Exploring National Parks with Kids


parksPrior to having our son, my husband and I vacationed to a National Park each year. When I was weeks from delivery, we headed to the Smoky Mountains to squeeze in one last visit before things got crazy for a while (I soaked my poor swollen feet in a cold mountain stream). At almost one year old, our son visited those beloved mountains for the first time-and we learned some things along the way! If you’re considering taking the kids along, this is a great year-it’s the Centennial of the National Park Service and they’re rolling out the welcome mat. In addition, the Every Kid in a Park program provides 4th graders and their families the opportunity to visit these sites free of charge. There’s never been a better time to explore!

Visiting the Smoky Mountains in the womb, at 11 months and again at age 2.
Visiting the Smoky Mountains in the womb, at 11 months and again at age 2.

As mom to a son who turns three in July and already has quite a collection stamps in his National Parks Passport (see #4), I offer ten things to know about visiting National Park Sites with kids:  

1. Our National Parks aren’t limited to the big names. With over 400 sites, the National Park System includes units such as National Battlefields and National Seashores. In fact, you have likely visited a site and never even realized it, as many popular vacation areas fall under one of their categories. Check below this list for some sites within driving distance of Cincinnati!

2. Traveling with an infant? Or maybe you want a quick stop en route to your main destination? These are excellent times to check out sites such as National Battlefields and Parkways. Since babies often sleep for long stretches, you can fit in auto tours of these sites–that’s right! You can enjoy them from the comfort of your car using a map or in some cases a phone app. Most National Parks we’ve visited have this option, but the units mentioned are probably the best for this. Older kids will love reading the information about each stop!  

My son at 11 months in Cataloochee Valley, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Enjoying the spring weather in Cataloochee Valley, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

3. The park staff is there to help. The larger, more popular parks have beautiful visitor’s centers where helpful staff can direct you to the highlights or age and ability level-appropriate trails in each park–a great feature when you are traveling with kids. Many also hold museums and interpretive displays designed for all ages.

4. You can make it interactive. I highly recommend the National Parks Passport program. For about $10, you can purchase one of these small spiral-bound books and find cancellation stamps at many sites. There is also a Junior Rangers Program, where kids can earn badges and learn to “Explore, Learn and Protect” as well as be sworn in by a real park ranger. 

Hiking in the Elkmont area of Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Hiking in the Elkmont area of Great Smoky Mountain National Park

5. Safety first. Every year, many people must be rescued from our parks. When we were last in the Smoky Mountains on a popular trail, we warned a family behind us that I had spotted a rattlesnake up ahead. The entire family–from toddlers to adults–ran toward the poisonous snake. It’s so easy to get excited and forget the rules when you see wildlife or an interesting landscape–so it’s incredibly important to monitor kids closely and go over the reasons for the rules. Our parks are beautiful but dangerous if you don’t pay close attention!

6. Respect the park. This goes hand-in-hand with #5. Littering, harassing wildlife and not following signage are all big no-nos anywhere, but are particularly important (and enforced) in National Parks. Kids model what we do, so make sure you’re setting a good example

Hanging out at Appomattox Courthouse
Hanging out at Appomattox Courthouse

7. Ask the Locals. If you’re going to be staying for a while, ask the locals for their favorite spot. When we travel to the Smoky Mountains, we almost never stay on the Gatlinburg side, opting instead for a valley on the North Carolina side where we almost never encounter a crowd but always spot wildlife. We’ve talked to many residents who all agree that area is their favorite. Locals know best and many have interesting personal connections and experiences. If you can find an area resident with kids–even better!

8. Be prepared! You’re all set for safety– planning to follow the rules and respect park signage. But also be aware that many parks do not have cell service in some areas (so don’t depend on your phone’s GPS or the ability to call 911). Carrying extra clothing, having a backup map, taking a first aid kit and knowing where ranger stations and other park facilities are can make all the difference in the world. If you’re headed out on a trail, even just a day hike–take a well-stocked backpack.  A reputable outdoor outfitter can give you a list of supplies based on the trip you plan to take. 

Viewing Yorktown Battlefield
Viewing Yorktown Battlefield

9. Test the waters. While this is important for any visitor, it’s especially important for those of us who have kids. If you’re not an experienced hiker, adding a toddler into the mix on a ten-mile hike probably isn’t the best idea. If your family has never camped, do you want to try for the first time when you visit bear country? Test out the waters (and your equipment) near home before committing to a big adventure.

10. Start em early! I was taught to appreciate nature and history from an early age. I was never bored in the woods; this is still true today. While kids definitely develop their own personalities and interests as they grow, I don’t think anyone would argue that time spent learning as a family is ever wasted. While you won’t be hiking the Appalachian Trail with a little one, you can certainly plan a National Park visit that appeals to your family. 

Observing New River Gorge from the Visitor's Center
Observing New River Gorge from the Visitor’s Center

Ready to plan a visit? Here are some of my favorite National Park Sites are within driving distance of Cincinnati:

  • William Howard Taft National Historic Site Explore the home where our 27th president was born and raised just a short distance from the city center.
  • Cuyahoga Valley National Park Learn about canal history, take a train tour and enjoy miles of beautiful trails. Located about 3.5 hours from Cincinnati, this makes a great overnight or weekend destination.
  • Hopewell Culture National Historic Park Just the right distance for an all-day trip, this Chillicothe park is located about 2 hours from Cincinnati and is an excellent way to explore part of Ohio’s Native American history.
  • Mammoth Cave National Park This is the world’s longest known cave system–and probably one of the most popular National Parks for first-timers from our area. The 3 hour drive makes it a nice option for an overnight or weekend trip.
  • Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park Learn more about the birth and childhood of our 16th president. Visit the country’s first memorial to his life and enjoy the scenic countryside where he spent his early days. Located just 2.5 hours from Cincinnati.


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