Great Smoky Mountains National Park; Courtesy of Dean Fikar/
All Ages

10 National Parks That Are Better Than the Grand Canyon

See recent posts by Wendy Helfenbaum

If your brood craves outdoor adventures and Instagram-worthy views of Mother Nature up close, join the more than 330 million visitors who head to our national parks each year. In addition to tons of family-friendly hiking and biking trails and fishing spots, your kids can spy elk, bison and eagles, along with towering rock formations, awesome waterfalls and crystal-clear lakes. Sign children up to become Junior Rangers, so you can download activity workbooks before you leave and earn merit badges during your trip. Also take advantage of onsite ranger services for guided walks and talks.

Already been to the Grand Canyon? Put one of these must-see national parks on your list for a memorable family vacation.

Everglades National Park in Florida

1. Everglades National Park, FL

Located about 45 miles west of Miami, Everglades National Park covers 1.5 million acres of tropical wetland, accessible through entrances in three different cities. Kids will love seeing turtles, herons and more than 350 species of birds along the Anhinga trail. Paddle your way over Florida Bay, fish for saltwater and freshwater species, or take an airboat tour and to see manatees, dolphins or crocodiles. You can rent bikes at the Shark Valley welcome center and pedal the 15-mile loop around the pinelands. Or, if you’re up for some off-trail slogging—and some wet feet!—let a ranger guide you through the cypress dome.

Recommended Hotel: JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort

Joshua Tree National Park in California

2. Joshua Tree National Park, CA

So breathtaking that U2 named an album after it, Joshua Tree National Park sits on 800,000 acres where the Mojave and Colorado desert ecosystems meet. Created by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, the park features the famous trees made popular by Dr. Seuss in The Lorax. Long popular with rock climbers, the area also features 501 archeological sites and a variety of animals and wildflowers. One of the best ways to explore is by horseback—there are 253 miles of equestrian trails that cross canyon bottoms and open land. Family-friendly hikes include Skull Rock Nature Trail, Hidden Valley Nature Trail and Wall Street Mill Trail. Kids age 10 and up will enjoy the ranger-led Keys Ranch Tour. Tip: Don’t miss the sunsets at Keys View.

Recommended Hotel: BEST WESTERN Joshua Tree Hotel & Suites

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in California

3. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, CA

Just outside Visalia, California, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park houses the biggest tree in the world—it’s a 275-foot tall, 60-foot wide General Sherman. Because more than 80-percent of the park is only accessible by foot or on horseback, this magical forest is best explored by wandering through these awe-inspiring sequoia trees. Take the kids onto the half-mile loop trail to check out Crystal Cave. Guided tours are available to learn about this mystical world under the giant trees. Or hike the granite Moro Rock—there’s a stone stairway with 350 steps up to the top, where you’ll be able to see the view above the forest’s canopy of lush trees. You might even see the peregrine falcons nesting there!

Recommended Hotel: Wuksachi Lodge

Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee

4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN 

Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the U.S., thanks to its ancient mountains and diverse animal and plant life; the park features more than 1,660 varieties of flowering plants! Check out Clingman’s Dome, where a 50-foot observation deck looks out over the breathtaking natural beauty. Some of the most popular hikes include Kephart Prong Trail, where children can learn about the logging era; Porters Creek, where they can explore historic buildings; and Andrews Bald, where the kids will likely find patches of blueberries or raspberries to eat right off the bush. Or, grab some bikes and pedal your way through Cades Cove. The Institute at Tremont also hosts a five-day Family Camp every summer with crafts, wildlife demonstrations, swimming and campfires.

Recommended Hotel: RiverStone Resort & Spa

Arches National Park in Utah

5. Arches National Park, UT

With more than 2,000 natural arches—formed from millions of years of sandstone erosion—scattered across 120 square miles, Arches National Park is an aptly named must-see destination for families who appreciate gorgeous landscapes. Take a scenic drive or easy hike to Balanced Rock or The Windows. Young children will love the Rock Art Panel at Wolfe Ranch. Up for a challenge? Kids 5 and up can try the maze-like Fiery Furnace hike. If your kids are growing up in a big city, chances are they haven’t done much stargazing. Well, dark night stars are aplenty at this park, where you’ll see up to 2,500 of them on a moonless night. Check out the park’s night sky programs, which list the best spots for staring up at the Milky Way.

Recommended Hotel: Holiday Inn Express & Suites Moab

Zion National Park in Utah

6. Zion National Park, UT

Want to see red rocks, tropical waterfalls, Navajo sandstone cliffs and massive deserts, all in the same place? Zion National Park has all that, plus a 15-mile canyon. Take a free ride on the Zion Canyon Shuttle or venture out on horseback to see the highlights. Some easy hikes for little legs include the fully paved River Walk; Emerald Pools, which leads to a waterfall; and Weeping Rock, which is short but steep. Water levels along the river are low, so feel free to wade in and cool off! Drive through the mile-long Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel; kids love it! Or sign on for one of the free ranger-led children’s programs to learn about geology, history, plants and animals.

Recommended Hotel: Majestic View Lodge

Olympic National Park in Washington

7. Olympic National Park, WA

Spanning nearly a million acres, Olympic National Park features a temperate rain forest, rugged coastline, active tide pools and glacier-capped mountains. The views from Hurricane Ridge are jaw dropping, and kids will love hiking the Ozette Loop, where you’ll stroll through forests, then along the beach. Kayaks and canoes are great ways to explore the backcountry, and there’s plenty of fishing to do, too. Check out the tide pools at Kalaloch’s Beach 4 and Mora’s Hole in the Wall at low tide, where you’ll see incredible creatures like anemones and sea stars. Hug the world’s largest Sitka spruce tree in the Quinault Rain Forest, and take a dip at Lake Crescent or in one of the park’s three mineral hot springs at the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort.

Recommended Hotel: Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort

Badlands National Park in South Dakota

8. Badlands National Park, SD

Housing one of the world’s richest fossil beds, Badlands National Park sprawls across 244,000 acres. Some of the animals residing here include bighorn sheep, bison, pronghorn antelope and prairie dogs. Visit the Fossil Preparation Lab in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, and learn about fossils and the paleontologists working there. While you’re there, pick up the GPS Adventure Activity book, which outlines interesting spots to visit. Using your GPS device, hike the Fossil Exhibit Trail and you may even find ancient dinosaur bones (just don’t take them home)!

Recommended Hotel: Circle View Guest Ranch

Acadia National Park in Maine

9. Acadia National Park, ME

Is your gang up for exploring stone bridges, carriage roads, beaches, forests,125 miles of hiking trails and seven mountain peaks towering above 1,000 feet? If so, Acadia National Park—the largest tourist attraction in Maine—should be on your list. Take in the fabulous panoramic views of Frenchman Bay, the Porcupine Islands, Somes Sound and Bar Harbor from atop Cadillac Mountain. Kids will love Acadia Quest, which includes free, family-oriented activities that encourage everyone to explore and protect national parks. Take a ranger-guided boat cruise and touch sea life that come up from the ocean floor—you may spot porpoises, seals and aquatic birds, too.

Recommended Hotel: The Claremont Hotel

Glacier National Park in Montana

10. Glacier National Park, MT

With its mountains and lakes formed by—you guessed it—glaciers, Glacier National Park stretches more than a million acres across Montana, British Columbia and Alberta. See up to 25 active glaciers while riding the Red Bus, take a horseback ride through the incredible scenery at Cracker Flats with kids ages 7 and up, or book a raft tour that will take your family on the Flathead River’s Middle Fork and North Fork, after which you can all jump in for a swim. The Glacier Institute provides field-based learning experiences for visitors of all ages, where your family can learn about birds of prey, photography or wildflowers.

Recommended Hotel: Many Glacier Hotel

What to Pack on Your Trip

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Montreal-based Wendy Helfenbaum is a journalist, content strategist and TV producer who writes for dozens of digital and print magazines, as well as many brands. Wendy loves cruising, adventure travel and venturing off the beaten path with her husband and teenage son, and she can pack a carry-on bag like nobody’s business. Follow her @WendyHelfenbaum.

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