Family vacations provide a chance for loved ones to bond, make unforgettable memories, and explore the world together. National parks offer a perfect setting for these adventures, with many catering to families and kids of all ages. In this ultimate guide, we’ll explore the top national parks for family and kid-friendly travel across the United States. Get ready to pack your bags, grab the kids, and hit the road for some unforgettable experiences!
1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
Steeped in history and natural beauty, Yellowstone National Park is a must-see for families. Established in 1872 as the world’s first national park, Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres are filled with geysers, hot springs, and a diverse range of wildlife that offer endless opportunities for exploration and learning.
Old Faithful Geyser
The famous Old Faithful geyser is a must-visit. Erupting approximately every 90 minutes, the predictability of Old Faithful offers an excellent opportunity for children to learn about geothermal activity. Nearby, the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center provides interactive exhibits on the park’s geology and history, providing an educational backdrop to this natural wonder.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Next, venture to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This dramatic, 20-mile-long canyon offers breathtaking views of waterfalls and vibrant, colourful rock formations. The North and South Rim drives offer numerous overlooks, where families can safely enjoy the canyon’s beauty. Hiking trails, suitable for older children, lead to various vantage points along the canyon.
Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center
Finally, the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in nearby West Yellowstone offers a chance to learn about the park’s wildlife. Here, children can watch grizzly bears and wolves in environments that mirror their natural habitats and participate in educational programs about wildlife conservation.
2. Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite National Park, located in the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, is renowned for its granite cliffs, waterfalls, and giant sequoia trees. This park’s natural beauty and variety of activities make it an ideal choice for family vacations.
Mariposa Grove, home to over 500 mature giant sequoias, is a must-visit. Families can take a two-mile hike to the Grizzly Giant, one of the grove’s oldest trees, estimated to be around 1,800 years old. For a less strenuous option, the Big Trees Tram Tour offers a guided, 75-minute tour of the grove on an open-air tram.
Yosemite Valley Mountains
In Yosemite Valley, families can enjoy views of iconic landmarks such as Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall. The valley offers numerous kid-friendly hikes, like the Bridalveil Fall trail, a paved trail leading to the base of the waterfall, and the Lower Yosemite Fall trail, offering a close-up view of the tallest waterfall in North America.
Finally, Glacier Point provides panoramic views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and the High Sierra. Accessible by car from late May to November, the drive to Glacier Point is filled with scenic overlooks. The Glacier Point Amphitheater also hosts evening ranger programs, providing an opportunity to learn about the park’s natural history under the stars.
3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, North Carolina
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States, is a haven of natural beauty. Its lush forests, diverse wildlife, and remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture make it a fascinating destination for families.
Cades Cove, a broad valley surrounded by mountains, is a must-see. Families can take a leisurely drive along the 11-mile loop road that circles the cove, offering chances to spot white-tailed deer, black bears, and wild turkeys. Numerous historic buildings, including churches, a working grist mill, barns, and log homes, offer glimpses into the 19th-century settler life.
For panoramic views of the park, families can visit Clingmans Dome. At 6,643 feet, it’s the highest point in the park and the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi. The steep half-mile walk to the observation tower is well worth it for the 360-degree views it offers.
Junior Ranger Program
The park’s Junior Ranger Program offers an engaging way for kids aged 5-12 to learn about the park. By completing activities in the Junior Ranger booklet, kids can earn a badge and certificate.
4. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The Grand Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offers families an introduction to geology on a grand scale. Its layered bands of red rock reveal millions of years of geological history.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is the most accessible and most visited section of the park. Here, families can take a scenic drive along Desert View Drive, which offers numerous overlooks and picnic areas. The historic Grand Canyon Village is also located on the South Rim, where families can visit museums, art galleries, and the iconic El Tovar Hotel.
Bright Angel Trail
The Bright Angel Trail, one of the park’s best-known hiking trails, offers a chance for families with older children to descend into the canyon. Several rest houses along the trail allow hikers to decide how far they wish to go before turning back.
Junior Ranger Program
The park’s Junior Ranger Program offers kids aged 4 and up the chance to learn about the park’s natural and cultural history. By completing a series of activities, children can earn a Junior Ranger badge.
5. Acadia National Park, Maine
Located on the rugged coast of Maine, Acadia National Park offers a unique blend of ocean, mountains, forests, and lakes. Its varied landscapes provide countless opportunities for family exploration.
At 1,530 feet, Cadillac Mountain is the tallest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic coast. Families can drive to the summit to enjoy panoramic views of the park and the surrounding sea. During certain times of the year, it’s the first place in the U.S. to see the sunrise.
Jordan Pond, a crystal-clear glacial lake, is another must-visit location. The Jordan Pond Path, a 3.3-mile loop, offers a leisurely hike with beautiful views of the pond and the surrounding mountains. The historic Jordan Pond House, famous for its popovers and tea, is a great place for a family meal.
The park also offers numerous ranger-led programs, including bird-watching walks, guided hikes, and boat cruises. These programs provide a fun and educational way to learn about the park’s diverse ecosystems.
6. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park, with its majestic peaks, alpine lakes, and abundant wildlife, is a haven for families who love outdoor activities. Whether it’s hiking, wildlife viewing, or stargazing, this park has something for everyone.
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the United States, provides a scenic drive through the heart of the park. The road reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet, and offers numerous overlooks with stunning views of the park’s alpine and subalpine landscapes. It’s not uncommon to spot herds of elk or mule deer from the road.
Bear Lake, situated at an elevation of 9,475 feet, is a popular destination in the park. The Bear Lake Trailhead provides access to several easy to moderate trails, making it a great starting point for families who want to explore the park’s wilderness. The loop trail around the lake is wheelchair accessible and offers beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.
Moraine Park Discovery Center
The Moraine Park Discovery Center is another must-visit location. Here, kids can participate in interactive exhibits, guided walks, and games that help them learn about the park’s ecosystems.
7. Olympic National Park, Washington
With its striking diversity of ecosystems, Olympic National Park is like several parks in one. From the glacier-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains to the lush rainforests and rugged coastal beaches, this park provides families a unique outdoor experience.
Hoh Rain Forest
The Hoh Rain Forest, one of the largest temperate rainforests in the U.S., offers a magical landscape of moss-draped trees and fern-covered ground. The Hall of Mosses and Spruce Nature Trails are short, easy walks that take you into the heart of the rainforest.
Hurricane Ridge, accessible by car, provides panoramic views of the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Several hiking trails start at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, ranging from easy to strenuous. During winter, the area turns into a playground for snowshoeing, sledding, and tubing.
Ruby Beach, one of the most visited beaches on the Olympic Peninsula, offers a unique coastal experience. Families can explore tide pools, spot wildlife such as sea otters and bald eagles, and marvel at the dramatic sea stacks.
8. Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park, with its red rock cliffs, towering waterfalls, and the serene Virgin River, offers families a taste of southwestern desert beauty. The park’s varied trails and outdoor activities make it a popular destination for family adventures.
The Narrows is one of the park’s most unique hikes, where the trail is the Virgin River. As you wade upstream, the canyon walls close in, creating a spectacular narrow canyon. This hike can be challenging and is recommended for families with older kids and teens.
Emerald Pools offers a more family-friendly hike. The trail leads to a series of pools and waterfalls, surrounded by lush vegetation. The lower pool is an easy walk, while the middle and upper pools require a bit more effort but offer rewarding views.
Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive provides a leisurely way to see the park’s main canyon. The road is closed to private vehicles most of the year, but a free shuttle bus provides access to trailheads and viewpoints.
9. Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park, often referred to as the “Crown of the Continent,” is known for its pristine forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, and spectacular lakes. With over 700 miles of trails, it’s a paradise for families who love outdoor adventure.
Going-to-the-Sun Road, the park’s main highway, offers a breathtaking drive through the park’s wild interior. The road spans 50 miles and crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. Numerous scenic overlooks, trailheads, and picnic areas are accessible from the road, making it a great way to explore the park.
Logan Pass, the highest point on Going-to-the-Sun Road, offers spectacular views of the park’s alpine landscape. Trails from the Logan Pass Visitor Center lead to Hidden Lake and the Highline Trail, offering opportunities for wildlife viewing.
Boat tours on the park’s lakes provide a unique perspective on Glacier’s natural beauty. The historic wooden boats of the Glacier Park Boat Company offer guided tours on several of the park’s most iconic lakes, including Lake McDonald and St. Mary Lake.
10. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California
These twin parks, located in the southern Sierra Nevada, are home to towering peaks, deep canyons, and some of the largest trees on Earth. The parks offer a range of activities for families, from easy walks among giant sequoias to more strenuous hikes in the high country.
General Sherman Tree
The General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree by volume, is a must-see. Trails and boardwalks surrounding the tree provide various views and allow for a close-up look at these incredible giants.
Crystal Cave, a marble cavern in Sequoia National Park, offers a cool retreat from the summer heat. Guided tours take visitors through a fantastical underground world of stalactites, stalagmites, and other marble formations.
Roaring River Falls
Roaring River Falls, located in Kings Canyon National Park, is a powerful waterfall that’s easily accessible from the road. A short, paved trail leads to the falls, making it a great destination for families with young children.
11. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Located just a short drive from Washington D.C., Shenandoah National Park offers a beautiful retreat into nature. With cascading waterfalls, scenic overlooks, and diverse wildlife, this park provides an accessible wilderness experience for families.
Skyline Drive, the park’s main road, runs along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley and the Virginia Piedmont. Over 75 overlooks along the drive provide ample opportunities for photography and wildlife viewing.
Dark Hollow Falls
Dark Hollow Falls is one of the park’s most popular hikes. This 1.4-mile trail descends to a beautiful waterfall. Although the trail can be steep, the view of the falls is well worth the effort.
Junior Ranger Program
The park’s Junior Ranger Program offers children aged 7-12 an opportunity to learn about the park’s natural and cultural history. By completing a series of activities, children can earn a Junior Ranger badge and certificate.
So What National Park Will You Choose For Your Next Trip?
The United States boasts a vast array of national parks, each offering unique landscapes and experiences for family vacations. From the geothermal wonders of Yellowstone to the towering trees of Sequoia, these parks provide endless opportunities for adventure, learning, and bonding. So pack your bags, gather the family, and embark on a journey to explore America‘s most awe-inspiring natural treasures.