Admission is nearly free. Lodging is a bargain, too.
And no matter what happens, at least no one will complain they’re bored. Not with so many rocks to climb, new playmates and water made for splashing. Rain is an opportunity for a different adventure.
Wishful thinking? Not at our nation’s national parks. Even better, with visitation to the parks forecasted to drop again this year, there is more room for last-minute planners.
You’re guaranteed plenty of memories. That’s if you don’t kill each other after you’ve spent three hours trying to drive 30 miles on a winding national park road (Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming), woken up in a sodden sleeping bag after a rainstorm (Acadia National Park in Maine), or lobbied unsuccessfully for your 10-year-old to put down his Game Boy to watch the heart-stopping scenery (Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado).
I’ve lived all those moments but I’ve also shared some marvelous wonders with the kids: Spying a bear for the first time (Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska), hiking to the top of a waterfall (Yosemite in California), and touching a glacier (Glacier National Park in Montana). Here’s how to make some of those memories happen for your families:
- HIKE ONLINE at www.seeamerica.org (a joint effort by the National Parks Service, the National Park Foundation and the Travel Industry Association), and click on the "See America's National Parks" icon. You can link to each of the 388 national parks, find maps, map out an itinerary and find plenty of special packages and deals. Also visit www.nps.org, the National Park Service website. Some parks have special areas on their websites designed for kids.
- YOU DON’T HAVE TO ROUGH IT if you prefer not to. Rooms in the historic park lodges are surprisingly affordable. Book as far ahead as you can, but don’t be afraid to call at the last minute either. There’s often more availability than you’d expect.
- STAY PARKED in one place instead of spending all of your time trying to see the highlights at several parks hundreds of miles apart. You’ll feel much less stressed and can focus on hiking, fishing, camping and animal watching rather than racing from place to place. Chow down at a cowboy cookout in Yellowstone. Join an Appalachian sing-along in Great Smoky National Park. Bike for miles along the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Soak in the hot springs at Olympic National Park. www.nps.gov
- BE FLEXIBLE enough so that you can spend a morning chasing frogs or an afternoon swimming in the river if your family feels like it. Linger over picnic lunches.
- ASK THE RANGER to steer you to the array of kid-friendly activities from tide-pool walks at Acadia National Park to storytelling at the Grand Canyon, guided fishing trips at Yellowstone, or rock-climbing lessons at Yosemite. The parks’ field institutes now also offer customized family programs, ranging from photo hikes to float trips. Some of these popular programs are free. Make sure to check out the Junior Ranger programs at each park with activities geared specifically for kids.
- HIT THE TRAIL for shorter hikes, especially with younger children. They’ll want to spend more time looking at leaves and turning over rocks than walking. Never allow kids to hike alone and before setting out, make sure you’ve got a plan if the gang gets separated on the trail. Some parents give each child a whistle. Plenty of high-energy snacks are a must when hiking with kids as is rain gear (weather can change rapidly) and a first aid kit.
Don’t forget the M&Ms.
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