to rough it if you decide that’s not your scene. Many major national parks have iconic historic lodges located within the parks that offer quality – and even luxury – accommodations. Many more parks have inexpensive but adequate motel and hotel options located outside the park gates not too far away. Start with what is within your comfort zone and proceed from there.
3. Consider an Annual Pass
One of the best family travel values in the United States is the National Parks Annual Pass. It’s just $80 for a year. It can be assigned to two adults, so spouses can share a single pass even when not traveling together. With many national parks having entrance fees as high as $30 per car, you break even at just a few visits. And since national monuments and historic sites are included in addition to the 59 national parks, there are a lot of places of interest near you that are probably included too (see, for example, just how many National Parks managed sites there are in the San Francisco Bay Area).
If you regularly travel with grandma and grandpa as we do, make sure they get their senior pass too. Prices recently went up, but at one-time $80 charge for the rest of their lifetime (age 62 & over), it is still an excellent value. Single year senior passes are just $20.
4. Every Kid in a Park Program Means Families with 4th Graders are Free
Just a few years ago, the NPS began offering a program that makes the national parks even more budget-friendly and accessible to families. The Every Kid in a Park Program allows 4th graders nationwide to apply for a free pass to the national parks during their 4th grade year. The whole family can tag along for free as well.
5. Make the Most of the Junior Ranger Program
The National Parks Service wants to get kids engaged and entertained when they visit the parks, so they have invested a lot of resources into the Junior Ranger Program. This program is a series of written workbooks and challenges for kids to complete during their visit to parks and other NPS sites. A lot of homeschooling and roadschooling families use these resources, but they are great for all kids to help them learn while on vacation.
You can obtain some of the Junior Ranger booklets in advance of your trip by downloading them online at each park’s website. I recommend doing this if you have a shorter visit, as some of them are quite lengthy. You can also pick them up for free at most visitor centers within the parks. Kids who complete the programs can be sworn in by a park employee as a Junior Ranger. Sometimes small prizes are available too.
6. Know When to Go
A lot of national parks are located in regions that don’t make them great destinations all four seasons of the year. Some, like Death Valley or Joshua Tree in the deserts of Southern California, can be downright miserable and even dangerous in the heat of summer. Others are completely snowed in or inaccessible in winter, like one of my favorites, Lassen Volcanic. It’s vitally important to do your seasonal research before you plan a trip.
It is also important to know what to expect when you visit at peak season at some of these national parks. Quite a few parks are choked with visitors during peak times, such as summer at Yosemite National Park. It’s often impossible to get lodging without planning many months ahead and can be frustrating to visit only to sit in traffic for hours instead of exploring nature.
The bottom line: being willing to go “off-season” can be a great strategy for dodging the crowds that plague some of the most popular parks. Just make sure off-season is actually accessible, advisable, and safe at your park of choice.
7. Have a Plan for Getting Around
As Americans, we are pretty dependent on our cars. And most of us road trip to national parks so cars are an integral part of the national parks travel experience. Cars are not always, however, the best transportation choice once you arrive into some national parks.
Several national parks are just completely overwhelmed by car traffic or short on parking, making a car a liability rather than an asset. Several, like Zion National Park in Utah, have disallowed cars completely and instead have instituted a regular shuttle system to transport visitors. Still other parks are more easily explored in certain areas on foot or by bike.
Before your trip, take a good hard look at the best transportation options for where you want to be and when. Consider getting out of the car onto park shuttles, bikes, or even walking/hiking when you can. I guarantee you’ll enjoy the park more without a car in many instances anyway!
8. Get the Right Gear
National parks are outdoor adventure travel experiences, so it’s important to be prepared with adequate gear for the destination and the activities you plan to do there.
Hiking boots are the most important piece of equipment you can get if you plan to get out on the trails. On my family’s visit to Bryce Canyon, we were shocked to spot a several families slipping and sliding down muddy switchbacks literally in flip flops. Having the wrong footwear is a quick and easy way to get hurt.
Sun protection – sunscreen, hats, and sun protective clothing – are another essential, as is plenty of water. Consider a quality hiking backpack if you have younger kids so you can take them on longer hikes without little feet wearing out.
Other things to think about packing for day hikes at national parks include:
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- First aid kit (this dayhiker kit has 57 pieces and is just $10)
- Insect repellant
- Day pack, fanny back, or backpack
- Layered clothing (preferably moisture wicking)
- Map & compass
- Dry bag for electronics (I swear by this waterproof iPhone case!)
- Non-perishable snacks like Cliff bars, trail mix, etc.
- Headlamp or small flashlight (this waterproof headlamp for $13 works well)
9. Respect Nature
National parks travel are an excellent opportunity to teach kids about responsible travel and protecting the earth. Unfortunately, you’ll witness many visitors behaving badly at most national parks these days. Lead by example in your own family with the goal to “leave no trace.” Don’t let your kids feed wildlife or drop trash.
Furthermore, guests to national parks sometimes forget that the unspoiled nature that makes national parks so appealing can also be dangerous. National parks are not Disneyland with every danger micromanaged down to negligible levels. Animals, weather, and surprises from Mother Nature can strike at any time. Respect that. Check with park rangers about current conditions before setting off into the wilderness. Don’t take unnecessary or stupid risks. And don’t expect to rely on your devices if you get in trouble – in most national parks, cell and data service is negligible. Know your limits and stay within them, especially with kids.