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We’ve been to 12 national parks with our four children since we began traveling in our RV full-time at the beginning of 2018. We are lucky to have been to more national parks in less than a year than most people will visit in their entire lives.
That said, these outdoor adventures aren’t always easy. Between keeping our children safe, managing everyone’s expectations and getting the most out of shorter visits, it can be a lot of work taking kids to national parks.
Here are my top tips for visiting national parks with kids that have come from the valuable lessons we’ve learned during our national park visits:
1. Safety FIRST. Always.
It can be easy to get caught up in a moment of excitement, frustration or chaos when you’re traveling as a family. The vast majority of the land in national parks is left completely wild, and it’s important to remember that a hazard could literally be around the corner — even as you’re walking down a paved trail far from backcountry.
We talk to our older kids about hazards as we are driving up to the parks and read posted warning signs out loud with them. We keep the littlest ones either up in a hiking backpack or hold their hands when we aren’t sure if we are in a space that’s safe to run free.
I have to admit that finding a balance between letting our kids freely explore nature and not over-parenting is tough, but also keeping them safe is the hardest and most exhausting part of these visits.
2. Prepare, but don’t overdo it.
There’s no need to go out and buy expensive hiking equipment if you’ll be sticking to basic trails. You can get by with one of your kid’s school backpacks if it’s comfortable enough for you to wear, too. (There’s a good chance it will end up on your back at some point, even if they insist they’ll wear it.) Be sure to pack the essentials: sunblock, bug spray, a basic first-aid kit, non-perishable snacks and water. Don’t forget diapers, wipes and a plastic bag to pack out dirty diapers if your littles are still in that stage of life. A baby carrier of some sort is key for this age since not all trails are stroller friendly.
It’s also nice to put an extra plastic bag in there to pack out any trash you find along your hike. Challenge your kids to fill up the bag and teach them how important it is to leave the land better than you found it. Also don’t forget to wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes!
3. Participate in the Junior Ranger program.
Nearly every national park has a Junior Ranger program for kids as young as four to get the chance to be sworn in as part of the National Park Service family. They’ll have to complete a workbook with age-specific tasks before taking their oath. The workbooks are sometimes provided for free, and other times they cost a few dollars. Upon completion, your Junior Ranger will be sworn in by a National Park Ranger, given a shiny badge and sometimes a patch.
This is a great way for the whole family to learn about the park you’re visiting. In our experience, some Junior Ranger programs are more intensive than others, and you should give yourself plenty of time to work through the activities. Rangers will usually provide you with a pencil to complete your tasks, but it doesn’t hurt to pack your own colored pencils if you plan to participate.
4. Get to the parks early.
Arriving early in the morning can feel nearly impossible for some families, like ours, but if your kids are early risers you’re in great shape to make the most of a visit to a national park. Obviously, staying close to the parks helps with the early-arrival plan. You’ll beat crowds and have a better chance of seeing wildlife in those early morning hours than the rest of the day. We’ve woken as early as 4am to get into a park, and while it’s rough dragging ourselves out of bed, it was so worth it when we saw bison, elk, pronghorn and bears all grazing as the sun came up at Yellowstone.
Most major national parks that we’ve been to have pretty decent food options, and we’ve been able to find coffee at all of them when we needed to refill our travel mugs later in the day. Another perk of arriving early is being able to pack as much as possible into one day, which is, obviously, very important if you only have a small window of time to spend in the park.
5. Manage your expectations.
This isn’t a theme park, there are no water slides, no video games, usually no cell reception and you may be asking your kids to do some learning during the trip. If they’re like most kids that I know, they will probably groan and complain at some point. Don’t let that get you down. Kids will be kids, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still going to remember the trip fondly or that it won’t have an impact on them.
Do what your family can handle, and don’t feel like you failed or didn’t experience enough if you have to cut a hike short or if your kids don’t thank you for taking them. There is no “right” way to experience a national park with kids, just keep everyone safe and let Mother Nature take care of the rest.
Bonus tip! Get free admission to all national parks if your child is in the 4th grade. All 4th graders are eligible for a national parks pass that not only covers their entrance fee, but also their immediate family members’ entrance fees, too. It’s part of the Every Kid In A Park program, and you can easily apply online. Homeschoolers, this works for you, too. If you don’t have a 4th grader, the $80 annual national park pass can be a tremendous deal.
Featured image by Jill Krause.
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