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The 10 Best National Parks

Although the travel industry has been affected since 9/11, the nation's national parks are as busy as ever, with 23 million visits per month on average. "A park vacation gives families a sense of pride and patriotism," says Carol Anthony, public affairs specialist for the National Park Service in Washington, DC. "Now, more than ever, people are seeing the real purpose for the parks."

While all 56 national parks have something incredible to offer -- from geysers to glaciers, waterfalls to wildlife -- Child worked with a panel of experts to find the most family-friendly of the bunch. Through an exclusive 41-question survey sent to the parks, we sought to uncover the ones with comprehensive and fun children's programs, trails suitable for little hikers, the best safety records, ample staff, excellent air quality, plenty of accommodations, and dozens of comfort factors, from clean picnic areas to the availability of diaper-changing stations.

What we discovered: A park doesn't have to be popular to be perfect for families. In fact, only three of the 10 most visited national parks -- Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite -- made our final list. "Many of the lesser-known parks have wonderful activities for families, and because they're usually smaller and less crowded, kids can get extra attention from the rangers, naturalists, and other park staff," points out Anthony.

In this special report, you'll learn what makes the top 10 parks perfect for families; check out the 10 runners-up and read more details about the survey.

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Total Acres: 310,000

Number of Family-Friendly Trails: 25 (three are stroller-accessible)

Best Time to Visit: July and August, when average high temperatures are just shy of 80 degrees and monthly rainfall is a little over an inch.

  • Publishes The Grand Adventure, an activity-based newspaper for kids focusing on park geology, wildlife, and American Indian culture.
  • Houses the Teton Junior Science School, which offers weeklong summer classes such as "Insectopia" for third- to sixth-graders.
  • Has many on-site lodging options, including 905 campsites (with "central comfort stations" that have flush toilets), Jackson Lake Lodge (which boasts an outdoor pool), and Colter Bay Village log cabins (complete with a food court).
  • Hosts lake cruises with family-friendly cuisine such as moose-shaped pancakes.
  • Features three major visitors' centers, each with a kids' activity area and bookstore with many children's titles, such as If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon.

Grand Teton National Park is a feast for the eyes -- breathtaking visuals include a 13,770-foot mountain, blue glaciers, and 300-plus bird species. But the park's not just pretty, it's practical. "We offer the activities of a large national park in a manageable size so families can easily get around," says Joan Anzelmo, public affairs chief.

What are the coolest things to do? For an up-close look at wildlife including moose, blue herons, and pelicans, take a half-day trip on a 15-person rubber raft down the Snake River (one of the few national-park rivers that are safe for floating) or schedule a guided horseback or wagon ride through the woods. And 8- to 12-year-olds shouldn't miss the daily 90-minute Junior Ranger programs chock-full of scavenger hunts, short hikes, and habitat games.

Contact: 307-739-3600; www.nps.gov/grte.

 

Entrance fee: $20 per vehicle for a seven-day pass.

Total Acres: 106,000

Number of Family-Friendly Trails: 10 (four are stroller-accessible)

Best Time to Visit: Mid-July through September, when temperatures average around 60 degrees and there is little rain (Note: Some park roads may be snow-covered and the sites inaccessible by car until mid-June.)

  • Hands out Lassen Volcanic Junior Park Scientist backpacks for children 7 and up; they include binoculars, a magnifying glass, rock identification cards, a notebook, and other tools kids need to carry out science experiments at the park's lakes and forests.
  • Distributes Chipmunk Cards to help children 4 to 6 identify park animals such as tree frogs and dragonflies; completed cards earn a golden-chipmunk sticker.
  • Conducts group tours with spectacular views of the park's four types of volcanoes (don't worry -- the last eruption took place in the early 1920s).
  • Recruits children to participate in Volcano Discovery Lab, ranger-led sessions that demonstrate different types of volcanic eruptions, using shaving cream or popcorn.
  • Employs a high ratio of guides to visitors so kids can ask questions.

Many national parks offer just a few children's workshops or activities, generally for the 8-and-older crowd. However, Lassen Volcanic, located 200 miles north of San Francisco, operates 13 kids' programs that cover a wide age and subject range.

Preschoolers flock to fun puppet shows and Sense of Wonder programs in which rangers teach them to identify the park's plants using their noses; for instance, they'll learn that Jeffrey Pine trees smell like vanilla. Seven- to 12-year-olds can attend a two-hour Junior Ranger adventure on pond life, insects, or forest ecology. And both parents and kids will have a fabulous time watching the Pioneer Program, which re-creates a family's journey along the cross-country trail to California in 1853.

Besides the scheduled activities, your family can bike, boat, horseback-ride, or kayak at its leisure. Plus, the park's hiking trails are filled with once-in-a-lifetime views: hardened lava flow, bubbling mud pots, and valleys formed by glaciers.

Contact: 530-595-4444; www.nps.gov/lavo.

 

Entrance fee: $10 per vehicle.

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Voyageurs National Park

Total Acres: 218,000

Number of Family-Friendly Trails: Five (portions of three are stroller-accessible)

Best Time to Visit: July and August, which are the least rainy summer months and have high temperatures in the mid-70s.

  • Features numerous glacier-carved lakes, where families can fish for walleye.
  • Will host the Birder's Rendezvous Summer Festival on June 8 and 9; kids' activities are being planned.
  • Operates the Kids Explore Voyageurs Program to teach 5- to 12-year-olds to look for tracks and other nature clues.
  • Boasts more than 1,000 glacial islands, all accessible by boat for exploring.
  • Has 3-billion-year-old rock formations.

Named for the French-Canadian men who canoed through the area in the 18th and 19th centuries, Voyageurs is the ultimate water park. With more than 80,000 acres of water and only 10 miles of roads, families hop on a boat to access the peninsula, islands, and campsites.

"We cater to children," says Kathleen Przybylski, chief of interpretation. For instance, in the park's North Canoe Voyage program, families can paddle back into history aboard a replica of a 26-foot Voyageurs Canoe. The staff, dressed in period clothing, teaches kids the salutes that voyageurs did with their paddles. Other water-based activities that the entire family can enjoy include kayaking, fishing, and swimming.

Contact: 218-283-9821; www.nps.gov/voya.

 

Entrance fee: Free.

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Total Acres: 265,769

Number of Family-Friendly Trails: 25 (four are stroller-accessible)

Best Time to Visit: July and August, when temperatures reach the low 70s

  • Features the Beaver Boardwalk, a mini-trail that crosses a pond recently inhabited by colonies of beavers; signs posted along the trail tell the beavers' tale.
  • Schedules the Rocky After Dark programs, ranger-led flashlight tours focusing on identifying trees by touch and learning which animals see well at night.
  • Offers 260 miles of trails for horseback-riding; you can hire horses with guides.
  • Has 150 hotels, motels, and bed-and-breakfasts within five miles of the park's entrance.
  • Showcases a wide variety of wildlife, such as elk, mule deer, moose, and coyote.

In July and August, Rocky Mountain National Park offers a winter and a summer vacation. In the park's higher elevations, you can have a friendly snowball fight or build a snowman. At the lower levels, you'll be surrounded by wildflowers as you travel through more than two dozen short hiking trails in 70-degree weather. "Kids think it's cool to experience both climates in the same day," says Leanne Benton, park ranger. "Plus, children, from toddlers to preteens, enjoy participating in the park's activities."

Favorites include Tails for Tots (kids 3 to 5 learn about forest animals from puppet shows and stories), the Kids Adventure Program (6- to 10-year-olds pretend they're animals and discover the "Web of Life"), Come Bug a Ranger (kids 6 to 12 explore insects), and Fly's Feet and Grasshopper's Knees (children 6 to 12 learn about animals' senses).

Contact: 970-586-1206; www.nps.gov/romo.

 

Entrance fee: $15 per vehicle.

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Total Acres: 801,163

Number of Family-Friendly Trails: Five (one is stroller-accessible)

Best Time to Visit: Late September, October, April, and early May, to avoid hot weather

  • Has float trips down the Rio Grande; the river has carved canyons for millions of years.
  • Will host a Kids' Fiesta in October with crafts, games, and prizes.
  • Operates a Junior Ranger program for children; after completing the activities, they receive a badge or patch, wildlife bookmark, sticker, and certificate for framing.
  • Showcases more than 70 species of cactus -- some have tangerine or fuchsia flowers.
  • Provides nesting sites for about 450 species of birds, including the Colima warbler, which is found nowhere else in the U.S.

One of the least crowded national parks, Big Bend, remotely located in western Texas, caters to families who seek solitude. "We give busy families a place to regroup," says Lisa Bigley, chief of interpretation. But you'll find plenty to do, such as hiking the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which crosses a creekbed and descends into a canyon.

Contact: 915-477-2251; www.nps.gov/bibe.

 

Entrance fee: $10 per vehicle.

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National Park Service

Total Acres: 235,625

Number of Family-Friendly Trails: 10 (one is stroller-accessible)

Best Time to Visit: July and August, when it's warm and sunny

  • Schedules scenic guided strolls on the 1 1/2-mile Grove of the Patriarchs Walk, which is filled with magnificent old trees.
  • Offers 600-plus campsites and two hotels with fabulous views of Mount Rainier.
  • Has kid-friendly touch tables and sound exhibits in the three visitors' centers.
  • Provides 58 diaper-changing stations, the largest number of our survey.
  • Hosts a Skulls and Skins workshop; kids learn to classify animals by what they eat.

A wonderland of waterfalls, glaciers, and even a rainforest, Mount Rainier National Park is as sweet as it looks. Don't miss Paradise, an area blooming with wildflowers. Your family can hop on the easy 1.2-mile Nisqually Vista Trail for a tour and a glimpse of a glacier.

Contact: 360-569-2211; www.nps.gov/mora.

 

Entrance fee: $10 per vehicle for a seven-day pass.

Total Acres: 77,180

Number of Family-Friendly Trails: 10

Best Time to Visit: June to September, when high temperatures range from 60 to 70 degrees and rainfall is low.

  • Operates the Great Basin for Kids program; children of all ages meet in the amphitheater to learn about the park's flowers and trees and take magnifying boxes to a stream to identify insects.
  • Features 4,000- to 5,000-year-old Great Basin Bristlecone Pine trees; they were saplings when the Egyptian pyramids were built.
  • Lends backpacks with plant- and mammal-identification books and small tools that help families explore the park.
  • Employs a large number of guides and medical personnel.
  • Offers excellent hiking opportunities for families. At first glance, Great Basin National Park looks like a typical desert. But below and above ground, it's nothing of the sort.

Children love to take the 30- to 90-minute tours of Lehman Caves, a single limestone cavern that's more than 5 million years old. "Guides involve kids in the tours, asking them what kinds of animals they see in the cave's various formations," says Brandi Roberts, education program coordinator. After the tour, families can stop at nearby Lehman cafe for delicious ice cream sandwiches made with chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies.

The rest of the spectacular sights are uphill. From the Lehman Caves, hop in your car for the 12-mile journey along Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. Climbing 3,400 feet, you'll pass through pinyon-juniper woodlands, a creek bed lined with aspen trees, a zone of mountain mahogany and manzanita, and dense forests of Englemann spruce and Douglas fir. Along the way, there are plenty of places to pull over and soak in the amazing view.

Contact: 775-234-7331; www.nps.gov/grba.

 

Entrance fee: Free.

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Total Acres: 52,122

Number of Family-Friendly Trails: Five (two are accessible for jogging strollers)

Best Time to Visit: May and June, when it reaches 70 to 80 degrees and rainfall is low.

  • Features the largest selection of ancestral Pueblo structures and cliff dwellings in the world; the Junior Ranger program offers guided tours.
  • Houses a Kids' Room in the on-site Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
  • Will host an Indian Arts and Culture Festival May 25 to June 1 with activities for kids.
  • Offers 400 campsites and the Far View Lodge; atop an 8,000-foot mesa, all rooms have private balconies, which are perfect for star-gazing.
  • Has low injury rates and many first-aid stations and trained medical professionals.

Mesa Verde (Spanish for "green table") provides all the activities that you'd expect at a national park -- like hiking and wildlife viewing -- but its real treasure is the thousands of magnificently preserved ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings. Two family favorites: Spruce Tree House (it consists of more than 140 rooms that kids can see) and Balcony House (children like crawling through a tunnel on their hands and knees). "Families leave here with an understanding of Native American culture and language," says William R. Morris, the chief of interpretation. "Plus, the park often spurs children to ask about their own ancestors."

Contact: 970-529-4465; www.nps.gov/meve.

 

Entrance fee: $10 per vehicle.

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Total Acres: 6.1 million.

Number of Family-Friendly Trails: Eight (all are stroller-accessible).

Best Time to Visit: June, July, and August, the hottest months, although the average high temperatures even then are only in the mid-50s.

  • Schedules educational two-hour nature-walk programs for families; rangers may point out nests of the park's famous goshawks and sharp-shinned hawks and encourage kids to pretend they're moose when they search for moose tracks.
  • Teaches children 4 to 14 about subarctic ecosystems, wildlife, and wilderness values in its Junior Ranger program; activities are broken down by age.
  • Gives dogsled demonstrations three times daily during the summer; kids can also meet the dogs and puppies in the park's kennel.
  • Operates shuttle buses for wildlife viewing, hiking, camping, and other activities.
  • Hosts family-friendly campground programs about a variety of topics; past favorites include the wolves of Denali (the park has about 16 wolf packs), glaciers, and bears.

Compared to rush-hour traffic and suburban sprawl, all national parks seem to be undeveloped and peaceful. But Denali is arguably the most pristine of the group, with an amazing assortment of wildlife and incredible views of the snow-capped slopes of 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America.

"Alaska is our nation's last frontier," says Martha Tomeo, education specialist. "The park provides exciting hiking opportunities for families to experience wilderness and discover wildlife together. Children can see a moose or caribou up close or bend down and pick the wonderful blueberries growing in our meadows."

Contact: 907-683-2294; www.nps.gov/dena.

 

Entrance fee: $10 per family.

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Nick Montanus

Total Acres: 748,000

Number of Family-Friendly Trails: Three (all are stroller-accessible).

Best Time to Visit: June, when average high temperatures climb into the low 80s and monthly rainfall is minimal.

  • Hosts storytelling programs about Native American culture and river ecology for families at the nearly century-old stone LeConte Memorial Building.
  • Offers daily Junior Ranger programs for children 7 to 12; highlights include geology, animal tracking, and bird identification (to spot species such as the water ousel, whose legs bend backward).
  • Schedules children's snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing classes from November through March.
  • Operates the Nature Center at Happy Isles, which features puppet shows, movies, and wildlife exhibits appropriate for children.
  • Provides a free hourlong hands-on workshop where children 7 to 12 can learn important pointers on taking wildlife pictures from a professional photographer.

You can sum up the landscape at Yosemite in one word: enchanting. The park boasts several glorious waterfalls, including the tallest in the U.S., Yosemite Falls, which drops more than 2,400 feet to a rocky crevasse. Towering overhead are groves of giant sequoias. They dwarf the low-lying meadows that overflow with 1,400 species of flowering plants."So that families can enjoy the sheer beauty and wildness of Yosemite, it was very important to us to create several short, paved nature trails," points out David Mihalic, park superintendent. "The trails start next to the camping areas and lodges and run past scenic points of interest such as waterfalls and lakes."

Besides taking in the amazing view, 3- to 6-year-olds can join the Little Cubs program, which teaches them to identify common plants and insects. And the whole family will appreciate the fantastic opportunities for canoeing, fishing, horseback-riding, and rafting.

Contact: 209-372-0200; www.nps.gov/yose.

 

Entrance fee: $20 per vehicle for a seven-day pass.

11. Badlands National Park, southwestern SD

12. Yellowstone National Park, ID, MT, WY

13. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora and Watford City, ND

14. Biscayne National Park, near Miami, Key Biscayne, and Homestead, FL

15. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Salt Flat, TX

16. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, near Hilo, HI

17. Capital Reef National Park, Torrey, UT

18. Bryce Canyon National Park, Bryce Canyon, UT

19. Zion National Park, Springdale, UT

20. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, near Cleveland and Akron, OH

How We Ranked The Parks

Last August, Child magazine conducted interviews with experts to develop a survey that would help determine the most family-friendly national parks. The 41-question survey addressed issues such as park safety, child-appropriate hiking trails, Junior Ranger and other children's programs, fitness activities for families, the variety and availability of lodging, and interesting natural features like volcanoes or geysers. The survey was sent to the 56 national parks as defined by the National Park Service. (Some places you may think are national parks are really national recreation areas or historic sites.) After receiving the completed surveys, we graded the responses, featuring the top 10 in the May issue of Child magazine and the 10 runners-up here.

Our Advisers

The following national park experts helped to develop the survey for this story: Fran P. Mainella, director of the National Park Service in Washington; Kent Taylor, executive director of the National Park Society in Colorado Springs; Constance Jones, senior editor of Fodor's Road Guide USA: National Parks of the West in New York City; and Sarah Scott, a naturalist and wildlife enthusiast in Jackson Hole, WY.

Practical advice for keeping your family safe at national parks.

By: Evita N. Torre

Winter, spring, summer, or fall -- celebrate any season with a family trip to a national park! A few important tips will ensure your vacation's safety and success.

  1. Plan ahead. Research the park with maps and guides. Upon arrival, ask local rangers about additional safety concerns, such as high water, lightning, rapid temperature changes, and any wildlife that may be roaming the area.
  2. Leave pets at home. Even if the park allows pets, your best bet is to keep them at a kennel or with a friend. An accidental unleashing can result in tragedy.
  3. Be prepared. You may be forced to spend the night unexpectedly, so pack wisely. Bring a map, compass, knife, flashlight, fire starter with matches, and first-aid kit. Most important, pack lots of extra food and water.
  4. Carry a cell phone. It's good to have a cell phone for an emergency. In case your phone won't get service in a remote area, bring quarters for a payphone and know where emergency call stations are located.
  5. Dress smart. Wear comfortable sneakers or hiking boots, a wide-brimmed hat, and easy-to-remove layers. Apply a sunscreen of at least SPF 15.
  6. Scare away the bugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta suggest applying an insect repellent with no more than 10% DEET on children. Apply to your own hands and then put it on your child, keeping it away from his eyes and mouth. Avoid using the repellent on infants, and make sure to wash treated skin after going inside.
  7. Remain on the road. When driving to a trail or campsite, stay on park roads and pull off only at designated areas.
  8. Time your hike right. Start early and take it slow. Leave yourself enough time to get back to your car or campsite well before dusk.
  9. Stay together. Once you choose your trail, stay on it as a group. Keep children surrounded with one adult in front and another behind. Using a children's harness is a surefire way of keeping a toddler close. Never lose sight of one another.
  10. Don't disturb the wildlife. For your safety, do not touch any plants, trees, or flowers in the area. Some may be poisonous. While the animals may look friendly, don't bother them -- they may bite!
  11. Choose a safe site. When setting up camp, select a site designated by signs or by the local rangers. Check for and clear away sharp objects like glass and pointy rocks. When choosing a campsite, remember: The flatter the surface of the land, the less likely your tent will slide or fall over.
  12. Light your fire. Choose a cleared area away from branches, leaves, or tents. At all times, supervise the fire and keep water and a shovel nearby. To put the fire out, slowly pour water over the flames and use a shovel to stir the wet ashes.
  13. Don't tempt the animals. Store your food and fragrant products in sealed containers. Hang them from a tree at least 10 feet high. If animals can smell your food, they'll try to find it.

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