Our country is home to 59 national parks and each is worthy of a visit. Unfortunately, childhood lasts just 18 short years, so most families simply won't have time to see them all. Help your kids develop a lifelong love affair with these special places, beginning with these 18 parks.
1. Mammoth Cave National Park, KY
Photo by: Allie KF/flickr
The largest known cave system in the entire world has a wide range of tours and experiences for all ages and abilities. Children ages 8-12 will especially enjoy the kids-only Trog Tour, an off-trail adventure which takes crawling, hiking, and shimmying through rarely visited portions of the cave as they learn about how the animals of Mammoth Cave survive this deep, dark ecosystem.
2. Everglades National Park, FL
Photo by: John Spade
Bike alongside alligators sunbathing roadside on the flat, 15-mile Tram Road loop in the park's Shark Valley. Canoe trails and backcountry camping await in the Ten Thousand Islands region of the park. Visit the "river of grass" in the winter to avoid monster mosquitoes, oppressive heat, and the rainy season.
3. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI
Kilauea has been erupting continuously since January, 3, 1983, so a well-timed visit to the park could result in a memorable opportunity to see lava flow. The 4-mile Kilauea Iki Crater Trail will take your family from the lush rain forest down to the floor of a still-steaming-yet-solidified lava lake.
4. Zion National Park, UT
Photo by: n4rwhals/flickr
Hiking up the Virgin River through the towering walls of The Narrows is a national park rite of passage. Kids will do best during the summer months when the weather is hot and the water is cold. Sturdy-soled shoes, quick-drying clothes, and a hiking stick are essential to a safe-yet-fun experience.
5. Olympic National Park, WA
Explore tide pools filled with sea stars and anemones, soak in Sol Duc Hot Springs, hike through rainforests of towering spruce dripping with moss, and trek through snow at Hurricane Ridge in this diverse park. Staircase Campground in the remote southeast corner is a great place for your family to unplug and play in the forest.
6. Death Valley National Park, CA
Photo by: Gregory Smith/flickr
No need to yell at the kids to stay on trail; visitors to this park are encouraged to walk, climb, and explore wherever their feet may take them. Besides enjoying the novelty of standing in the lowest, driest and hottest spot in North America, your family will also love exploring multi-hued canyons, snowboarding down sand dunes and discovering remnants of the Valley's mining past.
7. Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Photo by: Esther Lee/flickr
The park protects 600 Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings, and some are open for exploration. Crawl up ladders, rock faces and through tunnels on Balcony House's adventurous tour or sign up for a special backcountry experience such as the 9-mile Weatherhill Mesa bike and hike adventure, which takes visitors to quiet sections of the park to enjoy less-visited archaeological sites and dwellings.
8. Glacier National Park, MT
Photo by Esther Lee
Touring the alpine spectacle that is Going to the Sun Road is an essential park experience, but so is backcountry time in the wildest park in the Lower 48. Families will enjoy the three-day, 20-mile trek from Gunsight Pass trailhead to Lake McDonald Lodge, which leads you past waterfalls too numerous to count and includes a night at Lake Ellen Wilson's backcountry campsite.
9. Acadia National Park, ME
Photo by Kim Carpenter
Visit this park over spring break, before the throngs of crowds take over for the summer and leaf-peeping seasons. Explore the shore, bike down old carriage roads, and hike through spruce forests. Kids love the 4.3-mile loop from Jordan Cliffs to Penobscot Mountain for its iron rungs, ladders, and bridges, but the 360-degree views from the top are the real show-stoppers.
10. Yosemite National Park, CA
Photo by Marco Becerra
Bond as a family while learning how to rock climb surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. Yosemite Mountaineering School's classes are open to children as young as 10 and focus on safety, technique and fun. Don't leave the park without making time for the granite peaks, shimmering lakes, and wide open spaces of Yosemite's high country.
11. Glacier Bay National Park, AK
This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to glaciers, remote wilderness and ample wildlife. Much of the park is best seen by boat and Un-Cruise Adventures, along with a park ranger, will take you into hidden coves and quiet corners of the bay that visitors on large ships never get to see.
12. Arches National Park, UT
Vibrantly red slickrock and over 2,000 arches attract visitors to this desert park just outside of Moab. Anyone who has seen a Utah license plate will want to make the 3-mile journey out to Delicate Arch, but eight arches await hikers on the more challenging, 7-mile Devil's Garden loop. Avoid crowds and heat by starting your hikes early in the day.
13. Voyageurs National Park, MN
Photo by jck_photos/flickr
Straddling the US/Canadian border, the largest freshwater-based national park is a perfect “two-nation vacation." Take to the water with guided motorboat, kayak, and canoe trips for a vacation the whole family will love.
14. Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Photo by Elia Scudiero/flickr
Kids love to climb and Joshua Tree is essentially a wonderland of boulders waiting to be scaled. The park offers something for all ages and abilities, from easy scrambles up boulder piles to class 5 technical climbs. Jumbo Rocks is the place to camp if you want to sleep surrounded by massive boulders and star-filled night skies.
15. Shenandoah National Park, VA
Photo by Jim Lukach/flickr
The Blue Ridge Mountains and over 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail await visitors to this park. Elkwallow Trail to Jeremy's Run entertains kids with several stream crossings and the rewards of great camping and fishing.
16. Denali National Park, AK
Denali is home to 6 million acres of wild land and a horizon dominated by the park's 20,320-foot namesake peak. Visitors are only allowed to drive their cars on the first 15 miles of park road, making cycling a great option for exploring. Consider biking at night around the time of the summer solstice and discover ample light whilst having the road all to yourselves.
17. Yellowstone National Park, WY/MT
Half of the planet's geothermal features can be found inside this rugged, 2 million-acre park, along with massive herds of bison and elk, black and grizzly bears, and critically endangered wolves. Still not enough? How about we throw in a canyon so grand it looks like a painting, North America's largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet, and 900 miles of hiking trails? We thought so. Start packing.
18. Grand Canyon, AZ
Photo by Janitors/flickr
This park deserves far more attention than the typical gaze from an overlook. Hike 4,500 feet down into the canyon via the Bright Angel Trail and spend a week on the Colorado River with an outfitter such as O.A.R.S (http://www.oars.com), which has been leading tours for over 40 years. This trip is the ultimate summer vacation for adventurous teens who will enjoy explore hidden canyons and rafting over 20 major rapids.