We are so fortunate to have a national system of almost 400 protected historical, urban, and natural sites spread throughout our country. Since 1916, the U.S. National Park Service has provided the world with many opportunities. Whether you’re a an outdoor enthusiast, history buff, or you just want to relax and unwind, there is something for everyone.
Visiting a National Park is a great destination for families, as they are affordable, family-friendly, and fun! Long before Addie was born, Kendra and I loved visiting National Parks. Now that we have a young child in tow, we love it even more! Here are our five favorite things to do in our National Parks.
Many of our national parks have incredible camping opportunities. Unlike commercial campgrounds, these tend to be smaller, more primitive campsites that offer incredible views and a closeness to nature that is unrivaled. Last summer, we took a five-week cross-country roadtrip and spent a lot of time camping in National Parks. At Great Sand Dunes National Park we woke up to deer ambling through the campsite, while at Mesa Verde National Park, we watched an incredible sunset fall over the mesas from the comfort of our picnic table.
I love hiking – there’s something very calming about the act, despite the sweating and muscle pain that often comes with a serious hike. National Parks offer incredible opportunities for hiking in myriad landscapes. We have climbed sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park, walked through cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, and hiked among Aspen trees and glacial lakes at Great Basin National Park. There are trails for hikers of all experiences and ages, from steep climbs up mountainsides to strolls along flat lands.
Our national parks offer more than just recreation opportunities for nature lovers. They are imbued with history, whether natural or human. In Yosemite National Park, we learned about the biology of Sequoia trees, at Lowell National Historical Park, we learned about the birth of the Industrial Revolution in America, and at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, we learned the history of racial segregation in American schools. National Parks offer the opportunity to learn about science, nature, astronomy, math, history, art, archaeology, and so much more. It is experiential learning at its best.
National Parks are a great place for kids to get dirty. They can play in mud, collect sticks, scoop sand, and roll down grassy hills. A rock found during a hike can become a great toy or a treasured keepsake. There are many National Parks that have creeks, streams, or lakes in which you can swim. Some are even on the ocean! Kids love natural play spaces, and with no prompting, always seem to find something that captures their interest.
5. Make Friends!
One of my favorite things about visiting National Parks is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. At Yosemite, we ate dinner with a lovely couple from California and a family from Belgium, and shared a campsite with Canadians. Walking along the rim of the Grand Canyon, we rarely heard English being spoken. At Great Sand Dunes National Park, we camped next to a Marine and his son. After helping them set up their new tent, we shared some of Kendra’s mom’s pound cake, and spent time just talking as the sun set over the dunes.
You also quickly learn how small the world really is – at Four Corners we met a family from Kendra’s hometown – they lived just a few streets over from her parent’s house. In Mesa Verde, when we pulled into the visitor’s center, we parked in between two other cars from Massachusetts. It turned out we all lived within 20 minutes of the other!
The personal connections you make with other visitors are incredible – and make the visit more fun and interesting than experiencing it alone.