When I was growing up, my parents stopped to read every roadside historical marker and every trailside sign out loud to us. We explored state parks and historic sites all over the Southeast. In my teen years, I did my fair share of eye-rolling as we stopped at yet another sign. And as we became adults, it became a running joke to continue the tradition. Looking back, I can see how my parents were demonstrating a lifelong love of learning as they paused at each and every trail sign or historic site. Now in my own way, I’ve picked up the cause and given it my own flavor with national parks. Since moving to the Southwest, my husband and I have enjoyed schlepping our entourage of kiddos to national parks whenever we can.
Visiting national parks with our kids has been a rich experience for our family in a variety of ways. First, it’s been a family friendly way to have adventures. We may not be able to travel the way we did before kids, but national parks are accessible and affordable for families. They have been a wonderful way to explore natural science and history hands on. And national parks encourage us to be good citizens. The parks belong to all Americans, and we should steward and enjoy them for the future.
Be intentional in your travel plans. It’s easy to daydream of the great American roadtrip to see Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Rockies with the kids. But they will quickly grow up and life will always be busy. Pick a park, and go this year! Did you know that every 4th grader and their family can get into any national park for free for the entire year? The 4th grade pass is a great way to tackle one or several of the big parks on a summer trip. Go to Every Kid Outdoors to get the pass.
The West is blessed with some amazing parks like Arches, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon, but there are national parks and monuments everywhere when you start to look. As you plan your beach vacation or trip to visit family, look around for national parks in the area you are visiting. Going to a park when your kids are young can plant a seed for later when they study a history event or ecology in science.
One way to make your parks experience more meaningful is to do the Junior Ranger program. We’ve done them at a variety of parks and learned a lot more about the natural and historical significance of the park. The rangers have been so encouraging as they interact with my kids. We usually go to the Visitors’ Center first to get our packets and plan our route. Along the way, we pause to fill out a few pages. The ranger talks have been enriching. My kids love getting sworn in by a ranger and presented with their badges. We collect their badges on a special banner at home. In addition, the Jr Ranger program encourages them to care for the parks.
Each park has its unique personality and impact, but the park system is set up to be user friendly for a variety of abilities. At the Visitors’ Center and on the park’s website, the rangers desk usually offers suggestions for a few hours, half day, and all day visits. Depending on the ages of our kids and how much time we have, we have hit the highlights in a single morning or spend the day hiking and exploring. Sometimes, we have felt like we didn’t get to do all we wanted because our kids were too young, but we can always come back when they are older!
Like exercising a muscle, exploring national parks with your kids gets easier the more you do it. They will learn from your example, and you will make great memories together. So go explore our national treasures together!