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When I was growing up, my parents took me to nearly every national park in the United States. I’m continuing that tradition with my four kids (made more affordable with the free pass for fourth-graders) and have learned a few things along the way. Did you know that there are Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs, Junior Ranger badges you can collect from each park, apps to download, and badges that can be earned virtually? Well, there are. And these tips will help you take advantage of all that.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
“Drive at your own risk. Watch out for loose railroad spikes.” Don’t let this sign deter you from a family road trip on the 62-mile unpaved McCarthy Road to the historic mining town of Kennecott. My kids were five and two when they eagerly carried their bags across the Kennecott River footbridge to catch a shuttle to Kennecott Glacier Lodge, where they relaxed after dinner in America’s largest national park. Outfitters like St. Elias Alpine Guides can help get your kids hiking on a glacier with crampons.
Glacier National Park, Montana
When my parents drove me across the Continental Divide on Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, I squealed in excitement as we carved through cedar forests, past sheer cliffs, glacial lakes, and alpine tundra. I never appreciated it as an engineering marvel until I photographed my toddlers learning how to walk among the wildflowers flourishing at 6,646 feet, the kind of interior backcountry park areas that are normally inaccessible to children.
This is the only place in America where you’ll find these four designations: national park, biosphere reserve, international peace park, and world heritage site. It’s one of the last ecologically intact areas remaining in the temperate regions of the world. My kids recommend Glacier’s family packs (guide-and-goodie-filled backpacks that parents can check out from the visitor center) and the interactive “Wildlife Superpowers” exhibit.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
At 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is a magnificent fourteener to summit with your budding peakbagger. It’s the tallest and most active volcano in the Cascade Range and has the largest system of glaciers outside Alaska. The kids’ programs include virtual guides to animals, plants, glaciers, and volcanoes.
Zion National Park, Utah
There are no age limitations for canyoneering waterfalls, Navajo sandstone cliffs, and technical slot canyons in Zion National Park, as long as you know what you’re doing (no guided services are allowed) and obtain a permit. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can take a class with Zion Rock and Mountain Guides or go on their family canyoneering adventure just outside the park, where the guides have rappelled a two-year-old(!) down a canyon. For something tamer, the park has a wealth of kids’ programs and a nature center that’s open daily from 2 to 6 p.m. in summer.
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