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Beginner Skills

Bust Stress with a Plan-Free Park Day

Even with no agenda, a spontaneous day trip serves up many rewards

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Spending a single day in a national park may sound overwhelming and planning-intensive, especially with kids. But it doesn’t have to be—an impulsive day out with the family can offer a remedy for stress.

There was a random Wednesday in early April when my kids’ elementary school was closed. It wasn’t a holiday, or a snow day. Rather, the school district made the decision based on a threat made to Colorado schools around the 20-year “anniversary” of the Columbine High School shootings.

As a mother, I needed an antidote for the pit in my stomach, and my kids needed something fun to take their minds off of it. But due to the last-minute nature of the closure, we had no plans. My husband suggested that we drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park.

I didn’t have much energy, having lost some sleep over the threats. “I don’t know if I’m up for it,” I said. But I remembered how much we’d enjoyed our days in national parks last summer when we camped, hiked, and canoed in Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks.

And I remembered how, on that two-week road trip, we rolled into each park without any plans and tapped into the resourceful rangers for their tips on family-friendly fun. They’d give us Junior Ranger booklets filled with activities for the kids to learn about the park’s wildlife, geology, and history. They’d direct us toward adventures suitable for our boys, ages 6 and 10 at the time.

I was craving something immersive for the three of us, and something I didn’t have to think too much about. The thought of spending the day in nature made up my mind.

The boys were reluctant until I told them the car was loaded with snacks and that they might be able to buy something at a gift shop. We left home and the unsettling reason for the school closure in our rearview mirror, drove through a light rainstorm, and rolled toward the park.

“Look!” exclaimed 7-year-old Ben. We’d happened upon a herd of elk grazing along the side of the road. All of a sudden, my stress was turning to excitement like that of strolling through an amusement park.

Our first stop, as it’d been in other national parks, was the Visitor Center.

I asked the ranger behind the desk what she’d recommend for the three of us. She gave us Junior Ranger booklets, which the boys were excited to dig into. She then pulled out a map, highlighted a route, made notes on kid-friendly hikes, and sent us on our way with a smile.

For the next five or six hours, the boys and I drove through the park, oohing and aahing at the sights of snow-covered peaks from the car and stopping where the ranger had told us to, or where we felt like exploring.

We did a short walk (on the snow; it was April in the Colorado high country) to Bear Lake. We did a .8-mile hike around Sprague Lake, and the boys had fun pretending to be Ninja Warriors on wooden beams that bordered the trail. We drove up Trail Ridge Road to the Many Parks Curve overlook, and scrambled on rocks at Alluvial Fan. There, we sat in the sun, with the sound of a waterfall behind us, and worked on Junior Ranger booklets.

One of my favorite parts of the day came right after we left the Visitor Center and headed out on our highlighted route. We pulled over to check out a fork of the Big Thompson River, ranger books in hand and my youngest with a pair of binoculars around his neck. The boys happily clambered down to the river’s edge and hopped from rock to rock. My youngest was sure he saw a beaver while my oldest wondered if he could find gold. They scanned the water for fish, and explored the shoreline together.

And as my oldest helped my youngest through a tricky scramble, I listened to the flowing river wash over the rocks, watched a bird fly overhead, and with an exhale let go of (most of) the stress I’d been feeling back home.

The day wasn’t perfect—both kids had small fits for various reasons and the gift shop was closed on our way out—but the purpose that it served was. On our drive back home, I plotted to revisit the park when more of the snow has melted and thought about which other national parks and monuments we can pop into without plans for a fun, adventurous, educational, and peaceful family day.

Tips for a Plan-Free Park Day:

Spontaneity will often be rewarded in the parks—but knowing where to begin will make your experience that much smoother.

1. Pack right: Bring snacks, water, and daypacks with layers. Fun “toys” like binoculars or compasses can help keep kids engaged throughout the day.

2. Take advantage of park resources: Make your first stop the Visitor Center. Tell the ranger if you have an idea of what you’d like to see, and your kids’ ages and abilities. They’ll hand-pick destinations for your family, and best of all, help you avoid the crowds.

3. Become Junior Rangers: Ask a ranger at a visitor’s center for a Junior Ranger booklet for an activity book that will keep them occupied and engaged in their surroundings for hours. (Booklets are free in some parks, and cost a few dollars in others.) The Junior Ranger program is aimed at kids ages 5 to 13 and teaches them how to be stewards of the park. Once they complete a certain number of tasks in the booklet, they can be sworn in as Junior Rangers and receive a patch.

4. Seek out scheduled programming: Look at a calendar of ranger-led activities or films about the park. You can let someone else take the lead while the whole family learns.

5. Be flexible: Discover the ranger-recommended hikes and viewpoints, but follow the whims of your children and yourself. Sometimes, having no plans can lead to the best discoveries.

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