There’s never really a bad time to take the family on a trip to one (or more!) of the country’s stunning national parks, but now is an incredibly opportune time to start planning your next group getaway to the great outdoors. The National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary this summer, meaning there's no shortage of special events at all 406 parks throughout the year. Not sure which national park is right for your family? We’ve rounded up the twenty best family-friendly national parks in America. It’s worth noting that, at all of these parks, your kids (ages 5–13) can partake in the Junior Rangers program, which involves educational activities based on the park’s topography and biology. Tall trees, active volcanoes, and awe-inspiring caves await you on your next incredible family getaway, so start planning today!—Zachary Laks
Haleakala National Park
A protected paradise, Haleakalā National Park attracts over 1 million yearly visitors with its famous Haleakalā Crater drive. The day starts super early for those looking to catch the incredible sunrise from the top of the crater, as the drive to the top takes an average of two hours. Once at the apex, be prepared for the temperatures to drop considerably, given that the elevation is just over 10,000 feet. Plan on spending some time exploring the crater and taking in the panoramic views before heading back down to the park’s Kīpahulu District, where a hike on Pipiwai Trail through a bamboo forest builds anticipation for an encounter with the 400-foot-high Waimoku Falls.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Haleakala National Park Travel Guide
Channel Islands National Park
Five islands off the coast of Ventura, California, make up Channel Islands National Park, a great park for families seeking low-key outdoor recreation. A day here should begin with a fun boat trip charted by Island Packers during which, depending on the season, blue whales are known to make appearances. Day trips are best on Santa Rosa Island, an uninhabited and untouched animal sanctuary, with the Cherry Canyon trail considered a favorite five-mile trail.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Channel Islands National Park Travel Guide
Shenandoah National Park
Encompassing part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park covers nearly 200,000 acres in central and western Virginia. Only 75 miles from the nation’s capital, the park’s Skyline Drive scenic highway is a popular destination for families visiting D.C. The 105-mile drive weaves through the blue-tinted mountains (the color comes from isoprene emitted from the mountain’s trees), and there are an unbelievable 75 scenic overlooks along the route. The drive can become an all-day family activity thanks to hikes to waterfalls, such as the one to Dark Hollow Falls (1.4 miles round-trip), and kid-friendly attractions like the Luray Caverns (ten miles from the route; $26 for adults, $14 for ages 6–12), a cave system that dazzles with its stalactites and stalagmites.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Shenandoah National Park Travel Guide
Redwood National Park
Stretching for what seems like a mile into the sky, the trees of Redwood National Park stand as the tallest in the world, and you can marvel at them on easy hikes throughout. A visit to this park with the family is perhaps best spent on the Davison Road to Fern Canyon driving tour: The two-hour round-trip drive starts at Berry Glenn and heads northwest through the forest before reaching a breathtaking three-mile coastline drive. The endpoint, Fern Canyon, is a perfect place for kids to splash around in a small creek framed by walls covered in five varieties of fern.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Redwood National Park Travel Guide
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park features the highlights of Colorado’s high-altitude topography in a condensed, 415-square-mile expanse. Camping culture is prevalent throughout the park, with no shortage of family-friendly campgrounds. Abundant wildlife includes bighorn sheep that descend from the mountains periodically throughout the summer, beavers, elk, and moose, as well as the rarer grizzly bears, lynxes, and wolverines. Hikes range from beginner trails to advanced mountain climbs, with one of the simplest being Adams Falls, a third-of-a-mile trail ideal for the whole family to enjoy rushing whitewater falls.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rocky Mountain National Park Travel Guide
Yosemite National Park
Known for its waterfalls, granite cliffs, and clear streams, Yosemite National Park covers 747,000 acres of eastern California, bordering Nevada, and was the third most-visited national park in 2014 with 3.8 million visitors. The park goes above and beyond in welcoming families, namely with their customized Great Yosemite Family Adventure experience ($7.50 per participant, $30 family rate plus $7.50 GPS rental fee). Families team up to navigate three miles of trails throughout the park with a hand-held GPS, uncovering history and stories from the past and secret treasures set within the mountains along the way. Even if you don’t partake, Yosemite’s gushing waterfalls and scenic valleys will keep you occupied.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Yosemite National Park Travel Guide
Everglades National Park
The largest subtropical wilderness area in the United States, Everglades National Park guarantees encounters with wildlife such as alligators, manatees, and the Florida panther in swamps and wetlands. Families seeking an adventure should hop on one of the area’s airboats for access to the farthest reaches of the park. For those looking to get a bit more active, rent a bike ($9/hour) and explore Shark Valley, a flat, fifteen-mile paved loop. (Note that bikes often sell out quickly on the weekends so plan on arriving early in the day.) Other fun options for visitors of all ages include ranger-led hikes, bird-watching tours, and canoe trips.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Everglades Travel Guide
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Seeing a fifty-foot-long, forty-ton humpback whale breach from the still waters of Glacier Bay is a memory that won’t soon be forgotten by you or your children. Whale breaches come often at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, where over three million acres of frozen tundra and glaciers welcome an average 500,000 visitors a year. Boat rides through the glacial fjords and icy mountain peaks provide picture-perfect access to the region’s native marine life, and park rangers come on board to share their expertise. While larger cruises have grown in popularity, smaller whale-watching boats are best for families seeking out the park’s star attractions, namely sea lions, seals, sea otters, porpoises, and orcas.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Glacier Bay National Park Travel Guide
Grand Canyon National Park
There’s no photo that can capture the magnificent scope of America’s iconic Grand Canyon National Park, so you’re going to have to see it in person. Fortunately, the views are impressive no matter how old or young you are. Your time in the park is likely to be spent seeking out the best views of the canyon, wondrous in its multi-colored orange and red layers, at a length of 277 miles. For the best views, opt for Desert View Drive along the southern of the canyon, where a twenty-five-mile stretch features six canyon viewpoints and four picnic areas, perfect for unforgettable al fresco dining.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Grand Canyon Travel Guide
Acadia National Park
The sound of water crashing against Thunder Hole is a natural wonder to behold for all ages, perfect for families visiting Acadia National Park. Its Cadillac Mountain reaches an elevation of 1,528 feet; there are several hiking trails to the summit, but there is also a paved road for cars, perfect if you have little ones in tow. For the quintessential experience, arrive early as the mountain is the first place in the U.S. that sees the sunrise every morning in the fall and winter months. In warmer seasons, there are a number of activities for kids and adults to partake in, including biking on carriage roads and dipping into the chilly waters at one of two sand beaches.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Acadia National Park Travel Guide
Arches National Park
The grand expanse of a desert dotted with more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches attracts an international crowd to behold the mystic beauty of Arches National Park. Kids delight at the high-reaching natural rock formations, literally jumping at the chance to scramble on the many rock-filled hikes throughout the park, most of which can be seen via car paired with short hikes. If you’re looking for just the highlights on your visit, don’t miss the Delicate Arch, the Fiery Furnace, and the Landscape Arch. If you want more, go rafting on the Colorado River or mountain biking over slickrock trails.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Arches National Park Travel Guide
Kenai Fjords National Park
Kenai Fjords National Park covers more than 650,000 acres of southern Alaska; the ice-walled fjords and rocky coastline are home to nearly two dozen species of seabirds, most notably the playful clown-faced puffin. The park, known for the Harding Icefield (714 square miles of ice, with sections up to a mile thick), is best explored by families on a boat tour, where kids will delight at spotting sea otters and sea lions. The park’s Exit Glacier is car-accessible and offers easy trails and ranger-led walks.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Kenai Fjords National Park Travel Guide
Bryce Canyon National Park
Naturally occurring red, orange, and white rock formations known as hoodoos are the main attraction at Bryce Canyon National Park, a smaller national park that attracted 1.4 million visitors in 2014. Easy hikes for families, such as the Navajo Loop and Queens Garden, offer scenic routes for exploring eroded cliffs and stones. Stop into Ruby’s Inn, located at the entrance to the park, to make the most of your trip with horseback rides, ATV tours, and a rodeo in the summer showcasing the best in local cowboy talent, four nights a week.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bryce Canyon National Park Travel Guide
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The most-visited national park in 2014 by over five million visits (10 million visitors, with Grand Canyon National Park coming in second place with 4.7 million visits), Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts families with its waterfalls, swimming holes, and horseback rides. Kick back and relax at Deep Creek, a popular tubing spot in the park where a few local vendors offer tubing packages and rentals that start as low as $5 per day. Located a short drive away from the towns of Gatlinburg, Sevierville, and Pigeon Forge, the park can easily be visited as part of a family weekend that also includes classic kids’ amusements such as go-karts, mini-golf, and quirky museums.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide
Capitol Reef National Park
Stretching across 100 miles in southern Utah, Capitol Reef National Park welcomes families to explore the brilliantly colored canyons and ridges plus the Waterpocket Fold, a giant wrinkle in the earth that extends a hundred miles between Thousand Lake Mountain and Lake Powell. The Ripple Rock Nature Center opens its doors to families from the end of May through early September, featuring interactive activities like spinning wool, grinding cornmeal, and playtime with a few fun animal puppets. Depending on the season, the storied orchards of Fruita allow you to come and harvest the likes of cherries, apricots, peaches, and apples alongside wild mule deer. There’s even historic rock art, pictographs and petroglyphs left by the Freemont people, who lived here from AD 700 to 1300.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Capitol Reef National Park Travel Guide
Grand Teton National Park
The snowcapped peaks of Grand Teton National Park are synonymous with Wyoming, a tranquil setting sought out by mountaineering gurus. To cover the most ground with the family, hop in the car for a scenic drive on Signal Mountain Summit Road and ascend 800 feet for 360-views of the Tetons and Jackson Hole. Continue the day with the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive, a winding drive that hugs the edge of glacier-formed Jenny Lake. Throughout the park, there are scenic drives and easy hikes that make the most of the natural beauty.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Grand Teton National Park Travel Guide
Zion National Park
Utah’s Zion National Park remains a family favorite for a few less-obvious reasons than its jaw-dropping Zion Canyon, a fifteen-mile-long, red-and-tan-colored natural wonder. Free shuttle service makes it easy for families to get around the park to a web of hiking trails. Start the day on the Weeping Rock trail, a perfect starter hike (half a mile, paved) followed by Emerald Pools (two miles), a more ambitious trail that leads to a watering hole where you’re not supposed to swim, but many people do. Adventurous teens may enjoy testing their mettle on the strenuous Angel’s Landing trail, while younger kids will enjoy splashing around in the Virgin River.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Zion National Park Travel Guide
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful has continuously unleashed its spray of boiling water approximately every 90 minutes since at least 1870, when explorers christened the spout. As one of the world’s most predictable geographical occurrences, the park authorities do their best to announce estimated wait times for the next occurrence. The rest of the nearly 3,500-square-mile park caters to families with historic lodging options (including Old Faithful Inn, which has National Historic Landmark status) and great hikes for the family. For an extended hike, the Emerald Lake trail is 3.8 miles long and passes three lakes, while Sundance Mountain is a shorter, mile-long round trip that affords incredible views at 12,466 feet, if you can handle the high altitude.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Yellowstone National Park Travel Guide
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the most dynamic and unpredictable national park in the country. The park is a family favorite, providing incredible access to views of volcanoes as they spew molten lava in transfixing shades of red and orange. Witness the topography of the park change daily thanks to Kilauea (the volcano), which has continuously erupted since 1994. The looping Crater Rim Drive is the quintessential family experience at the park, as it provides impressive views of Kilauea, the Halemaumau Crater, and the Kilauea Iki Crater Overlook.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Travel Guide
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Known for its literal highs and lows, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks attracts families who come to gawk at gigantic Sequoia trees and underground rock formations in caves. Start your visit by descending into the depths of Crystal Cave (open May through November), where calcite formations resembling icicles set the scene for an adventure filled with fossils and colorful marble deposits that are sure to enchant the younger set. Once you’re back above ground, enjoy marveling at some of the world’s tallest trees.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Travel Guide