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National Parks offer top destinations across the U.S. for families. It’s an iconic vacation, a road trip with the kids, their snacks and the jewels of the continent. This National Parks loving TravelingMom has visited national parks across North America. This is her guide to the best US national parks to see mountains, caves, volcanoes, the ocean, sand dunes and more.
Load up the kids and take an All-American road trip to a US National Park in your state or across the country. It will be a road trip the kids will remember forever, so pack snacks and grab some gear.
TravelingMom Tip: Before you go, explore the US National Parks Junior Ranger Program. It’s the way to keep kids engaged and learning without even realizing they’re learning!
Best US National Parks for Everyone
The country’s first national park, Yellowstone is the home to the famous
Old Faithful Geyser and Old Faithful Inn. The park is bigger than Rhode Island. Since kids love animals drive through Hayden or Lamar Valley for bison, bear, elk or even wolves. Located in northwest Wyoming and northeast of Salt Lake City.
With waterfalls, wildflower meadows and mountaintop vistas the Yosemite Valley inspires everyone, including photographer Ansel Adams and naturalist John Muir. Located in the central Sierra Nevada mountain range of California and east of San Francisco, Yosemite offers a convenient location and epic landscapes.
Learn about the tallest living creatures in the world. The best place to see the redwoods is in Northern California, close to the border of California and Oregon.
During the summer, the South Rim seems like the international terminal of JFK with visitors from around the globe. Stay for a few hours or for a few days. The Grand Canyon offers hikes and views for everyone. Located in northern Arizona, north of Phoenix and about an hour’s drive from Interstate 40.
An iconic image that most Americans know. To experience the magnitude of the sculpture, stand in front of it. Don’t think of Mt. Rushmore as a quick road trip stop. The Black Hills of South Dakota offers several days of western adventure for families in southeast South Dakota, north of Denver, Colorado.
US National Parks in the Biggest Cities
Don’t think all national parks are all big landscapes and wilderness. National Park sites can be found in urban areas, like New York City. Did you know that the Statue of Liberty is actually a national park?
Lady Liberty is on your list, but what about the other 10 National Park sites? Visit Ellis Island Immigration Museum or the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum for a deeper look into immigrants and their history.
Offering a maze of American History that you should walk to understand. Start in the Boston Common, the park in the center of the city, to find the red line painted on the sidewalk. The Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile urban trail, will walk kids through the American Revolution.
Another vibrant city with postcard landscapes, San Francisco offers a handful of national park sites. Don’t forget San Francisco’s icons, like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, both national parks.
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Best US National Parks for Mountain Getaways
When you’re hot and tired at home, it’s time to load up the car and head for the hills. The mountains offer cooler summer temperatures, even in August.
Drive the Trail Ridge Road and drive on the top of the world. It’s 12,000 feet above sea-level and surrounded by peaks reaching 14,000 feet. See elk, mountain goats and marmots during the summer. Located west of Denver, it offers two separate entrances.
Along with Diving-to-the-Sun Road, hop onboard a wood boat to cruise the Lake MacDonald or stay in the historic Many Glacier Lodge. Located on the Canadian border of Montana.
Grand Teton National Park
The craggy peaks of the Tetons reflect off the lakes at the base. Find moose, elk and bear across the park. Located north of Jackson, Wyoming, and south of Yellowstone National Park.
Straddling Tennessee and North Carolina, drive along ridge after ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. The most visited national park in the US National Park System offers a treed oasis on the East Coast.
Denali National Park
There’s no lodge in this Alaska park, but you can camp. Rules allow private vehicles to drive in only the first 15 miles. After that, you need to board a bus to see the rest.
Best US National US Parks for Hiking
Known for its steep red cliffs, emerald pools, and waterfalls, it’s one of the most popular national parks in the United States. With a variety of hiking trails, it’s ideal for solo travelers, families, and any age group.
You can take in much of the splendor of this park near Moab, Utah, from the window of your car. But why would you when pull-off parking lots are numerous, and these typically provide very short hikes to see these fantastic structures up close. Arches is perfect for a day of outdoor adventure spent rock “climbing” (more like scrambling) and short, easy trail access to impressive arches. Canyonlands National Park is close by. If you are up for it, it is actually doable to visit both on the same day.
There are a variety of family-friendly hiking trails here. One of our favorites is the Queen’s Loop Trail. Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos, spires and red rock colors contrast with the vivid pine greens for Instagram-worthy shots everywhere you look.
Sequoia National Park
Here you can take a wheelchair-accessible trail to see the world’s largest tree, the General Sherman giant sequoia, which is wider than a city street.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Named for the 26th US president, this North Dakota park, offers a variety of hiking trails, from easy to rugged.
Shenandoah National Park
This park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia includes a section of the ultimate hiking trail: the Appalachian Trail. Mostly forested, hike with the kids to the waterfalls and rocky peaks like Hawksbill and Old Rag mountains. Keep an eye along the way for the elusive black bear.
Haleakala National Park
Hike the backcountry at the Maui national park to see the stark volcanic landscapes and sub-tropical rain forest.
Badlands National Park
The rock formation here and found along the Needles Highway are like nothing anywhere else. Stop often on the drive to take one of the short hikes into the Badlands. Come prepared: Bring water, sunscreen and hats.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Just outside the urban areas of Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, has more than 125 miles of hiking trails, many of which wind along the Cuyahoga River.
Best US National Parks for Volcanoes
Since kids love things that explode, visit a national park dedicated to volcanoes.
Do you remember seeing it exploding on TV? It was the most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history. But it’s recovering and now a place of research. Located in southern Washington state, it’s north of Portland, Oregon.
Mount Rainier National Park
At the center of the park, Mount Rainier rises 14,000 feet and is an active volcano. It’s also the most glaciated peak in the lower 48. Located southeast of Seattle, on clear days you can see it from the Space Needle.
Newberry Volcanic National Monument
With plains of lava, piles of lava and a tube made from lava, it’s your destination if your kids are fascinated by all things lava. Even climb a cinder cone, a giant pile of lava. Located in central Oregon, it’s near Bend.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
For a pretty park that offers volcanoes, head to Lassen. With smaller crowds, it’s just as scenic as its California neighbors, Yosemite and Sequoia. Located in northern California, east of Redding.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
This park protects some of the most unique geological, biological, and cultural landscapes in the world. Extending from sea level to 13,677 feet, the park encompasses the summits of two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.
Crater Lake National Park
The only national park in Oregon, is the fifth-oldest national park in the United States. This majestic lake was formed 7,700 years ago when a violent volcanic eruption triggered the collapse of a tall peak to form the deepest lake in the USA.
Best US National Parks to See Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Huge snow-capped mountains flanked the dunes all around and a snow melt creek ran in the front. But that’s not all. Great Sand Dunes National Park has adventures for everyone from hiking and backpacking to tubing Medano Creek, sandboarding and sand sledding to Junior Ranger programs.
Indiana Dunes National Park
The 61st national park was elevated to that status in 2019. It has 15 miles of beaches just a hour east of Chicago along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Climb the ancient dunes for amazing views of Chicago’s skyline.
Best US National Parks to Learn about the Ocean
Who doesn’t love the beach or animals? Learn about both at a National Park site.
As a year-round outdoor destination, it boasts rugged coasts dotted with tide pools, hidden trails meandering through temperate rain forests and mountaintop meadows perfumed with wildflowers all within two hours of Seattle, Washington.
Offering moments of wonderment when kids spot a star fish or anemones at one of the top spots to tide pool in San Diego. Then learn about explorer Cabrillo who landed in San Diego in 1542.
Visit the six-mile rocky beach, known for its orca viewing on the Strait of Juan de Fuca at American Camp. Located on San Juan Island, a ferry ride from Seattle.
As the oldest national park on the east coast, Acadia offers a look at the marine life of the Atlantic. Located on the Maine coast, near Bar Harbor.
Channel Islands National Park
This central California coastal park includes five of the eight Channel Islands and the surrounding one mile of the Pacific Ocean. You can hike and camp here, but the water is the big draw.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Seventy miles west of Key West, Florida, Dry Tortugas is a remote 100-square-mile national park that consists of seven small islands and open water. Getting there is half the fun — you can take a boat or seaplane. Once you arrive, explore the 19th century Fort Jefferson then spend the rest of your family vacation snorkeling among the reefs.
OK, not really on the ocean, but this water-based national park is the place to teach kids about the interconnected world. Take the kids on a thrilling airboat ride to experience the wonder and see the alligators up close.
Best National Parks to Explore Caves
Go underground to explore with the kids. Caves offer cool environments in the summer, away from the heat and the sun. Remember that jacket; it gets chilly underground.
Visit the longest known cave system in the world. Mammoth boasts 400 miles of charted caves. Located in central Kentucky, north of Bowling Green.
With two caves within miles of each other, the Black Hills offers some of the best caves. Hike through Wind Cave National Park on one day then follow up at Jewel Cave National Monument the next.
Walk through the Big Room, the largest cave cavity in North America. Then see the Mexican Free Tail Bats exit the cave in the evening. Located on the New Mexico and Texas border, east of El Paso.
Discover the marble halls of Oregon with your kids. Book a night at the historic lodge to end the day in the evergreen forest. Located in southern Oregon.
Best US National Parks in the Desert
Since all deserts aren’t the same don’t let the desert scare you. It’s an amazingly diverse and vibrant landscape to explore. The rim of the Grand Canyon is comfortable in the summer though the bottom of the canyon can reach over 100 degrees F.
For the rest of the desert national parks, it’s best to visit them during the school year. With temperatures over 120 F, the risk is too great for kids.
Home the Chihuahua desert, Big Bend borders Mexico along the Rio Grande. It’s the greenest of the deserts and offers a remote location for night sky viewing.
Saguaro National Park
When I think of the desert, I see saguaro cactus with its iconic cactus shape. With two different locations around Tucson, Arizona, the eastern portion offers more saguaro though the western location offers a more convenient location off Interstate 10.
Discover two different desert ecosystems in a park that’s easy to explore from a car. Find the Joshua Trees and the teddy bear cactus but don’t touch. Easy side trip from Palm Springs, California.
As a land of extremes, it’s home to the lowest point in North America, 282-feet below sea level. And the highest air temperature ever recorded happened in California at the Furnace Creek Resort in 1913. The thermometer topped 134 F! Located east of Los Angeles.
Best US National Parks to See Summer Snow
Kids want to play in the snow in the summer. Seriously. Throwing a snowball in the summer is fun. Head to national parks that boast glaciers for a chance to see summer snow.
Known as the Crown of the Continent since it’s located on the Canadian border of Montana. Drive the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road to see the highlights though check to see if it’s plowed first. Sometimes it doesn’t open until late June.
Not just tide pools and rain forests. Head to Mount Olympus to see its glaciers. Located a couple hours west from Seattle.
Glacier Bay National Park
See 50 named glaciers on an Alaskan cruise with the kids. Park Rangers climb onboard with passport stamps and Junior Ranger booklets. See icebergs and calving glaciers while spending a day sailing among seals and other wildlife.
Don’t Forget about Washington, D.C.
Can’t throw a stone without hitting a monument or memorial. Stay a week and still not see all the US National Park Service sites that include The White House, or Presidents Park.
- Washington Monument
- Lincoln Memorial
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
- Jefferson Memorial
Most Luxurious US National Park Lodges
When you think about staying in a national park, do you think it’s all camping and RVs? Not so! The National Park Service offers some luxurious lodging too.
Find the glamorous still lounging by the legendary pool, sipping cocktails and hiding under large chapeaus, sometimes shining brighter than the nighttime stars overhead.
In Yellowstone National Park, its premier property offers a lodge reminiscent of grand East Coast hotels. Find white tablecloths in the dining room and a pianist in the lobby.
Jenny Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park
Stay in a rustic cabin dressed with peeled pine furnishings and hand-crafted quilts. Use a complimentary cruiser to tour the park. Then end the day at the five-course dinner in the dining room with a view of the Tetons.
Kid Fun in National Parks
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about a National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the park rangers present them after completing their booklets.
National Park Service Annual Passes
If you plan to visit a few national parks this year, then an America the Beautiful Pass might be for you.
|Type of Pass||Eligibility||Cost|
|America the Beautiful Pass||All visitors||$80 annual|
|Military Pass||Current U.S. military members and their dependents||Free|
|Every Kid in a Park Pass||U.S. fourth-grade students that complete requirements at EveryKidinaPark.gov||Free
|Senior Lifetime Pass||U.S. citizens and permanent residents 62 years and older||$80 Lifetime|
|Access Pass||U.S. citizens and permanent residents with a permanent disability||Free|
|Volunteer Pass||Visitors volunteering 250 hours a year||Free annual|
Tips for Visiting US National Parks
- National Parks are popular destinations during school breaks and holidays.
- Lodging reservations are available 13 months in advance; make them as soon as possible.
- Parking can be an issue at popular destinations during the middle of the day, try in the morning and late afternoon.
- Since many features feature barricades kids can climb over, watch your children at all times.
- Since wild animals are unpredictable, give them space and don’t feed them.
- Bring food and refillable water bottles for your visit. Food service can be limited.
- Know your personal limits and the limits of your equipment.
US National Parks by State
- Denali National Park
- Gates of the Arctic National Park
- Glacier Bay National Park
- Katmai National Park
- Kenai Fjords National Park
- Kobuk Valley National Park
- Lake Clark National Park
- Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
National Park of American Samoa
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Saguaro National Park
- Hot Springs National Park
- Channel Islands National Park
- Death Valley National Park, (also in Nevada)
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Kings Canyon National Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Pinnacles National Park
- Redwood National Park
- Sequoia National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Biscayne National Park
- Dry Tortugas National Park
- Everglades National Park
- Haleakala National Park
- Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
- Yellowstone National Park (also in Montana and Wyoming)
- Mammoth Cave National Park
- Gateway Arch National Park (also in Missouri)
- Indiana Dunes National Park
- Acadia National Park
- Isle Royale National Park
- Voyageurs National Park
- Gateway Arch National Park (also in Illinois)
- Glacier National Park
- Yellowstone National Park (also in Idaho and Wyoming)
- Death Valley National Park (also in California)
- Great Basin National Park
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park (also in Tennessee)
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- Crater Lake National Park
- Congaree National Park
- Badlands National Park
- Wind Cave National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park (also in North Carolina)
- Big Bend National Park
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Arches National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Zion National Park
- Virgin Islands National Park
- Shenandoah National Park
- Mount Rainier National Park
- North Cascades National Park
- Olympic National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Yellowstone National Park (also in Idaho and Montana)