Heading to our nation’s national parks with children often creates a dilemma: Stick to the highlights of the park, which are often kid-friendly and easily accessible yet overrun with other tourists, or head to less popular areas which are often less accommodating for children?

If you look hard enough, there are a few spots in and/or near every park that will take you away from the crowds for a family-friendly adventure.

 

tip #1

Rise early or come late

Parks gates often remain open even when the park is officially closed. Buy a day pass online ahead of time and enter the park while other visitors are busy with breakfast or dinner – you’ll be rewarded with more wildlife, great lighting, striking stars, and few people.

 

Shenandoah

Virginia

Safari LTD cayote toy shennedoah national park

Autumn colors in Shenandoah National Park, above the clouds.

 

Learn some history – The Fox Hollow Trail is an easy, 1.2-mile self-guided hike located near the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. While it’s not known for it’s views, the trail passes by the cemetery and homesite of farmers who lived in the region.

Explore underground – One of the largest series of caverns in the east, Luray caverns will fascinate any young explorer who has wondered what goes on beneath her feet. The stalactites and stalagmites are sure to impress. Because this activity is completely underground, a guided tour is a perfect outing if the weather for your trip turns out to be less than hoped for. Strollers are usable on the paved walkway, but must be carried in sections.

Spy some wildlife – Shenandoah is home to black bears, bunnies, woodpeckers, deer, and more. The completely stroller-friendly Limberlost trail is a 1.3-mile chance to catch a view of some of Shenandoah’s year-round residents. Head out in the early morning or dusk for your best chance at viewing wildlife.

Find a waterfall – If you have older children with you, the Doyles River Trail offers a pleasant out and back hike with two waterfalls to encourage your kids down the trail. The hike is 2.7 miles round trip, 3.2 if you head down to the second falls. With just over 1,000 feet in elevation gain, this trail is more difficult than others, but should be doable for older children or experienced hikers.

Have a snack – The Route 11 Potato Chip Company factory cooks up some of Virginia’s most iconic snacks. With unique flavors ranging from Chesapeake Crab to Mama Zuma’s Revenge, everyone will find something to enjoy. The factory offers plenty of chips to sample and large windows in the retail store that allow you to see the entire chip making process.

Safari LTD. toys of animals found in America's national parks

 

safari Ltd. logo

Parent Co. partnered with Safari LTD because they believe preserving the environment is second nature to kids who grow up surrounded by its beauty.

tip #2

Backtrack

Some national parks with limited road access, like Glacier, have a predictable traffic pattern. Talk to a ranger ahead of time to find out which direction people usually view the park, then do the opposite.

Yellowstone

Wyoming | Montana

safari ltd toy of american bison

"Explosion" of the Great Fountaun Geysir at Yellowstone National Park

 

See geysers as they erupt  – The boardwalk by Old Faithful is far from a secret. But joining a ranger walk is the often overlooked secret to getting the best views of geysers erupting. Ranger walks are offered daily in the summer and fall. If you head to the park in the off season, look for members of the “Geyser Gazer Club” standing by with clipboards. They will be happy to share their information with you.

Swim in a hot spring – The Boiling River, in Montana’s small claim to the park, is a perfect swimming hole for anyone who has been tempted to test the waters in Yellowstone. From the parking lot, there is a short, flat three-quarters-of-a-mile hike to the swimming hole. Hop in where river meets the significantly colder waters of the Gardner River. Park officials recommend avoiding going under water.

Find Paradise – Yellowstone’s famous thermal waters extend pass the park. Paradise Valley, Montana, is home to one of the state’s most loved resorts, Chico Hot Springs. The restaurant offers finer dining than you will expect to find in this rural locale. On the drive there, play John Mayer’s album “Paradise Valley,” named after the time he spent there. Consider going in winter; nothing beats swimming in warm water as snow falls around you, and Chico offers a fantastic winter getaway package.

See real dinosaur fossils – If your vacation is taking you to Glacier National Park as well, don’t overlook a stop at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. The museum features rotating exhibits and a large collection of T-Rex and Triceratops fossils. The second floor hosts an excellent Yellowstone-themed playspace for young kids. In the summer, be sure to check out the living farm to get a taste of what life was like for early settlers. If you are a member at your local science museum, you may get in free.

Take a bike ride – If you’ve packed your bike trailer or have enthusiastic cyclists in your family, check out the trail to the Lone Star Geyser. The geyser erupts about every three hours, so pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the area for a while. Before you leave, ask at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center if they can estimate the timing of the next eruption.

tip #3

Try to visit parks during the shoulder seasons

Spring, winter, and fall are the least busy times for the parks. If the summer is your only window, try visiting parks during the first or last week of the summer holiday.

Glacier

Montana

safari ltd. grizzly bear glacier national park toy

Grinnell Glacier at Glacier National Park, Montana.

 

Catch a waterfall unlike any other – The Two Medicine area of the park used to be one of the most popular sites, until the Going to the Sun road was completed. Now it’s one of the least visited. It is home to Running Eagle Falls or “Trick Falls,” named so because the waterfall appears to come directly out of the rock in summer. In spring, two waterfalls appear to join together. The trail is wheelchair and stroller accessible.

Eat a huckleberry macaroon – Montana is known for its huckleberries, and while you can try them anywhere in and near the park, Polebridge, known for its bakery, features the most iconic. From there, head to Bowman Lake in the northern end of the park.

Take a boat ride  – Most visitors to the park stay to the western side, but families should not miss St. Mary Lake on Glacier’s eastern side. The western end of the lake hosts several family-friendly trails, including Baring Falls (0.6 miles) and many picnic spots. Book a spot on a lake cruise for an unforgettable view of the park.

Find a wild horse – If you head south after your trip to Glacier, stop by Wildhorse Island State Park, the largest island in Flathead Lake. Salish-Kootenai Indians historically used the island to pasture horses. It is now famous for its wildlife viewing, including five wild horses. Accessing the park requires a boat.

Take it easy – Many of the hikes in Glacier require backcountry courage or a willingness to put up with a crush of crowds. The Rocky Point Trail along Lake MacDonald is an easy trail that takes you away from other sightseers. Just under two miles, the trail offers views of the lake, and in the spring, plenty of wildflowers.

tip #4

Learn about the parks before you go

The National Parks Foundation website has a great directory of all the parks to help your family get excited about your visit – their various guides offer additional in-depth resources.

Arches

Utah

safari ltd red tail hawk, arches national park

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah at sunrise.

 

Go exploring – The short, 0.3-mile Sand Dune Arch trail provides a completely different experience for kids than for adults. While adults may be tempted to view the arch and finish the trail in under 20 minutes, children will enjoy exploring all the nooks and crannies along this sandy playground.

Take a drive – If kids need a break from hiking and exploring, let them rest in the car while you check out the Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway. With petroglyphs and dinosaur tracks along the road, there are plenty of places to pull off that will entertain curious adventurers.

Go off the beaten trail – While the initial portion of the Windows Primitive Trail is quite popular, the less traveled backside of the loop provides even better views. A 1.2 mile loop is doable with children, and allows for easy views of the arches that many consider to be the heart of the park.

Go stargazing – The crowds in Arches are hard to avoid during the day, but the park offers some of the darkest skies in Utah for stargazing at night. Roads are currently closed at night from Sunday through Thursday until November 30th, but if you visit on a weekend, head to a picnic area or viewpoint. Bring blankets and hot chocolate for an unforgettable night.

Head to a museum – If you have any dinosaur enthusiasts in the family, be sure to check out this prehistoric paradise at Moab Giants. Complete with a museum, aquarium, outdoor dinosaur trail, and dinosaur themed play area, kids will not forget this piece of Moab.

Acadia

Maine

safari ltd toy humback whale acadia national park

View from rocky summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park.

 

Pick blueberries – If you head to Maine in July or August, be sure to pick blueberries for the ultimate “Blueberries for Sal” experience. Numerous trails in the park offer places to pick fresh blueberries, so bring a bucket and some hungry mouths. Because it’s a popular activity, park officials ask that people be aware of their impact on the land and be careful to stay on rock to minimize trampling.

Take a bike ride – Acadia is home to 45 miles of carriage roads that are closed to motor vehicle traffic. Witch Hole Pond is not the most trafficked of these roads, but it was made famous when the Obamas biked around in 2014. The 3.3 mile trail has an initial steep ascent, but then levels off after a quarter of a mile.

Learn about lobsters – Take a cruise on the Lulu Lobster Boat to learn firsthand about lobstering in Maine. This small lobster boat can also provide better views of seals along the coastline than larger boats can.

Enjoy a bite to eat – You can bribe kids to finish nearly any hike with the promise of food at the end. The Jordan Pond House is known for it’s popovers and lemonade. To work up an appetite, check out the less busy Jordan Stream Trail nearby.

Surf and turf – The Ship Harbor Nature Trail  offers forest and water views on a 1.3-mile walk. This trail is shaped like a figure eight, with the first loop wheelchair and stroller accessible. The hike winds through a spruce and fir forest before coming out at a rocky coastline. If you visit in the winter, bring your snowshoes.

Everglades National Park

Florida

American alligator Safari ltd toy Evergaldes national park

Everglades national park

See seashells by the seashore – If you have a shell enthusiast in the family, be sure to check out the Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum north of the park on Florida’s gulf coast. The museum hosts numerous exhibits, daily beach walks, and family arts and crafts. The children’s learning lab features interactive displays, games, and a live tank.

Take a guided birding walk – The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary north of Everglades park is owned by the Audubon society and offers a variety of family friendly activities including guided walks. The sanctuary provides a 2.25-mile boardwalk from which to view wood storks, and even the rare blooming ghost orchid.

Find hidden treasure – If coastal explorations have put your children in a pirate mood, try your hand at looking for hidden treasure while geocaching. The Park Employee for a Day Geocache Trail is a series of hidden case studies to find and weigh in on. If you are already an avid geogacher, note that only park employees are allowed to place caches in the park.

Get on a boat – Hop on a boat for a chance to see manatees, bald eagles, ospreys, alligators, and more. The Everglades National Park Boat Tour company offers two tours: the Ten Thousand Island Cruise and the Mangrove Wilderness Tour. Both offer unique views of the area, but the Ten Thousand Island Cruise is free for kids four and under.

Go for a ride – Take the 15-mile loop through the Everglades and you might have a chance to see alligators, herons, snakes, and other wildlife. You have two options for getting around on this road – either a tram ride with Shark Valley Tram Tours, or by bike. Either way, you and your family can enjoy the road less traveled.

 

safari Ltd. logo

Parent Co. partnered with Safari LTD because they believe preserving the environment is second nature to kids who grow up surrounded by its beauty.