5 national parks to visit before your kids leave the house

Apr 17, 2022

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Editor’s note: In celebration of National Park Week, which runs from April 16-24, The Points Guy is publishing a series of articles focusing on the beauty and diversity of America’s national parks. We will share personal stories from the TPG team, as well as news and tips that will help you get the most out of your next national park visit. The following story is part of this series and has been updated with new information. 

National parks are always in season and I maintain that an annual parks pass (currently just $80, or free for U.S. military or citizens/permanent residents with permanent disabilities) is the best bang for your activity buck.

That’s especially true for those with kids. It’s easy for families to spend more than $80 on a single night out at the local cinema and — no offense to the latest blockbuster — those usually aren’t the kind of nights that create lifelong memories.

I’ve visited close to 50 U.S. national parks, and while all of them are magical in their own ways, and headline catchers such as Zion, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are not to be missed, here are a few slightly more hidden gems that are also worth exploring with family. If you have to prioritize where to go while your kids are still kids, here are some top national park picks.

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Haleakala National Park (Hawaii)

Haleakala National Park Maui - crater hawaii view
Maui’s Haleakala National Park is calling. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

Many people visit Maui for its ample selection of points properties and top-tier beaches, but there’s a less frequented part of the island that looks like it is on another planet. Mars, specifically. Haleakala National Park is a long climb from sea level and temperatures at the visitor center can be frigid.

Sliding Sands Trail is a hike that isn’t to be missed for experienced hikers. This 13-mile round-trip hike makes the list for a few reasons. First, you may need your teenagers to carry you back, as the easy part — the descent — happens first. It’s the act of getting back to your car that requires endurance so save this one for when little legs are truly ready, most likely when they reach their teenage years.

Second, the trail is plenty wide and the descent is ripe for generating conversation. With a mix of aloha air and otherworldly beauty, it creates the ideal setting for connecting with your teens.

Less experienced hikers or those with younger kids may prefer to visit the Haleakala Visitor Center, situated at the summit of the Haleakala crater. The views go on for days and it’s a gorgeous spot to watch the sunrise.

Finally, it’s on Maui so there’s plenty more to see and do.

Related: How to use miles to get to Hawaii

Olympic National Park (Washington)

Olympic National Park
Overlooking Hurricane Hill at Washington’s Olympic National Park. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

Seattle is a relatively easy place to fly with a family on points and miles. After a few hours of driving east you are at one of America’s most diverse national parks. Part of what makes Olympic great for families is the journey itself. You can get from Seattle to Olympic on ferries, which is almost a guaranteed kid-pleaser.

olympic national park
Towering trees within Washington’s Olympic National Park. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

The Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park is said to have the “quietest square inch in the United States.” Kids love a challenge and they may take the dare to be as quiet as the Hoh Rain Forest (at least for a few minutes). It doesn’t hurt that the trees are magical in their own right, and if your kids grew up with the characters in “Twilight,” they’ll appreciate that many of those films were set here. In fact, the town of Forks is easily accessible from the park.

Ozette Loop within Olympic National Park. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

Hikes from Hurricane Ridge are suitable for kids of all ages, and even if no one in your crew is up for hiking, the drive to the visitor center is awe-inspiring.

It’s the most easily accessible mountain area in the park, though the road is only open on weekends during the winter and even that is dependent on weather conditions. Some trails, like the Wolf Creek and Little River trails that descend 8 miles down into the valley, are best left to more experienced hikers, while the Cirque Rim and Big Meadow trails are much shorter, paved and have little elevation change.

If you’ve got a kid who prefers water to mountains, the Ozette Loop in a remote section of the park leads to a magnificent beach that almost no one visits.

Related: The best credit cards for family travel

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina/Tennessee)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

There’s a reason this park continues to be the most visited within the entire national park system: It’s drivable from a staggering number of places. While this park is hardly a hidden gem, it’s a great option if you are within driving distance and flying your family to another park is cost-prohibitive. Plus, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is enjoyable in much of the spring and fall, enabling you to plan a cheaper trip in the shoulder season if school schedules allow for some breaks or long weekends.

The great part about this park is how picturesque it is from end to end. Rather than recommending that you flock to just one spot, I suggest spending as much time on the Blue Ridge Parkway as possible, popping out for quick hikes when the kids want to stretch their legs.

Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are essentially giant theme parks, so there’s plenty of fun to be had near the hotel too. Plus these two towns are shockingly affordable compared to most gateway towns just outside national parks. (And there’s always nearby Dollywood.)

Related: How to use points to stay near national parks

Big Bend National Park (Texas)

Boquillas border crossing in Big Bend National Park. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

It’s not that easy to get to, but that makes the payoff even sweeter. Time spent in Big Bend is time your kids will never forget. You can row across the Rio Grande and into a different country. Head to the Boquillas Crossing with valid passports for your party, pay the $5 round-trip fee per person to board a ferry boat that will take you across one of the world’s most famous rivers and have lunch in a tiny border town — Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.

Once across the river, you can walk the half-mile trek to the village or pay an additional fee for burro, horse or good ol’ four-wheel vehicle transport. You must check in with immigration officials upon arrival and pay an entrance fee of $3 per person to visit the Mexican Protected Area where Boquillas is located.

Big Bend National Park. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

Once you’re back on U.S. soil, families with older kids should head to Lost Mine Trail in time to reach the end by sunset. The view from here as the sun goes down over Texas is downright moving.

The desert backdrop means shade is limited, so you’ll have to provide your own in the way of a sun hat or protective clothing (and don’t forget the SPF and plenty of drinking water). There are some switchbacks and steep elevation changes, but it should be manageable with a baby or toddler carrier if you don’t think your kids can make it all the way along this all-ages trail on their own.

View from the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

The only downside to this park is how far it is from civilization. I highly recommend camping. If you have access to an ATV, be aware that there are loads of off-road trails within the park borders.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (Colorado)

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

I can’t speak for every kid, but the vast majority love sliding down huge hills. Find a massive mountain of sand, and you’ve got a winner. Located in the proverbial middle of nowhere in south-central Colorado is something you’d expect to find along North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Gargantuan dunes spring up from the high prairie and visitors with energy to burn are encouraged to bring sleds. You’ll need one made specifically for sand, but if you don’t have one stashed away in the garage, they are available to rent at various locations near the park. It’s a great opportunity for your kids to meet other kids and slide down the dunes together.

This park is ideally part of a larger road trip, given how far it is from any town of note, but it’s just a few hours from another spot that kids will appreciate: Four Corners, where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah come together.

Here’s some more national park information:

Featured photo of Grand Canyon National Park by Darren Murph/The Points Guy. 

Additional reporting by Tarah Chieffi.

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