Preparing for a National Parks Vacation
by Katie Beltramo
Most American parents agree that showing their kids some of the natural wonders of our country is a terrific idea. But there is so much to see, in so many places, that it can be a little daunting to get started on a plan. Where should you go, and what will you need to do to get prepared? Never fear: KidsOutAndAbout will take you through the process, step by step!
Choose Your Major Destinations
Start by choosing your highest-priority destination. Consider cheapest air travel destinations, family whom you want to visit, or any other attraction of the area. Once you've chosen two or three spots on the map, you can plan the rest of your trip based on what's feasible given your schedule and your family's overall tolerance for travel.
When we started planning our vacation, we were already traveling to Colorado to visit family. We felt like the Grand Canyon was a Family Must-Do, and we knew that airfare would be cheaper out of Las Vegas for the return. Once these points were established, we began filling out a more complete itinerary, including some terrific time in Moab, Utah. Years back, when our publisher Debra Ross started planning a trip, she knew she wanted to center it on Yellowstone National Park, so she found a cheap flight to Denver from New York. Once these were established, it made sense for her family to visit Jackson Hole, Wyoming along the way.
If you're trying to get oriented and make choices early on, check the National Park Service website for its comprehensive maps, which lists all of the parks by state as well as on a zoomable map of the whole country.
Lock In Lodging
Many of the larger national parks have official lodging or camping sites that are located within the parks themselves, and you're likely to find hotels, motels, and short-term rental houses around the outskirts of the parks as well. Organizing where you'll sleep at night is your top priority as you get started, particularly if you'd like to stay within the park. Here the National Park Service website is an invaluable resource for you: Search for the park that interests you, and then choose "Plan Your Visit" and "Eating and Sleeping." You'll find information about whether lodging and camping are available within the park, and, if they're not, most pages will link to local resources.
Staying in National Park "official" lodging is somewhat akin to choosing to stay at one of the official Disneyland resorts instead of a hotel off-site. The available cabins or hotel rooms are high quality, convenient, and more expensive than other options. But the greatest impediment to your staying in official lodging may be the amount of lead-time required to obtain a reservation. Most lodges take reservations one year in advance, and the reservations fill up almost as soon as they're available. Your best bet is to plan your trip far in advance, then mark your calendar for reservation day. If staying in an official lodge is part of your dream itinerary, planning more than a year in advance is crucial.
If your family likes to camp, it's absolutely worth it to pare down to the bare necessities and take your tent and sleeping bags on the plane with you. National Parks campgrounds will fill up, too, but not until later. As an example, roughly one-third of campsites were still available four months before we camped on the Grand Canyon's North Rim. In our North Rim camping experience, we found pleasant, well-maintained sites and the most comprehensive campsite store I'd ever seen, along with coin-operated laundry and showers and spaces for using wifi and charging devices. In other words, it's easy camping, if you're a camper.
Finally, you're likely to find at least a few hotels, motels, or homestay options near major parks, and these provide shelter from the wild at a much more modest price than in-park lodging, although you may have to spend more time traveling and settle for less charming accommodations.
To offer a few examples of price differentials, during our trip, official Grand Canyon lodging would have cost us $215-$320 per night, compared with the $18 per night we spent on camping in the park. At Bryce Canyon, the official lodging cost a bit more than double the local motel options.
A few suggestions as you consider your options: Alternate between camping and staying indoors to give your family a break. If you're splurging on only one official lodge stay, you might save it for last on your trip. We planned too late to stay at any of the official lodges at Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, or Zion National Park during our trip, but after checking out each of the hotels in person, it seemed like, strategically, Zion would have been the best place of the National Park Lodges to plan to stay. Zion's hotel offers a huge front lawn for hanging around and a lovely spot to play along the Virgin River just across the street. Plus, access to Zion's main park attractions is made challenging by high demand. Most visitors use a shuttle system, and staying at the lodge allows guests to get a jump ahead of the crowds. Keep in mind that even if you don't stay overnight, you can still step inside and enjoy some lovely dining in-park.
Chooose Destinations & Prioritize Your Activities
Once you've established basic parameters, look at your map and your trip schedule. Sometimes the parks' websites will offer suggestions on what to see on a limited or a more expansive schedule or ideas about what else is nearby. Consider whether you'd like to just jump out of the car at a few lookout points or spend a couple of days at a single destination. Now is a great time to ask friends about their favorites or poll the kids about what sounds most exciting to them.
If you only spend all your time just driving and hiking, your children are likely to lose enthusiasm quickly. Check into special outings, like camping, horseback riding, biking, rafting, jeep or ATV tours, canyoneering, and swimming. Keep in mind that there are likely to be activities available both through the parks system and from independent contractors, and availability will vary. Want to ride a mule into the Grand Canyon? You'll need to book far ahead of time. But keep in mind that there are plenty of terrific activities that are not necessarily park-sponsored or even within the parks. As you plan, vary your days so that you won't have too many ambitious and exhausting activities in a row. Consider what might offer a change of pace, and place it accordingly when you can.
Nail Down The Details
Once you have a few destinations picked out and perhaps one or two "splurge" activities to offer structure to your trip, you'll need to consider how you'll spend all of your time.
As you do, consider scale: Some national parks are huge. As an example, when we arrived at the visitor center to check in for a Fiery Furnace tour that we'd reserved, we learned that the tour started at a trailhead that was a 30-minute drive away. As you estimate the time it will take you to "get to" a national park, keep in mind that you might still have plenty of traveling to do within the park's borders. Timing is everything on these trips.
Sunrises and sunsets are gorgeous times to appreciate the beauty of national parks. At sunrise, you'll appreciate both the light and the tranquility, but plan to work in a nap or early bedtime that day, too!
Picnics are a great way to keep dining costs down and also enjoy the changing light in one place.
Consider the timing, too, if you're visiting anywhere with extreme temperatures. During a hot summer, you may do better to plan outings for morning and late afternoon and spend midday driving in that air-conditioned car.
If you're booking special activities, remember that whomever you're speaking to is a local expert. Ask for suggestions: what's their favorite thing to do in the park or in town? Where's a great quick breakfast?
Finally, you can get your kids to help plan and choose activities. Offer up a couple of options for each park, then let one child make the choice for the family's activities. Of course, you'll have pre-screened everything you offer them, to ensure that you're content with whatever option they choose.
Plan Parenting Strategies Well Ahead Of Time
The beauty of planning so far ahead is that it allows you to work toward goals that might seem daunting today.
Prior to your trip, take day hikes to help get your kids acclimated to walking longer distances. If your little ones find water, animals, or anything else you'll encounter scary, now's the time to get a sense of what can be overcome and what needs to be accommodated. If you're new to camping and would like to camp on your trip, plan a few local overnights to ease you into it. By the time you head out on your journey, you'll be pros!
Finally, bathrooms can be scarce on hikes and other activities. Consequently, I've learned through experience (you don't want to know the details, trust me) that it's a great idea to encourage a morning--ahem!--elimination schedule for kids so that you don't end up having to "pack out" waste in the middle of a hiking excursion. A glass of warm water first thing in the morning does wonders.
Let the Kids Know What To Expect
Most kids don't feel comfortable going into the unknown, so it's good to have a clear itinerary to share with them. KidsOutAndAbout publisher Debra Ross made a personal flip map for each child on her parks trip. Each page offered a day's segment of the trip, showing where the girls would be going and offering a picture and a few basic facts. The kids loved following along and knowing what was coming up next, and they probably didn't even notice how it helped their map, reading, and math skills.
Look for stories that feature your destinations or check into what the most common, say, tree or animal is in a particular park, and your kids will get excited when they recognize it in person. In our family, we've found that it's better to avoid fact-filled documentaries or books that wax poetic about a specific destination: We'd rather learn those tidbits from the guide in person, and listening to how gorgeous a park is can backfire by raising expectations.
Gear Yourself Up
Start a master list of what you'll need on your trip by visiting the individual parks websites as well as the lists for the outings that you've booked. Then approach the must-have lists with some skepticism. Yes, sunglasses are suggested, but if your daughter's never worn a pair for more than 20 minutes straight, what are the chances she'll start now? Adjust accordingly.
You can also put out a call to your outdoor-enthusiast friends to borrow equipment--nature enthusiasts are generous because they want to spread that nature-love.
Think about what's cheap and easy to pick up along the way as well as what items could multitask and be a great souvenir, too. Sunhats, water bottles, and other items are likely to be available in the gift shop. At some locations, rental of family-friendly gear is available (like Adventure Tykes in Moab, Utah).
Check Out Special Deals
When visiting National Parks, you're likely to pay an entry fee per vehicle. If you're planning to go to multiple parks, it's absolutely worth it to purchase the $80 Interagency Annual Pass, which includes admission to national parks and other lands maintained by the federal government.
Even better, if your child is a current 4th grader, your whole family can take advantage of the new Every Kid In A Park initiative.
Another amazingly good deal is the Senior Pass: individuals 62 years old and older can purchase this lifetime pass for $80. With a Senior Pass holder in your car, your vehicle will be admitted free or, where admission is per person, it will allow 3 adults in addition to the senior to enter for free (kids under 16 are always free). Along with these park deals, if you book evenings at independent hotels or outings with independent companies, ask if they offer discounts with other local businesses.
Look Into Youth Programs
Our National Parks have terrific programs to get children engaged. One great activity is to become a Junior Ranger. To become a Junior Ranger at a particular camp, kids generally need to ask for a booklet at the Visitor Center and complete some tasks, which might include filling in portions of the booklet, attending a ranger program, picking up trash around the park, or other activities. Once these are complete, the young ranger-in-training reports to a superior officer to be "sworn in" and receive a special certificate and badge. Most park rangers do a great job of training and welcoming the junior rangers with great solemnity and adorably earnest exhortations to protect the parks. But keep in mind: Kids must earn their Junior Ranger status, so if you're dropping by a park for an hour, you probably won't have time to do it. Check with the specific park to see if participating will work for you.
A quicker, but still fun way to track kids' visits to parks is to purchase a Passport to Your National Parks for about $9. The booklet contains a listing of parks and space for enthusiasts to add stickers or stamps. You can choose to purchase an individual park's sticker with a photo and description when you visit, or just rubber-stamp it to register your visit. My 10-year-old, who considered herself too mature for the Junior Ranger books, really loved finding the passport stamping station at each park.
Along with these nationwide programs, you can check with individual camps to find out about ranger-led, child-friendly activities. Call, check their website, or follow on social media for information.
Enjoy The Journey
You're likely to drive quite a bit. Decide ahead of time that you'll stop for scenic vistas. Skip out on DVD-watching in the car so that kids look out the window, but listening to great music or an audio book is an excellent shared experience to make the time go by. Debra Ross swears that doing so will magically transport you back on the trip in the years to come, whenever you listen to that favorite song. Plan a from-the-car scavenger hunt, and keep your eyes open for wildlife.
Keep Those Memories
Of course you'll bring a camera, but I suggest: Bring several cameras, even if some of them are phones or super-cheap point-and-shoots. Taking photographs is a great way to get kids engaged with their surroundings. If you make a photo book later, devote a page for each kid's favorites. Bring along a notebook to jot down kids' reactions or any funny stories, and they'll make a perfect addition to any scrapbook or photo book you come up with later (and by the way, did you know that there's an official scrapbook pages kit? Oh yes there is!). Keep those brochures and maps that you'll receive at entry: You'll get around to organizing it one of these days. ; >Plan a souvenir policy: Set a budget for kids, or tell them that they'll need to buy for themselves. You might choose a small item that you'll buy from every single park, like postcards, a magnet, or a book. A friend brings tiny glass bottles and takes a sample of dirt or a stone from each place he visits, although you would need to check with the park ranger to ensure this would be okay with them. Each of our National Parks is an extraordinary place, and sharing these places with your children is a wonderful gift to give them, and yourselves. Get started now, and soon you'll be making lifelong memories.
For more National Parks articles, check out:
- Visiting Moab, Utah, home of Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park
- Review of Yellowstone Valley Lodge (Livingston, Montana)
- Review of North Rim Family Hiking Adventure at the Grand Canyon
- Visiting the Grand Canyon's North Rim