5 Tips for Enjoying the National Parks as a Family

Words by Kari Tonkin | Cover image by Susanne Jutzeler

Since 2015, we have been taking our two boys, now nine and thirteen years old, on vacations to National Parks across the U.S. Along the way we have found a few tricks that have made those park visits more enjoyable for everyone in the family. From two-hour pass-throughs to extended stays on site, here are five of our favorite ways to get the family involved and excited about park trips.

Tip #1: Everyone’s input matters!

When we plan a vacation, we talk to our kids about what their expectations are, and what they want to get out of the trip. It can be as simple as what meal they want to cook over the campfire, or as important as choosing one of the activities along the way. When asking for input from the kids, be sure to give choices from a list that YOU are willing to offer. For example, “Would you like to cook hot dogs, hamburgers, or pizza pockets while we camp?” Another example might be, “What kind of hike should we take: guided trail, easy half-hour on pavement, or hike to that waterfall on the brochure?” Knowing that one of their choices is also one that you would pick makes it easy to give them a say, but also keep those choices within the limits of your time or situation at the park.

Tip #2: Plan ahead as much as you can!

We have a small pack for everyone that contains the ten essentials for survival, some trail snacks, and a water bottle. Start as early as you can with your kiddos carrying their own supplies. With a developmentally delayed son, we have just now, at age nine, started asking him to carry his own pack. But like hint number one, he feels more responsibility and involvement in the planning when he is packing up his supplies for his day in the park. Make sure to have rain gear and even a change of socks on hand for those days of hiking. We also pack a 5-gallon jug of water in our vehicle so we can easily refill our water bottle no matter where we are in the park! Another great way to plan ahead is to pack the cooler with a variety of high-protein foods - cheese, salami, jerky - as well as favorite fruits and vegetables. Take along sandwich makings. Many of the larger parks are sparse with restaurant locations, so being ready to fight off the “hunger crabbies” makes the difference between a miserable afternoon and a fabulous one! (This is another great place to refer to hint number one - let the kids pick which snacks to pack from a list you provide them. Then you know they will eat them!)

Image by Kari Tonkin

 Tip #3: Ranger programs!

The junior ranger program is one of the BEST ways to get your kids (and yourself!) more involved in learning about the parks. Some parks have easy booklets to complete, but some are quite challenging, even for adults. A few of the parks we have visited, like Grand Tetons, have backpacks to check out with supplies so kids can do fun things in the park during their stay. In the Tetons we made plaster casts of wolf tracks, used a magnifying glass to look at flowers, and as always, got our junior ranger badges for having fun! In addition to completing the junior ranger booklet and getting your badge, most parks offer ranger programs, from walks to campfire activities. Take advantage of the knowledge of the on-site rangers to lead your kids through a fun hour while you get to also learn more about the park alongside them. Rangers are also fantastic to consult about kid-friendly trails, look-out points, and where you can spot wildlife or flowers along the drive.

Tip #4: The “down” day!

If you are planning on traveling more than one day away to get to a park, be sure to include a “down” day in your itinerary, if possible. We learned the hard way that packing in as much activity as possible into a 5-day trip gets everyone crabby by day four! For example, if we spend a full day driving to our destination, the next morning is a slow start, maybe a stop at a local playground, and a fun picnic lunch. Then in the national park, we can spend the afternoon talking to the rangers, checking out the visitor center, and making a plan of attack for the rest of the trip. Then we plan two full days of hiking, swimming, and other in-park activities. The last day may also be a slower day, perhaps a half-day in the park in the morning, allowing for time to pack up in the afternoon so we are not rushed the morning we plan to head home. In total, for a 5-6 day trip, we tend to spend two full days in the actual park destination.

Image by Kari Tonkin

Tip #5: Engage the kids!

One of our best trips to Yellowstone was when we gave our older son a video camera for his birthday. He spent way more time looking out the window as we drove through the park, looking for wildlife, and places to stop to take photos and videos than he spent on his phone watching YouTubers. The same happened when we found a small, shockproof, waterproof, point-and-shoot camera for our little guy. He took pictures of everything and wanted to go on hikes just so he could use his camera! Another great pre-trip gift is a park or nature journal, one intended to be filled in along the way on their upcoming adventure. For older kids, a field guide that centers on the park (like Yelllowstone or Rocky Mountain NP), is also a neat way to get them looking around. Some parks offer “bingo” cards of flora, fauna,  and historical or cultural locations that can be completed within the park. Get two - one for the kids, one for the parents - and make it a competition. Winner gets to pick where to go for dinner!

Hopefully these hints will help you and your family plan for a more exciting, entertaining national park adventure. These are our own tried-and-true rules we live by whenever we plan a vacation, and after sticking to this list for the past few years, our kids know what to expect and how to help us plan for the perfect national park family adventure.