Top national parks in the US
Feeling a bit caught up in the bright city lights and chaos? Nothing sounds more grounding than turning off the devices and heading on a family trip to a US national park.
But with 58 beautiful parks to choose from, this magical outdoor vacation needs some planning.
Grand Canyon National Park
Majority of the Grand Canyon’s six million yearly visitors flood to the central lookout. But the national park hosts a further 4926 km² of sublime beauty to explore.
From gentle day walks to the arduous RIM2RIM, the park has a large variety of trails. Even better, under 16s stay free at all Grand Canyon lodgings.
Kids can become Junior Rangers by completing the activity book and taking a pledge at the visitor centre – it’s free. Interactive drawing and writing activities encourage the little ones to learn about nature, history and preservation.
While the North Rim does have an abundance of trails, the South Rim is recommended for travelling with kids. There’s more to do on this side, and day tours run from Phoenix and Las Vegas.
The Rim Trail offers spectacular views of the inner canyon, and shuttle buses can help manage the length of your hike. For an easier trek, Cape Royal is a gentle yet rewarding hike on the South Rim, perfect for sunset picnics.
The park has plenty more to do than hiking. Try horseback riding, white water rafting or hire bikes and ride the greenway trail.
For those driving, 4×4’s can descent the bottom of the Canyon and stay at the Bright Angel Campground. It takes about five hours to drive around the national park.
Size: 4,926 km²
Average accomodation: $350
Recommended Time: Three days
High Season: May – Sep
Best time to go: April, September – October
Great for: 6 and up
Olympic National Park
How did mum ever expect you to conquer a national park without a Discovery Backpack? At Olympic, little adventurers are equipped with binoculars, a whistle and a torch to explore the one million acres of diverse wilderness.
Nestled in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, two hours from Seattle, the national park is great for overnight trips or a full week of adventure.
Most of the parks campsites don’t take reservations so there’s no need to commit to a certain route. It is one of the cheaper and easier parks to get a permit, making it perfect for the more spontaneous of planners.
A coastal cycle is a great way to tour the beautiful beaches, or explore the rainforest and mountains trails on foot.
Hurricane Ridge is one of the most scenic climbs in the US. There are varied routes for different hiking abilities, so you’ll have no trouble getting there.
Rialto Beach and Hall of the Mosses are both great day walks for confident hikers. For something more gentle, the Ruby Beach trail rewards a well deserved dip in the water.
Size: 3,734 km²
Average accomodation: $191
Recommended time: A week
High season: May – Oct
Best time to go: April – May, July – Sept
Great for: All ages
Yosemite National Park
With some of America’s most beautiful alpine tree views and rainbow skies, Yosemite is perfect for families who don’t want to travel too far off the beaten track. Nestled in the Western Sierra Nevada mountains of California, the National park covers 3027 km² and is accessible from San Francisco and Los Angeles.
There are plenty of short hikes for families with younger kids, meaning less blisters and less grumbling.
The Lower Yosemite Falls Trail is a magical (but wet) 1.6km round trip that rewards sensational views. It can be tackled easily in a day, with plenty of time to stop at the many exhibits and learn more about the natural and cultural history of the area.
Head to the Swinging bridge after a long day of walking for a much deserved cool off in the swimming hole.
For a more difficult hike, the Mist Trail continues to the Nevada falls and on a clear day boasts double rainbows. The hike is mostly stairs though, so bring plenty of water and a good pair of boots.
If you’re driving, it’s worth getting up before sunrise for the 62 kilometres of scenic alpine views on Tioga Road.
Size: 3027 km²
Average accomodation: $357
Recommended time: Three days is enough to do everything, but a week is great for those who want to take it slow.
High season: May – Sept
Best time to go: March – May, Sept – Oct
Great for: ages 7 and up
Arches National Park
Arches, true to its name, is a mystical oasis of red rock formations. While you can take several days to see the park, it is perfect for those who have 2 or 3 hours to detour.
The national park is located in Eastern Utah and stretches 310 square kilometres. The 29km drive through Arches is one of the most scenic in the US and can be done in about three hours. This allows for multiple stops throughout the journey with short walks to popular attractions along the way.
Arches is great for beginners, or those who aren’t up for long and strenuous hikes.
Stops such as Balanced Rock provide great half kilometre round trips that let you gauge how far the little ones can go. For a more difficult hike, Delicate Arch is a 4.6km back trail that features beautiful wild flowers and scenic views.
If you are staying for longer, you can also try mountain biking, rafting or horseback riding.
On the way home be sure to stop at Cisco for some creepy photos of the ghost town featured in Thelma & Louise and Vanishing Point.
Abandoned house in the ghost town of Cisco. Picture: Elizabethmaher / Shutterstock.
Size: 310.3 km²
Average accomodation: $121
Recommended time: A day
High season: May – Sept
Best time to go: April, Sept – November
Great for: Toddlers and young kids. Aches beginner trails are perfect for parents that may need to carry the little ones.
Zion National Park
Utah’s first national park is adored by little adventurers for it’s supernatural rock formations and vibrant mazes of water. Hike through 150 million years of history – Zion’s hanging valleys and canyons full of wildlife mean I spy with my little eye isn’t limited to the same three things.
Zion is not a drive through park, but the Canyon Scenic Route provides spectacular sunset views on the way in and out.
The parks free shuttle system loops Zion Canyon and drops you to the most popular areas, including Checkerboard Mesa and Weeping Rock.
Family ranger programs are also free and specially designed to teach kids about wildlife and human history.
The Emerald Pools trail guides you through three kilometres of fairytale forests, and as the name suggests, leads to caves full of glittering mermaid pools. For a more adventurous trail, The Narrows is a rewarding maze of rocky gorges and pink sandstone walls.
Size: 593.3 km²
Average accomodation: $229
Recommended time: 5 – 7 days. Avid hikers may wish to stay longer and try the more strenuous hikes.
High season: April – October
Best time to go: April, Oct
Great for: ages 7 and up
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone has always be known as the home of Yogi Bear. But America’s oldest national park is also brimming with hiking trails, heavenly waterfalls and forests full of natural wonders.
The park is a diverse 8,991 km² spread of volcanic and alpine wilderness that stretches across three states. It’s scale means there is plenty to do with kids of all ages.
Natural hot springs and thermal features fill the park, a great way to relax after a long day of walking or cycling. The Boiling River is a popular spot for bathing, or for something a little colder; you can try brave the Firehole River further upstream.
The Grand Prismatic Springs are a must-do in Yellowstone. It’s well worth the wait for a parking spot at midday when the colours shine the brightest. The Upper Geyser Basin Trail is flat trail accessible for strollers, and you’re guaranteed to see geyser eruptions. See how many Byson you can spot in large range of wildlife at Lamar Valley, just outside of Yellowstone.
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