5 NATIONAL PARKS YOUR KIDS WILL LOVE
The National Park Service was established in 1916 and consists of over 400 parks covering more than 80 million acres. In 2014, these parks saw nearly 300,000,000 visitors. National parks are a perfect place to experience nature, learn about our history, pursue favorite pastimes and find your AWAY.
After 3 and half years of full time RVing, we’ve been to nearly a fourth of the parks. We’ve walked the battlefields of Gettysburg and under the giant sequoias in California with many stops in between. While we have enjoyed aspects of each park, there are a few that stand out as places that kids (and adults) will especially love.
Yellowstone National Park
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I had low expectations for America’s first and most visited national park, Yellowstone National Park. I had heard about the crowds (I’m not a crowd person) and assumed the park was overrated. I was wrong. We all LOVED our time in Yellowstone. Thing 1 and Thing 2 both agreed that it was their second favorite National Park.
It’s not just Yellowstone’s beauty that will keep you and your kids talking about your visit for years, it’s all the extraordinary geothermal features like the Old Faithful geyser. Yellowstone is centered over the largest super volcano in North America – Yellowstone Caldera. This makes the ground do some pretty bizarre stuff, like shoot scalding water hundreds of feet into the air or produce massive pots of bubbling mud. Yellowstone is home to half of the world’s geothermal features. The geysers, mudpots, steam vents, and hot springs are the primary reasons the park was established in 1872.
Yellowstone is also unique in that it’s home to the oldest and largest public herd of bison who are known to cause traffic jams. Trust us, this is the kind of traffic jam you want to be stuck in! Along with bison, there are also black and brown (Grizzly!) bears, wolves, elk, and hundreds of other species of animals in Yellowstone.
As if rare geothermal features and animals aren’t enough, Yellowstone has gorgeous canyons, lakes, mountains, and meadows. From boating and fishing to horseback riding and ranger-led programs, there is so much to do in Yellowstone. Even the pickiest kid will find something they love!
There are many campgrounds in Yellowstone, but it would be wise to make reservations months in advance if you are going to be visiting during peak season from mid-June through August. Many independent and state forests are also found outside of Yellowstone. While you are there, you’ll probably want to stop and visit Yellowstone’s beautiful next-door neighbor, Grand Teton National Park.
Tip: If you can visit early or later in the season, do so. We went the first two weeks in June and by the end of the second week we could already see a significant increase in the crowds.
When I asked Thing 1 what his favorite national park is thus far, he didn’t hesitate to say Carlsbad Caverns. His brother followed by saying, “Oh yeah that was a cool one!” Visiting Carlsbad Caverns is like landing on another planet where otherworldly lit rock formations captivate the imagination at every turn.
The main tour is for kids of all ages. Although they don’t allow strollers in the caverns, a baby carrier is fine. Additional tours are available for a range of ages for kids 4 and up. We stuck with the main tour and it was plenty long enough for our family.
Since the cave maintains an average temperature of 56°F you can visit any time of year. However, if you visit between mid-April and late October you can see the evening or morning (if you are an early riser) bat flight. Carlsbad Caverns is home to a large colony of Brazilian, also known as Mexican, Free-Tailed bats and each evening, thousands of bats fly out of the cavern in search of food. The flight lasts for roughly 3 hours and they begin returning to the cavern around dawn. Prior to the evening flight, a ranger facilitates a bat program where you can learn about these mysterious creatures at the entrance of the cave.
There are not any campgrounds in Carlsbad Caverns National Park itself. However, there are a number of RV parks nearby in the town of Carlsbad. Prepare a picnic lunch ahead of time to eat in one of the picnic areas or the rest area inside the cave. There is also small restaurant in the Visitor’s Center. From the magical underground world in the caverns to the Chihauhuan desert landscape above, Carlsbad Caverns will be sure to wow you and your kids!
Tip: Guadalupe National Park is mere 36 miles away and it would be worth your time to spend a day exploring there as well.
Denali National Park
Not the easiest national park to reach, but according to Thing 2 it’s a must if you ever get a chance to go RVing in Alaska. Denali National Park came in as his first choice and it’s easy to see why kids would love it. Denali is 6 million acres of wilderness and home to the tallest mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley or as the locals call it, Denali. Rising 20,320 feet into the air, Mt. McKinley is only visible about 30% of the time so if you make the trip up to Denali, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to increase your odds of having a clear day.
If you can’t see the mountain, don’t despair; chances are you’ll see a few of the many types of animals that live in Denali. If you’re lucky you may even spot one of the other more iconic animals of Denali such as a moose, wolf, or grizzly bear.
The best way to increase your chances of seeing wildlife is to ride one of the shuttle or tour buses. Cars are only permitted on the first 15 miles of Denali Park Road. Visitors who wish to venture deeper into the park must take a shuttle or tour bus. There are a variety of bus ride durations that you can choose based on your child’s temperament.
Before you leave Denali, make sure to stop by the sled dog kennel for a few photos, a ranger talk, and to pet the dogs. Denali is the only national park with working sled dog teams. It’s sure to be a kid favorite.
Dry RV camping is available at three campgrounds inside the national park so you’ll want to put those boondocking skills to use. There are also campgrounds in the surrounding area for campers who like more amenities.
Tip: If you would like to drive an extra 14 miles past the point private cars must stop, try to get a spot in the Teklanika campground and purchase the “Tek Pass”. This allows you to use the shuttle bus for the duration of your stay at Teklanika for the price of one pass. The tradeoff requires a 3-day minimum stay in Teklanika.
Assateague Island National Seashore
The only thing more beautiful than a horse is a horse on a beach and this is what you can find on Assateague Island, home to bands of wild horses. You’ve probably met a “horse girl” or two in your life. I was one of them and a visit to this park would have been a dream come true as a girl! Of course, a love of horses isn’t limited to girls; our boys loved seeing these magnificent creatures roam freely in this wild and harsh habitat as much as I did!
The horses are descendants of domestic horses brought over from Europe over 300 years ago. No one knows for sure how they populated the island. Legend says they are survivors from a Spanish shipwreck, although the most likely scenario is they were brought to the island by coastal residents who were trying to avoid paying livestock taxes.
Assateague Island is technically not a national park but a national seashore. The 37-mile long barrier island is located off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia and is mostly managed by both the National Park System (the Maryland side) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (the Virginia side). If you want to see horses roam freely, head to the Maryland side. Horses on the Virginia site are contained, albeit in huuuge corrals, but contained nonetheless.
In addition to horses, there are visitor centers where you can learn about the various ecosystems in the area, take part in a Junior Ranger program and even hold a horseshoe crab. On the Virginia side of the park you can climb the spiral stairs of the Assateague Lighthouse for spectacular views of the area. Other actives include kayaking, beachcombing, biking, and swimming. We went in the spring which was lovely, but I’ve heard bugs get bad during the summer months so visit early if you can or make sure to bring along bug protection.
Dry camping for RVs is available on the Maryland side of the island only, but there are numerous camping opportunities right off the islands. If you camp on the island you’ll likely have a herd wander right through the campground!
Tip: Read Misty of Chincoteague ahead of time. This classic children’s book written by Marguerite Henry about the wild ponies is sure to bring this magical island to life!
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Like Assateague Island, strictly speaking, Sleeping Bear Dunes is not a national park but a national lakeshore that is part of the National Park System. Situated on Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers many activities your kids will love.
Towering bluffs, forests, miles of lakeshore, inland lakes, and the magnificent dunes are a wild playground where kids can explore the day away. Spend an afternoon biking or walking the paved Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.
Learn about the area with a stop in the visitor’s center and become a Junior Ranger or visit the U.S. Coast Guard Museum. Have a picnic at one of the many picnic areas.
Of course, the highlight will be climbing the spectacular sand dunes. It may take some effort to get to the top, but it will be worth it to run (or roll) down! You may be surprised at how much fun is it for you too. 😉
You’ll find dry camping as well as sites with hookups at Sleeping Bear. If the national park campgrounds are full, there are some independent campgrounds in the area as well.
Tip: While playing on the dunes might be tons of fun, it can also be quite messy. You may want to bring a bottle of baby powder to help dust off the sand. If your RV has a shower it will come in handy!
It was nearly impossible to narrow our list down to five. National Parks really are some of America’s greatest treasures!
Do you like to Go RVing to national parks? Which ones have your kids loved?