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Tips for visiting National Parks with kids

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National Parks posts you might find helpful:
Florida National Parks to visit with kids
Everglades National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Canaveral National Seashore
Yosemite National Park

Participate in the Junior Ranger program

Every time I tell my children that we’re visiting a National Park, the first thing they get excited about is participating in the Junior Ranger program and earning their Junior Ranger badges!

You can find a list of all of the National Parks that participate in the Junior Ranger program here, but it’s almost all of them and definitely includes all of the most visited parks.

The Junior Ranger program is free (love that word when traveling with kids!) and a great way to help kids interact with and learn more about the parks they visit. When you first arrive at a new park, stop at the visitor center to pick up the Junior Ranger packet and then complete the activities as you explore the park.

Each packet is different with all kinds of activities based on that specific park; things like wordsearches, quizzes, scavenger hunts, coloring, etc. There are activities for kids of all ages and you can complete as much or as little of the book as you like (most packets suggest pages to complete based on the child’s age).

Once you’ve completed your Junior Ranger packet, you can return it to the visitor center where a park ranger will take a look. The child will then be asked to take an oath to protect the parks, and given their Junior Ranger badge. It’s the badges that my kids really want, and they’re always so proud of themselves for earning them! It’s honestly one of the best things about visiting National Parks with kids.

The packets make a cute souvenir from the trip, as do the badges. My kids have quite a collection of badges at this point and there are some cute ways to display them out there; take a look at the options below for a few ideas.

Buy the Junior Ranger passports

Another amazing thing for visiting National Parks with kids is that the parks themselves offer an official Junior Ranger passport. If you’ve visited National Parks then you might have your own passport where you can add stamps, official cancellations, stickers, etc. Well this is basically the same thing but designed for children.

My children have their own Junior Ranger National Parks passports, and they love taking them with us when we travel. They’ve been all over the country with us and the kids always look for the stamps when we go to the visitor centers at the parks.

Each visitor center will usually have its own stamp, as well as the official Junior Ranger stamp for when you’ve completed that program. Some parks have other fun stamps like the alligator stamp we found at Everglades National Park.

You can also buy stickers to add to the passports, and there are places to include photos as well. The books have activities to complete and come with their own set of stickers.

Not only is this another fun activity to keep the kids busy and engaged in the parks, but it’s one of my favorite ever travel souvenirs; it’s amazing to look back at all of the places we’ve been and remember how much fun we had on those trips.

You can usually pick the National Parks passports and the Junior Ranger passports at gift shops in the visitors centers but if you want to be sure you have them in advance then you can buy them from the National Parks official online store.

Look into the Every Kid Outdoors program

Did you know that if your child is in fourth grade then they can get into the National Parks for free – and they can take you with them?! I had no idea about this until recently but I’m so glad I found out, and everyone interested in visiting National Parks with kids should know about it!

This year we have a fourth grader who is getting the whole family into the National Parks for free (and saving us hundreds of dollars!)

As part of the Every Kid Outdoors program, every fourth grader in the country is entitled to a free National Parks pass that will admit the child and their family into a huge number of National Parks completely free. The idea is to encourage families to go out and explore American’s amazing parks without having to worry about the cost.

You can find more information about the program and how to apply for your child’s pass at Every Kid Outdoors.

Take plenty of drinks and snacks

Not only have I discovered that taking appropriate snacks is necessary for nutrition and stamina, but it’s also pretty helpful for bribery when needed!

Many of the parks require a long drive to reach them, and then driving within the park to get to and from trails can take a long time too, so it’s much easier to eat in the park than to plan to leave to eat elsewhere. Most parks don’t have food options in the parks themselves, so most people arrive with some sort of food and drinks.

We always visit the parks with refillable water bottles, as well as picnic items that we can eat when we get hungry. What we pack tends to differ depending on where we visit, but it’s usually things that don’t have to be refrigerated that won’t get too squashed when packed in a backpack: granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit, applesauce pouches, chips and crackers, and hard fruit such as apples.

I try to pack things with some nutritional value; foods that have protein and carbs that will keep us going as we find places to hike and explore in the parks.

But I also pack things with exactly zero nutritional value as well, since these are mainly used for bribery or placating kids when they get tired. I won’t ever attempt a hike that I know my children aren’t physically able to complete, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes there are loud complaints about legs being tired or being bored after a long day. That’s when I usually break out the gummy bears!

Bringing enough food into the National Parks is essential when visiting National Parks with kids, not just because they will actually need to eat, but because every parent knows that snacks are sometimes the best way to keep kids going for a little bit longer!

Check weather and dress appropriately

With parks all across the US, weather in National Parks can be all over the place depending on the season. We’ve visited parks where it was below zero and we had to wear all our clothes, and parks where it was incredibly hot. Although weather can sometimes be unpredictable, it’s always worth double checking the forecast before a trip.

Being too hot or too cold is one of the fastest ways to change my kids from perfectly happy to whining non stop in minutes, so I try to make sure we’re always appropriately dressed. I always bring a backpack to carry extra layers that might be needed, as well as things like sunscreen that might need to be applied later on if it gets warmer.

I also try to check the conditions at the park we’re visiting to see if there are any other things we might need to take because of the environment. When visiting Everglades National Park, I made sure to pack mosquito spray incase we encountered any, and in Arches National Park I took chap stick for the dry climate.

Find kid friendly hikes

I love to hike and can sometimes get carried away when planning trips and researching some of the most fun hikes available. But when visiting National Parks with kids, I have to rein myself in a little bit to find kid friendly hiking options that my kids can actually manage and will enjoy.

When you choose a National Park to visit, I would head straight to their website to look at the list of hikes available for that park. Not only are the hikes listed with their distance and elevation, but it will say about how long they will take to complete and each will have a difficulty rating. This is a great place to start when looking for kid friendly hikes.

Once I have a list of hikes I think might work, I check out family travel websites (like this one!) to see what others personal experiences have been. Sometimes a hike is listed as easy but isn’t suitable for a stroller or very little legs. Similarly, a hike can look daunting on paper but actually, most people have found that their kids can manage.

Personal experiences are always my go to when looking for things to do on any trip with kids, but especially in an environment where safety is a concern and I want to make sure I’m not pushing my kids too hard.

Look into parks that hold more interest for kids

There are so many parks to choose from that it can get a bit overwhelming when trying to decide which one to visit. One of the things I did this year was to offer the options available to my kids and let them pick based on their interests. Not only does this involve them in the planning process, but it means they know they’re visiting somewhere they have an interest in.

Last year my eldest son chose two National Parks based on his interests: Dinosaur National Monument for his love of dinosaurs, and State of Liberty National Monument for his interest in US history. This year, my youngest has chosen two parks that he wants to visit: Dry Tortugas National Park so he can snorkel, and Yosemite National Park because he wants to see a bear!

While I think almost all National Parks can hold some interest for kids if planned appropriately, I do think there are some that are generally more family friendly and geared towards keeping kids entertained. It’s definitely worth doing some research to see which parks you think will suit your family best.