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National Parks with Kids

I'm visiting National Parks with my family this summer. I have two daughters, 7 and 11 years old, and we're camping in a Casita for 3.5 weeks, then exploring Alaska via cruiseship, B&Bs, and tent camping for 3 weeks. First, I'll offer a bit of wisdom: the Junior Ranger program in each park has been a great way to involve our 7 year old in getting out there and in learning about conservation. What do you do to keep your kids interested in exploring the natural world?

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We just finished an 11 day care trip visiting 9 national parks/monuments.  We have four kids ages 6-12 and we did the Jr Ranger programs as well.  We print out the Jr Ranger packets a head of time so they can work on them in the car as we drive to the parks.  We also make sure we are doing age appropriate hikes that have a "reward" at the end, ie a waterfall, a lake that they can throw rocks in, etc.  When camping we involve them in all aspects inclduing making fires, cooking, washing dishes, setting up a tent etc.  The more you involve kids in the activities the more they will buy into adventure.  

I’ve found that short hikes that have destination (waterfall, mountain view(s)) have been a success, as well as anything that allows our child to engage the environment along the way (rock or tree climbing, plant identification, animal identification).  Also, allowing them to explore the world on their terms helps.  On our last trip to Mt. Rainier, we paused frequently on hikes to let our child play in the snow, build rock cairns, and take pictures and that seemed to make a bigger impact on his experience.

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We recently finished a cross-country trip from PA to Seattle and included several national and state parks (Grand Canyon, Sequoia, Redwoods ,and a few others). My daughtes are 4 and 7. We kept the hikes short and definitly included the Jr. Ranger programs. Both girls used a Mountainsmith backpack, which was plenty big to carry their stuff (some toys from home helped them feel less out of place). We kept the hikes short and let them help select some of the places to see and explore. My mother bought them a poloroid camera for instant photos which they loved (and make good scrap book fodder). Both got new hiking shoes that let them scrable rockes and splash in streams; the off-trail stuff was a big hit.  We found little paper bags that included a forest scavenger hunt list on the side (Target, I think). The girls also like painting small rocks to decorate our campsite and leave for the next kids (our town had a similar "hidden art" program). Basically, we kept a bunch of small activities in mind to break up the long activities (hiking, setting up/tearing down camp) as well as let them explore on their own a bit and help decide what to do. Both did really well for the length of the trip. 

Yes to pausing when they find something THEY like! We did a couple of longer hikes last week and my daughter (2.5 yrs old) LOVED when we would make a big deal out of stream crossings (no matter how small) or muddy spots on the trail. She would giggle as we maneuveur through them. She also loves to stop and see animals no matter how small - come across friendly squirrels? chipmunks? we have to stop and admire them and talk to them. Also lots of snacks. 

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The Junior Ranger program is obviously so great.  We've also found that the National Parks Passport book is such a fun way to get kids excited about going to visit a new park- even something as simple as getting a new stamp in their books can completely frame the itinerary of a trip and give new places a whole new perspective!  We bought my daughter a NPS Passport when she was an infant, and plan to keep the tradition of collecting new stamps every summer as long as we can- it is fun for everybody and forces us to expand past our immediate area, as well as looking for smaller or off-the-beaten-path parks that we may not necessary be interested in visiting otherwise.

We just got back from a week in Yosemite. AMAZING experience and opportunity to say the least.

4 Adults
We had 4 kids:

ages - 8, 10,12 & 14

My wife has the greatest idea to create scavenger hunts each day with prizes and rewards at the end of each hunt. It created a way for them to explore, learn and appreciate the what,why and how Yosemite is awesome. The kids didn’t even notice the 6-12 miles a day we hiked throughout the park. Needless to say the kids were excited to share their experiences and there was a little competition that kept them all motivated. 

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  My boys are older now (15 and 16) but we have always brought them with us on trips. We mostly backpack now, but started with overnights in the backyard as infants, road trips with a teardrop trailer for nap time as toddlers and graduated to short overnight winter backpacking trips in Joshua Tee and Anza Borrego when they were 4 and 5.  I would always let them help pack, choose the trail and ultimately pick the campsite. After 16 years some of my favorite memories were from these early trips.

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