By Jamie Pearson
Because I was raised in a road-tripping family, I've seen a lot of America. Just recently I was browsing a list of America's National Parks, and feeling a little smug. Bryce Canyon? Been there. Mount Rainier? Twice. Petrified Forest National Park? Check.
As I tallied the results—16 in all!—I came to a disturbing realization. Though I have been to a respectable number of U. S. National Parks, my 7 and 9-year-old kids (who've traveled all over the world) haven't seen a single one. Not one.
Needless to say, I lost no time ordering them each a copy of Passport To Your National Parks (a pocket-sized spiral bound travelogue/guidebook with spaces for rubber stamp cancellations) and began planning our first trip.
Want to take your own kids on the road this summer? Here are ten U.S. National Parks that won't disappoint.
Arches National Park
Provided you don't come mid-summer, the 2,000+ natural rock formations here will awe and inspire even the youngest of visitors. Delicate Arch and Balanced Rock are the headliners, but children will love cool and shady Sand Dune Arch even more. Tucked away between tall rock fins on a bed of soft white sand, it's a scene right out of Indiana Jones. This area is also rich in Indian rock art and dinosaur footprints, so knock yourself out. See our online guide »
Denali National Park
Denali National Park, Alaska
This pristine wilderness is 2,300 miles north of Seattle and there's no access to the park by private car, but don't let that stop you. You're practically guaranteed to see moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, wolves, beavers, and eagles from the comfort of the regularly scheduled park shuttle buses. See our online guide »
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon, Arizona
As pretty as it is to gaze at, the best way for kids to truly appreciate the scale of the Grand Canyon is to go right in. Children 10 and older can take an unforgettable half-day trip 2,300 feet straight down the dramatic North Kalibab trail on a sure footed mule with Canyon Trail Rides. Older kids can go even farther, and those as young as seven can ride along the rim. See our online guide »
Glacier National Park
West Glacier, Montana
Sitting astride the Continental Divide in northwestern Montana, Glacier National Park is heaven for outdoorsy families. The fly fishing, rafting, and hiking here are world class, and the scenery—carved out during the last ice age—is breathtaking. Sadly, experts predict that the glaciers (which numbered 150 in 1850 and 27 in 2005) could be gone by 2020, so don't wait. See our online guide »
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Hawai'i National Park, Hawaii
Kilauea has been erupting lava almost continuously from its east rift zone since 1983, creating 568 new acres of new land on the Big Island and burying over 8 miles of highway under lava as deep as 115 feet. It's awe-inspiring and fairly safe to visit (more like molten cake batter than spewing lava), and there's nothing else like it in the world. See our online guide »
Yosemite National Park
There's more to Yosemite than the valley floor, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Falls, but most people don't ever see it. In the summer, check out the area around Tuolomne Meadows. During the winter, try snowshoeing at Badger Pass. True, it's crowded here, and it's not hard to see why. See our online guide »
Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
It goes without saying that everyone who comes to America's first national park should see its geothermal headliners: Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs. After that, escape the crowds and increase your chances of seeing the wildlife for which Yellowstone is justifiably famous by taking to the trails. With bighorn sheep, moose, bears, bison, and beavers to spot, even very young children will be motivated to hike. See our online guide »
Redwoods National and State Parks
Crescent City, California
Redwoods thrive in a wet and mild ecosystem, and have been thriving along this section of the California coastline for a very long time. Though the average lifespan of a redwood is 500-700 years, the oldest dated coast redwood recently celebrated its 2,200th birthday. The 33-mile Avenue of the Giants offers plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with these giants, so be sure to take them.
Everglades National Park
There are plenty of reasons to visit the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, but your kids will be most impressed with the alligators. Hike, canoe, boat, camp, and fish your way through this "River of Grass" to your heart's content. You'll see turtles, spoonbills, river otters, and crocodiles. You probably won't see a West Indian Manatee or the endangered Florida Panther, but they're out there too. See our online guide »
Saguaro National Park
Tall and imposing with an almost-human silhouette, the saguaro cactus is an enduring symbol of the American west, and there's no better place to see them than Saguaro National Park. Hiking among these giants at sunrise can be a near-mystical experience. Birds sing, roadrunners cross the trail in front of you, and jackrabbits explode from the brush. Bring a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water. Oh, and a thick pair of boots, because no fewer than six species of rattlesnake make their home here too. See our online guide »
About the Writer
Jamie Pearson is a writer and mother of two. She sees the funny side of family travel, and blogs about it at www.TravelSavvyMom.com.
Photo credit: istockphoto / Zoran Ivanovic