When I was a child my family would go on long vacations every summer. My dad was an earth science teacher and he liked traveling the country to see different geologic formations. Since there was no internet back then, he would take many pictures and use them to teach his students.
As a child, I hated being dragged to all these strange and unusual places to see rocks, mountains, and unusual wave patterns at various State and National Parks in both the U.S. and Canada, and we would usually be at a different place every day.
I would watch other kids go to the beach or to Disney World and think, why can’t we just go on a normal vacation?
We did go to the beach and to Disney World, but it was only for a day or two, and I usually did not support our hotel choice as it did not seem to be a cool hotel like other kids were staying at. After I got married, I went on vacation with my husband’s family and we stayed in an ocean front condo for an entire week. It was refreshing for me to stay at the same place all week and not have to keep packing up and driving to the new destination.
Therefore, we started taking vacations like this, but then I realized something after I had my own kids. I got bored of the beach after a few days and I found myself looking for different places we could explore within driving distance of where we were staying. I found myself longing to find a hiking trail that I could travel and be rewarded with a beautiful vista at the end.
I wanted to take my kids on the same vacations I went on as a kid (that I hated!). I now realized how valuable it was and how much I learned from it.
That is how our family’s U.S. National Park exploration started.
When traveling to the various National Parks, there is a lot of planning involved. Many parks are not in highly-populated areas, they are not easy to get to, and the weather can be variable at high elevations, even in the warmer months.
Here are some tips to help you start your National Park adventure:
Start local – There are several National Parks within driving distance of Cincinnati. Some may be a weekend trip and others would require a long weekend. By exploring parks that are close by first, you can get an idea for what type of trails your kids like and how long it takes to hike certain distances as a family. The following are parks that are a day drive of Cincinnati:
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- Mammoth Cave National Park
- Great Smokey Mountains National Park
- Indiana Dunes National Park
The following 3 parks are an 8-hour drive; therefore, a long weekend would be best.
Plan ahead for travel – Whether you would like to drive or fly to a park, I recommend that you plan ahead to book accommodations (National Park lodges and campgrounds book up to one year in advance), map out how you will get there, and even look at how far certain destinations are from grocery stores and gas stations.
Five years ago, my family drove to Acadia National Park in Maine, but we mapped out our route to make sure there were points of interest to stop at on the way there and back. If you are driving, I would recommend taking a different route each way as you will see more things. There are many state parks, national monuments, battlefields, and museums that are interesting stops.
If flying, I recommend landing in a city that will be no more than a 6 to 8-hour drive from the park, but also find a destination that allows you to see more than one park. My family has done this type of trip twice. Three years ago, we flew to San Francisco, rented a car and drove to Lassen Volcanic National Park, Crater Lake National Park, and Redwood National Park. Recently, we flew to Ft Lauderdale for spring break, rented a car and explored the Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, and drove to the Florida Keys to catch a boat to Dry Tortugas National Park.
Book tours in advance – Some parks may offer special tours that need to be booked early. On our recent trip to Dry Tortugas, we realized that there was only one ferry that went to the park and many times the trip needs to be booked 6 months in advance.
Look at the park calendar – Check out the park calendar for the events that will be happening in the park when you visit. If the park is having a large celebration at the time of your visit, it will help you determine crowds and traffic. I also suggest looking at the calendar of events for any local towns nearby. Several years ago, my family spent a day in Rocky Mountain National park while on a trip to Denver, and they were having a festival in the nearest town. It resulted in us paying a lot more for a hotel room than anticipated.
Check out the food situation – Since many parks are in remote areas, do your research on the food scene. Many parks have lodges that include a nice restaurant, but the prices may be out of your budget. Therefore, look at other options such as small cafes that offer food at a cheaper price point, small grocery stores, and see if you can get a small kitchen with your accommodations. If the park does not offer any more than a small convenience store, then plan to stop at the closest large grocery store on your way to the park to pick up food for later. Click here for more eating tips for your travels.
Follow local weather prior to your arrival – Many of the parks in the western part of the country at high elevations will have snow covered passages in the summer and may start to get snowfall as early as September. This will affect what trails you can take and what roads lead into the park.
After reading all of this, you may wonder if all this planning is worth it? My answer is YES! I highly recommend exploring National Parks with kids. We did take our kids to Disney World and the beach one year, and when we were in Florida for our tour of National Parks, I asked my kids what Florida trip they liked better. Without hesitation, they both said the one with the National Parks because we had more adventures.
Don’t get me wrong, I do like beaches, but for me, there is no better family moment than when we all work together to climb to the top of a mountain, take a bike ride, or walk along ocean cliffs to experience the undisturbed beauty of our country.