Your kids will be always be just that — your kids. But technically, you only have 18 years to fit in a whole lifetime of memories before they graduate from school and walk freely into the adult world.
I would know: I’m a twenty-something who grew up in the adventure travel business. Visiting national parks provided wonderful memories synonymous with my childhood, so I’ve put together a list of the top 10 western national parks every kid should see before they graduate. I also added a few expert tips for fun things to do that are kid-approved — by me!
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is first on the list because it’s the ultimate national park for a family adventure. It’s easy to drive and find the iconic sites right along the “figure-8” loop: Old Faithful, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs, Grand Prismatic and Lake Yellowstone are right off the road. This park has something for everyone in the family to enjoy: dramatic landscapes, great hiking, geothermal features, fascinating wildlife.
Tip: Because Yellowstone’s iconic sites are right off the main road, this is also where the crowds and tour buses will be. Throw in a pair of hiking shoes, buy a can of bear spray and set out on a family hike on the 900 miles of trails in the park. If you don’t feel comfortable hiking in bear country, hire a guide — it’s worth it to experience Yellowstone without throngs of tourists.
Kenai Fjords National Park
If you want your kids to see climate change up close, you’ll want to check out this Alaska national park where mountains, ice and ocean collide. The only part of the park that is accessible by road is the Exit Glacier area: Your family can explore trails in a place where glaciers are constantly re-shaping the landscape.
Tip: Book a boat tour out of Seward to get out on the water, where you’ll spot abundant marine life like puffins, seals, sea lions, otters and whales. You’ll also cruise right up to a tidewater glacier where you can hear and feel the force of a glacier “calving,” something your kids won’t ever forget.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park in Utah is a place unlike any other. The massive sandstone cliffs soaring into brilliant blue skies are sure to create quite the impression with youngsters. With hiking opportunities for young kids up to older teens, this is the perfect place to spend an active vacation getting out into nature and making memories.
Tip: Young families may want to stick to trails like Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock for safety purposes. But families with teens should rent canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks and a walking stick for a trek up the Narrows, where you literally take a walk up the Virgin River, with walls towering over you that are a thousand-feet tall. You may cross the river in chest-deep water or even swim, depending on the time of year.
Grand Teton National Park
If you want to explore a park full of opportunities for different kinds of adventures, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is the perfect park for your family. Cycle miles of designated bike paths, kayak the crystal clear waters of Jackson Lake, or hike under the shadows of the Tetons, where you won’t see another soul.
Tip: Grab your binoculars and head out at dawn for a family wildlife safari on Antelope Flats or the Moose-Wilson Road. Look along the river and creek banks for moose, out on the open prairie for pronghorn for bison and along the tree line for bears.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park: home to jaw-dropping vistas of waterfall-adorned granite walls buttressing wide open glacially-carved Yosemite Valley. Giant sequoias as tall as skyscrapers jutting into the air. The shining lakes of the alpine wilderness begging to be photographed. What more could be asked for on a family vacation?
Tip: Book an introductory rock-climbing class for everyone in the family. Although rock climbing has a reputation as an extreme sport, in a highly controlled, low-risk environment, it’s easy to learn.
Arches National Park
One of Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks, Arches National Park lives up to its name with its 2,000 natural stone arches waiting for discovery, in addition to gigantic balanced rocks, massive fins and hundreds of soaring pinnacles. It’s a giant sandstone playground for kids (and kids at heart).
Tip: For a completely different experience, head to Arches at night to see the stars. The isolation from city lights makes it an out-of-this-world spot to stargaze. Milky Way, anyone?
Glacier National Park
Few places on earth rival the magnificent, pristine beauty of Glacier National Park. The glacially carved landscape has an authentically wild feel to it, with colorful rockscapes at the bottom of the clearest glassy mountain lakes you’ll ever see. Your kids’ jaws will drop as they drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road, which cuts dramatically across the park.
Tip: Book a Going-to-the-Sun Road tour by 1930s vintage red bus. This allows mom and dad to take in the spectacular scenery without having to focus on driving along the winding road, while the kids can ogle the views from the roll-back top.
Crater Lake National Park
Legend has it that when the first visitors to Crater Lake with color cameras took their photos to be developed, they were reimbursed for what Kodak thought was a printing error. Little did Kodak know that the impossibly blue hue of Oregon’s Crater Lake was, in fact, real. Your family will have to see it to believe it.
Tip: Take the Wizard Island National Park Service boat tour on Crater Lake to get up close and personal with the body of water this park is named for. Just getting to the dock is an adventure (a hike of 1.1 miles down and then back up, the equivalent of climbing 70 flights of stairs). But the tour is worth it, both to learn about the geology and history of the lake from a park ranger and to hike around Wizard Island’s volcanic cinder cone.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Even though it’s Utah’s smallest national park, Bryce Canyon delivers the biggest visual punch. With its sandcastle-like spires and hoodoos, your family will feel like in you’re living in a real-life rendition of a Dr. Seuss creation. When the sun lights up the landscape, you won’t be able to take your eyes off the blazing orange landscape.
Tip: Take a walk along the Rim Trail above the Bryce Amphitheater at dawn as the sun comes up. Yes, it’s early, but it’s oh so worth it. How often do busy families sit down and watch the sun rise on a typical morning back home?
Grand Canyon National Park
Every family needs to see the Grand Canyon, which truly captures the splendor and scale of the iconic American West with its dramatic overlooks, powerful Colorado River and stories of exploration. There isn’t anything comparable to arriving at the edge and taking it all in.
Tip: It’s amazing how many visitors to the Grand Canyon get out of their vehicle, snap a few photos and then depart the park as quickly as they whisked in. My advice: Go below the rim via the Bright Angel Trail or Kaibab Trail. Just remember: It’s easy to go down but you still have to hike back up.
This story was supplied by Kasey Austin of Austin Adventures.