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National Park Summer Guide

See recent posts by Lissa Poirot

Planning on hitting the road to follow the annual summer passage of vacationing in national parks with the kids? There are so many parks to see and so little time, but fear not! We”ve compiled a guide to some of the countries biggest and most-visited parks to help your family decide on a park to visit and have the insider information before you get there.

And there’s never been a better time to go! In 2016, the National Park Service is celebrating 100 years. To commemorate this special milestone, parks are offering children an exciting opportunity. Those 10 years old or in fourth grade will have the opportunity to complete an online activity in exchange for a free 4th Grade Annual Pass for their family. Simply print out the voucher and take it with you to a national park, where your little ones can proudly serve as an ambassador and educate the rest of your family on the National Park System. The Every Kid in a Park program is available through Aug. 30, 2016.

For more on national parks, see National Park Family Vacations.

Written by Lissa Poirot


Bryce Canyon, Utah

Famous For: Rock formations and a “hoodoo-iferous” terrain

Must See: If visiting in June, families can join in the fun of Utah Prairie Dog Day or the Annual Astronomy Festival, both featuring activities and programming.

Family Fun: Become a GEODetective through Bryce Canyon"s special kids" pages online. Kids can learn about landforms, rocks, minerals, and more to earn a GEODetective Patch.

Museums: The Visitor Center at Bryce Canyon features an award-winning film that plays every hour and half hour with a 22-minute showcase and history film on the park.

Trails: There are two main trails for hikers: Under the Rim Trail is 23 miles and Riggs Spring Loop Trail is 8.8 miles. Enjoy a driving tour with the Rainbow Point drive, which stops at 13 viewpoints over the course of 18 one-way miles. Pets are allowed on paved trails.

Costs: One of the more expensive parks, vehicles are $25 and walkers/bikers are $12. Park admission is included with the National Park Annual Pass.

Visitor Center Hours: Bryce Canyon is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., May through September, then closes at 6 p.m. in the fall and spring and 4:30 p.m. in the winter.

Find Bryce Canyon Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel, just outside of the Park

Grand Canyon, Arizona/Utah

Famous For: The Grand Canyon

Must See: Take Desert View Drive for a 25-mile tour with viewpoints and the historic watchtower.

Family Fun: Check out a Discovery Pack from 8 a.m. to noon to receive binoculars, field guides and tools to complete activities. The Park also provides tours by cell phone: Call 928-225-2907 at 30 locations around the Park for 2-minute ranger talks. Kids 5 and younger who are ineligible for Junior Ranger programs can try the Brighty Kids programs at the North Rim Visitor Center.

Museums: Grand Canyon Village is an area that is a National Historic Landmark, with buildings dating back to the early 1900s. The Hopi House showcases the Native American tribe and its artwork.

Trails: Enjoy the South Rim"s 13-mile Rim Trail, which provides great views and a free shuttle back to the start of the trail. Some trails allow pets on a leash, above the rim.

Costs: As one of the most popular parks, entrance fees are higher at the Grand Canyon: $25 per car or $12 for hikers/bikers. Admission is for 7 days and includes entry to both the South and North Rims.

Visitor Center Hours: The South Rim is open 365 days a year, with the North Rim open May 15 through October 15. During the summer, campsites and activities like mule rides can sell out before you even arrive, so reserve as soon as you book your trip. There are numerous visitor centers, with the South Rim"s Grand Canyon Visitor Center serving as the main center, open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Find Grand Canyon Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: El Tovar, located on the South Rim inside the Historic District, features rooms with views of the canyon.

Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

Famous For: The Smokies showcase the beauty and life of Appalachia and was created when locals in Tennessee and North Carolina donated their own resources to purchase and preserve the land during the 1900s.

Must See: Keep your eyes peeled for one of the 30 species of salamanders and 12 species of frogs and toads – the Smokies are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World.”

Family Fun: Families can visit the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont for special family camps and weekend adventures. This summer (2014), the Family Adventure takes place June 30 through July 5, and the Smoky Mountain Family Camp takes place July 7 to 12.

Museums: More than 90 historic buildings are preserved within the Park, including homes, barns, schools, churches and mills. Self-guiding auto tour booklets are available to showcase where to find the buildings, although Cades Cove contains many of the buildings and is a popular stop.

Trails: Families can drive along 384 miles of road to tour the Park from a number of auto trails, although as most-visited park in the U.S., traffic may be congested in the summer months. Family hiking trails are well marked and families can receive a booklet to record mileage and receive stickers for their books. Seventy-one miles of the Park"s trails are part of the Appalachian Trail. Pets are not allowed on trails.

Costs: The Great Smoky Mountains are one of the few national parks that provide free admission.

Visitor Center Hours: The Park is open 365 days per year, with four visitor centers. The earliest opening is 8 a.m., with the latest closing at 7:30 p.m. during summer months.

Find Great Smoky Mountains National Park Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: Wyndham Smoky Mountains, which offers suites with kitchens

Olympic, Washington

Famous For: Olympic National Park is more like a number of parks in one, with rain forests, mountains, coasts and lowlands.

Must See: The 72 miles of coastline the Park borders.

Family Fun: Visit the main visitor center and borrow a Discovery Pack, which is a backpack filled with gear for young explorers. The pack includes field guides, binoculars, and guides to animal tracks, plants, weather and more.

Museums: While the Park has more than 650 archaeological sites throughout its grounds, it does not feature historic museums or places for travelers to visit.

Trails: A number of trails are available with short loops, flat terrain and coastal boardwalks, including the 3.3-mile Cape Alava Trail, which is mostly on a boardwalk from a ranger station to the coast. Leashed pets are allowed on trails and beaches.

Costs: Vehicle fees are $15 and those 16 and up entering by foot or bike are $5 each.

Visitor Center Hours: The Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, although some roads and visitor facilities close during the winter. The Olympic National Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles is open year-round, except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Find Olympic National Park Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: Olympic Lodge, which is located near Port Angeles and the entrance of the Olympic National Park.

Rocky Mountain, Colorado

Famous For: The highest peaks in all of the national parks.

Must See: Do the Trail Ridge drive, the U.S." highest continuous motorway, which peaks at more than 12,000 feet.

Family Fun: Kids can pick up Junior Ranger booklet and activities guides for ages 5 and under, 6 to 8 and 9 and up at the Moraine Park Discovery Center. The Fall River Visitor Center has a Discovery Room where kids can try on Ranger uniforms, touch animal skins, and learn about the Park"s wildlife.

Museums: The Museum Collections of Rocky Mountain National Park present items, artwork and specimens throughout the Park at its numerous visitor centers. The Beaver Meadows Visitor Center provides a 20-minute film on the Park every 30 minutes on the half hour.

Trails: The Park publishes a list of Family-Friendly Trails that are short, easy walks, some of which allow strollers. (Pets are not allowed.) The trails vary from a quarter mile to a mile in length, including the mile-long Coyote Valley Trail, which follows the Colorado River.

Costs: Entrance to the Park is $20 for a 7-day pass, or $10 per person by foot or bike.

Visitor Center Hours: The Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, although all visitor centers are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Beaver Meadows Visitor Center opens the earliest, at 8 a.m., and Fall River provides the latest closing at 5 p.m.

Find Rocky Mountain National Park Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: YMCA of the Rockies provides a family camp experience with cabins and lodge rooms available.

Shenandoah, Virginia

Famous For: The Shenandoah Valley is considered one of the most scenic national park areas on the East Coast and features the longest stretch of the Appalachian Trail.

Must See: Skyline Drive is 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park, with 75 overlooks affording amazing views.

Family Fun: Junior Ranger programs are available for children 7 to 12, and children 13 and older can try the Ranger Explorer program. Families can also borrow Explorer Backpacks, which hold field guides, hiking maps, binoculars, magnifying glasses and more. The backpacks are available to rent for $5 per day.

Museums: President Hoover called Shenandoah his family"s summer home, and Rapidan Camp is available for tours.

Trails: More than 500 miles of trails are in the Park, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Families with strollers may prefer the Limberlost Trail, which is 1.3 miles and has a large walkway of crushed stone. Some trails allow pets on a leash.

Costs: Park entry is $15 per car for 7 days, March through November, and $10 in the winter. Walkers and bikers pay $8 and $5, depending on the season. Skyline Drive is a public road, and does not charge a fee.

Visitor Center Hours: The Park is open 365 days per year; however, inclement weather and hunting season may bring park closures, particularly on Skyline Drive. The Park has two visitor centers, the Dickey Ridge and the Byrd Visitor Centers. The former is open daily in the summer, and the later closes when Skyline Drive is closed.

Find Shenandoah National Park Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: Skyland Resort, which provides cabins for families with kitchenettes

Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan

Famous For: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore features towering sand dunes overlooking Lake Michigan

Must See: While climbing up the dunes is a must, so is the 7-mile scenic loop drive, which provides lake and forest views and picnic areas.

Family Fun: Kids can join the daily shipwreck rescue at 3 p.m., which takes place at the Sleeping Bear Point Life-Saving Station and Maritime Museum. The rescue uses Raggedy Ann & Andy as victims the kids help save.

Museums: Sleeping Bear Point Life-Saving Station and Maritime Museum is open Memorial Day through Labor Day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The museum showcases history on the U.S. Coast Guard and the Great Lakes shipping industry.

Trails: Visit the Dune Climb to climb the dunes and get views from 300 feet in what Michigan calls its biggest sand box. Leashed pets are allowed on marked beaches, but they are not allowed on the Dune Climb.

Costs: Entrance fees to the park are $10 per car for a 7-day pass, or $20 for an annual pass. It"s $5 for persons 16 and older entering by foot or bike.

Visitor Center Hours: The Park is open year-round, with the visitor center open in the summer from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Find Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: Harbor Lights Resort, which faces Lake Michigan

Theodore Roosevelt, North Dakota

Famous For: The location of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is where a young Teddy Roosevelt hunted bison and fell in love with the western terrain, beginning his push for national parks. Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks to 10, and added 18 National Monuments.

Must See: Dakota Nights, an astronomy festival, takes place over three days in September for a unique nighttime experience.

Family Fun: Kids can join the Junior Ranger program, as well as become a member of the Badlands Club. A Family Fun Pack can be borrowed for the day from the South Unit Visitor Center. It holds field guides, binoculars and activities.

Museums: When Roosevelt visited North Dakota, he purchased the Maltese Cross Ranch and made it his home. Visitors can see what the cabin was like when Roosevelt called it home.

Trails: The Park lists a number of trails on its guides, including easy trails that take less than 30 minutes to walk. Pets are not allowed on trails.

Costs: Vehicles are $10 for 7 days, and walkers and bikers are $5.

Visitor Center Hours: The Park is divided by the South Unit and North Unit, which closes in the winter. The South Unit Visitors Center, in Medora, N.D., is open year-round except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year"s Day, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the winter, and 6 p.m. in the summer. The Painted Canyon Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Find Theodore Roosevelt National Park Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: Roosevelt once stayed in the Rough Riders Hotel, which received a remodel and expansion in 2009.

Volcanoes, Hawaii

Famous For: The only national park that brings visitors close to live volcanoes.

Must See: Chain of Craters Road starts at the rain-forested top of Volcanoes National Park along a 20-mile drive to the sea, descending 3,700 feet and passing volcano craters and lava flow.

Family Fun: The Park provides Junior Ranger programs for kids 7 to 12 and 6 and under.

Museums: The Jaggar Museum provides an overlook into Kilauea Caldera, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Inside, the museum provides displays on volcanoes. Visit closer to the museum"s 7:30 p.m. close for sunset views. The Kilauea Visitor Center also shows a 25-minute feature about the volcanoes that made Hawaii which run every hour, on the hour, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Trails: The Park features 150 miles of trails, including the End of Chain of Craters Road 1-mile trail. The road was covered by lava and is now closed, but visitors are allowed to walk along the trail for views of the lava flow on the other side. Pets are not allowed on any trails in Volcanoes.

Costs: Entrance fees are $10 per vehicle for a 7-day pass, or $5 for hikers and bikers.

Visitor Center Hours: The Kilauea Visitor Center is open daily, 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Find Volcanoes National Park Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: Volcano House is located inside of the national park and overlooks Halema"uma"u Crater.

Yellowstone, Wy., Id., Mont.

Famous For: The 2.2-million acre park, more commonly known as Yellowstone National Park, is located in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana and its star is the Old Faithful geyser.

Must See: It"s famous for a reason: visit Old Faithful! The geyser shoots boiling water from deep within the Earth up to 185 feet for up to 5 minutes, on average around every 90 minutes.

Family Fun: Yellowstone offers a Junior Ranger program for ages 4 and up. The book/guide is $3 and kids will attend a Ranger-led program, hike on a trail, and complete activities within the book to earn a patch.

Museums: The Old Faithful Inn Hotel is more than 100 years old and a museum in itself. The rustic log hotel has a 65-foot ceiling with exposed beams and a gnarled log staircase. Even if you do not stay at the hotel, be sure to visit it.

Trails: Yellowstone offers more than 1,000 hiking trails. Day hikes to Old Faithful are available on a boardwalk, a hiking trail and a paved hiking trail. Park at Old Faithful"s Visitor"s Center and pick a trail. Pets are not allowed on trails or boardwalks.

Costs: As one of the larger parks, entrance fees for Yellowstone are $25 for cars and $12 for hikers and bikers. Children 16 and younger are free. A permit provides 7 days of access.

Visitor Center Hours: Yellowstone is a large park – 2.2 million acres! – with borders on different states and a number of visitor centers. The Old Faithful Visitor Center is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer. The Junior Ranger Station is located at the Madison Information Station and is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer.

Find Yellowstone National Park Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: Old Faithful Inn Hotel, which is steps from the geyser.

Yosemite, California

Famous For: Towering, ancient sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove.

Must See: Visit Glacier Point, which overlooks Yosemite Valley and provides commanding views of Yosemite National Park.

Family Fun: The Junior Ranger program originated at Yosemite back in 1930 with the Yosemite Junior Nature School. Kids 7 to 13 can become a Junior Ranger and children 3 to 6 can become Little Cubs.

Museums: Visit the Pioneer Yosemite History Center to see a collection of buildings dating back to pioneer days. The center is located near the Wawona Hotel, which also dates back to the late 1800s.

Trails: While Mariposa Grove is accessible by car in the summer, there are two smaller groves of sequoias at Tuolumne and Merced Groves that are only accessible by foot. The hiking trails here are 4 to 6 miles in length. Pets on a leash are allowed on unpaved trails.

Costs: Entrance into Yosemite is $20 per car for 7 days, or $10 per person 16 and up entering by foot, bike or non-commercial bus.

Visitor Center Hours: Yosemite is open for visitors 365 days per year, 24 hours per day, with no reservations required to visit.

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Where to Stay: Evergreen Lodge Yosemite is a historic property with rustic cabins scattered across a 22-acre property.

Zion, Utah

Famous For: Zion National Park is know for its brilliant landscape of rock and sandstone, as is Utah"s most-visited park.

Must See: If you are traveling with teens that can handle a long 9-mile hike, visit The Subway. The water-carved area has swimming pools. Reservations are required with lotteries available three months in advance (and some last-minute lotteries). Be sure to choose the Left Fork route, as the other route through Wildcat Canyon requires rappelling.

Family Fun: From Memorial Day to Labor Day, children can join free youth programs that are held daily at the Nature Center and throughout the Park.

Museums: The Zion Human History Museum, open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Trails: The paved Pa"Rus Trail is one of the most popular trails in the Park for its ease and for families needing strollers. It also is the only trail in the Park that allows dogs (on leashes). The Riveride Walk follows the Virgin River and is also paved. Lower Emerald Pool Trail is just an hour, paved, and brings families to the Lower Emerald Pool and waterfalls.

Costs: Entrance fees for Zion are $25 for 7-day vehicle passes and $12 for 7-day walking or biking passes.

Visitor Center Hours: The Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, although some visitor centers and services may be closed during off-season times. The main visitor center is Zion Canyon, which is open 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. during summer months.

Find Zion National Park Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: Zion Lodge, which features spacious cabins and suites right in Zion National Park.

Acadia, Maine

Famous For: Forested coastal beauty

Must See: Acadia"s Carriage Road, first built in the early 20th century by John D. Rockefeller Jr. for horse-drawn carriages is today a 45-mile road perfect for biking. Drive Park Loop Road to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, where'll you enjoy breathtaking, panoramic views from the highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard.

Family Fun: Acadia Quest, operated by Friends of Acadia, provides a series of kid- and family experiences throughout Acadia. Receive a park map and a Quest card, complete two activities in each of the four categories and be eligible for a prize.

Museums: Two museums are located within Acadia. Islesford Historical Museum, open mid-June through September, examines life on a Maine island in the 1800s. Sieur de Monts Nature Center, open June through early October, features displays on Acadia.

Trails: Acadia has 125 miles of trails, as well as 45 miles of roads for walking or biking. Some trails allow pets on a leash.

Costs: Acadia charges a fee from May through October: one carload is $20 for 7 days; one person 16 and older (walking or biking) is $5. Credit cards are accepted. Park admission is included with the National Park Annual Pass.

Visitor Center Hours: Acadia headquarters is open daily, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Find Acadia National Park Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: Bar Harbor Grand Hotel, nestles into the quaint Acadia town of Bar Harbor

Arches, Utah

Famous For: Natural red rock arch formations

Must See: Arches' most famous arch is Delicate Arch, referred to simply as “The Arch.”

Family Fun: Explorer Packs are available for families to borrow through the visitor"s center. They contain binoculars, a hand lens, a naturalist guide, a notebook and activity ideas. Kids who complete three activities or more will earn a Junior Ranger badge.

Museums: Wolfe Ranch showcases life on the homestead in the 1800s.

Trails: The most popular guided hike is Fiery Furnace, a three-hour, Ranger-led hike through Arches that is only available through the tour, as it is not a marked trail. (Guests must make reservations and obtain permits: $4 for 13 and older, $2 for ages 5 through 12 – children under 5 not permitted.) Driving tours can also be enjoyed along the Windows and Delicate Arch sections. Pets not allowed on trails.

Costs: Arches charges a fee of $10 for 7 days per carload, and $5 for 7 days for walkers and bikers. Park admission is included with the National Park Annual Pass.

Visitor Center Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., June 15 through September 6, otherwise, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Find Moab, Arches & Canyonlands Family Hotels.

Where to Stay: Red Cliffs Lodge, with horseback riding trails

Black Hills, South Dakota

Famous For: Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Must See: You cannot visit the Black Hills without visiting Mount Rushmore, but be sure to also visit the nearby carving underway of Crazy Horse and witness its start.

Family Fun: Junior Ranger programs are available for kids 5 to 12, and Rushmore Ranger Activity Booklets are available for kids 13 and up, with certificates and patches offered at the completion of activities. Both are free.

Museums: In the summer months, families can visit the Sculptor"s Studio to see where the monument"s sculptor worked on his scale model, or visit the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village to learn more about the Native American cultures originally from this area.

Trails: Walk the Presidential Trail to get closest to the monument. Pets are not allowed at Mount Rushmore.

Costs: There are no fees to enter the Park, but there are parking fees charged at the memorial. Cars and RV's are $11.

Visitor Center Hours: Mount Rushmore is open 7 days a week with the exception of Christmas Day. From spring through end of September, the grounds are open 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. (The monument is lit at night.)

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Where to Stay: K Bar S Lodge, minutes from Mount Rushmore

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