So many incredible national parks, so little time! Which ones are best for kids? We’ve chosen our favorites based on unique and unforgettable experiences geared for kids. They have critter encounters that are way more magical when you’re young. And a couple of them are worth seeing sooner rather than later because they may not look the same in 50 years. Show your kids the wonder of these stunning places now so they want to protect them when they’re older. These are the national parks every child should see before they grow up.
1. Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
It used to be that the only way tourists could get to the Grand Canyon was by train. Relive that historical experience in fully restored cars while the kids still appreciate the cowboy shootouts at the depot in Williams, Arizona, the Old West robbery on the train, and Polar Express rides at Christmastime. The Grand Canyon Railway takes you to the South Rim without any parking hassle or waiting in line at the gate. Walk to the Bright Angel Lodge’s history room to see interesting artifacts. The fireplace includes a rock from every layer of the Grand Canyon.
Recommended Hotel: Grand Canyon Railway Hotel
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
America’s most visited national park is especially magical for kids. There’s a two-week stretch during mating season (late May to mid June) when a certain species of fireflies in the park flashes in sync. The park is also considered the “Salamander Capital of the World,” and you can hunt for the amphibians and find them everywhere in streams and under forest logs. Beat the summer heat by floating down the river and past a waterfall on a rented tube. In the fall, see the changing colors and early settlers’ historic buildings on a hayride.
Recommended Hotel: Holiday Inn Express Gatlinburg Downtown
3. Yellowstone National Park, WY
Take the kids now to see Yellowstone National Park, where the bison roam in herds, causing “bison jams” crossing the road. Stand in awe at the jetting Old Faithful geyser, gurgling mud pots, hissing steam vents, and a waterfall nearly twice as tall as Niagara Falls. For a real Wild West experience, sing with park cowboys around the campfire at the covered wagon cookout. Nearby in Cody, don’t miss the Cody Nite Rodeo, the nightly gunfighter show at the Irma Hotel, and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
Recommended Hotel: Canyon Lodge
4. Glacier Bay National Park, AK
This vast wilderness in Alaska’s Inside Passage could look completely different by the time your kids are grown. In Glacier Bay National Park, average annual temperatures have increased more than twice the rate of the average in the rest of the U.S., and the trend is expected to continue. Glaciers are shrinking. Permafrost is melting. Habitats are changing. Before it’s too late, take the kids to see massive ice block glaciers calving. Paddle kayaks in stunning fjords among healthy populations of eagles, seals, and whales. Watch bears pluck salmon from spawning stream habitats.
Recommended Hotel: Glacier Bay Lodge
5. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI
At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, two of the world’s most active volcanoes are still erupting with fiery fountains and molten lava rivers. Take the kids now to see Kilauea and Mauna Loa while they’re in action. These land builders are impressive and monstrous. Mauna Loa, when measured from its sea floor base to its peak, is 27,000 feet higher than Mt. Everest! Show the kids the steaming vents. Plug your noses together at the rotten-egg smell of the yellow-edged sulphur pits. And hike through lava tubes (caves) to see ripples of cooled lava.
Recommended Hotel: Volcano House
6. Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO
As big as 100,000 football fields, Great Sand Dunes National Park is one heck of a sandbox for families to play in. The 750-foot dunes—North America’s tallest—look like a mini Sahara plunked into Colorado’s mountainous landscape. The dunes are so tall that the kids can actually pick up some speed on the park’s sandboards and sand sleds, an unusual and unforgettable experience. On full moon dune hikes you’ll hear owls, spot animal tracks in the sand, and maybe see a kangaroo rat or tiger salamander. In summer, the mountain snowpack melts to create a great creek for swimming at the base of the dunes.
Recommended Hotel: Sandhill Inn & Suites
7. Mesa Verde National Park, CO
More than 1,400 years ago, the Ancestral Pueblo people carved out homes for themselves in the cliffsides of what is now Colorado. You and your kids get to climb the ladders and crawl through tight spaces just like the original inhabitants did every time they went out and returned home. Rangers at Mesa Verde National Park say kids quickly hush and turn reflective when they see the cliff dwellings and hear the stories of the people who lived in these 600 homes. That sense of cultural discovery is powerful when you can walk in someone else’s footsteps, especially when the route is like a giant jungle gym.
Recommended Hotel: Far View Lodge
8. Everglades National Park, FL
The vast swamps of Everglades National Park are home to North America’s largest sawgrass prairie and protected mangrove forest. Take the kids to see the alligators, crocodiles, and manatees while the kids are still little (and the wow-factor is big). Load up a cooler of snacks and set out on one of the canoe trails through the mangroves or along the coast. If you opt for an airboat tour, you’ll see lots of alligators and birds.
Recommended hotel: JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort
9. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, CA
At these side-by-side parks in the southern Sierra Nevada, nature is taller and wider and deeper than most kids ever imagine. There are huge mountains, deep canyons, vast marble caves, and stands of giant sequoia with the world’s largest living tree. It all seems even bigger when you’re a little person. The tallest tree, a 26-story sequoia, is called the General Sherman Tree. It reaches one and a half times higher than the Cinderella Castle and its trunk is almost as wide as the length of a city bus. Standing in the wonder of its presence might inspire your young ones to be good stewards of the earth when they’re all grown up.
Recommended Hotel: Wuksachi Village and Lodge
Jamie Moore is a Vancouver Island-based freelance travel writer. Her work has appeared in USA Today, Yahoo News, WestJet magazine, SmarterTravel, WhattoPack.com, and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter, @jmemoore.