Spending time with your kids in the national parks is one of the best investments you can make in raising them, and harbored within the National Park System are many, many educational opportunities that await their exploration.
They can delve into our nation's formative history at Valley Forge National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/vafo) in Pennsylvania, explore tidal wonders at Acadia National Park (www.nps.gov/acad) in Maine or Olympic National Park (www.nps.gov/olym) in Washington state, or study ancient cultures at places such as Mesa Verde National Park (www.nps.gov/meve) in Colorado or Canyon de Chelly National Monument (www.nps.gov/cach) in Arizona.
Beyond those lessons, parks offer wonderful opportunities for you and your kids to get to know each other a little bit better, to share experiences, and for you to introduce them to an activity or landscape that will be inviting to them throughout their lives.
Mammoth Cave National Park (www.nps.gov/maca), for instance, offers quite a few interesting underground tours, but one that will challenge your teens -- and possibly your entire family -- is the Wild Cave Tour that leads groups into the park's basement. For roughly six hour,s ranger-led groups walk, crawl, and sometimes squirm on their bellies through a serpentine route that covers about 5 miles. This tour, which outfits you in coveralls and hard hats with only a headlamp to light your way, is not for folks who hate tight squeezes. But it presents an incredible section of Mammoth Cave that few experience, one that just might turn your kids into life-long spelunkers. For more details, visit this site: www.nps.gov/maca/planyourvisit/cavetours.htm.
At Grand Teton (www.nps.gov/grte) and Mount Rainier (www.nps.gov/mora) national parks the sky, not the underground, are ever in your sights as you learn how to climb mountains. These climbs are not for the uninitiated, and so understandably the climbing guides that you will lead you to the top require you to attend climbing classes that teach you the basics and allow the guides to assess your abilities. Pass the classes and the payoffs can be life-changing thanks, not only to the views you'll enjoy, but also to the challenges you'll confront.
Climbs of the Grand Teton are led by Exum Mountain Guides (tel. 307/733-2297; www.exumguides.com) and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides (tel. 800/239-7642; www.jhmg.com) in Jackson, Wyoming. For summiting Mount Rainier, check with Alpine Ascents International (tel. 206/378-1927; www.alpineascents.com), International Mountain Guides (tel. 360/569-2609; www.mountainguides.com), or Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (tel. 888/892-5462; www.rmiguides.com).
Getting wet also can be a great bonding experience with your kids. There are river trips ranging from a day to two weeks at places such as Grand Canyon National Park (www.nps.gov/grca) in Arizona and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming to Dinosaur National Monument (www.nps.gov/dino) in Utah and New River Gorge National River (www.nps.gov/neri) in West Virginia. Sea kayaking excursions ranging from half-a-day to several days also can be arranged at Acadia National Park and Isle Royale National Park (www.nps.gov/isro) in Michigan.
To find outfitters for these activities, go to a specific park's website and visit its "Plan Your Visit" pages, or simply Google the activity you'd like to try and the park's name. Try one or more of these adventures and one of your best memories as a parent no doubt will be the smiles sprouting from your kids' faces.
Kurt Repanshek is the author of several national park guidebooks, including National Parks With Kids. You can get a daily dose of national park news, trivia, and commentary by visiting www.nationalparkstraveler.com, which tracks "Commentary, News, and Life in America's Parks." Follow National Parks Traveler on Twitter at www.twitter.com/parkstraveler.