There's really no perfect age for a trip to a national park. That's one of the beauties of our national park system. Young and old alike can enjoy, and learn from, our parks side by side. There's something special about the awe in a 5-year-old's eyes when they see for the first time the Old Faithful Geyser in full eruption, spitting thousands of gallons of steaming hot water into a robin's egg blue sky, all the while thundering like a rocket engine at liftoff. Too, the sense of accomplishment that a 14-year-old basks in atop a 13,770-foot outcrop of granite called the Grand Teton is something that can't be duplicated in the classroom. And when you're standing beside them when they enjoy these experiences, well, it's something you'll never forget.
Here then are eleven hikes in parks that I believe offer a wonderful cross-section of our national park system.
Trail: Lone Star Geyser
Park: Yellowstone National Park
This is a pleaser for families with youngsters. The bulk of this 5-mile round-trip hike down to the geyser is an asphalt trail that parallels the Firehole River, making for firm footing summer and winter, when you can travel via cross-country skis or snowshoes. And once you get there, you're confronted by a thick, 12-foot-tall geyserite cone that blows its tops about every 3 hours or so. Bicycles are allowed on this nearly level trail, which makes it even easier in summer.
Trail: Mist Trail
Park: Yosemite National Park
This decidedly kid-friendly trail is one of the Yosemite Valley's classics. Why? Follow it to the top, a 7-mile round-trip, and you not only pass two waterfalls (Vernal and Nevada) but get great views of the Yosemite Valley as well as find yourself at the very spot where the Merced River tumbles out of the Little Yosemite Valley and down into its big brother. Plus, on hot, sultry summer days you get a wonderfully cool drenching from the falls' spray. From the top you can either backtrack to the bottom, or take the John Muir Trail, which is not quite as steep.
Trail: South Ridge of Cadillac Mountain
Park: Acadia National Park
"Barbara," a 67-year-old Marylander who has summered in Mount Desert Island's Northeast Harbor every year since she was 4, makes at least 20 treks up the South Ridge of Cadillac Mountain during her stays. On the day we encounter her, she's dressed in a denim skirt, broad-brimmed white hat, white shirt, and comfortable shoes. Armed with a hiking pole, she doesn't dawdle on her way up to a rock outcrop that overlooks a pond cupped by the mountainside. "I hike it a lot because if I died, somebody will find me because so many people hike it," she jokes as we share the sprawling blue view of Frenchman Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Maine from Cadillac's granite shoulder. "I think it has absolutely wonderful views. It's gradual going up, and just gorgeous views going down." That sums it all up.
Trail: Hall of Mosses Trail
Park: Olympic National Park
Only got time for one hike in the Hoh Rain Forest? Then this would be it. It takes just about 40 minutes to navigate this .75-mile loop trail as it winds through a green kingdom of lush vegetation. It's not steamy, like a tropical rainforest, but you can feel the humidity. Along the trail, ephiphytes -- plants that grow on other plants -- in the form of spongy club mosses, mosses, lichens, liverworts, and licorice ferns scramble across tree trunks and limbs and up into the leafy canopy where they manage to block most of the sun's rays. Scattered here and there on the ground are toppled trees and rotting stumps that serve as nurseries for the next generation of trees. And for kids who like creepy crawly things, there are the slimy, 8-inch-long banana slugs that seemingly have misplaced their shells.
Trail: Tharp's Log
Park: Sequoia National Forest
What makes this one of Sequoia's best trails? Kids love visiting Tharp's Log, which, in truth, is a real log cabin. You see, Hale Tharp lived in this hollowed out sequoia during summers from 1861 to 1890 when he would bring his cows up to graze in Huckleberry, Crescent, and Log meadows. Judging from the wooden bunk inside, I don't think his nights were entirely comfy, but he was no doubt dry when the rains came. You can find this mile-long trail at the Crescent Meadow parking lot, which is located 1.25 miles beyond Tunnel Log and marks the western terminus of the High Sierra Trail.
Trail: Queen's Garden Trail
Park: Bryce Canyon National Park
Looking down into the fairylands of Bryce's amphitheaters is one thing. Walking down into them is quite another. Along red-dirt paths you wind back and forth through the hoodoos that make Bryce such a wonder. The Queen's Garden Trail is not even 2 miles in length, making it doable for all but the youngest of toddlers, and the climb down and back up isn't too terrible, either. Link Queen's Garden with the Navaho Loop Trail and you'll have a nearly 3-mile-long hike that is a perfect way to whet your appetite for dinner, or burn off any of your children's left-over energy before bedtime.
Trail: Angel's Landing
Park: Zion National Park
Perhaps my favorite trail in Zion, this also happens to be one of the park's most challenging hikes, and not one to be taken lightly for it tests your fear of heights. Definitely not a hike for pre-teens, this is a good 5-mile challenge for teens who like to push themselves. The trail climbs 1,488 feet -- at one point traversing 21 short switchbacks known as "Walter's Wiggles" -- to a summit with incredible views of Zion Canyon. But be prepared: The final .5-mile to the top crawls along a narrow, knife-edge trail where footing can be dicey under even the best of conditions. To help you along this section, the park has mercifully installed stout chains that you can cling to. The view from the top is definitely worth the work. You can gaze in all directions, taking in the Virgin River sweeping through the bottom of the canyon, the Great White Throne, Red Arch Mountain to the southeast, and the entrance to Zion Canyon Narrows beyond the Temple of Sinawava.
Trail: Ramsay Cascade Trail
If you're like me, the taller the waterfall, the better the hike. If that's the case, this hike is the best in the park because Ramsey Cascades, which falls 100 feet, is the park's tallest waterfall. This 8-mile round-trip hike to the waterfall gains more than 2,000 feet in elevation, so it's not for everyone. But the trail winds through stands of old-growth hardwood forest, so you enjoy the trees along the way. Just don't think of climbing to the top of the falls -- over the years a few folks have tried and have met unpleasant deaths.
Trail: Hidden Lake
Park: Glacier National Park
Traversing wildflower-studded alpine meadows, with breathtaking views in all directions, this is a great hike along the "Crown of the Continent," one that brings you in close contact with wildlife. True, it's one of the most popular hikes in Glacier, and so one of the most crowded. But it offers immediate payoffs. I encountered shaggy mountain goats within 10 minutes of leaving the Logan Pass parking lot. During the entire hike I could easily gaze up at snow-capped peaks, or down below to U-shaped valleys cut long ago by glaciers. The moderate grade and short distance, 3 miles round-trip, make this is a good hike for youngsters.
Trail: Jenny Lake Loop
Park: Grand Teton National Park
This mostly level trail winds around the lake close to the shoreline, a fact that makes it a nice hike for families. The setting is great, with the lake wrapped by a thick forest and the Tetons towering over the western shore. The downside is that this is one of the more popular trails in the park. If you have really young children and prefer a shorter hike, you can take a shuttle boat across the lake to the West Shore Boat Dock and then walk back to the east shore. This trail also connects with hikes up into Cascade Canyon (an even more popular hiking destination, but one with great scenic payoffs) and to String and Leigh lakes to the north.
Trail: Alberta Falls
Park: Rocky Mountain National Park
This isn't a long, full-day hike, but for families with youngsters, Alberta Falls trail is a great jaunt. Located near Bear Lake, this trail runs only 1.2 miles round-trip but it leads you into the woods to one of the park's most revered waterfalls as its comes crashing down Glacier Creek. The easy grade is a good place to start young hikers, and the prospect of seeing a waterfall keeps them interested.
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