America celebrated the 103nd anniversary of the National Park Service in 2019. Famously called "America's best idea" by the novelist and historian Wallace Stegner, the national park system offers families a wonderfully affordable way to visit America's most cherished and beautiful landscapes, view wildlife in their natural habitat, learn about geological and cultural history, and appreciate the great outdoors.
Visitors flock to national parks in huge numbers, with the total number of visitors topping 327 million in 2019.
If you plan to visit multiple parks in a 12-month period, it might be less expensive to buy a National Parks Annual Pass for $80.
The National Park Service's Find a Park tool is a wonderful planning device for locating parks, scenic trails, battlefields, and other treasures near your home or along your road trip route.
Before you go, explore the National Park Service's WebRangers site for kids, no matter which park you plan to visit. Junior Ranger programs are available at the parks. Details differ depending on the park, so check what's happening at the park you plan to visit before you go.
The most-visited of all American national parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the boundaries of North Carolina and Tennessee and offers breathtaking scenery and wildlife viewing as well as remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. If you're there between mid-May and mid-June, don't miss the synchronous firefly viewing event.
The second most-visited of all American national parks, Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park belongs on every family's bucket list. Reserve accommodations at a Grand Canyon lodge or campground. Mule trips of various lengths are available, leaving from both the South Rim and North Rim. The SkyWalk viewing platform is a top attraction run by the Hualapai Tribe just outside the park in Grand Canyon West.
Rocky Mountain National Park’s 415 square miles include spectacular mountain environments in Colorado. Trail Ridge Road crests at more than 12,000 feet, with many overlooks to experience the subalpine and alpine worlds, along with more than 300 miles of hiking trails, wildflowers, and wildlife. Ranger-led programs include astronomy outings, wildlife viewing and hikes.
Utah's first national park is named after Zion Canyon, 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, cut through red and tan sandstone. The park features massive sandstone cliffs, narrow slot canyons, and a unique array of plants and animals.
Protected since 1864, Yosemite is California's first national park. It is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and a vast wilderness area. Reserve accommodations at a Yosemite lodge or campground.
Established in 1872 as the first U.S. national park, Yellowstone is arguably also the most unique. Its 2.2 million acres fall mainly in Wyoming and sit atop one of the continent’s largest active supervolcanoes, whose 2-million-year history formed a diverse eco-system of lakes, canyons, rivers, and mountain ranges and left a landscape dotted with thousands of geysers, mud pots, hot springs, and fumaroles. Yellowstone is also a wonderful place to view wildlife, with its large wolf population and herds of bison, elk, antelope, and other animals. Many families combine a trip to Yellowstone with nearby Grand Teton National Park, just 10 miles to the south. Reserve accommodations at a Yellowstone lodge or campground. Before you go, check out Wolfquest, an interactive 3D game that teaches kids about wolf ecology and behavior
The first eastern national park is set on the rugged coast of Maine. The park is home to myriad plants and animals, as well as the tallest mountain on the Atlantic Coast. Today visitors come to Acadia to hike granite peaks, bike historic carriage roads, or relax and enjoy the coastal scenery. Families can explore the park with Acadia Quest, a scavenger hunt-like activity.
In northwestern Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park includes the major peaks of the 40-mile-long Teton Range and the northern Jackson Hole Valley. It is just 10 miles south of Yellowstone National Park. The two parks are connected by the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway. Ranger-led programs include hikes, talks, and evening programs.
Olympic National Park in Washington State is like three parks in one, taking you from breathtaking mountain vistas with meadows of wildflowers to colorful ocean tidepools and valleys of ancient forests. About 95 percent of the park is wilderness. There are many kid-friendly hikes in Olympic National Park.
The one million acres of Montana wilderness in Glacier National Park contain two mountain ranges, more than 130 lakes, and thousands of plant and animal species. It is a jaw-droppingly beautiful wonderland of pristine forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, spectacular lakes, and 700 miles of trails. The 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the most iconic scenic drives in America. In the summer, ranger-led activities include guided walks and boat tours.
Joshua Tree National Park
Named for the trees native to the park, 1,200-square-mile Joshua Tree National Park is slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island. Much of the park is wilderness and includes parts of two deserts, the higher Mojave Desert and lower Colorado Desert. There are 12 self-guided nature trails, some as short as a half-mile, which are perfect for young children. Ranger-led activities include guided wildflower walks, evening talks, and stargazing.
Despite its name, Bryce Canyon is not a canyon at all. Instead, it is a collection of giant natural amphitheaters formed by hoodoos—tall, thin spires of rock up to 150 feet high. The red, orange, and white colors of the rocks make for spectacular views.
Many families combine a trip to Bryce Canyon with Zion National Park, 78 miles away. Both are included in Utah's Mighty 5. Ranger-led activities include guided hikes, evening talks, and stargazing. Kids can sign up to be a geodetective and get a special patch.
Ohio's only national park preserves and reclaims the rural landscape along the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland. Twenty miles of the historic Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail makes up the major trail through Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad has traveled through the park for more than 100 years and still is a good way to view the park's scenery. Families can hike or bike along the flat Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. Many families hike or bike one way and take the train back.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
The second-oldest national park after Yellowstone, California's Sequoia National Park is famous for its giant sequoia trees, including the General Sherman tree, one of the largest trees on Earth. The park is contiguous to the north with Kings Canyon National Park, whose General Grant Grove is home to the General Grant tree and other giant sequoias. Together Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks contain 202,430 acres of old-growth forests. Ranger-led activities include guided hikes and campfire talks and night-sky presentations.
Located just outside of Moab, Utah, Arches National Park is one of Utah's Mighty 5. It is known for its 2,000 natural sandstone arches, including the famous Delicate Arch, and a wide variety of unique geological resources and formations. Ranger-led programs include guided hikes through the Fiery Furnace and evening programs.
Dominated by its namesake volcano, which towers at 14,410 feet and last erupted in the 1800s, Rainier is America's fifth-oldest national park. Visit in the spring and you'll witness cascading waterfalls; come in the summer, and wildflowers abound; or arrive in the fall when the foliage puts on a colorful show. Ranger-led activities include guided hikes and campfire talks and night-sky presentations. The Citizen Ranger program for older kids and families includes self-guided quests and the chance to participate in the MeadoWatch scientific project.
The 105-mile Skyline Drive traces the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering many jumping-off points into Virginia's 200,000-acre Shenandoah National Park. Just 123 miles from Washington, Shenandoah offers myriad ways to explore through hiking, biking, paddling, and horseback riding. Ranger-led activities include guided hikes, nature workshops, and educational programs.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park contains Kīlauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, and Mauna Loa, the world's most massive subaerial volcano. The park offers dramatic volcanic landscapes as well as glimpses of rare flora and fauna. Before you go, you should check to see if there are alerts for visiting this park since these are active volcanoes. Ranger-led activities include guided hikes, daytime talks, and "after dark in the park" presentations.
The dramatic Badlands landscape in South Dakota contains one of the world’s richest fossil beds, once home to ancient mammals such as the rhino, horse, and saber-toothed cat. The park’s 244,000 acres protect a mixed-grass prairie where bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets live today. Families can explore the park with a GPS Adventure.
Could this really be Colorado? The tallest dunes in North America are the centerpiece in an incredibly diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, forests, alpine lakes, and tundra. Ranger-led activities include guided hikes, nature talks, and night-sky presentations. Sandboarding and sand sledding—think surfing or sliding down sand dunes—is a popular activity for kids and adults alike. Medano Creek is a great swimming hole and a great place to cool off (and wash the sand off) on a hot day.