This article on the top 10 best national parks for kids is brought to you by GCI Outdoor, whose premium camping chairs are made from durable, lightweight materials perfect for your next kid-friendly national park adventure.
Traveling with kids can be hard, but traveling in the outdoors can be even more difficult. After all, there’s a lot more to think about: How do you pack for the unpredictable elements? What food should you cook? What games should you bring to keep the kiddos entertained? Do campgrounds even have chargers?
The good news: many national parks are great for kids. If you’re looking for an outdoor destination for the whole family, a national park is a good bet. The best national parks for kids are designed with families in mind, from offering Junior Ranger programs to kid-friendly campgrounds and hiking trails.
The 10 Best National Parks for Kids
These national parks are at the top of our list when it comes to family-friendly destinations.
One of the most famous national parks in the country and one of the best national parks for kids, Glacier is an excellent choice for families wanting a fair mix of organized activities and things they can choose to do on the fly. There are tons of family-friendly hikes available, including the Trail of the Cedars, which offers accessible paths to some of the prettiest lakes in the park. In addition to that, Glacier includes more difficult hikes for families with older kids or who are interested in splitting off for a day-hiking adventure, such as the 11-mile trek to Grinnell Glacier.
As far as organized activities go, the Red Jammer Tours offer excellent narrated tours and travel through Glacier National Park via Going to the Sun Road. In addition, Glacier National Park offers “Family Packs,” which include a naturalist journal, binoculars, a bug box, blindfolds, color cards, a compass, a hanger, a hand lens, a pencil pouch, a ruler and a thermometer. Each family pack comes with a set of guides that offer information and interactive modules for kids to learn as they make their way through the park. Activities included in these family packs include a close-up examination of the forest floor as well as a chance for kids to test their basic navigation skills.
Another Pacific Northwest destination, Mount Rainier National Park is a perfect choice for families who enjoy a wide range of hikes with excellent views of the surrounding alpine terrain. There are few national parks that offer as many easy hikes with rewarding views as Mount Rainier. Depending on the time of year, the Paradise Visitor Center offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and Rainier; it also includes easy access to a 1-mile walking path that ends at a waterfall more than 70 feet tall.
For families with a preference for winter activities, Mount Rainier National Park offers opportunities for snowshoeing, skiing and the kid-favorite sledding. Families with children on the younger side will particularly enjoy the Paradise Snowplay Area, which offers the chance to sled and inner tube in an area separated from the normal cross-country skiing and snowshoeing traffic. The Paradise Snowplay Area needs five feet of snow to fall before it can officially open, so it usually doesn’t open until mid to late December.
As far as education goes, Mount Rainier also does an awesome job of accommodating families, pushing it near the top of the list when it comes to the best national parks for kids. Throughout the year, Mount Rainier offers “Kids’ Quests,” which allow families with children to experience the national park while maintaining an educational and family-fun focus. These quests are available year-round and are self-guided mini-tours of the national park. Quest guides can be downloaded from the Mount Rainier National Park website and include a variety of quests for all seasons.
Among the best national parks for kids, Yosemite consistently ranks near the top, if only because the iconic Yosemite Valley is as kid-friendly as they come. With hikes ranging from concrete, stroller-friendly walking paths to 12-mile treks, Yosemite offers visitors a little bit of everything. For families who are dedicated car campers, the Upper and Lower Pines campgrounds are a stone’s throw from major valley activities. For cabin campers, Half Dome Village offers living spaces for couples and families with children.
As far as activities go, Yosemite offers the chance for kids to visit the giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove as well as witness the wonders of Half Dome from the iconic (and drivable) Glacier Point. In the summer heat, kids can swim in the Merced River at Housekeeping Camp Beach or Stoneman Bridge, followed by ice cream at Half Dome Village. For families with young children, Yosemite can be the perfect place to stay, as the park’s popularity over the years has led to the creation of general stores, a gas station and even a historic hotel, suitable for visitors seeking the high-end Yosemite Valley experience. In the winter, the ice-skating rink at Half Dome Village is perhaps the best way to blend the park’s iconic reputation and some good old-fashioned family fun.
In addition to that, Yosemite’s Junior Ranger program is among the best in the country, offering both self-guided and ranger-led expeditions through the park that give kids (and adults) the chance to learn about the park’s esteemed background, from its Native American history and its establishment by John Muir to its present-day reputation as one of the best national parks in the country.
While hiking the Appalachian Trail as a family might not be so realistic, visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be a great way to see the best of natural Appalachia without the perils of thru-hiking. With a vast array of activities, Great Smoky Mountains is one of the best national parks for kids without sacrificing the fun for parents, too.
Cades Cove within the park is an excellent chance for families to experience the park via a long, scenic bike ride through the best nature on the East Coast. Throughout the high season (from mid-May to mid-September), the road is closed to cars until mid-morning (around 10 a.m.), leaving it open to families eager to hit the ground running.
In addition to the biking opportunities, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers seasonal Junior Ranger programs, including interactive, ranger-led navigation hikes, hayrides and even blacksmithing, all of which result in the prestigious Junior Ranger badge. The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont also offers programming for kids throughout the summer, including camps up to five days long, during which kids can learn to fly fish or experience backcountry camping for the first time.
Among the more popular activities for kids in the park is watching the synchronous fireflies during their peak mating season. Unlike other fireflies, synchronous fireflies are the only species known to be able to sync up their flashing. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to one of the largest populations of synchronous fireflies in the world, making this annual event one of the most spectacular light shows in the country.
One of the lesser known national parks is also one of the best national parks for kids. Situated amongst five islands off the coast of Ventura, California, Channel Islands National Park is prime for families looking for a heck of a lot of fun for relatively little effort. Among the park’s top attractions are the various boat trips available to visitors, including visits to Santa Rosa Island, which is a designated wildlife sanctuary. In addition to what families might see on the island, the boat trips are excellent opportunities for whale watching, depending on the season.
In addition to the boat rides, kids can get involved by joining the flourishing Junior Ranger program, which offers free self-guided booklets for families to teach and navigate themselves around the islands.
What makes Rocky Mountain National Park one of the best national parks for kids is its wide range of activities. Families can visit the Moraine Park Museum, which includes exhibits specifically focused on educating the younger members of your party. Or, walk the “Beaver Boardwalk,” an interactive educational exhibit that takes you along the living timeline of a colony of beavers, concluding at their exceptional dam.
Families with a thirst for adventure can saddle up a team of horses and take a guided backcountry tour on horseback, visiting some of the best alpine terrain in the country without the hassle of hiking it. Most of the rides in the park allow time for fishing, too, giving kids a chance to test their budding angler skills. Finally, on a seasonal basis, kids can enjoy the Rooftop Fair and Rodeo in Estes Park, an annual celebration of Colorado’s western roots, chock full of cowboys, country concerts and a full-blown parade.
Perhaps the most visually stunning national park on our list, the Grand Canyon is an unexpected paradise for kids. Between studying the ancient geology of the region and taking a short walk to one of the most beautiful points in the United States, Grand Canyon National Park offers the perfect multi-faceted outdoor experience to kids of all ages.
Hiking into the Grand Canyon can be perilous, especially with younger children, but biking the rim is a family-friendly activity, particularly in and around the visitor center. For those opposed to hiking, or for younger children, a restored WWII passenger train offers rides to and from the Grand Canyon Village twice daily. The ride takes you through some of the sparse yet beautiful wilderness around the Grand Canyon and includes its own theatrical experience involving a mock train robbery by classic bandits of the Wild West.
For the young astronomers out there, the annual Star Party is held at the Grand Canyon each June on both the North and South rims. The clean air around the canyon and the dark skies create some of the best star-watching in the continental United States, and each June a gathering of astronomers turns nightly telescoping into an all-out party. Many astronomers offer free programs and viewing sessions, making it perfect for kids interested in intergalactic exploration.
Tucked amongst Florida’s natural and flourishing swampland, Everglades National Park is a highly accessible wonderland when it comes to junior exploration. At more than 1.5 million acres, Everglades is the third largest national park in the country, bigger even than Yosemite and Glacier. As far as activities for kids go, there’s no shortage of fun at this wetland national park. Families can start by taking the two-hour tram ride through Shark Valley. The tram rides are narrated by naturalists and often feature sightings of several of the Everglades’ most prominent species, including alligators, snakes, birds and more.
For families who would prefer to be on their own wheels, bikes can be rented at the Shark Valley Visitor Center. The Shark Valley trail is a 15-mile paved loop that stays relatively flat the whole way around. The loop itself offers some of the best views of Everglades National Park, including a stop at the highly Instagramable observation tower.
Other guided tours of the park include the sought-after airboat tours, which offer sustainable and extremely up-close and personal tours of the grasslands and the mangrove jungle. Just watch out for gators! For the extra brave ones, paddle tours are available throughout the Ten Thousand Islands region. These offer great opportunities for seeing a variety of marine wildlife, including dolphins, alligators, sharks, and the fan-favorite otters.
Getting to Alaska might be a challenge for most families, but if you can make the trek, Glacier Bay National Park offers excellent opportunities for families and children alike. Glacier Bay is one of the best national parks for kids because it offers some of the most unique kid adventures of any of the parks on our list. Kids can visit the life-size skeleton of Snow, the resident whale of Glacier Bay, to learn more about the ecology and marine life in the region, or they can visit the Tribal House, a collaborative milestone that showcases the deep history of the Glacier Bay region, including its importance to the Tingit people.
Other kid-friendly activities include the stunning day boat tours, which depart daily throughout the summer and take passengers more than 120 miles into Glacier Bay National Park. These ranger-guided explorations are a full day of adventure, wildlife viewing and fun for children of all ages.
Another geological masterpiece, Bryce Canyon National Park offers an up close and personal look at some of the oldest petroglyphs in the country, making it ideal for curious kiddos with a knack for finding hidden signs. Accessible via a paved trail, Bryce Canyon provides an easy and comfortable journey through its magnificent hoodoos and rocks full of ancient markings. Although not as large as the Grand Canyon, the rim trail offers easy walking and spectacular viewpoints, many of which showcase the wide variety of wilderness that Bryce Canyon plays host to.
If you’re interested in going down into the canyon, older kids will no doubt enjoy the opportunity to take a guided horseback journey deep into the Utah wilderness. During the summer months when the skies are clear, rangers also lead full moon hikes, which take visitors down into the canyon to witness the shifting shadows of the hoodoos and the natural beauty of Bryce Canyon at night. Astronomy programs are also a fun facet to every summer at Bryce, including the Annual Astronomy Festival, held each June with Bryce Canyon’s very own Astronomy Rangers.
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