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May 2004 -- Traveling with children demands extra planning and requires narrower limits than traveling alone. The reward of living your life deeply with your children demands certain sacrifices. Before we had children, Barbara and I would travel by tossing a guidebook and some clothes into a suitcase and flying somewhere. We'd open the book for the first time on the plane to look for a hotel. Now each day on the road is planned, campsites and hotel rooms are reserved months ahead, and driving times are carefully calculated to avoid back-seat meltdown. The destinations have changed, too. Fewer cities, art museums, and country inns; more open skies, seashores, and forests -- places where children have the freedom they crave, and parents can enjoy that freedom with them.

Don't go to the national parks because you think you are supposed to see certain places before you grow up. Be concerned, instead, to make the most of a time when you may be closer to your children, and come to know them better, than at any other time in your lives. These natural places make children and adults equals in their wonder. You don't need to know how to read to understand the splendor; in fact, it may be an impediment. Parents can teach their children about natural history; children can teach their parents to see the beauty around them. We've taken some trips that no one in their right mind would -- but we wouldn't have missed it

The first step in planning a trip is to decide where and when you want to go. Next, make the related, balancing decisions of how to travel and how much time and money to spend when you get there.

Choosing Your Destination

Besides your interests, two factors should lead your considerations in narrowing down your choices: when you can travel and what your kids can handle.

Advance Planning Time

For most of us, work and school requirements determine vacation dates. Once you get your vacation dates, you should decide if they are far enough in the future to plan a trip to the place you want to go to. For some of the choices you may have to send in deposits by October for the following summer; more often, February or March is the cut-off for midsummer. But at some of the best parks, you need only a couple of weeks' planning.

Crowding and reservation complications depend on the season, with different factors at each park, and vary year to year. Visitation at many parks, especially those that require long-distance travel, has declined in the last few years, and reservations have been much easier to obtain than they traditionally were. Generally, our advice is based on the traditional, higher level of crowding, not on the current downturn, because I cannot predict the conditions that might influence the rise and fall of the popularity of park vacations. Break the guidelines to go where you really want to go, but be ready to accept second-best choices, such as lodgings and campgrounds outside the park.

Travel Seasons: Crowding & Climate Considerations

Most families can go on vacation only when school is out: during summer vacation, spring break, or the winter holidays. For that reason, these are the busiest times at the national parks. Within these times, however, are considerable variations. For some parks, avoiding weekends gets you away from crowds, although that is less true away from major cities. In other parks, earlier in the summer is better than later. Spring break is almost always less crowded than summer, and can be the best time to visit the hot Southwest parks.

At any time of year, crowding is as bad as you let it be. Crowds are enough to spoil the experience only at busy times at famous places. If you feel you have to see all the famous places, expect to be crowded. But you can get away from people at every park -- it's just a question of how hard you try. The best way to do it is to use your feet, a horse, or a canoe to get off the road. Planning well ahead and using the reservation systems to your advantage also help you experience the best the parks have to offer even at the busiest times. Most park campgrounds don't feel crowded even when they're full -- but you have to have a reservation months ahead.

If you don't have to go during school breaks, or if your breaks are different than most, crowds won't be a major consideration. I've often found parks deserted in the shoulder seasons, which are the months adjacent to the most popular visiting periods at the park. (For example, if the high season at a park is June-Sept, then the shoulder-season months are May and Oct.) On some of our shoulder-season trips, prices were lower and the weather was as good as or better than in the high season. September is the best month at many mountain parks and national seashores. The dead off-season months offer lots of open country and very low prices, but facilities often operate shorter hours or close altogether, and the weather can shut down activities.

Summer weather is the best at most of the parks, and for most families with children in school, summer is the only practical time to visit the mountain parks and national seashores. Aiming for the best weather within the summer probably won't be a productive effort: The variations are too small to give you more than a small chance of better weather in, say, July rather than August. On the other hand, it may be worth a few more bugs or colder ocean water to go in less crowded June. Summertime generally is too hot for hiking in the Southwest, except at high elevations.

Spring break is a good time to visit some parks, especially in the Southwest, even if the weather isn't the best -- often you don't need the very best weather to enjoy a park, anyway. Winter-break trips mostly are for skiing, snowshoeing, or sightseeing. Snowy parks are an entirely different experience, but a rewarding one. On the other hand, some parks are simply impossible at off-season times.

The Right Age for the Right Trip

The ages and capabilities of your children should guide your trip planning. Here are some of our ideas.

We have never found a park that we and our children did not enjoy, but you must make some age-related choices. The national seashores, Acadia National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area lack long hiking trails, but they have lots of recreation opportunities for children under 10, at the beach, in the marsh, biking, swimming, and boating. Families with strong hikers may prefer to challenge themselves with overnights and long day hikes in the big wilderness parks, such as Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Smoky, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. Of these, all except Grand Canyon are also great for younger children. Nonhikers should plan to visit the Grand Canyon on a tour that also includes Zion, Bryce Canyon, and possibly Glen Canyon, because there's not as much to do there for younger children.

How far can you haul your kids? Long drives and flights with small children can be torture. Also, we've observed a strange physical principle, the law of the inverse relation of child size and luggage quantity. It states that the younger the child, the more luggage involved. If you've ever traveled with an infant, you know what I mean: diaper bag, bottle paraphernalia, portable crib, stroller, special bedding, and so on. Add your camping gear to the pile, and you feel as if you need a caravan of camels to move around.

Thought and planning overcome many of the drawbacks of going a long way with children. If a drive would be too hard, for instance, take a plane or a train and rent a car when you get there. If you've whittled down your luggage and you still can't manage it, buy or rent gear when you get there. We use the post office to send back extra gear or things we pick up on the way. Renting an RV can make it all easier, too.

Know what your children are capable of, and plan a trip that's within those limits. Adults can challenge themselves physically, but if you try that with kids, you make everyone unhappy and teach your children to hate the outdoors. That goes for both young children and teens -- any physical test has to be self-inflicted. How much is too much? Many books give guidelines on how old children should be for certain activities or how far they can hike at certain ages. The guidelines aren't accurate or helpful, because every child is dramatically different in physical ability and attitude. The only good solution is to know your child's personal best, and then plan trips that stay within or just barely push that limit.

An important part of this philosophy is not to get hung up on destinations. Having your mind set on climbing a certain peak or focusing on a certain activity the kids haven't done before can lead to trouble and disappointment. Don't make extended time on horseback or in a sea kayak a major part of your vacation unless you already know that your kids enjoy doing those things and are ready for the challenge. (The parks are a great place to try these activities for the first time on short outings.)

The families who have the most fun outdoors, and who grow the toughest, most enthusiastic children, are those who spend a lot of relaxed time together doing things that they all enjoy. The adults I know who hate the outdoors had parents who made them go on long hikes with the drill-sergeant attitude that they had to toughen up and learn to enjoy it. They learned the opposite.

What elements do you take into consideration when planning a family vacation to our National Parks? Share your thoughts on our Message Boards today.