Top 5 Tips
1. Plan ahead. Rooms and campsites fill up fast, so make your reservations as early as you can, says Kathy Kupper, a public affairs specialist with the National Parks Service. Many parks will have every room and campsite booked several months in advance (weekends are especially popular). Kupper recommends booking at least six months ahead, and more if you plan to visit one of the more popular parks, such as Grand Canyon, Grand Tetons, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. If you plan on staying outside the park, check with the hotels you're considering as far ahead as you can, as these places can fill up fast as well. You also can go online. All of the National Parks have a Web site—links to all of them are at the National Park Service page, www.nps.gov. Many of the parks' pages have a "For Kids" link.
2. Get the kids involved. It might seem easier to do the planning yourself, but you'll probably have a better time—and your kids definitely will—if you involve them, says Steve Zachary, a ranger and education specialist at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California. No matter how old they are, children ought to have a good idea of where you're going and what you're about to experience. "It builds excitement beforehand, and lets the kids feel as if they've got a say in what you're doing." Zachary, who has traveled extensively through the national parks with his two sons, recommends discussing the park's various attractions and giving your kids a few choices.
3. Know your children. Consider your child's interests, says Zachary. This will help you plan a vacation that's both safe and memorable (for all the right reasons). For starters, if you have kids under four, be honest with yourself about whether the national park itself is age appropriate. Parents are notorious for projecting their awe for majestic scenery and overall enthusiasm for sightseeing on their younger kids, who might be more interested in cataloging the snacks in the hotel room's minibar. Likewise, Zachary says, be realistic about your child's stamina and ability. "I've seen parents who want to climb up to the volcano with their 10-year-old, but they live at sea level and the kid has never been hiking. This is a 2½-mi hike at 7,000 feet. In the end, nobody has any fun and the kid now hates hiking."
4. Pack wisely. Be sure you're bringing kid-sized versions of the necessities you'll pack for yourself: Depending on the park you're visiting (and the activities you're planning), that might include sturdy hiking shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen, and insect repellant. You'll almost certainly need a few layers of clothing and plenty of water and snacks. Kids can be more susceptible to heat stress and dehydration than adults, meaning they need plenty of water when exercising. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends giving your child about five ounces of water or another beverage every 20 minutes during strenuous exercise; studies show that kids are more willing to take flavored drinks than plain water.
5. Develop a Plan B. National parks are natural places, meaning they change dramatically with the seasons and the weather. So you should decide on alternate activities if Mother Nature isn't cooperative. And if you've already talked with your kids about your options, you can pick a new plan that appeals to everyone.