Two years ago, my family embarked on a marvelous six-week national park adventure to discover activities and locations that were particularly engaging for families. What began as an exploratory exercise produced memorable, inspirational experiences that bonded us as a family, and the adventures we shared have continued spark strong new interests for our kids. The time seemed right to reflect on some of the ideas my wife, my 12-year-old son Lucas, and my 9-year-old daughter Isabelle (then 10 and 7) took away from those experiences and others that followed for those who might find inspiration or ideas from them.
Our family’s grand national park adventure is still vivid in our minds. Today, dozens of junior ranger badges hang on my children’s walls—evidence of their pride and accomplishments. Lucas and Isabelle earned several of those badges during more recent park expeditions, building on the discoveries we made two years ago. These experiences have produced confidence-building triumphs, quiet moments when we simply enjoyed each other’s company, and flashes of inspiration that led our kids to learn more about their world and their country.
For Mom and Dad, there were a few basic lessons:
The crown jewel national parks have been crowned for a reason and have much to offer, but memorable experiences can just as easily come from the hidden gems. Smaller, little-visited parks like Craters of the Moon and Carl Sandburg produced some of the most powerful memories for us.
The junior ranger program is a fantastic way for kids to experience and learn about national parks. I began as a cynic, figuring that Lucas and Isabelle would lose interest after becoming junior rangers once or twice, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. At every new park, the kids wanted to be sure they could complete their junior ranger packets and earn their next badge.
The National Park Service’s website remains very uneven when it comes to options for kids. A little extra research can go a long way, and it’s always good to check with a ranger when you get to a park so they can direct you to kid-friendly places that suit your family’s style.
Having a flexible itinerary can help encourage new adventures. Some of the best experiences came from little unplanned side-trips and diversions that we didn’t anticipate.
It is possible for a family to be together in a minivan, tents, lodges, and hotels for a month, still love each other, and even appreciate each other more afterwards.
If you’re preparing to take a national park trip with your family soon, look at the map to see if there are any other smaller parks nearby. You may be surprised at how much you enjoy a side trip to a lesser-known, lesser-visited park. And if your plans take you to urban America, remember there are some amazing national park experiences in or near many of our largest cities.
As you contemplate your next national park adventure with family or friends—one that hopefully will help inspire them as well as you to become lifelong stewards of America’s greatest treasures, I offer some of the diverse and unexpected rewards we took away from our trips, and I wish equally exciting adventures for you and your loved ones.
Early morning saltwater tidepools where the blanket of the sea has been turned down, revealing life—anemones, urchins, starfish, octopus, barnacles, mussels—so thick that virtually every step provides a new revelation (Salt Creek, outside Olympic National Park)
A picnic lunch with tired toes cooling in the waters of a glacial lake, punctuated by a moose taking a bath (Many Glacier, in Glacier National Park)
Rutabaga stories, baby goats, and inspiration from one of our country’s great writers (Carl Sandburg National Historical Site, Tennessee)
A bicycle adventure revealing new-found stamina and a way of life long gone but very much alive (Cade’s Cove and Cataloochee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park)
The eye-opening perspective of determined and hopeful immigrants seeking a better life in the land of the free (Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, New York)
The fun of traipsing among geysers, bubbling paintpots, and hot springs with an infrared thermometer and other instruments of scientific inquiry (Yellowstone)
A declaration that you have discovered the best macaroni & cheese on the planet after an afternoon respite in a relaxing hot spring (Chico Hot Springs, outside Yellowstone National Park)
The self-described best day of your child’s life as she becomes a “lunar ranger” wearing an astronaut helmet on the same otherworldly landscapes used by real astronauts to train (Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho)
Willingly allowing a ranger to put a slimy slug or a snake in your hand (Olympic National Park, Washington; Ice Age Trail, Wisconsin)
Skipping rocks near a pull-out away from summer crowds (Firehole River, Yellowstone)
Taking a fascinating walk through “The Rock” in the footsteps of Prohibition-era gangsters and some of the first Americans (Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco)
The amazement of seeing your own small size and time on Earth as you link arms before the oldest spruce tree in the world or arch your neck as giant redwoods reach for the heavens (Lake Quinault, next to Olympic National Park; Muir Woods National Monument, California)
The yips and howls of hungry wolves in the early morning cool of the Lamar Valley (Yellowstone)
The sheer exhaustion of traversing sand dune after sand dune on a hiking trip to Lake Michigan (Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan)
A solo excursion in the caldera of an extinct volcanic cone, punctuated by your son’s fist pumps and high-fives (Wizard Island, Crater Lake, Oregon)
A sunset campfire with your kids telling you that today, like so many prior ones, was the best day yet (many national parks)
This long list could have been even longer, after so many adventures, and the kids regularly ask when they can go on their next national park excursion. If you’re not planning one yet, what are you waiting for?
More stories in this series:
Sleeping Bear Dunes (August 31, 2012)
On to Pictured Rocks and the Ice Age Trail (September 7, 2012)
Olympic–A Gold Medal National Park for Kids (September 14, 2012)
Glacier–More than Ice and Snow (September 21, 2012)
On to Yellowstone! (September 28, 2012)
Inspiration, Perspiration, and Contemplation at Grand Teton (October 5, 2012)
Volcanoes Are Cool (October 12, 2012)
Adventures on Wizard Island (October 19, 2012)
The Difference a National Park Makes (October 26, 2012)
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