I'm a huge fan of the National Parks!
They are one of our country's most beautiful assets and I really feel that every family should take the opportunity to visit at least one of the parks with their kids.
There are more than 400 national parks and sites located across the country so I'm sure you'll find one close to you.
And while you may think hiking is the only activity in the parks, there are really so many more things for families to enjoy -- everyone from young children to retired seniors will find something to inspire them during a visit to the parks!
8 Ways to Explore the National Parks
There are so many activities that you can enjoy in the parks. It's not just all walking and wild animals, although there's plenty of those to enjoy too.
The parks offer nature and science programs, new experiences and many types of environments for you to explore.
Stroll on a Beach
Yep, you can enjoy beaches at some of the national parks. We visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore a few years ago and were awestruck. The parks hosts huge sand dunes and beautiful beaches just 45 minutes from Chicago.
We had a great time running down the sand hills and walking along the shoreline. You can also find sand dunes at a number of other parks.
If you'd rather surf, canoe or kayak, there are many national park seashores and lakeshores that you would enjoy.
Explore a Cave, Volcano or Geological Wonder
Many of our national parks were created to preserve natural resources and geologic features. On our visit to the Badlands in South Dakota, we went spelunking (that's cave exploring) in Wind Cave and it was quite an experience!
You can tour many of these beautiful places during your visit.
Take a Hike
Whether you're up for a short walk or a day-long hike, you can explore beautiful trails (paved and natural) throughout the park system. Be sure to see our 8 Tips for Hiking with Kids for ideas on how to keep them engaged and out of the poison ivy when you go!
Each park offers trail maps to help guide you towards the best location for your family.
We've visited parks with toddlers to teens and have always found great places to walk, hike and enjoy the sites. Our hikes have included walks around a lake on paved trails, following a dirt trail through the wilderness and climbing a rocky trail up the side of a waterfall.
Make sure to pack a backpack no matter what type of hike you take (be prepared) - here's some great guidelines from the National Park system.
Become a Jr. Ranger
The Jr. Ranger Program is a special opportunity for kids to explore some hands-on experiences in nature, science and history.
Jr. Ranger programs are available at most of the parks with activities available for kids from preschool age to teenagers. Families can obtain a free Jr. Ranger book at each park by visiting one of the ranger stations. Once your child has completed the activities (which are all fun, educational and different at each park), they will be awarded a badge and earn the title of Jr. Ranger!
Our kids have earned Jr. Ranger status in more than 15 parks during our visits. They are just AWESOME experiences -- here are LOTS more details about the Junior Ranger programs and why your kids will love them!
There are all kinds of volunteer opportunites at the national parks, monuments and historic sites across the country.
These are perfect for scout troops, internships for high school students and citizen science projects for families. The parks need us for many types of support - hands-on help, donations, special events and more so plan to get involved during your visit!
Walk with Wildlife
One of my favorite activities in the parks is viewing the various animals in their natural habitat.
Last summer, we were lucky enough to see moose during a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park !
From bison to elk, moose to big horn sheep - there are so many 'residents' in the various parks that you'll want to have a camera handy at all times!
Take along this free printable Animal Observation Journal and keep track of the wildlife you encounter on your visit.
Kids will enjoy the scenic drives and hikes as they keep a lookout for animals on the route. (ps. make sure to keep a respectful distance with the animals -- bring a zoom lens for the camera for good shots!)
Sleep Under the Stars
In this crazy time of technology when we are all so "plugged in", how cool would it be to spend a night with the kids under the stars.
No street lights, no city noise and wide open spaces.
There's really a huge difference in what you can see & experience -- check this page on Rate Your Night Sky from the NPS to learn the difference between seeing 500 stars or 15,000 stars!
Camping is available at many park locations and some campsites fill up quick!
You can make camping reservations online for both campsites and other overnight lodging in the parks. Check with the park to see if they also have evening programs for families - you might be able to attend an astronomy program before climbing into your sleeping bag.
Enjoy the Beauty
Really, in the end that's what it's all about --
Having places where we can still appreciate the beauty around us!
Many national parks have no admission fees and are free all the time.
For the ones with admission, the National Park system offers Free Entrance Days throughout the year.
See our Free Entrance Days for 2016 to plan your next visit!
MORE OUTDOOR ADVENTURES:
Enjoy the Parks!
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