This post was originally published in August 2016
I love our nation’s national parks. I am constantly amazed that many parents decide to skip the national parks as a family travel destination in favor of something more “kid-friendly.” They assume their children won’t really be able to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of these natural wonders. I’ve found the opposite to be true.
Every national park is unique and amazing in its own way. There are icy tundras, grassy plains, burning deserts, towering mountains, and amazing rock formations. A national park is an amazing place to run and play, to hike and bike, to wander and learn. It is an opportunity to learn history, commune with nature or just breathe fresh air.
While every park is unique and amazing in its own way, there are five awesome things that you can do at almost every major National Park:
1. Get a Stamp in Your Passport
Did you know that you don’t have to leave the country to fill a passport with unique stamps? The National Park service offers its own Passport to Your National Parks book. The books can be purchased in any park gift shop or online for less than $10. (Proceeds support the national parks.
From the Grand Canyon to the Statue of Liberty—it is so fun to collect all the stamps. Most National Parks or Monuments have at least once cancellation station where you can stamp your passport. Larger parks such as Yosemite or Yellowstone feature multiple cancellation stations for various attractions. Participation by the parks is voluntary. Check here to find out if the park you plan to visit participates.
In addition to the cancellation stamps, which are free, you can also purchase a set of limited edition commemorative stamps which feature color photographs of a park or monument. These are placed on the designated pages in your passport. These sticker sets change each year. You can find the sticker sets in the park’s gift shop or online.
2. Earn a Junior Ranger Badge
The Junior Ranger Program has been around since my children were little. They loved it and now my grandchildren love it. The National Park Service designed the Junior Ranger Program to help make the national park experience extra special for children ages 4 to 14 (although people of all ages can participate.)
The program gives kids and families the opportunity to explore and learn about our national parks, and how they can help protect them today and into the future. This nationwide program is designed to familiarize children with the duties and responsibilities of a park ranger,
There are currently over 200 Junior Ranger Programs in the National Park Service. In each of these programs, kids interview Rangers, complete games, and answer questions about the park and the National Park Service. At the end of their experience in the park, kids are sworn in as Junior Rangers and receive a special certificate and official Junior Ranger badge.
Becoming a Junior Ranger is a mark of distinction. These special badges issued cannot be purchased or otherwise obtained except through the dedication of the child and the support of his or her parents or guardians. Parents wishing their children to become Junior Rangers should plan several hours at a park toward the completion of this program.
All Junior Ranger programs are free of charge.
Fun Fact: A little-known fact is that Gerald Ford, our 38th president, was the only American president to serve as a park ranger in the National Park Service.
3. Go on a Ranger Walk
I love the ranger walks and tours offered by the ranger. It is surprising how much you learn and besides at least one talk or walk is required for the junior ranger badge. The rangers have a vast wealth of information about the parks they work in. I find them to be passionate about their jobs. Many of them have worked at the same park for years and know every square inch of it. Their excitement is infectious, especially for kids!
4. Take a Scenic Drive
Fun Fact: PBS made an incredible documentary about the National Parks. One of the things it talks about is how the roads in the National Parks were designed by artists first and then civil engineers second—Yosemite is a beautiful example!
Most National Parks feature at least one scenic drives. There is gorgeous scenery to appreciate and often they will have scenic lookout points or short trails along the drive. Directions are found in the park maps. Be sure to ask at the ranger station for recommendations—most rangers will be full of advice on which trails to take, as well as what wildlife and other attractions to look out for along the way!
5. Stay Overnight
The National Park service offers some of the most beautiful and scenic campsites you’ll find. The prices are usually cheaper than private campgrounds. During the summer many popular park campgrounds fill up quickly, so if you are planning a trip, be sure to book ahead. Be sure to also check what amenities are available, as well as check policies regarding food and fire.
I will admit that roughing it is not my style anymore, I have come to appreciate the creature comforts of a good bed, electricity, and a private bathroom. Besides camping, there are some great opportunities for overnight lodging in the parks. Many older parks feature beautiful (and famous) lodges, many of which were work projects during the Great Depression. Some parks also offer simple cabins that are a step up from camping, but a little more rustic than a hotel.
No vacation is ever perfect but a vacation in one of the over 400 national parks is very close to it.