As we approach the summer travel season, many American families are planning special trips to their favorite beach towns, famous cities and even international destinations. But for others, the perfect family vacation involves exploring the great outdoors and doing it right here in our own backyards.
National parks have reported record numbers of visitors in recent years, and it’s easy to see why. They offer breathtaking views, wildlife-watching opportunities, enjoyable hikes and more. And although all national parks provide something for kids to enjoy, some parks are better than others when it comes to visiting with your little ones.
We asked seasoned national park visitors and family travel experts to share which of the 63 U.S. national parks they think are best to visit with children. Read on for 10 national parks (and one national monument) to add to your kid-friendly vacation bucket list.
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Everglades National Park
“Everglades National Park in particular is one of the best national parks for kids,” said Will Pattiz, co-founder of More Than Just Parks. “Let’s start with the American alligator, which is practically the park’s mascot. There are an estimated 200,000 alligators in the Everglades, and hiking along the park’s Anhinga Trail is almost a surefire way to see one.”
He noted that the park’s location in Florida also makes it easy to combine your visit with the state’s most famous kid-friendly attraction: Walt Disney World.
“On top of that, the park has excellent Ranger programs, including guided paddling tours and slough-slogging through the swamp lands,” Pattiz said.
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Badlands National Park
“Our favorite national park is the Badlands National Park, which we think is very kid- and family-friendly,” said Leona Wandermust, founder of the Wandermust Family travel blog. “The combination of wildlife, dramatic scenery and variety of hikes of varying difficulty make it the perfect family-friendly destination.”
She recommended visiting the South Dakota site in the summer for the best weather and noted that there are a variety of lodging options for families of all sizes and budgets, from campgrounds to on-site lodges to accommodations in nearby towns and cities.
“If you are traveling with teenagers and more accomplished hikers, then you can tackle the Notch Trail with its rough terrain and ladder access,” Wandermust said. “However, even if you are traveling with toddlers or younger kids, you will find trails that are suitable for every ability. Dinosaur-mad kids will also be fascinated by the Fossil Exhibit Trail and the story of fossils being found in the park, including a large triceratops skull in 2019.”
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Grand Teton National Park
“Families love Grand Teton National Park for its wildlife, striking landscapes and variety of trails,” said Gunjan Prakash, CEO and founder of Families Love Travel. “Plus, summer offers relatively mild temperatures.”
Whether you’re visiting Grand Teton in Wyoming or another park, she recommended the Junior Ranger program for children.
“This is a great way for kids to learn about the national park they are exploring, as well as its animal and plant life,” Prakash said. “Plus, they get a chance to speak with the Park Rangers! Families with fourth graders should also participate in the Every Kid Outdoors program, which allows all fourth graders and their families to experience our national parks, lands and waters for free.”
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Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Parks and Points founders Derek Wright and Amy Beth Wright recommend Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico for “a living science lesson” and striking sensory experience.
“Most of this park is deep underground, an adventure into a completely different world than anything one might see above ground,” they told HuffPost. “The caverns are never-ending and full of magic and wonder. Sounds travel far in the cave. The National Park Service interprets how the caverns formed and the many underground features within for all age groups.”
The Wrights pointed to unique features like Doll’s Theater, The Caveman and the Hall of the Giants. The evening bat flights from Memorial Day through October also provide a unique spectacle.
“If traveling with younger children and adults, take the elevator down to the cavern floors, also known as The Big Room,” they advised. “From there, many of the main pathways are paved and have handrails. This is a very accessible park. Strollers are not permitted; however, baby backpacks are. If you have older children or kids with a lot of energy, walk the Natural Entrance 750 feet down to The Big Room. The ever-downward path twists, turns, with ups and downs, and is a bit over a mile, though it might be one of the most spectacular miles you and your kids will walk.”
“Speaking of kids, the caverns were first discovered and explored by a teenager, Jim White, back in 1898!” the couple added.
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Yellowstone National Park
“For a great kid-friendly park, I immediately think of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone,” said Jim Pattiz, the other co-founder of More Than Just Parks. “Steeped in history and natural beauty, this venerated park more than lives up to the hype, especially with kids.”
He touted the large number of developed amenities, such as bathrooms, lodges, gift shops, visitor centers, restaurants and gas stations, which help take the stress out of a vacation with restless kids.
“Short hiking trails, big wildlife factor and geological wonders abound,” said Janel Jensen, a travel program manager for REI Adventures. “Towering mountains, dense forests and craggy canyons provide an otherworldly landscape. There are many ways that families can enjoy the park ― by backcountry, lake, thermal features or even a cruise on Lake Yellowstone to see a shipwreck. Kids love volcanoes, and seismic and volcanic action can be viewed in all its forms ― vents, gurgling mud pots, 500 geysers and more. Having a couple geysers on a specific timetable helps with planning naps and meals.”
She also praised the excellent animal spotting opportunities in the park, which straddles parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
“Yellowstone is often called the American Serengeti due to the largest concentrations of wildlife in the United States, including elk, bears, bighorn sheep and 1,000-pound bison,“Jensen said. “There are lots of places to fish in calm and shallow rivers and streams. Not to mention that kids 15 and younger don’t need a license.”
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Grand Canyon National Park
“Introduce your kids to one of the seven natural wonders of the world!” Jensen urged. “This is where geology, dating back 70 million years, comes to life. Everything is centralized, so you can park in one place, like the Grand Canyon Village, and walk or take the park shuttle.”
For a family-friendly hike at the Arizona park, she recommended South Kaibab Trail to Ooh Aah Point, which takes about an hour and a half and offers a different perspective looking up at the rim and the canyon’s colorful walls.
“Another family-friendly option is to join one of the many ranger-assisted programs through the visitor center, geology museum or Hopi House,” Jensen added. “Join one of the night sky talks at Yavapai Lodge, where kids can view the sky through telescopes and see the Milky Way Galaxy up close.”
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park
“Great Smoky Mountains National Park is so family friendly,” Jensen said. “Experience easy hikes amongst old-growth giants and past settlers’ homesteads, splash and swim in the numerous pools and waterfalls throughout the park, go trout fishing and more.”
Families can reserve campsites in advance or enter the lottery to stay in the park’s one on-site lodge. Otherwise, book a family-friendly hotel in nearby Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. As for activities, Jensen recommended choosing whichever of the miles of trails are best suited to your family’s ability.
“You can even choose a hike along the famous Appalachian Trail and hike the paths that had been used by local Native Americans to local settlers and now hikers,” she said. “And just outside the park borders, go whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River or experience an aerial challenge course and zip line adventure.”
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Yosemite National Park
“Yosemite National Park is one of the most stroller-friendly national parks, with a great tram system, easy trails and many accessible scenic views, including rivers and waterfalls,” Prakash said.
Families can sometimes spot black bears during their visit to the national park in eastern California. Mule deer, marmots, raccoons, bighorn sheep and many other creatures also call the park home.
“Wilderness exploration is the main activity, with lots of trails to view the waterfalls, granite peaks and majestic giant sequoia,” Jensen said “You will find shops, restaurants and the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village if you need a ‘nature break.’ There are lots of hiking options and even a few flat, short trails that are stroller-accessible, but get your kids ready to climb if you want to cover more than a couple miles!”
She also recommended swimming or lounging on the sandy beaches along some of the park’s bodies of water, like the popular Tenaya Lake.
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Rocky Mountain National Park
“When thinking about the best national parks to visit with kids, we look for parks that offer a variety of hiking trails ― both in terms of difficulty and also scenery, as well as parks with fun seasonal features, on-site kid-friendly lodging and nearby activities available for families,” Prakash said. “Rocky Mountain National Park is a great option for families because kids can spot wildlife, hike, play in the lake and more, while parents appreciate the opportunity to stay in Estes Park or in one of the on-site cabins. Plus, the area offers a variety of fun things to do for all ages.”
She recommended checking on any permit and reservation requirements and booking those well in advance while planning a visit to the Colorado site.
“We recommend that families travel to national parks during the off-season when they can,” Prakash added. “National parks are fantastic for holiday and spring break trips because they are less crowded and, for many parks, the weather is milder and more comfortable for outdoor activities.”
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Zion National Park
“Zion National Park is a red-rock wonderland for families,” Jensen said. “It’s only a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, and Springdale is an excellent walkable gateway town with a variety of lodging options, restaurants and shops. The park shuttle services Springdale, and it’s just a 1-mile walk or drive to the main visitor center and park entrance.”
She recommended starting with easy hikes at the Utah park, like the Zion Canyon Overlook Trail, which has great views, and then graduating to more moderate options like the Emerald Pools Trail, which features a scenic waterfall.
“There are lots of swimming opportunities in the Narrows and along the Virgin River,” Jensen added. “The Pine Creek Waterfall swimming hole is an off-the-beaten-path in the park. Tubing down the Virgin River is a summertime fun activity and great way to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the park. Tip: Check water safety due to routine algae bloom via National Park Service bulletins or ask at a visitor’s center upon arrival.
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Dinosaur National Monument
While not one of the 63 U.S. national parks, Dinosaur National Monument, on the Colorado-Utah border, is also operated by the National Park Service and is understandably a popular option for families.
“Every kid I know loves dinosaurs, and there is a massive wall of dinosaur bones you can view at this park,” said national parks travel expert Mikah Meyer. “There’s even one the Park Service lets you touch! Hello dream for every 'Jurassic Park' fan!”
In addition to the dinosaur bone wall and many accessible hiking trails, he noted that the main visitor center has tons of exhibits and information about dinosaurs that will also appeal to kids.
“Beyond that, Dinosaur National Monument is one of the most epic sites in the National Park Service but only receives 7% as many visitors annually as nearby Zion National Park or Rocky Mountain National Park,” he explained. “That means you don’t have to worry about being stuck in traffic with an overheated kid in the backseat watching an iPad while you’re surrounded by amazing nature.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included a photo incorrectly labeled as Rocky Mountain National Park.