Memories of my first time peering into the Grand Canyon are fuzzy. I was barely 4 years old, but the photo I still have of my mom and me on the rim with that limitless, otherworldly background and her genuinely amazed grin may just be the root of what turned into a pretty adventurous life. I’ve looked at it often, so happy my parents made that happen, which was no small effort coming from small town Ohio.
I’ve been back to the Grand many times since and have hiked to the bottom from each rim. As for other national parks, I’ve climbed the 10 highest peaks in the Teton range, summited Denali, guided on Mount Rainier, quietly watched bison and bears in Yellowstone, hiked Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain at sunrise, marveled at the soft light of dawn across the Smokies, camped in a sea of sand at Great Sand Dunes, and adventured during every month of the year in Rocky Mountain National Park near my home. All that and more started with one simple walk along the South Rim.
That’s the power of a national park experience.
Now that I’m a parent to my own 4-year-old boy, it’s my number one goal to pass along my love of wild spaces. But I’m not going to drag him up Longs Peak just yet. Here are some of the best national parks for kids and the most fun, educational, amazing, family-friendly hikes within them—the stuff I’ll have on my itinerary. Click the links for detailed directions and maps.
Yellowstone National Park – Geyser Basin Trail
The world’s first national park will be every bit as mind-blowing to your young hiker as it was to the park’s earliest explorers, such as legendary mountain man Jim Bridger. Geysers! Grizzlies! Boiling mud! Bison! And that’s just what you can see from your car. Venture onto the Geyser Basin Trail, and you’ll see a veritable 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,” says guidebook author Tom Carter. “The geysers and wildlife just captivate families.”
Yosemite National Park – Glacier Point
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. President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill in 1864 creating the Yosemite Grant, the first American land preserved for public recreation. It set a precedent for the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, and Yosemite was eventually ceded to the National Park Service upon its creation in 1916. From Glacier Point, you’ll see the sweeping, much-celebrated view of Yosemite Valley, including iconic Half Dome and Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, which are fun for your kids to spot. Imagine naturalist John Muir standing in that very spot. Pro tip from Backpacker magazine editor-in-chief Dennis Lewon, “If you want to add some mileage, take the shuttle to Glacier Point and hike the 4.2 miles back to Yosemite Valley on the Four Mile Trail, entirely downhill. My boys loved it!”
Zion National Park – The Narrows
“An all-time favorite, hands down,” says Salt Lake City-based professional 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 surprisingly lush vegetation and waterfalls. We parents spend so much time trying to keep our kids from getting messy that splashing and playing in the river is a welcome respite for all parties. (Be sure to check on water conditions, including flash flood warnings, at the visitor center before entering the Narrows.)
Crater Lake National Park – Cleetwood Cove Trail
Walk just a little over a mile (downhill!) and you’ll reach the banks of one of the clearest, deepest, and most pristine bodies of water in America. 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 Bend, Oregon-based writer and adventurer Nancy Prichard-Bouchard: “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.”
Olympic National Park – Lover’s Lane Loop
The 6-mile Lover’s Lane Loop along the Sol Duc River will also make you feel like a kid again. “This was a favorite of mine as a girl, and now as a parent,” says Prichard-Buchard. “You’ll see a gushing falls, towering Sitka spruce and old growth Douglas firs, likely some Roosevelt elk, 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.
Devils Tower National Monument – Tower Trail
As far as adjectives go, “short” and “paved” don’t see a lot of play in best-of hiking lists, but these two words pique a preschool-aged hiker’s interest, trust us. Heck, they’ve only been doing this walking thing for a couple 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.
Acadia National Park – Ocean Path
“A leisurely stroll along a craggy coast,” says Kobe Biederman, director of the Sargent Outdoor Center in Hancock, New Hampshire. “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. Wanna explore higher up? Do the short Summit Loop atop Mount Cadillac, the highest point in the park. The views are epic, and if you hike it at sunrise, you’ll be among the first in the country to see the sun’s rays that day.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Andrews Bald
This short stroll has a couple of steep sections, but the promise of reaching the highest “bald,” or grassy hilltop, in the park will keep your crew motivated. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic, so plan ahead and pack a spread. Flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendron come into bloom late June to early July. Bonus: The trailhead is near Clingmans Dome, the highest point not only in the national park but in the entire state of Tennessee. You can hit two significant highpoints in one day!
Great Sand Dunes National Park – Sand Dunes Loop
“It’s like a painting you can walk into,” says Colorado hiker and mom Tracy Ross. This easy 3.6-mile loop starts and ends at the visitor center (or Piñon Flats campground if you happen to be staying there—reservations required) and gives you a chance to see America’s tallest sand dunes from afar, with the nearby snow-capped Sangre de Cristo range as a backdrop. The highlight will surely be 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, that’s a thing) in nearby Alamosa, Colorado.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park – Kilauea Iki Crater Loop
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—the videos and displays will parlay knowledge even you didn’t know. There’s nothing cooler than learning something new and making memories together.