Sitting on the granite shore of a tiny island in Maine, my son, Robin, bright-eyed and attentive throughout the day's ranger-led tour, started asking a series of perceptive questions about what we had learned. I could almost feel his world deepening. Certain uncrowded natural places inspire the best in children. I've found many of those places while researching my book, Family Vacations in the National Parks, over years of trips with our own brood, now ages nine, six, one, and three months. Here are my top picks for how to spend your time in the following national parks.
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Paddle a double kayak below the steep, rocky shores of Resurrection Bay fjord, just outside the park. While gliding through the water, you'll likely see bald eagles, sea otters, sea lions, and possibly orcas and humpback whales. On an all-day trip you'll make it several miles down to Tonsina Point, where you can paddle above spawning salmon. Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking charges $125 per person including lunch and kayak rental for the all-day trip, $59 for a half-day:907-224-8810; www.sunny cove.com.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Strap on your packs at the Rialto Beach parking lot and hike north along the cobbles, watching the North Pacific pound sea stacks just offshore. Camp anywhere you choose along the beach (above the tidemark!) or in designated campsites in the woods just above the beach. At low tide, venture out onto a rocky shelf of tide pools inhabited by hermit crabs, anemones, sea stars, and sea urchins. Get a backcountry camping permit from the park's Wilderness Information Center: 360-452-0300; www.nps.gov/olym.
Yosemite National Park, California
Flee crowded Yosemite Valley and camp on the bank of the South Fork of the Merced River in Wawona, toward the park's south end near Mariposa Grove. You'll have the river to yourself to float the three miles from Swinging Bridge down to the campground on a raft, canoe, kayak, inner tube, or even your air mattress. (You'll have to bring your own gear and transport yourself up Forest Drive to the bridge; note that the water is too low after mid-July). Contact the Yosemite Wilderness Permit office: 209-372-0740; www.nps.gov/yose.
Kings Canyon National Park, California
No sign marks the narrow dirt road off Generals Highway that heads through immense trees into Redwood Canyon, the world's largest surviving grove of giant sequoias. Get directions and a backcountry permit at the Grant Grove Visitor Center, and then hike off to camp alone in this dim cathedral. The first backcountry campsite is three miles into a six-mile loop. Contact the Wilderness Office: 559-565-3766; www.nps.gov/seki/bcinfo.htm.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
At the foot of rocky, 8,000-foot peaks, Yellowstone's grassy northern valley is the star of its own western movie. Daily rides from Roosevelt Lodge let families put themselves in the scene, possibly spotting bison and elk or joining a cowboy cookout and sing-along (those under age eight can take horse-drawn wagon rides at the lodge). A two-hour ride costs $36. Contact Yellowstone National Park Lodges: 307-344-7311; www.travelyellowstone.com
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Load your gear in a canoe and launch in String Lake, at the foot of the sheer faces of the Tetons. Paddle the narrow channel northward, taking dips in the clear, shallow water. After less than a mile, you can portage the 250 yards to Leigh Lake, where the nearest of eight waterside backcountry campsites is less than a mile farther. The closest canoe rental is a 15-minute drive from the put-in, at Dornan's: 307-733-3307; www.dornans.com. Get a backcountry camping permit from the park: 307-739-3309; www.nps.gov/grte.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Nowhere else will you ever see the stars as sharply as you do in the dry air of your campsite high above the desert on this nine- to 22-mile trek. The Under-the-Rim Trail descends gradually from its start at 8,500 feet, overlooking the cliffs of the Grand Staircase (you can see all the way to the Grand Canyon, 100 miles away). You'll be able to view the park's bizarre hoodoo rock formations on this hike but will miss the crush of crowds. Get a permit for one of the designated campsites at the visitor center when you arrive: 435-834-5322; www.nps.gov/brca.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Board a shuttle bus half an hour before sunrise, ride 45 minutes west to Hermit Rest, and be among the first to arrive at the trailhead. Hike the six-mile round-trip to Dripping Springs, away from the mobs at the village, but with great views of the canyon framed by Hermit Gorge. This is a cakewalk by Grand Canyon standards but is still steep, with a 1,500-foot elevation change. You'll make it back for lunch at the Hermit Rest snack bar before the worst of the heat. Contact the park: 520-638-7875; www.nps.gov/grca.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
A secret kingdom in the mountains, the Cataloochee Valley has a remote location and a rough dirt road that keep most people away even in this, the busiest of all national parks. Camp by the creek in the small Cataloochee Campground (no reservations required) and wander through pastures to see cabins, farmhouses, barns, a school, and a churchall built by mountain settlers in the 1880s. The Little Cataloochee Trail snakes for six miles through the hardwood forest, passing through another ghost community. Contact the park: 865-436-1200; www.nps.gov/grsm.
Acadia National Park, Maine
The half-day ranger-led expedition to Baker Island leaves the yachting town of Northeast Harbor by boat and passes through the Cranberry Islands, where you might see seals and ospreys. You land by launch on Baker, a small, uninhabited island with a lighthouse, a few old buildings, and a tiny graveyard. While walking the granite shores it's easy to imagine the family who lived here all alone almost 200 years ago. Call 207-276-3717 to reserve a spot on Bill Barter's Islesford Furry; the fare is $19 for adults, $12 for children under 12. Park info rmation: 207-288-3338; www.nps.gov/acad.