If the only thing your children know about national parks is that Jellystone has a lot of pic-i-nic basket theft, perhaps it’s time to toss the camping gear on the roof and head West (or North, or South, or East). This is a particularly great summer to go for it, because the National Park Service is about to celebrate its centennial on August 25. Hey, somebody tell that to the unimpressed 2,000-year-old redwood trees.
But, you should know before you go that some of the NPS’s 411 national parks, monuments, seashores, and historic sites are more popular than others. Of the more than 300 million visitors who went in search of bucolic spaces last year, 9.5 million headed to the Great Smokey Mountains (which, to be fair, cover a lot of ground), and a little less than 4.5 million fanny-packed gawkers took in the Grand Canyon in all its grandness.
Since everyone points their cars in the same direction during the summer, there are some excellent parks that don’t get as much tourism love. Enimini Ekong, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and Frank Borrows, Superintendent at Fort Stanwix National Monument are certified experts in all these parks, historical sites, and monuments — from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam. Here’s how they plan to take their own kids on a national park trip.
Show Before You Go
In an era when you can just Google Map it, there’s still some value in talking to a human being about your travel plans. “We set up distance learning programs by request to cater to whatever audience, zero to 99,” says Ekong, who suggests that, with a little foresight, you can Skype with an educator like him. After all, these people are here to help because you’ve already paid for their services with your taxes.
Parks Don’t Have To Be Wilderness
Take baby steps to leave civilization behind and seek out a national monument or historical site in your own backyard. “I think there’s this misconception out there that you have to be an outdoorsy person or you have to travel far distances to enjoy national parks when the reality is that most people live within an hour of a national park,” says Ekong.
If you’re not familiar with some of the national sites around you, check out FindYourPark.com or the NPS.gov kids’ pages. You can even look at programs like the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program that provide water recreation and trail recreation outside the boundaries of parks.
Deputize Your Junior Ranger
Burrows says that almost all the parks have a Junior Ranger program, which gives kids an interactive booklet where they can check off all of the park-specific activities they did. At the end, they get a badge — and kids will do anything for a badge.
Have An Escape Plan
“I would caution any parents not to plan any activities that they can’t back out of easily,” says Burrows. “For instance, the 2-hour cave tour may not be the best thing to do with a toddler or even a 5 or 6-year-old.” Instead, try to plan activities that are more self-guided. Also, take note of things like trail difficulty and estimated times it takes to complete a hike or tour. The pioneers didn’t name it Death Valley because it was so metal.
Nature Doesn’t Care About Instagram
“Alter your expectations and make room for spontaneous exploration,” says Burrows. “Before I had children, hiking was all about getting from a trailhead to a postcard view. I’ve been hiking with my 5-year-old since he was 2 and I learned from him that the postcard view was far less exciting to him than the rocks under his feet or the animals and birds all around.”
8 Under-The-Radar National Parks That Are Great For Families
Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio
“I know in the Midwest region Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio has a phenomenal family friendly train ride. A lot of kids get a kick out of hearing the horn,” says Ekong.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Just note that when you head here you’re not going for airboat rides Swamp People-style. Instead you can hop the Shark Valley tram with younger kids, or spend 8 days paddling the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway with able-bodied teens.
White Sands, New Mexico
“White Sands in New Mexico is a place that I visited growing up,” says Burrows. “I lived near there and Carlsbad Caverns. They provided unique experiences. That was like going to the beach for us in New Mexico because we didn’t have an ocean nearby.”
Indiana Dunes, Indiana
“Sand sledding in Indiana Dunes is good just about good any part of the year,” says Ekong. “The cleanup of your shoes and other stuff will be a task, but it’s definitely worthwhile to go down a huge sand dune.”
Boston Harbor Islands, Massachusetts
“It’s amazing how many people in Boston have never been to the Harbor Islands,” says Burrows. ““You can go explore the islands by hopping on a ferry and have a beach to yourself, depending on what island you go to. You feel like you’re out in the wilderness, but the whole time you have views of the Boston skyline.”
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
“Kids can go scuba diving and see starfish and the like. It’s a beautiful park if you ever just Google it,” says Ekong. “It’s definitely not one of the mainstream national parks that you would commonly hear touted.”
Rock Creek Park, Washington D.C.
“The planetarium in Rock Creek Park, which is in Washington D.C. and extends into Maryland — I know that kids really enjoy going to that with their families as well and It’s right in the middle of the city.”
New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, Massachusetts
“My son loved seeing the whale skeletons and climbing aboard the whale ship model there,” says Burrows.”