The National Parks have been called America’s best idea, but there’s also a case to be made that they are America’s best classroom. There is so much to see and do with kids in the national parks. The parks are a great way for kids to play, learn, and connect with the outdoors. Exposing kids to the national parks helps create a connection and appreciation for the outdoors that will remain with them forever. A little up front planning and these tried and tested tips will go a long way in making a successful and memorable trip. Yes, bringing extra snacks will always save the day, but these 10 insider tips will set you on the right track to having the ultimate National Parks trip with kids.
“Pack more snacks and clothing layers than you think you’ll need and download maps/apps before you go, and you are 90% of the way to a great national parks trip.”
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1. Plan ahead and prepare
Always check the National Park Service page for the park you’ll be visiting a month (or more) before, a week before and the day before. This will give you any reservation requirements, closures, alerts and things to be aware of when you’re planning your trip. With Covid-19 many parks have additional reservation requirements, restrictions or trail/road closures to be aware of. On the day of, it’s also a good idea to check the Twitter account for the park you’ll be visiting as they often post time-sensitive updates on park attendance or other closures.
2. Get kids involved with planning a national parks trip
Once we know where we are going and when, we then set the kids off researching ideas on how to get there, what to do when we get there and what’s important to know about the park we’ll be visiting. They become so much more invested in the trip and love sharing little facts they learned along the way. One of our kids loves maps so he’s in charge of looking over our route and checking the states off as we pass through. This kid’s road atlas has been great for that as well as nps.gov.
3. Every Kid Outdoors
This is an amazing program that gives 4th graders free admission to all national parks for one year. Also, newly announced because 5th graders may have missed taking part last year in the program due to Covid-19 they have extended the program to allow 5th graders free access through August 31, 2021. If you’re planning a national park trip with kids make sure to look into this program. To learn more and register click here.
The American the Beautiful Pass is a great option if you think you’ll be visiting a few national parks throughout the year. We currently have this pass and love it! This pass is a single-time annual fee. It will give you access to all of the US National Parks for a year. At only $80 per vehicle, this is a great deal! Plus, it is a great incentive to get out and explore the beauty that the National Parks have to offer. The pass is not available for immediate download and isn’t always available at all entrance gates so check here for info in advance.
4. Be weather aware + pack the 10 essentials
The weather in and around the national parks can vary greatly, so it’s even more important to plan ahead when going on a national park trip with kids. Call the weather line for your specific park (listed on NPS.gov) to get the most road and weather current conditions throughout the park. It could be 80 degrees and sunny in the foothills just outside the park and be snowing and 20 degrees in the mountains, with the park service requiring tire chains in order to enter the park. This is a real example that happened when we visited Sequoia National Park. Being aware saves time and allows you to pack adequately for your family. Also, in your day pack it’s always good to carry the 10 essentials. You never know when you might get off course on a hike or need these things and it helps to plan ahead. We always pack lunch for the day and lots of snacks as this helps maximize time in the park and not time spent looking for food. We love this fold flat cooler for travel as it’s so easy to pack lunch for day trips. It’s great quality and has held up for many trips over the years. It’s also a good idea to gas up before entering the park as many parks have limited or no gas or services inside the park.
5. GyPSy Guide App
This is an audio tour app that has tours in many national parks and it plays automatically as you drive. They average around $10 per tour and are completely worth it. If you’re short on planning time do yourself a favor and download this app and it will give you all the important stops, best hikes and tips for visiting. Our kids love listening and it tells them about what they’re seeing when driving through the park. Make sure you download the app before you get to the park as many parks have limited cell service and the audio will begin when you enter the park. If you’ve used it before, there’s a new version of the GyPSy App that you can download and load all of your past individual tours. This is a great change as previously you needed to download separate tours apps for each park. Also, if you’ll be visiting more than one park in an area sometimes there’s a tour bundle. You can learn more here or download wherever you get your apps.
6. NPS & National Parks App
The National Park service recently launched a new app in 2021 that includes all parks within one app. It’s called NPS in the app store and is a great resource when visiting the parks. You can search for the park you’ll be visiting and then click ‘save this park for offline use’. This will allow you access to things to do, maps, self-guided tours, and more when in the park. In most parks, cell service or wifi is not available so it’s best to plan ahead. Also, to save on battery it works great to put on airplane mode.
There is another closely named app called National Parks app and we like this one because they sort hikes by ‘family-friendly, give a difficulty rating and allow you to save to a list accessible offline.
7. Junior Ranger Program
This program looks to appeal to kids ages 5-13 years old. It’s an activity-based program in most parks where you go to the visitor center to get it, then the kids complete activities as you see the park and then return to share their answers with a ranger to get a Junior Ranger patch and certificate. Sometimes the rangers will give the parent the patch and certificate to save a stop in returning there if you ask. The park rangers are really experts on the parks so use the stop to get the most current information on trail conditions, trail or road closures and great hikes to do with kids. Encourage your kids to ask them questions about their favorite views, historical events or natural wonders. Find more info on the Junior Ranger program here or if you’re looking for more great activities your kids can do before a visit to the National Parks click here.
8. Pick hikes with reasonable expectations
On your National Parks trip with kids, you may not make it to the summit of the most popular hike, but acknowledging your kids’ limits and picking hikes or activities to match can go a long way to a successful trip. The National Park Service webpage for each park has a helpful section on hikes. They often give the skill level needed, distance, and what to expect.
The two apps in #6 are also great, but when it comes down to knowing exactly what current trail conditions are and what to expect, we like to use the pro version of the AllTrails app. It’s easy to search for easy to moderate hikes within the park or surrounding area you’ll be in. The reviews are great to check current trail conditions and see photos of what to expect. We look for things that will keep our kids interested, like climbing on rock moraines in Rocky Mountain National Park, ladders, rivers or bridges. The pro version of the app allows you to download the offline maps and see if you’re getting off track.
9. Teach your kids to preserve our parks
Our kids are watching how we treat the national parks. It’s important for us to be good stewards of the environment and follow the national park service rules. Always remember to stay on marked trails, keep a safe distance of at least 100 feet from all wildlife, leave anything you find in the park and follow the 7 principles of Leave no trace. These things will help ensure our parks are here for future generations to enjoy.
10. Leave all expectations at home and just have fun
Oftentimes it’s the unexpected moments that come up on a national parks trip with kids that can create the lasting memories. It might be a bison herd crossing the road in front of you, or timing the sunset just right from the summit, but it could also mean cranking up a favorite playlist when you hit a traffic jam or bringing out that special snack when the kids get too tired to finish a hike. Patience and humor go a long way as no trip is perfect and all require embracing the unexpected. Travel with kids is hard work, but the reward is well worth it. If you follow these 10 insider tips this will help you create the ultimate National Parks trip with kids.