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The Best National Parks for Kids

Our wild places have plenty of adventure for younger explorers, too

At 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is a magnificent fourteener to summit with your budding peakbagger. (chinaface/iStock)
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Our wild places have plenty of adventure for younger explorers, too

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.

Filed To: NPS / Public Lands / Kids / Family / Alaska / Zion National Park / Glacier National Park
Nicolas Henderson/Creative Commons )

San Marcos, Texas

Billed as the world’s toughest canoe race, the Texas Water Safari, held each June, is a four-day, 260-mile jaunt from the headwaters of the San Marcos River northeast of San Antonio to the small shrimping town of Seadrift on the Gulf Coast. There’s no prize money—just bragging rights for the winner. Any boat without a motor is allowed, and you’ll have to carry your own equipment and overnight gear. Food and water are provided at aid stations along the way. Entry fees start at $175 and increase as race day approaches.

The Ring

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(Courtesy Quatro Hubbard)

Strasburg, Virginia

The Ring is a 71-mile trail running race in early September along the entire length of Virginia’s rough and rocky Massanutten Trail loop. To qualify, you need to have run a 50- or 100-mile race before the event and win a spot through the lottery system. Entry is free. Complete the run and you’ll become part of the tight-knit Fellowship of the Ring and be eligible for the Reverse Ring, which entails running the trail backwards in the middle of winter.

Plaza2Peak

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(David Silver)

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Each spring, competitors gather in Santa Fe’s historic plaza with a simple goal: be the first to reach 12,308-foot Deception Peak, 17 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain away. Competitors run or bike the first 15 miles to the local ski area before transitioning to their waiting ski-touring setups for the final push to the top. Time stops only when they’ve skied back down to the tailgate in the resort’s parking lot, which is funded by the modest entry fee of around $25. To add to the sufferfest, some participants sign up for the Expedition category, in which they strap their skis, skins, boots, and poles to their bikes for the long ride up. Start dates vary depending on snow conditions, but look for the event page to be posted on Facebook in late March or early April.

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