Imagine standing on the shore of a pristine alpine lake, with surrounding mountains. Or walking through a tunnel that cuts through some of the grandest trees on the planet. Or seeing real-life dinosaur fossils embedded in a desert wall.
The U.S. national parks are filled with some of the best features on the planet and are a protected home to some of the most diverse history of the nation. They may seem like a daring and rugged place for bold explorers, but most are accessible. If you’ve been kicking around the idea of a family trip this summer, visiting one of the national parks is a great way to explore the wonders of the world, build core memories and help your kids learn more about the diverse and complex history of the U.S.
The National Park Service offers multiple ways for your kids to get involved in the parks, including the passport stamp book, the junior ranger program and other ranger-led programs. Below we’ve listed some of the best parks to help kids find their adventurous spirit and learn a thing or two.
1. Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument may not be the biggest park in Utah, but it’s home to some of the Earth’s oldest residents — their fossils, anyway.
In 1909, Earl Douglass, a paleontologist from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg, Pa., found a site with a large number of dinosaur fossils, coining the park’s name, Dinosaur National Monument. There are over 350 tons of fossils within a sloping rock formation, which researchers believe was once the sandy shore of a riverbank.
The Quarry Exhibit Hall covers part of the exposed rock wall and allows visitors to stand face to face with dinosaur and plant fossils. There is even one you can touch. Outside the exhibit hall, there are family-friendly trails that will take you past fossils of prehistoric sea creatures and Native American petroglyphs that are nearly 1,000-years-old. Keep an eye out for lizards — tiny cousins of the dinosaurs — while hiking the trails.
The monument stretches across the northern Utah border and into Colorado. It’s best to visit the Utah-side with kids, since you can only access most of the Colorado side with a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
2. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Sequoia National Park in California was the second established national park after Mackinac Island National Park transitioned to a state park. The park is aptly named for being home to some of the grandest trees on the planet — Sequoiadendron giganteum. Standing at 275-feet-tall and 36 feet in diameter at the base, the General Sherman is the largest tree in the park and in the world, by volume.
While these gigantic trees are something to marvel at, kids will also enjoy the over 200 caves the park has to offer. They can learn all about how caves are formed and the rare animals and minerals these caves contain. With the towering trees and spectacular caves, this park feels a bit like a fairy tale. Kids will love learning about the “magic” of the natural world, and it may even inspire them to respect nature.
3. Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, is home to alpine lakes, forests, grasslands and the tallest dunes in North America. This park is great for taking hikes and biking, but most people visit for sand surfing, sledding and tubing in Medano Creek.
You can hit the sandy slopes with rental sand sleds and boards. But you may want to wear sunglasses or goggles to avoid getting sand in your eyes. After sand surfing, taking a tube down Medano Creek is a great way to cool off. Snowmelt high in the Rockies makes its way from alpine lakes to streams and eventually starts a creek at the base of the dunes. A unique feature of this creek is the surge flow. As the water flows, sand ridges build up underwater, and after a short time, the sand ridges break and send a wave cascading down the creek.
One of the best features of this park happens after the sun goes down. Great Sand Dunes National Park is an International Dark Sky area with star gazing. On moonless nights you can watch for meteors, name constellations, look for planets and learn all about astronomy.
4. Acadia National Park
Located in Maine, Acadia National Park is the perfect combination of ocean and mountains. Get up early and watch the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain and see the sun first in North America.
Explore the park on the easy-to-moderate hiking trails. If you’re up for a challenge, and your kids are a bit older, check out the Beehive trail. The metal bars built into the walls of the mountain make for a fun climb, as long as you’re not afraid of heights.
If you’re by the ocean, check out some of the park's tidal pools. Tidal pools are small marine ecosystems, home to starfish, crustaceans and marine plants. Remember to watch your step and treat the tidal pools with respect. Here is a list of things to know before you go tide pooling at Acadia National Park.
5. Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most popular parks, and it’s easy to see why. This massive park is home to a variety of animals and unique geological features. Kids can see all sorts of wildlife, from buffalo, to elk, mule deer, wolves and bears — just make sure to keep a safe distance.
Because Yellowstone National Park is on top of a hot spot, you can find thermal features like geysers, mud pots and hot springs all over the park. These features can be dangerous, but the National Park Service built wooden walkways so you can walk among the unique features safely. Make sure you gather to watch Old Faithful — the massive geyser erupt.
Yellowstone is also home to many Native American traditions from several tribes, including the Great Plains, Great Basin and Columbia Plateau cultures. You can learn about how these tribes used certain plants and herbs for medicine and areas in the park for ceremonies.
All National Parks are worth a visit. Please remember to respect the park, the people who work there, the history and significance of this land and to leave no trace.