You’ve arrived safely, the groceries are bought, and you are set up at your first campsite. Now, it’s playtime. First, stop at the visitor center. A few minutes through their exhibits and talking with a ranger will help you zero in on what makes that park special and what activities are realistic for your family.
They have maps, program guides, and Junior Ranger books. Some JR books are free; some cost a few bucks each. They are great summaries from a kids’ perspective of what you should be looking for and doing in each park. And at the end, your kid earns a cool badge to keep. Our friends picked up one in Muir Woods made of reclaimed redwood. The ones in Zion and Yosemite are laser printed wood; some are plastic, but they’re good reminders of previous trips to pin on camelbacks for years to come.
As for family suitable hikes, I recommend:
Grand Canyon (north rim): The Rim Trail from the campgrounds to the lodge and back
Zion: The Narrows (full day’s hike through a river canyon—so cool!) and Lower Emerald Pool Trail (one hour)
Bryce Canyon: The Navajo Loop trail: from Wall Street to Queens Garden Trail, Sunset to Sunrise Points
Sequoia: Moro Rock, Crescent Meadow Trail to Thorp’s Log, General Sherman Tree (the largest tree in the world)
Kings Canyon: General Grant Grove, Zumwalt Meadow, horseback riding near Cedar Grove
Yosemite: Lower Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake, rafting along the Merced, the top of Vernal Falls via Mist Trail, Half Dome for those seeking a challenge (must get a permit– competitive).
Death Valley: Drive to Badwater (the lowest point in the US and a giant salt flat) and Artist’s Drive (beautiful). The visitor center at Furnace Creek has a temperature gage outside. Our high was 133, yes 133!!!!!
The unpredictable surprises that come from just being present in a national park are what make your trip memorable: a herd of bison as you’re driving into Grand Canyon, the refreshing river rushing by your ankles as you maneuver through breath-taking canyons in Zion, a mother and her fawns traipsing by any given campsite at dusk, the falling stars you witness from the meadows in Yosemite. Getting in touch with the earth enlivens you and your kids. Use all five senses. Look out the window. Take time to play. You’re making memories worth every penny.
Margaret is a freelance writer in Knoxville, TN. She writes and produces for HGTV and has been couponing since 2009.