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Best Family Experiences at 5 Top National Parks


Planning a family National Park trip this summer? Remember that even the most beautiful scenery can quickly become boring for little ones with short attention spans. Here are some of our top family experiences from cowboy cookouts to animal encounters at the most popular parks. Tip: Most parks also have a Junior Ranger Program, where kids complete activities to earn a badge. In addition, check each park’s schedule for family-friendly activities such as star-gazing workshops and guided nature walks.

Grand Canyon National Park

Rim Trail. This flat, mostly paved 9-mi trail on the popular South Rim passes all the viewpoints from Mather Point to Hermits Rest. Along nearby Hermit Road in summer, shuttle service is a relaxing way to return back to the Canyon Village if anyone’s legs get tired.

Grand Cookout. On the North Rim, eat under the stars and enjoy live entertainment at this chuck-wagon-style dining experience.

Mule Rides. Even if you aren’t doing an overnight trip into the canyon to stay at Phantom Ranch, youngsters may appreciate short rides along the canyon’s edge. Age requirements vary, but children as young as 7 can participate in one-hour rides.

Desert View and Watchtower. Near the East entrance, this stop on Desert View Drive has a glass-enclosed observatory with powerful telescopes. An up-close view of the river and the dramatic stone-and-mortar watchtower make this a worthwhile stop as you leave or enter the park.

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Grand Teton National Park

Float the Snake. Climb aboard a big rubber raft and hang on for a float trip on the Snake River (not suitable for very young children).

Spot the Animals. On almost any trip to Grand Teton, you’ll see bison, antelope, and moose. Also watch for elk along the forest edge.

Mount a Horse. Rent a horse for a couple of hours, take a guided tour, or stay at a guest ranch where you can ride every day.

Ride a Stagecoach. Experience the Old West with a stagecoach ride around the Town Square in Jackson.

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Glacier National Park

Hidden Lake Nature Trail. This uphill, 1.5 mi, self-guided trail runs from Logan Pass southwest to Hidden Lake Overlook, from which you get a beautiful view of the lake and McDonald Valley. In spring, ribbons of water pour off the rocks surrounding the lake. A boardwalk protects the abundant wildflowers and spongy tundra on the way.

Lake McDonald. Rent a canoe and enjoy paddling around the lake. If you work up a sweat, you can go for a swim in the lake afterwards.

Climb Bear’s Hump. This 1.7-mi trail takes you from the Waterton Information Centre up the mountainside to an overlook with a great view of Upper Waterton Lake and the townsite.

A Surrey and a Swim. Rent a surrey bike at Pat’s Waterton store and enjoy peddling around the townsite. A surrey bike has a flat seat and a canopy and can hold up to three people, so it is great for families. Cool off afterwards with a swim in icy cold Waterton Lake.

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Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful. You’ll get a predictable schedule (approximately every 94 minutes) but potential crowds at this geyser—Yellowstone’s most famous.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The Yellowstone River cuts through the heart of the park; this 23-mi long canyon is best explored along the North and South Rim roads.

Historic Yellow Bus Tours. Restored in 2007, these colorful 1937 buses have tours ranging from one hour to one day. If it’s sunny, you’ll get to bask in the sun as you driver (and guide) rolls back the soft-top convertible.

Roosevelt Old West Cookout. Start with an hour-long trail ride or stagecoach ride before sitting down to a homey meal with live entertainment.

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Yosemite National Park

Photo Ops. Thanks to digital cameras, it’s easy to let junior shutterbugs run wild as they try to re-create Ansel Adams’s black-and-white masterpieces. Or encourage them to try their own take on the famous granite formations Half Dome and El Capitan.

Yosemite Falls Trail. It’s just a 0.25-mi trail to the base of the highest waterfall in North America, whose three cascades combine for a total drop of 2,425 ft. In May, visitors are likely to get soaked on this short route during the peak water flow.

Ahwahneechee Village. Use your imagination to make Yosemite’s Native American heritage come to life at this collection of re-created structures. Interpretive signs point out interesting facts such as how 19th century newcomers were referred to as "Yohemite," which may mean "some of them are killers."

Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. The largest of the park’s three sequoia groves, Mariposa’s massive trees—and their age—will especially awe pint-size visitors. Grizzly Giant’s base measures 96 ft around and is about 2,700 years old.

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Photo Credit: istock / Todd Keith

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