Kids Take the Lead at National Parks

Editor's Note: In an ongoing series, Dr. Harley A. Rotbart, a Parents advisor, guest blogs once a month with advice, tips, and personal stories on how parents can "savor the moment" and maximize the time they spend with kids. Read more posts by Harley Rotbart on Goodyblog and on Parents Perspective.

We are a "National Parks" family. When our kids were young, most of their spring breaks and many other vacation days were spent in the parks. We'd rent an RV and usually pick a route that allowed us to visit the most National Parks and National Monuments in the shortest time. Pulling away from the house, we always sang along to Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again."

It was our custom to stop at every official National Park entry sign for a picture of the kids climbing on and hanging from the sign. Next we'd stop at the ranger station to watch a short video about the park, pick up a trail map, and then find a spot to park the RV. That's when the trouble typically began.

Getting our kids out on the hiking trail was often like pulling teeth. I think it was because playing in the RV was too much fun for them to ever want to go outside onto the hot and dusty, or rainy and muddy, or gorgeous but "borrrring" trail. But we cajoled and coerced, bribed and bartered the kids into submission—hiking hundreds of times during their childhoods—thanks to walking sticks, army canteens, trail mix, and lollipops with chewing gum in the center.

Arches National Park near Moab, Utah has always been our favorite. The campground is an adventure unto itself, with climbing rocks and pseudo-caves to explore—all close enough to the camper that the kids figured they weren't risking a whole day of indoor RV games by playing in the campground. Plus, we always held out the hope to our kids that one of the tenuous arches would collapse just as we were watching (from a safe distance)–the visitor's center has "before and after" pictures of that happening. My wife and I didn't mention that those events occurred only once every 75 years or so—it could still happen when we were there, couldn't it?

When people think of the state of Utah, many picture Delicate Arch, the iconic formation in Arches National Park that's pictured on the state license plate and on nearly every Utah post card and poster. Our youngest child, Sammy, eyed that arch wistfully from the time he was 4 years old on our first trip to Arches. Viewed from the parking lot, Delicate Arch seems unattainable to a young child—like hiking to a beautiful sandstone rainbow perched on the moon. On that first visit, all the kids were too young to make the tough climb to Delicate Arch, so we contented ourselves with shorter adventures and plenty of snacks.

In subsequent trips to other parks, being the third child, Sammy usually followed one of the hike "leaders"—his older brother or sister. Being a "hike leader" was occasionally incentive enough to get the kids onto a trail. For some of the more ambitious hikes, Sammy went back to explore the ranger station or to a playground with me while Mom and the other two braved the wilderness. The older kids were jealous of Sammy for not being forced to hike, while Sammy always felt a little left out when it was too tough a trail. Sometimes, you just can't please anyone.

On our second trip to Arches, just as Sam turned 7 and had had several easier practice hikes as "leader," it was finally his turn for the big time. We had saved Delicate Arch for him. Starting early and not rushing, we followed Sam as he negotiated the sometimes narrow and slippery trail to Delicate Arch. As he triumphantly ran the final 150 feet to the base of the Arch, he pumped his fists in the air just as he had seen his brother and sister do when they had led us to other trail milestones. There, at the foot of the arch, we had our victory picnic—and officially renamed Delicate Arch, "Sammy's Arch."

Sixteen years later, the poster of Delicate Arch we bought that day still adorns his bedroom wall at home. Now a college graduate in the workforce without a spring break, his trail maps have been replaced by subway maps. But he still whispers, "Woo-hoo" and pumps his fist whenever he sees a Utah car with his arch on the license plate.

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of four books for parents and families, including No Regrets Parenting and 940 Saturdays. He is also a Parents advisor and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).

Image via Shutterstock


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