Approaching a cross-country, or even regional, family vacation to a national park can be daunting if your family includes finicky toddlers, demanding "tweens," or seemingly disinterested teens. If your family includes a mix of those age groups, well, then you might decide to abandon your trip even before you decide where to go. But that approach would deprive both you, and your kids, of a wonderful experience.
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.
The parks can challenge every member of the family, both physically and mentally. You can come home with real accomplishments to think back on. And the towns around the parks are accustomed to serving families. You don't have to worry about fitting in, and you'll likely meet other families with children. Many park areas even have educational programs and camps that allow children and parents to spend time apart, learning on their own.
Acadia National Park preserves a section of the rocky Maine shoreline, mostly on the east side of Mount Desert Island, a former resort for the very rich. Lovely, genteel carriage roads pass through the woods around the small, rounded granite mountains. Offshore, the park is a center for sailing, sea kayaking, and whale-watching. The area has lots of attractive campgrounds, both commercial and within the park, plenty of family-oriented motels and cottages, and several quaint towns.Massachusetts's arm-shaped cape -- the outer side from the elbow to the fist. Though the Cape offers more than 400 years of human history, the dunes and beaches remain wild and inspiring. There are museums, nature education facilities, and organizations offering summer day camps. The seashore has no campgrounds, but plenty of attractive campgrounds are nearby, as are good motels, cottages, and historic inns. North Carolina's eastern coast 10 to 40 miles off the mainland. The ocean swimming and water sports are supreme, and miles of beach invite exploration and ecological interpretation. Nearby historic sites, including the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the site of England's first American settlement, fascinate most children and adults. The National Park Service has several sandy seaside campgrounds, and there are plenty of hotel rooms and houses for rent.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina is a place of trails over wooded mountains and through great hardwood forests that are full of historic interest as well as natural beauty. Families go for fun, horseback riding, inner-tubing, and backpacking.Arizona gouged by the Colorado River. Most visitors come to the edge and look in, arriving by car at the visitor village on the South Rim or the higher, less visited North Rim. Hikers can get down into the canyon and see much more; how far you can go depends on your group's physical abilities. Utah, high in the pines at the top of the Grand Staircase, erosion has carved soft, red rock into amazing towers and channels you can walk among. The park offers a more intimate experience than the vast cliffs and canyons. Most hikes are easy, and there are other activities for families at the park and just outside.
Yellowstone National Park is the world's first national park. Yellowstone is full of amazing sights. It has geysers, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, bison and elk that walk close to roads, glorious alpine meadows, and Yellowstone Lake. You can drive through in a few days, ogling these places, but then you'd miss an incredible network of trails and campgrounds. Yellowstone lies in the northwest corner of Wyoming and on a strip of Montana and Idaho. You reach it by road from four directions, but there's not a large town in any.
Grand Teton National Park nearly touches Yellowstone on the south side. It has a single great show rather than many sideshows, but it's an unforgettable one. The ferocious daggers of the Teton Range rise straight up from the flat stage of a valley and lake. The overwhelming view meets you almost everywhere, but the best of the park for families is down below, on lakes and hiking trails rich in wildlife. Just south of the park, the fun town of Jackson, Wyoming, offers downhill skiing and a pleasant dose of civilization.
Rocky Mountain National Park is just north of Denver. Rocky takes in one of the highest parts of the nation's greatest mountain range. It's unique in permitting easy access to broad areas of alpine terrain, much of it over 10,000 feet in elevation. The camping and hiking are supreme and include opportunities for walking without trails on the tundra above the tree line. Small towns on either side of the park offer cute and friendly places to stay, eat, and shop.
Glacier National Park shares the U.S.-Canadian border with Waterton Lakes National Park, Glacier features ice-covered peaks, thick forests, and alpine meadows reflected in numerous lakes that ripple across the park's lower elevations. Backcountry escapes lure many visitors to this northern Montana park, although many others are content simply to gaze at the jagged mountains, float along the lakes, or take short hikes into the wild.
Yosemite National Park lies east of San Francisco roughly in the middle of the Sierra and is best known for Yosemite Valley, an amazing canyon where waterfalls drop thousands of feet from granite walls. The valley is a small part of the park, however, and is overrun with people. You'll want to spend most of your time hiking in the spectacular high-country areas and in the mountainside forests that aren't nearly as crowded.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks are connected and jointly managed parks in the southern Sierra. They are not as crowded as Yosemite, but otherwise they have much in common with it. Sequoia is famous for its huge groves of the big trees, and has wonderful hiking and camping areas, swimming, high-country trails, cave exploring, and other qualities that have nothing to do with giant sequoias. Kings Canyon centers on the magnificent canyon of the Kings River. Its granite walls tower over the desert-like floor of the canyon like the cliffs of Yosemite Valley, but few people visit.
Olympic National Park is a diverse area that includes the Olympic Peninsula, west of Puget Sound and Seattle. The park is a collection of exceptional places: along the coast, a strip of wild shoreline; on the west side of the Olympic Mountains, rainforest valleys of huge trees; up in the mountains, snowy alpine terrain and a glacier; in various places, lovely lakes, backpacking trails, and hot springs. There's plenty to do and more than you can see in a typical vacation. The weather, though often wet, is mild over a long season.
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