By Michael Lanza America’s national parks preserve over 52 million acres of uniquely beautiful and significant places in nature, and the payof
By Michael Lanza
America’s national parks preserve over 52 million acres of uniquely beautiful and significant places in nature, and the payoff for that foresight is a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable experiences awaiting us—many of them entirely feasible, safe, and really fun for families with kids of all ages. Here are 10 of the very best national park outdoor adventures to do with kids.
And here’s an insider tip: These adventures aren’t just for families. Adults with a wide range of outdoors experience—or none—will find these trips thrilling, fascinating, and inspirational.
This story describes 10 of the very best adventures my family has taken, many of them personal favorites from among the countless trips I’ve taken over nearly three decades as an outdoors writer, including more than 10 years running this blog and previously 10 years as a field editor for Backpacker magazine.
Each description below offers a suggested minimum age and links to a full feature story at The Big Outside, which include more images and detailed tips on planning each trip (and those stories require a paid subscription to read in full).
I think you’ll find that sharing these unforgettable places and experiences together forge your best memories as a family, as they have for mine. Not surprisingly, all of these trips require planning and making reservations months in advance. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any trip you read about at this blog.
Please share your experiences, questions, and advice on any of these trips, or suggest your own favorite national park family adventures in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Stand in the Shadow of a Giant Sequoia
If you’re going to be a tree hugger, you might as well go big. The giant sequoias of Sequoia National Park can live more than 3,000 years, grow as tall as a 26-story building, and have a base diameter of 36 feet. The General Sherman Tree is the largest in the world at 52,508 cubic feet (1,487 cubic meters), 275 feet tall, and estimated to weigh 2.7 million pounds. The General Grant Tree is the second largest at 46,608 cubic feet (1,320 cubic meters). Try hugging them.
The Giant Forest in Sequoia contains half of the Earth’s largest trees, more than 8,000 sequoias. You can stand under scores of them, including the General Sherman Tree, on a hike of an hour or less. From Wolverton Road, off the Generals Highway, a half-mile trail leads to the General Sherman Tree. The 0.7-mile Big Trees Trail begins at the Giant Forest Museum.
See photos of the General Sherman Tree and Grant Grove in my story “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park,” about a 40-mile family backpacking trip where we had a wilderness giant sequoia grove all to ourselves, and see all stories about Sequoia National Park at The Big Outside.
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Feel the Magic of Yellowstone
Since Americans first began exploring the Yellowstone region, people have stood in awe of its marvels: megafauna like elk, bison, and grizzly bears, spectacular waterfalls, and more than 10,000 geothermal features, including hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and at least 300 geysers—two-thirds of the planet’s known total.
We first took our kids to Yellowstone when they were four and two years old, and although they don’t remember that visit, they delighted in the animals and thermal features—and they could enjoy them because so many of Yellowstone’s highlights can be seen on short walks or hikes that are easy enough to do with very young kids.
Some of my favorite spots, like Grand Prismatic Spring, the park’s largest, in the Midway Geyser Basin, require only a short stroll on a boardwalk. An easy walking tour of Mammoth Hot Springs, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, and even the Upper Geyser Basin (which includes Old Faithful) can be done in an hour or two.
See my stories “The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone,” “The 10 Best Hikes in Yellowstone,” “Cross-Country Skiing Yellowstone,” and all stories about Yellowstone National Park at The Big Outside.
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Climb Into Natural Arches
Ages 5 and Up
Arches National Park in southeastern Utah has many geologic wonders to recommend it, but from a kid’s perspective, one of the coolest experiences is scrambling up underneath an arch like Double Arch in the park’s Windows Section or Partition Arch in Devils Garden—the first a short walk, the second a hike of two to three hours round-trip.
For short, easy walks to several arches, feasible with young kids, start in the Windows Section, where you can get up close and personal with Double Arch, Turret Arch, and South Window. For a longer but relatively flat hike of up to a half-day (although you can shorten it), explore Devils Garden, including Pine Tree, Navajo, and Partition arches, and the park’s longest, Landscape Arch.
Skyline Arch, which is a short hike but sits by itself and thus attracts fewer people, sits high on the wall of a narrow canyon, and you can scramble up the canyon’s opposite wall for a bird’s-eye view of the arch. If you have a full day, take a ranger-guided tour of the Fiery Furnace, a maze of narrow canyons.
See my story “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks,” and all stories about Arches National Park at The Big Outside.
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Hike Zion’s Breathtaking Trails
Ages 6 and Up
Even among America’s flagship national parks—gems like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone—Zion stands out for having several dayhikes that would make the top 10 list of many avid hikers. Angels Landing, The Narrows, the West Rim Trail, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Point, to name just a handful that begin right in Zion Canyon, feature scenery that actually does justice to the adjective “breathtaking.” No other place really compares to Zion.
These hikes and others range widely in distance, difficulty, and gut-churning excitement quotient, and comfort level doesn’t always correlate directly with age. Stop in the park visitor center for information about these hikes, including current conditions; rangers can let you know when to avoid some of them.
See my stories “Insider Tips: The 10 Best Hikes in Zion National Park,” “Hiking Angels Landing: What You Need to Know,” “Pilgrimage Across Zion: Traversing a Land of Otherworldly Scenery,” and all stories about Zion National Park at The Big Outside.
Explore the best of the Southwest. See “The 12 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks”
and “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
Stand Beneath Yosemite’s Waterfalls and Summit Half Dome
Ages 7 and Up
Yosemite Valley and its surrounding high country was an early inspiration for creating a system of national parks—and the source of that inspiration becomes clearer when you explore beyond the Valley’s busy roads, hiking to its justifiably world-famous waterfalls and the summit of one of Yosemite’s iconic landmarks, Half Dome.
Dayhike the 7.2-mile, 2,700-vertical-foot Upper Yosemite Falls Trail to the brink of that waterfall, which plunges a sheer 1,400 feet through the air; or hike only about an hour to 90 minutes up that trail to a spot close enough to the base of the waterfall to feel the light rain of its mist.
The 6.3-mile, 2,000-vertical-foot loop on the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail takes you through the raining mist of 317-foot-tall Vernal Fall—which can be drenching in late spring—and both below and above the thunderous plume of nearly 600-foot-tall Nevada Fall.
Fit hikers—including older kids—with strong endurance can continue past Nevada Fall to dayhike up the exposed cable route to the summit of Half Dome, a 16-mile, 4,800-foot round trip that requires a permit.
See my stories “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls,” “Hiking Half Dome: How to Do It Right and Get a Permit,” “The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite,” and all stories about Yosemite National Park at The Big Outside.
See also my e-guides to three amazing backpacking trips in Yosemite.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
Ascend Into the Tetons
Ages 7 and Up
Regular readers of this blog know that the Tetons are one of my favorite mountain ranges—I’ve made over 20 trips dayhiking, backpacking, climbing, and backcountry skiing there—and I rank the Teton Crest Trail among “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
But the TCT is an ambitious and moderately strenuous hike of at least four days for most adults. The first Teton backpacking trip I took my kids on, when they were eight and six, was a three-day hike of Grand Teton’s nearly 20-mile Paintbrush-Cascade Canyons Loop.
Probably the most popular backpacking route in the park because of its relatively short distance, easy access, and stellar scenery, it takes you through two of the park’s most stunning canyons and over one of the highest mountain passes reached by a trail in the park, 10,700-foot Paintbrush Divide (which can be difficult to cross, due to snow, until August). Campsites in Upper Paintbrush Canyon have views of soaring, striated canyon walls, and in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon you will drink in a stunning view of the Grand Teton framed by canyon walls—still one of my favorite backcountry campsites ever.
See all of my stories about backpacking Grand Teton National Park, including “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” my story about backpacking the TCT with my family, and “How to Get a Permit to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail,” with tips relevant to applying for a permit for any trip in the park.
Click here now to get my e-guide to the best short backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park. Click here to see all of my e-guides.
Immerse Yourself in the Wild Everglades
Ages 7 and Up
The Everglades is the kind of place that will shock you with its uniqueness and abundance of exotic fauna. Paddling sit-on-top kayaks on a placid river that flowed through mangrove tunnels, and canoes in the generally calm, shallow waters of the Ten Thousand Islands, my family watched an almost constant aerial parade of white ibises, black anhingas, tri-colored herons, brown pelicans and great blue herons fly just overhead.
On one paddling tour from the campsite we had to ourselves on a wilderness beach—where we watched the sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico—my son and I twisted around excitedly in our seats as a dolphin circled our canoe several times. On another paddle with my daughter, we exchanged long gazes with a gaggle of roseate spoonbills perched in a tree.
Much of the Everglades is a vast wilderness—at 1.5 million acres, the third-largest national park in the contiguous United States, bigger than Glacier or Grand Canyon and twice the size of Yosemite—offering opportunities for remote, multi-day, water-based adventures. But there are family-friendly options, like paddling canoes for a few hours on a well-marked water route to camp on a beach you have to yourselves.
See my story “Like No Other Place: Paddling the Everglades.”
Paddling the Everglades is one of “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
Hike and Camp on the Wild Olympic Coast
Ages 7 and Up
My kids, who were nine and seven when we backpacked this three-day, 17.5-mile traverse of Washington’s southern Olympic coast, remember playing for hours in tide pools; exploring a massive boulder wallpapered with mussels, sea anemones, and sea stars; and climbing up and down thrilling rope ladders on steep headwalls. They still call it one of their favorite trips (and it’s one of my top 10 family adventures).
The adults on this hike remember it for the rich sea life and birds—we saw seals, a sea otter, a great blue heron, and other wildlife—as well as the scenery, with scores of sea stacks rising straight out of the ocean and giant trees behind the beach.
It’s a surprisingly rugged trip—which goes far in explaining why fewer backpackers hike the southern stretch of the Olympic coast compared to the less-strenuous northern stretch. But many kids who’ve done some dayhiking and backpacking will do just fine—and revel in the adventurousness nature of it. Parents would have to feel either comfortable guiding their kids on the mandatory rope ladders or confident in their kids’ ability to managing them on their own.
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast” and all of my stories about Olympic National Park.
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Descend Into the Grand Canyon
Ages 8 and Up
The Grand Canyon looks impressive from its rim, but you really have to hike down into the Big Ditch to experience the full Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole sensation of its awesome scale. With virtually no vegetation obstructing the long vistas, towers thousands of feet tall appear to balloon to massive dimensions as you slowly approach them, until they dwarf their surroundings, then shrink into the background as you hike farther away. After many visits, I’ve yet to find a mediocre view or a bad backcountry campsite.
Get that experience on a dayhike or backpacking trip into the canyon. Hike either of the easily accessed and best-constructed trails dropping into the canyon from the South Rim. Follow the Bright Angel Trail down as far as you want—there are numerous logical turnaround points within the first few miles, or go all the way to Indian Garden (nine miles and nearly 3,000 feet round-trip).
Or descend the South Kaibab Trail, one of America’s most scenic footpaths, with constant, ridge-crest views of a huge swath of the canyon. Accessible backpacking options off the South Rim allow for trips of three to four days.
See my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and all of my stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.
Get the right pack for you. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks.”
Sea Kayak Back to the Ice Age
Ages 8 and Up
Southeast Alaska’s Glacier Bay is the size of Connecticut and sits at the heart of a contiguous protected wilderness the size of Greece. There are simply few places of this size that are as pristine on the entire planet.
Glacier Bay has seen the fastest glacial retreat on Earth: Two centuries ago, there was no Glacier Bay, just a colossal river of ice 4,000 feet thick and 20 miles wide stretching 100 miles into the St. Elias Mountains. The ice has since pulled back 65 miles, creating a fjord with 1,200 miles of coastline that provides a living window into what the world looked like at the end of the last Ice Age.
On a multi-day sea kayaking trip, camping every night on a secluded, wilderness beach, you can see massive tidewater glaciers explosively calving bus-sized chunks of ice into the sea, humpback whales, orcas, Steller sea lions, mountain goats, seals, sea otters, brown bears, and a variety of birds and wildflowers—not to mention views of some of the more than 50 glaciers covering 1,375 square miles of the park, and peaks that rise to over 15,000 feet.
See my story “Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking Glacier Bay.”
See also all stories about national park adventures and family adventures and these stories at The Big Outside:
“5 Perfect National Park Backpacking Trips for Beginners”
“The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes”
“10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids”
“Boy Trip, Girl Trip: Why I Take Father-Son and Father-Daughter Adventures”
“10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit”