Memories of my first time peering into the Grand Canyon are fuzzy. I was barely 4 years old, but the photo I have of my mom and me on the rim with that otherworldly background in the distance may be responsible for why I’ve lived a pretty adventurous life. I look at that photo and feel so happy my parents made the trip happen—it was no small effort coming from a small town in Ohio.
I’ve been back to the Grand Canyon since and have hiked to the bottom, from each rim. Now that I’m a parent to my own 4-year-old, it’s my number one goal to pass along my love of wild spaces to him. Here are several of the United States’ best national parks to visit with kids as well as the most fun, educational, family-friendly hikes to check out once you’re there.
Geysers! Grizzlies! Boiling mud! Bison! You’ll find it all at the world’s oldest national park, Yellowstone. And that’s just what you can see from your car. Venture onto the Upper Geyser Basin Trail and you’ll discover a greatest-hits list of more than a half-dozen geysers and hot pools on a flat 2.1-mile (one-way) path.
“Check the schedule for Old Faithful, Castle and Grand geysers before your hike,” notes Guidebook Author Tom Carter. “The geysers and wildlife just captivate families.”
Introduce your kids to the views that helped inspire the birth of the national park system on this all-ages, half-mile loop to Glacier Point. From Glacier Point, you’ll see the sweeping, much-celebrated view of Yosemite Valley, including iconic Half Dome (recently made even more famous by Alex Honnold) and Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, which are fun for kids to spot. Imagine naturalist John Muir standing in this very spot.
From the Glacier Point parking area, make the half-mile wheelchair-accessible stroll to the Glacier Point railing and soak up the sights. An added bonus: Pets are allowed on this trail, too—as long as you keep them on-leash.
“An all-time favorite, hands down,” says Salt Lake City-based Photographer Andrew Burr. “My two girls have had the time of their lives walking in the water, staring up those sheer walls.” The Narrows, if you hike it “bottom-up,” is primo for kids. There is no formal destination—the hike itself is the main attraction, and you just turn around whenever you feel like it. You’ll start on a riverside path that eventually dumps you right into the Virgin River. Stomp through the ankle-to-knee-deep waters and marvel at the canyon’s lush vegetation and waterfalls. (Be sure to check on water conditions, including flash flood warnings, at the visitor center before entering the Narrows.)
Walk a little more than a mile (downhill!) and you’ll reach the banks of one of the deepest and clearest bodies of water in the United States. Yes, this means you hike back uphill (gaining 750 feet) to return to your car, but the sweeping switchbacks are gently graded. Plus, the fairy tale-like scenery—an island in a lake inside a volcano’s crater—eases the journey for kids.
Says Nancy Prichard-Bouchard, a writer based in Bend, Oregon: “You have educational opportunities about the geology, the adrenaline of exposure and the hike back out, and during the summer months you can grab a boat ride to Wizard Island. It’s really fun to be smack in the center of the crater. It’s a winning recipe for a family adventure.”
The 6-mile Lover’s Lane Loop along the Sol Duc River isn’t just great for kids, it also has the effect of making adults feel like kids again. “This was a favorite of mine as a girl, and now as a parent,” says Prichard-Bouchard. “You’ll see a gushing falls, towering Sitka spruce and old-growth Douglas firs, and have an opportunity to take a dip in a hot pool after the hike. It’s truly fun and awe-inspiring, a good balance to keep kids interested for its entirety.” The trail is generally crowd-free and sometimes shared by banana slugs, a kid favorite.
As far as adjectives go, “short” and “paved” don’t see a lot of play in best-of hiking lists, but these two words can pique a three-year-old hiker’s interest, trust us. Heck, they’ve only been doing this walking thing for a couple of years! This 1.2-mile loop is a great first hike for a toddler, and it delivers a lot of wows—something we all look for.
“You might see climbers, or at least a herd of white-tailed deer. There are plenty of rocks to scramble around on as the trail crosses through giant boulder fields, and the views of the Wyoming hills are gorgeous,” says Prichard-Bouchard.
“A leisurely stroll along a craggy coast,” says Kobe Biederman, director of the Sargent Center in Hancock, New Hampshire, when describing this hike. “I take my son and daughter there to search for creatures in the tide pools near the trail’s end.”
The 2.1-mile (one-way) trail starts near a popular rock climbing area and near the halfway point passes legendary Thunder Hole, a cave just below the water’s surface which makes a deep, vibrating roar and shoots water into the air when a wave hits it just right. Interested in exploring higher up? Tackle the short Summit Loop atop Mount Cadillac to reach the highest point in the park. If you hike it at sunrise, you’ll be among the first in the country to see the sun’s rays.
This short stroll has a couple of steep sections, but the promise of reaching the highest “bald,” or grassy hilltop, in the park keep kiddos motivated. The summit is the a perfect spot for a picnic, so plan ahead and pack a spread. Flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendron come into bloom in late June/early July. A bonus: The trailhead is near Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the national park and Tennessee. You can hit two significant high points in one day!
“It’s like a painting you can walk into,” says Tracy Ross, a Colorado-based hiker and mom. This mellow 3.6-mile loop starts and ends at the visitor center and gives you a chance to see the tallest sand dunes in the United States from afar, with the nearby snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Range as a backdrop. Kids love splashing in Medano Creek and taking a side-hike up into the dunes.
Target May and June for the creek’s highest flows and pack an inflatable tube to run the little rapids (but keep in mind that weekends during this time are extremely crowded). For fun in the dunes, rent a sand board or sand sled (yes, rh a thing) in nearby Alamosa, Colorado.
It’s not hyperbole to say that this 3.3-mile loop hike can teach older kids how the Hawaiian Islands—and much of the world—formed. Hiking through a lush rain forest into the crater of an old volcano, and seeing steam vents on the way, will fire up the entire family’s curiosity. This is one park where stopping by the visitor center first is must, as the videos and displays convey plenty of valuable information. There’s nothing cooler than learning something new and making memories together.