Are you looking to take your family on a vacation that doesn’t involve paying expensive entrance fees to dubious tourist attractions and endlessly trying to wrestle your teenager’s smartphone out of their hands? Look no further than America’s National Parks.
National Parks are extremely budget-friendly ($35 per week for the whole family), offer breathtaking sights that are enjoyable and educational at any age and get your kids outdoors doing healthy activities. Best of all, many of them have virtually no cell service, so those ubiquitous smartphones simply become really expensive rectangles. National Parks vary wildly in terms of accessibility and features, but our pick of the best National Parks for families are accessible, even if you don’t own hiking boots, they often have superb infrastructure and always boast sensational sights and wildlife to keep everyone entertained.
1. Yosemite, California
Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous National Parks and rightfully so. Yosemite Valley cuts 3,500ft deep into the earth and is walled by massive granite summits like El Capitan and Half Dome. The glacier carved valley creates some of the longest and most stunning waterfalls you will ever see cascading over the edge of steep granite cliffs and its 1200 acres are also home to colorful wildflower meadows and peaceful giant sequoia groves. Incredibly, all of this is just a four hour drive from San Francisco, or just over an hour from Fresno, home to an international airport. Owing to its accessibility and popularity, Yosemite has incredible infrastructure including developed campgrounds and cabins, restaurants and shops, free shuttle buses and even some paved trails to landmark spots like lower Yosemite Falls, Tuolumne Grove and Mirror Lake. All of this makes it ideal for the whole family.
2. Grand Canyon, Arizona
Any kid will be blown away by the sheer magnitude of this iconic spot. Grand Canyon National Park is about a three-and-a-half hour drive from Phoenix, four-and-a-half from Las Vegas. The canyon was carved by the Colorado River on its journey from the Rockies to the Gulf of California, though at over a mile deep you can rarely see it. The canyon is 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide, making it one of the biggest canyons in the world. Although hiking down into the canyon is a strenuous and lengthy endeavor, the flat, paved rim trail has all the best views and is perfect for people of all ages to explore on foot or bicycle.
3. Yellowstone, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park is famous for its spouting geysers and abundant opportunities to view exciting wildlife like bison, bears and wolves, so it’s a veritable playground for kids and adults alike. The best known feature in the park is Old Faithful, one of 500 or so erupting hot springs), but it’s also home to more than 10,000 other hydrothermal features, 290 waterfalls and the largest high elevation lake in North America.
4. Everglades, Florida
Your kids will love boating or kayaking through the Florida Everglades seeking glimpses of crocodiles, alligators, manatees, turtles and panthers. Everglades is a wetlands preserve on the southern tip of Florida made up of grassy marshlands and mangroves that move slowly and are home to hundreds of subtropical species. You’ll see most of it from the water, but there’s also biking and hiking here.
5. Rocky Mountain, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park is another magnificent and accessible park that boasts plenty of paved, flat trails, cabin camping and exciting wildlife viewing of big game animals like elk, moose and bears. Home to more than 100 peaks over 11,000ft and only an hour and a half drive from Denver, Colorado’s crown jewel makes both a memorable day trip and a rewarding adventure holiday.
6. Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
Further south in Colorado, This National Park is often overlooked because it sounds, well, just like a giant sandbox. In reality, here you’ll find virtual mountains of wind-sculpted sand, some up to 750 feet high, making up the tallest sand dunes in North America over an area of about 30 square miles. The otherworldly dunes were formed by sediment from the surrounding mountain ranges after lakes receded from the San Luis Valley and of course, your kids will entertain themselves for hours running around in the sand.
7. Arches, Utah
Located in eastern Utah, four miles north of Moab, Arches National Park is truly unlike any other place on earth. Proclaimed as a red rock wonderland, Arches is famous for having over 2,000 natural sandstone rock arches as well as hundreds of other spectacular rock formations like pinnacles, fins and balanced rocks. These form an exhilarating playground for kids to explore and many of the best arches are accessible via a short walk along slick rock trails.
8. Joshua Tree, California
Just a couple of hours east of LA’s massive urban sprawl, Joshua Tree National Park is in southern California, and straddles two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave and the Colorado. It is named for the trees native to the Mojave, which takes up the western portion of the Park and sits a bit higher and is therefore cooler. This diverse desert environment is characterized by alternating dense and sparse collections of Joshua trees and large boulders, some of which are billions of years old and fun to clamber on. The park is near the city of Palm Springs, which is full of parks and museums, and combining the two can make for an epic family holiday.
9. Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
Kids love exploring hidden caves and Carlsbad Caverns in the Guadalupe Mountains boasts 119 of them, the longest of which is over 120 miles. Take an elevator down to the Big Room and discover stalactites and stalagmites in the massive limestone chambers. When you’re ready to resurface, head up and explore hiking trails that take you across the ancient sea ledges and deep rocky canyons of the Chihuahuan Desert.
10. Bryce Canyon, Utah
In southwest Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is an easy park to stop into for a couple of hours. The main event is a collection of natural amphitheaters famous for being home to the world’s largest collection of hoodoos. A hoodoo is a tall, thin rock spire (sometimes called a tent rock or fairy chimney) formed by erosion and Bryce’s vast collection of them can be found on a high plateau at the top of the Grand Staircase. These natural wonders are incredible to look at, no matter what age you are.
Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.
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