1. Plan ahead. At many parks, rooms and campsites fill up fast, so make your reservations as early as you can. Many parks will have every room and campsite booked several months in advance (weekends are especially popular). We recommend booking at least six months ahead, and more if you plan to visit one of the more popular parks, such as Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, or 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 the national parks have websites—links to all of them are at the National Park Service page, www.nps.gov.
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. 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 will help get them excited beforehand and will likely make them feel like they have a say and a stake in the trip. Discuss the park’s attractions and give your kids a choice of two or three options (that are all amenable to you, of course). Many of the parks’ Web pages have a “For Kids” link, with helpful advice and suggestions.
3. Know your children. Consider your child’s interests. 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 an appropriate destination. 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, be realistic about your child’s stamina and ability. If your children have never been hiking, don’t expect them to be able to do a long hike at a higher altitude than they are used to. Remember: Children’s first experience hiking can make them a lover or a hater of the activity, so start off slowly and try some practice hikes near home.
4. Pack wisely. Be sure you’re bringing kid-size versions of the necessities you’ll pack for yourself. Depending on the park you’re visiting (and the activities you’re planning), that will probably include sturdy sandals or hiking shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen, and insect repellent. 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.
5. Develop a Plan B. National parks are natural places, meaning they change dramatically with the seasons and the weather, so you should plan 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.