The Fab Five

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Family Vacations Guide

The Fab Five

They may have paved paradise and put up a parking lot, but you don't have to languish in the exhaust fumes--here's how to keep some adventure in the blockbuster parks


Allowing your kids to go through childhood without taking them to a national park at least once is an unthinkable parental oversight--like forgetting to teach them how to ride a two-wheeler. Even my parents, whose idea of roughing it is listening to AM radio, took me to Great Smoky Mountains National Park when I was eight.

Now, I adore my parents, but that vacation scored an L for lame on the Adventure Meter: We basically motored through the park with noses pressed to the car windows, screeched to a halt at some scenic overlook, snapped a Polaroid, and checked into a motel. But I still have that Polaroid. And to this day, I remember sitting in the backseat with my grandparents, my parents in the front piloting the Ford Country Squire.

Of course, visiting a national park is no longer the simple proposition it once was--what with overcrowding, crime, and traffic--and families today expect to do a great deal more than watch the scenery go by from the inside of a station wagon. So, to help you make the most of this American rite of passage, we talked to expert parents who've successfully vacationed with their kids in the nation's five most beloved parks. Read on for their insider secrets and tips.  --Lisa Twyman Bessone


Think of Alaska's Denali as "advanced placement." Some 90 percent of its 6 million acres is open space with no marked trails, and heading into the backcountry with kids requires a high degree of parental expertise and vigilance. While in most Lower 48 parks the idea is to lose the crowds and get away from the well-trodden path, the rule of thumb in Denali is don't stray too far from it. Most visitors need to stick to the program, Denali-style.

Part of that program involves a big yellow school bus, the kind that kids hope they won't have to see all summer. The bus provides the only access to the park's interior, since the 89-mile road is closed to car traffic after Mile 13. What has been crucial to preserving Denali's enviable lack of civilization poses a daunting vacation proposition: You have to ride the bus. Well, buck up, you big-yellow-vehicle-phobes. Alaska resident Ginny Faye made the round trip, 11 hours, in one day.

"Those bus doors closed, and I thought, 'What drugs must I have been on to think that this would be a good idea?'." Faye was on vacation with her husband and their five- and 13-year-olds. "I mean, who was going to be harder to entertain, the big kid or the little one?" But not long into the trip, they saw caribou, foxes, Dall sheep, and plenty of bears. "We even saw sows with twins and triplets," says Faye. "The bears nursed their young as we passed. Then a lone wolf trotted across the tundra, hunted a ground squirrel, and dug it up as we watched." The bus stops frequently so you can get out and explore.

Rather than take the out-and-back bus ride in one interminable day, families would do better to reserve a campsite at Wonder Lake (five-and-a-half hours away), stay a few days, then bus out. Though the trails around the campground are unmarked, they're sufficiently used that any family can navigate its way around. The gravel bars along area rivers and streams are ideal spots to search for animal tracks. The park has seven other established campgrounds, including Sanctuary Lake and Igloo Creek, which like Wonder Lake are tent-only campgrounds accessible only by shuttle bus. That means no dreaded RVs.

Another way to approach to Denali is to take the Alaska Railroad into the park. Pick up the train in Talkeetna for a half-day ride that drops you off at Denali Station, right inside the main park entrance. From the station, hike a quarter-mile to Morino Campground, a tent-only site for people who arrive in Denali without a vehicle. Using Morino as base camp, you can take advantage of the park's few marked trails, most of which are mile-long nature-peeper strolls. One exception is the trail to 3,425-foot Mount Healy (five miles round trip) through taiga forest scrub. The nearby Denali Outdoor Center rents mountain bikes for tooling around on park roads and also offers whitewater trips down the Nenana River. Opt for the easy float with incredible wildlife-viewing on the river's Class II stretches (kids as young as five are welcome). More daring families with kids over ten might prefer the Nenana's Class IV canyon rapids, with names like Iceworm and Royal Flush.

Lodging: For campground and shuttle bus reservations, call 800-622-7275. For more upscale snoozing deep in the park, consider Denali Backcountry Lodge (800-841-0692;; $265 per person per night).

Hired Help: The Denali Outdoor Center (888-303-1925; rents mountain bikes for $40 per day and runs two- to four-hour raft trips for $55–$80 per person. Nenana Raft Adventures (800-789-7238; also offers river trips. The Alaska Mountaineering School (907-733-1016; welcomes families on its four- and eight-day wilderness courses (four-day course, $425 per person) and also leads one- to three-day glacier treks. Denali Saddle Safaris (907-683-1200;; minimum age seven) runs trips lasting from a few hours to a few days. For general park information, contact 907-683-2294 or



For the past two decades, Frank Wilwol has spent two weeks of every year hiking the Grand Canyon. "I've traveled almost the full extent of the original park boundary," he says, "from Marble Canyon to Kanab Creek, and from the Little Colorado River to Elves Canyon." Wilwol has scaled Wotan's Throne, a dizzying rock spire at the North Rim, which he hiked to from the South Rim. But with his 11-month-old daughter in tow, he decided to play it safe on the park's main rim-to-floor "highway," the Bright Angel Trail. "We were pretty much the talk of the canyon that weekend," he says. "People would stop us on the trail and say, 'Oh, so you're the folks with the baby'."

The plan was for Wilwol's wife, Diane, to carry Lindsay in a baby pack, along with some light ground pads. Frank would carry everything else. One reason the Wilwols chose the Bright Angel Trail (nine miles from the South Rim to the Colorado River) is the Indian Gardens Campground halfway down. If all baby hell broke out, they figured they could talk their way into camp (even though they hadn't made reservations) and immediately head back the next morning. "But the baby carrier had this narcotic effect on Lindsay," says Frank. "She zoned right out, wearing a white sun hat and using her stuffed panda, Punchy, as a pillow."

The family spent two days on the canyon floor, camping at the Bright Angel Campground and taking low-key day hikes on the trail network along the Colorado River. They hung out a lot at camp, too, letting Lindsay splash in a nearby creek or test her newly discovered walking skills with the support of a picnic table. When it was time to hike out, they took the steeper Kaibab Trail back to the South Rim. "I can't wait to take Lindsay down now that she's older," says Frank. "Not only is the area amazingly beautiful, but there are petroglyphs, ancient mining equipment, and so much cool geology."

Because the canyon is a harsh, "very vertical" environment, Wilwol cautions families to stick to well-maintained routes leading to established camps, including Bright Angel, Kaibab, Grandview, and Hermit. "No more than 15 minutes below the rim, you're out of the range of most day hikers," he says. "You'll know when you stop seeing the cigarette butts. The canyon is so isolated, you might as well be on the dark side of the moon."

Lodging: Bright Angel Campground has 30 sites and requires a backcountry permit ($20, plus $4 per night per person; reserve at least four months in advance). If you prefer a roof over your head, nearby Phantom Ranch has four hiker dorms (two for men, two for women) with ten beds in each ($23 per person per night). The ranch also rents six cabins ($66 per night). Beware: All Phantom Ranch accommodations fill up about two years in advance. For all reservations, contact 520-638-7875 or

Hired Help: Sky Island Treks (520-622-6966), Discovery Treks (888-256-8731), and Grand Canyon Trail Guides (520-638-3194) are experienced at leading families on backpacking and rafting trips into the canyon. High Sonoran Adventures (877-472-6399) offers canyon hiking trips plus mountain-biking tours just outside the park for families with older kids. The River Travel Center (800-882-7238) maintains a full list of Colorado River rafting outfitters and offerings.



As a child, Ron Barber visited Yosemite numerous times. Now he and his wife, Barb, and their three sons live within a day's drive of the park, and the pilgrimages continue. Because the Barbers have already seen the park's headliners--Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Falls--they steer clear of Yosemite Valley, which is filled with cars, RVs, Photomats, rinky-dink souvenir shops, and other scourges of civilization. But if you're visiting Yosemite for the first time, steel yourself for the congestion and go there anyway. To make it more palatable, Barber suggests booking a campsite in the valley for one night in order to get an early start on its scenic 14-mile road. Bridalveil Falls Campground gets high marks for its beautiful wooded setting, but campsites are first-come, first-served. If arriving without reservations is too daunting, reserve a site at Northern Pines or Lower Pines Campgrounds (but book early--they're small and fill up fast).

While you're in the Valley, Barber recommends hanging out on the Merced River. "When the water is low, the river is great for floating, swimming, and wading," he says. You can rent a raft for the three-mile float in Curry Village (209-372-8341; adults, $12.75; kids, $10.75, including PFDs, paddles, and a return tram ride to the rental kiosk). At night, grab a flashlight and signal climbers who are bivouacking on the big walls of El Cap; they'll obligingly signal back.

Tuolumne Meadows
Jeff Foott

Barber's favorite spot is Tuolumne Meadows. "It's gotten considerably more crowded over the years, but it's still a special place and nowhere near as congested as the Valley," he says. The Barbers stay at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground, which is open from July to September; though large (300 sites), it's a good base camp for some of the park's finest hiking. Check out the giant sequoia grove near the junction of Big Oak Flat Road and Tioga Road. The beautiful six-mile hike features the Dead Giant, a fallen sequoia that you can walk through. The trail to Elizabeth Lake is an easy two-and-a-half-mile climb along Unicorn Creek through lodgepole pine to the lake at the base of Unicorn Peak. A more ambitious day trek is to Gaylor Lakes, a two-mile hike beginning with a steep half-mile climb to a ridge. The payoff is a gorgeous view of Dana Meadows with its scattered ponds.

Yosemite is a great place to introduce older kids to backpacking. A good starter hike is to Waterwheel Falls. The trail begins with a flat, three-mile stroll through Tuolumne Meadows to a creepy footbridge that crosses the Tuolumne River. The trail hugs the river for another two miles until you reach the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. Spend the night at the camp's backpack site (reservations necessary). On the next day's three-mile segment, hikers reach Waterwheel Falls after passing a series of waterfalls and cascades into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.

The Glen Aulin Camp is one of five High Sierra Camps, spaced seven to ten miles apart, which offer families creature comforts in a spectacular wilderness setting for weeklong hiking or horsepacking trips. The canvas-sided tent-cabins have a wood floor, beds (pillows and wool blankets or comforters are provided), and a woodstove. Breakfast and dinner (hearty, stick-to-the-ribs fare) are served in a dining tent; restroom and shower facilities (towels are provided) are also on-site. Just one catch: The camps are so popular that reservations are given out by lottery.

Lodging: Reserve campsites up to five months in advance (800-436-7275; $15 per night). A permit is required for overnight backcountry stays (209-372-0200). For lodging in a more permanent structure, check out the 134 Redwood guest cottages (209-375-6666;; 1–6 bedrooms, $110–$438 per night) just outside the park's south entrance. To try your luck in the High Sierra Camp lottery, contact 559-253-5674 or Applications must be made at least a year in advance.

Hired Help: The Yosemite Mountaineering School operates out of Tuolumne Meadows and offers all-day instruction on Cathedral Peak and nearby domes (209-372-8435; $70 per person per day; reserve at least two weeks in advance) and also guides hiking trips into the backcountry. For horse-packing trips and half- and full-day rides, call the stables at Yosemite (209-372-8348; minimum age seven). For general park information, contact 209-372-0200 or



Louise Haas took a four-year "vacation" in Yellowstone. Working for the park superintendent, she and her husband and their two daughters were among the 200 people who live year-round in park housing near Mammoth Hot Springs. "Most parks in the U.S. have one main headlining feature," she says. "Yellowstone has them all, from volcanic features like mud pots and geysers, to stunning wildlife, mountains, canyons, lakes, and rivers."

Pay your respects to Old Faithful, Haas recommends, then head out pronto to the less crowded corners of the park, which include her old stomping grounds, Mammoth Hot Springs. Very few people go to Mammoth's Gardner River, she says; the trout fishing is excellent, and there are more than a few features to keep kids entertained. One is the Boiling River, where the scalding waters of a hot spring and the cooler water of the Gardner mix in pools along the river's edge to form a natural spa. Bathers are allowed during daylight hours. Go to the east-side parking area at the 45th Parallel Bridge and walk upstream about half a mile.

The Gardner also offers plenty of wonderful day hikes. (Pick up maps at the Mammoth Hot Springs ranger station.) Take the 11-mile out-and-back trail to Osprey Falls (the trailhead is five miles south of Mammoth on Old Bensen Peak Road), where the Gardner plunges 150 feet down Sheepeater's Canyon. The canyon's 800-foot vertical walls make it one of the deepest in Yellowstone. Less challenging but equally spectacular is the three-mile hike from Lava Creek to Undine Falls (the trailhead is on Mammoth Tower Road).

Haas also recommends a trip to the fossilized forest on nearby Specimen Ridge. "This is not just one, but 27 petrified forests stacked on top of each other," she says. One fossil is the remains of a giant redwood (proving that Yellowstone had quite a different climate way back when). Judging by its stump's 15-foot circumference, the tree could have stood some 200 feet tall. The fossilized forest is four miles east of Tower Junction on the Northeast Entrance Road near Lamar Valley (ask for directions at the ranger station). The top of the ridge offers sweeping views of Mount Washburn and the northern section of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Older kids will enjoy the six-mile hike to the mountain's 10,243-foot summit.

Yellowstone Lake, in the park's southern reaches, is another out-of-the-fray destination. The lake has 110 miles of shoreline with fjordlike fingers of water and is home to a stunning array of wildlife, including grizzly bears, elk, moose, eagles, and ospreys.

Lodging: The 85-site campground at Mammoth is first-come, first-served ($12 per night). Arrive early, and you shouldn't have a problem snagging a spot. Or consider a backcountry site (307-344-2160; $15 per night) at Lower Blacktail Creek, Rescue Creek, or Lava Creek, all less than two miles from their respective trailheads. Yellowstone Lake has 36 lightly used backcountry campsites.

You can also reserve a cabin through the Mammoth Hotel (307-344-7311; $60–$88 per night; children under 11 are free; reserve a year to 18 months in advance). The more rustic cabins don't have running water or bathrooms. Hotel rooms cost $95 per night for a family of four.

Hired Help: Families with tots give glowing reports on hiking with llamas; call Yellowstone Llamas, 406-754-2347. A terrific way to see Yellowstone Lake is in a sea kayak. Far and Away Adventures (800-232-8588) customizes three-day trips for families, and provides gear, guide, boats, and food. The Yellowstone Institute's family programs are another good way to see the park; on the docket this summer are two-day horsepacking, backpacking, and thermal-basin adventures. Call 307-344-2294.



Fred and Beth Flora have hiked in the Smokies with their two children for more than 20 years. "It's always been crowded in the park," says Fred. "But these days, it's absolutely ridiculous, and getting worse."

Congestion is simply a fact of life in America's most frequently visited national park. One-third of the nation's population lives within a day's drive of the Smokies, and 10 million tromp through each year. Simply brace yourself for the inevitable traffic jam of city slickers and leaf peepers, and remember that 80 percent of the park's visitors venture only a few feet from their cars.

The Floras suggest steering clear of the busier North Carolina entrance at Cherokee and heading for the Tennessee side of the park. Cades Cove, a preserved nineteenth-century pioneer settlement, is the Old Faithful of the Smokies, and its 11-mile loop road is more congested than the Mall of America on Christmas Eve. The best way to see the cove is by bike on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, when the road is closed to motor traffic from sunrise to 10 a.m. "Keep your eyes peeled for deer, turkeys, bears, and foxes," says Fred.

Elkmont Campground is the Floras's destination of choice. In addition to car and RV sites, 45 more isolated walk-in tent sites cluster along the Little River. The river's small waterfalls and trout pools are a major source of kid entertainment--for swimming, floating, wading, or just chucking rocks. A trolley runs several times a day from Elkmont to Gatlinburg, so you can go into town without having to fight the traffic yourself. From the trail network around Elkmont, you can access some fine day hikes. One strenuous eight-and-a-half-mile hike on the Jake's Creek and Miry Ridge trails gains 3,000 feet before hooking up with the Appalachian Trail.

Another favorite Flora destination is LeConte Lodge. "You can't drive there, and the shortest hike is five-and-a-half miles long," says Fred. The lodge dates back to 1925, and accommodations are rustic cabins with bunk beds, Hudson Bay blankets, and a basin for sponge bathing. Don't miss sunrise over Myrtle Point, sunset over Clingman's Dome, and the moderate hikes to 80-foot Rainbow Falls and the natural arches at Alum Cave Bluffs. A favorite tougher hike for gorgeous mountain views in three directions is the 14-mile round trip to Charlie's Bunyon via the Boulevard and Appalachian trails.

Lodging: Elkmont Campground has 220 sites with restrooms but no showers (call 800-365-2267 for reservations; $17–$20 per night). The park maintains 115 back- country sites for which you must have a permit. (Plunking down for the night in an undesignated spot makes the rangers extremely cranky, and they will fine you heavily.) Call the backcountry office (865-436-1231) 30 days in advance. LeConte Lodge sleeps 50 people and charges $83 per person, including breakfast and dinner; children 4–10, $62; under four, free. You can reserve for the following season starting October 1; call 865-429-5704.

Hired Help: This is mainly a do-it-yourself park. The real guided action (rafting, mountain biking, horsepacking, llama treks) occurs in neighboring national forests and wilderness areas. The Smoky Mountain Field School, on the park's Tennessee side, is the lone exception, offering a myriad of ecology classes on Saturdays, plus family backpacking trips. Call 865-974-0150.  --L.T.B.




  1. Carry plastic bags for packing out trash--yours or scraps left by others. Do not, however, remove any archeological artifacts, rocks, or plants.

  2. Wash dishes, teeth, and self 200 feet away from rivers, lakes, and streams; strain dishwater and pack out food bits.

  3. Pitch your tent 200 feet from the water and out of plain view of other campers and hikers, blend into the environment with tents and clothes of muted colors, and if you must carry a cell phone, turn its ringer off.

  4. Bring a gardening trowel for digging small cat-holes (6–8 inches deep) at least 200 feet from water sources. Cover them after use, and burn toilet paper or pack it out.

  5. Stay at least 100 yards away from all wildlife to ensure their normal feeding, mating, and sleeping patterns. Bring good field glasses!

  6. Cook with a portable stove and build small campfires on soil, not rock. Use only dead-and-down wood.

  7. Avoid expanding trails and campsites by traveling in small groups of two to five; if tromping through virgin duff is unavoidable, spread out (don't walk single file).  —P.D.A.

Illustration by Harry Campbell

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