Blog Post Craig Obey Aug 31, 2012

National Parks Plus Kids: A Family Adventure

There is much talk these days about how disconnected younger generations are from nature and how historically illiterate we are as a country. The accused in this malady include electronic media, declines in leisure time, stranger danger, urbanization, and other culprits. As I have traveled to many national parks and other places, I have seen offerings that both engage and bore kids of various ages, and so, in the spirit of Darwin, Pasteur, and Jekyll, I decided to use my family in a mini unscientific experiment to see what works best in capturing their interest.

During the next seven weeks, I will share a birds-eye view into the adventures of my family—including my son, Lucas, age 10, and my daughter, Isabelle, age 8—in a multitude of national parks as part of our great American family vacation experiment. We will share our experiences in a small sample of national parks that are particularly fun or captivating for kids, including hands-on adventures,  stand-out programs or exhibits that expand the kids’ horizons and enthusiasm for learning, and activities they actually LIKE. I’ll share tips to help others interested in getting their kids into the parks.

Week One: Not-So-Sleepy Dunes

We’re starting our excursion with a few lesser-known places in the Midwest, including Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks, and the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. I’m devoting this first post to Sleeping Bear, and will follow up next week with more on the other two parks. This national lakeshore was a bit sleepier before last year, when Good Morning America called it the most beautiful place in North America.

We pitched our tent at the D.H. Day campground, which is along the Lake Michigan shoreline and near the midpoint of the newly opened, delightful, heritage trail. The paved trail carries bikers like us between the nearby town of Glenn Arbor and a must-do dune climb. It is new enough that there are no bike racks, so we improvised by locking our bikes to a sign post. Then, we hauled ourselves up the 200-foot climb and kept going all the way to Lake Michigan, which we reached nearly two miles and eight dunes (according to the Park Service, more according to our kids!) later. This was no easy jaunt, and there are easier hikes to reach and view the lake, but we all agreed we would remember this undulating traverse through Michigan’s mini Sahara, and our gratitude that the water was not a mirage!  The kids both predicted that, when we next climb Indiana Dunes, another national park we all enjoy about five hours south of here, they will proudly say, “This ain’t nothin!”

The next morning, we were all pretty tired from the dune climb and got a slow start, heading toward the Pierce Stocking scenic drive–a short loop with 10 possible stops. The view from the Lake Michigan Overlook, as Good Morning America recognized, is incredible, with its sweeping views 400 feet above Lake Michigan. Standing on the platform, your view is bounded on both sides by shoreline dunes, with the twin Manitou islands floating in the distance. Oh, and the kids liked it, too. Just past the overlook is a shady picnic area with plenty of tables, where we had a picnic lunch. The far end of the picnic area offers a tantalizing view of a sandbar between a river and the lake, which we would gladly have ventured to with more time.

Instead we returned to gather our bikes and head to the Maritime Museum and adjacent sand beach for a swim and the 3 p.m. ranger program. The Park Service gathers youthful volunteers to help rescue Raggedy Anne and Andy, teaching water safety the way they did it in the old days. Isabelle had a blast, but Lucas decided he was a bit too old to participate.  The beach by the museum was a delight, with a sandbar that enabled the kids to walk well out into the lake to escape the 95 degree heat.

As we savored our campfired steaks, veggies, and s'mores that second and last evening, the kids having completed their Junior Ranger packets, we all wanted the clocks to slow, to draw out an evening where we sang together, joked, and forged more memories through the embers of a summer campfire.

All in all, not a bad first park.


  • Climb the dunes early or late in the day when it’s cooler and the lack of shade matters less. Bike to the dunes along the heritage trail
  • Bring plenty of water if you want to hike all the way to Lake Michigan (3.5 miles round trip)–the kids drained their Camelbacks. There are water fountains at the dune climb parking lot, but they won’t help you out in the dunes. And bring a snack! Remember, you have to climb and descend at least 16 times on a round trip.
  • Wear good hiking footwear, but bring a second pair of Crocs or water shoes if you hike to the lake–this may be the rockiest beach at Sleeping Bear.
  • If you have any questions about the stamina of your kids, stick to the dune climb area, where they can climb up and down and roll in the sand to their hearts content. We took the kids back the next day with their Junior Ranger packets and they had a blast climbing up and running down (and no urge for a return trip to the lake!)
  • Do the Junior Ranger program. It’s good in this and most parks and a great way to engage kids and interest them in their whole experience.
  • Bring a bike!  The heritage trail is awesome!
  • Stay longer than we did. There’s a lot for a family to do!

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