Visiting the National Parks with Kids: Expectations Versus Reality

We have visited over 10 national parks with our girls. Each one has been unique, breathtaking and full of ways to be active in the great outdoors. Today’s post is the first in a series about visiting the National Parks with kids – specifically what our expectations were for our trips, versus reality.

Expectation: Breathtaking scenery

Yes, we decided to travel across the country on several occasions for the pure beauty of the parks. This expectation was met and then some! What we did not expect was the sheer diversity. From the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, the majesty of the old growth forests in Olympic National Park, to the almost surreal scenery of Bryce Canyon, each park has been so unique and gorgeous. None disappointed in any way.

Expectation: The kids might be bored

Wrong. Our girls loved the parks at every age. We started visiting when our youngest had finished second grade and our oldest, fourth. They were the perfect age to become Junior Rangers. The Junior Ranger program has a self guided scavenger hunt, puzzles, and other activities that lead you to explore the park. At the end the girls would receive a badge. Each park has a unique Junior Ranger program, and they are all very educational with lots of science and often history.

Our girls also loved to hike, watch for wildlife and visit the historic sites. Where else could you pick fresh fruit from an orchard originally planted by pioneers (Capital Reef)? Or see the names of pioneers or Native American Hieroglyphs etched into the cliffs? (also Capital Reef).

Many of the places we stayed did not have Internet access. Guess what? We played board games, drew, listened to music and read. We also brought books on CD or used audible (more recently) to listen to books on long car rides. Many of the parks protect the night sky too so star gazing is amazing. Worried about boredom when visiting the National Parks with kids? No need…plenty of old fashioned fun to be had (and everyone is tired at night after hiking, rafting, touring).

Expectation: There would be numerous places to eat and stay outside the parks

Well, this one really depends on where you are visiting. Coming from the East Coast where you can’t throw a stone without seeing a highway exit with restaurant signs – we had a few surprises. After leaving Grand Canyon to drive to Zion we went hours without seeing a restaurant (and fast food would have been fine!). I highly recommend that when you start your tour, go to a store and stock up on snacks as well as a cooler. Fortunately we had done this so our girls were happily munching on fruit and Chex Mix until we found a place to eat. I also like to pack some breakfast items such as granola or muffins to eat when we stayed where breakfast was not included (time and money saving!).

Expectation: The highlight of the day would be the National Park

Hah. So with school age kids, our expectation was that they would be as enthused as we were to see such amazing sights. For the most part they loved it. However, in our case we often stayed outside the parks in chain hotels such as the Hilton Garden Inn, or Marriot Courtyard. These hotels often had a swimming pool and free breakfast. Let’s just say that usually around 3 p.m. our girls could not wait to hit that swimming pool. Oh, and as I do not buy sugary cereals…the hotel free breakfast was usually a hit too. So while I would not say that swimming pools and Fruit Loops were the highlight…they were a close second after the sights in the park.

Expectation: The parks are not really untouched and can be crowded

Ok, so in some of the parks there were crowds. Yellowstone had tour busses filled with tourists from abroad. Yet, 99% of those tourists would descend to see Old Faithful and get back on the bus. One ranger told us that fewer than 2% of visitors ever go beyond a mile or so from the main attractions. This fact presents a great opportunity if you do want to go off the beaten path.

In our case we ventured beyond the main attractions, and then you are really removed from the crowds. We stayed on the hiking trails, had a map, plenty of water and snacks and were able to see some amazing sights such as geysers and waterfalls with either no people around or one or two. In some parks you have to watch out for bears – they do not like surprises so we would often sing as we hiked to give them fair warning! We did see a bear twice but once from afar (a Grizzly mama and her cubs running across the plains of Yellowstone and a brown bear which the Park Rangers shooed away when he was too close to people). The parks do sell bear spray too if you are worried.

In general the parks are very wild and you need to heed all of the precautions. We always checked into the main park ranger station and reviewed the weather reports, spoke to the park rangers and outlined our day. We also followed directions and did not sit too close to the rim at Grand Canyon or at any of the incredible water falls we have visited. I can’t tell you how many people were not following those precautions. My theory is that people are used to visiting Disney and think they are safe like it is a ride. It is not! Heat can also be an issue in the Southwestern parks so you need to bring plenty of water and not stay out too long.

Final thoughts

In general, our expectations were exceeded at all of the National Parks we have visited with our kids. Visiting the National Parks is budget friendly, educational, fun and a great way to make memories with your family. Check back as I continue this series on the National Parks. My next post for Travel Tuesdays will be our two week tour of the Southwest National Parks including Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, The Arches, Mesa Verde and more.