Ready for a summer road trip? Whether you’re into hitting the hiking trails, camping, going on scavenger hunts or even soaking in hot springs, there’s a national park out there that you’ll love. Keep reading to see our favorite family-friendly parks, along with tips to help you make the most of your visit.
Zion National Park, UT
Sandstone cliffs, slot canyons and animal wildlife are all part of the wonder of Zion National Park in Utah. You’ll want to give yourselves plenty of time at this scenic destination to take it all in.
Things to See & Do: Try a kid-friendly hike, like The Grotto Trail, Weeping Rock Trail or the Emerald Pool trail. While at the Emerald Pool trail, be sure to check out the gorgeous waterfall views. For a fun way for families to learn more about Zion together, head over to the Nature Center. Daily from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day, youth programs specifically for children and families are offered, and last 30-45 minutes, so they're just the right length for your mini explorers.
Tips & When to Go: Zion National Park is open year-round. Some services or facilities may have limited hours at various times of the year.
Acadia National Park, ME
Located in Maine, Acadia National Park offers trails along the granite shoreline that seem to rise from the sea. There are plenty of opportunities to learn about lobsters or search for harbor seals, the cool freshwater lakes, and frothy saltwater tidal invite exploring, and there's plenty of yummy lobster dinners within reach.
What to See & Do: Acadia offers families dozens of activities beyond hiking (though the hiking is both excellent and most often very family-friendly), which everyone will love. Pack your bikes for rides along the network of Carriage Roads, and blow their minds at Thunder Hole, a partially submerged cave that booms about an hour before high tide.
Tips & When to Go: While there is plenty to do for visitors of all ages and abilities, much of Acadia’s landscape is very rugged. If you’ve got wee ones in tow, a child’s backpack carrier just might save the trip. Late summer and early fall offer warm days, fewer crowds and typically chilly evenings, making it the perfect time for a visit.
Badlands National Park, SD
The dramatic landscape of Badlands has an otherworldly feel that has to be seen to be believed. With a combination of impressive rock formations and beautiful grasslands, this South Dakota spot is worth a visit.
What to See & Do: Drive Badlands Loop Road and stop at a few of the overlooks for jaw-dropping views. Popular with kids, the quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail winds along a boardwalk and features fossil replicas. Along with the Junior Ranger program in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, kids can also check out the interactive exhibits and visit the theater to watch the film Land of Stone and Light. In the summertime, families can get a close-up view of the night sky through telescopes on Friday through Monday nights at the evening ranger program.
Tips & When to Go: Badlands is open year-round, although the visitor center is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Summertime offers additional programs such as the Night Sky program, evening ranger programs, guided hikes and talks.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH
Although not as well known as some other parks, Cuyahoga Valley is an ideal spot to watch changing foliage, colorful wildflowers and wildlife. Nestled between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, this midwestern park may become a new favorite.
Things to See & Do: To see a magical view of Blue Hen Falls, the Blue Hen Falls Trail is an easy hike that the whole family can do together. At half a mile and just under thirty minutes, it’s a great intro trail and leads to the peaceful waterfall. You can also try birdwatching, canoeing and a whole schedule of summer events including train rides on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, ranger-led hikes and wildlife walks.
Tips & When to Go: The park is open every day, although some areas close at dusk for the night. Wildflowers are in bloom in mid to late summer.
Dinosaur National Monument, CO, UT
If you’ve got a dino lover in your house, then Dinosaur National Monument is a definite stop for your list. Inside the Quarry Hall, the kids can check out over 1,500 real preserved dinosaur fossils that are sure to fascinate them. Next, move on to see some petroglyphs and pictographs as you drive the 10-mile Tour of Tilted Rocks. You’ll also find hiking, river rafting, and ranger-guided programs.
Tips & When to Go: Dinosaur National Monument is open every day all year, but during the winter, some roads and facilities are closed. The Quarry Visitor Center and Quarry Exhibit Hall are only open at certain times, so check the website before heading on your trip. In the summertime, temperatures can easily climb over 100 degrees, so take plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat.
Shenandoah National Park, VA
Located only 75 miles outside of Washington, D.C. and with over 100 miles of scenic highway, this park is perfect for families who love a good road trip. Skyline Drive is the main (and only) drag through the park, and the 75 overlooks of the Shenandoah Valley are swoon-worthy.
What to See & Do: The Shenandoah National Park’s Scenic Drive ensures that you will see splendid views and have every opportunity to get out and explore the park since nearly all trailheads are located a short distance from the road. This is the perfect park for families with good car seat travelers!
Tips & When to Go: Because they leave the fields in the Shenandoah National Park unplowed to purposely propagate the wildflowers that bloom there, you are guaranteed to see an incredible show year-round.
Hot Springs National Park, AR
Located in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the Hot Springs National Park is the only park that had a city grow up around it. Known for its bubbling mineral springs and their restorative and healing powers, you can still bathe in them today in one of the restored historic bathhouses.
What to See & Do: While the springs have been around for ages, the amenities have continued to improve. You can bathe in the mineral waters from the comfort of a modern-day spa after spending a morning hiking one of the park's 26 miles of trails. And did we mention that there’s a diamond mine only an hour away in Murfreesboro?
Tips & When to Go: We like the idea of a nice, hot mineral spring bath on a cool spring day, don’t you? The bathhouses are open year-round, but Arkansas heats up in the summer and we suggest going during one of the cooler months.
Olympic National Park, WA
You can see beaches, rainforests and mountains at this beautiful park in the Pacific Northwest. Olympic National Park holds a little something for everyone.
What to See & Do: On the coast, kids four and up can be “Ocean Stewards” and earn a badge for completing activities. You can also explore tide pools, try any number of family hiking trails or spend some time on Rialto beach. For evening fun, join one of the Night Sky programs, such as stargazing or full moon hikes at Hurricane Ridge.
Tips & When to Go: June through September are the most popular times to visit. Although the park is most crowded during these times, the park also has the most facilities and programs available. The park is still a show-stopping sight in winter, but check the website for weather and road conditions first.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, IN
While not an official national park, Indiana Dunes still offers visitors over 15 miles of protected lakeshore and 48 miles of trails—some within sight of the Chicago skyline!
What to See & Do
Lake Michigan’s sandy shoreline includes dunes that reach as high as 125 feet tall, and its National Lakeshore status has protected its natural beauty from development and commercialization. If you decide to explore the dunes, just be sure to stay on the marked trails to protect the natural habitat!
Tips & When to Go
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a perfect spot for a picnic, day hike or day at the beach from the moment the sun starts shining in the spring until the last leaves have fallen in autumn.
Mammoth Cave National Park, KY
Located in central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system. Experience the underground adventure with cave tours, trails and more.
What to See & Do: You’ll find over 84 miles of hiking trails suitable for all different levels, so find the one that works best for your family and get ready to explore. A variety of cave tours are also available so you can see Mammoth Cave up close and personal. The Frozen Niagara is a popular cave tour for families with young kids ($13/adult, $9/youth, $6.50 special access). Lasting an hour and 15 minutes, the tour ideal for small hikers at just about a quarter of a mile. Reservations are strongly recommended, but not required.
Tips & When to Go: The cave is open year-round, and the Visitor Center’s hours vary by season. Cave temperatures are between the 50s and 60s but can become much colder in the winter. When touring the caves, flash photography is not permitted. Strollers and child backpack carriers are also not permitted on cave tours, so make sure young ones are up for the walk.
Glacier National Park, MT
Mountain scenery, glacier-chiseled lakes and tons of activities greet you at this stunning park in Montana.
What to See & Do: Visit the Apgar Nature Center so kids can play and learn with an assortment of interactive activities, ranger’s talks and children’s programs. Take in the scenery and look for wildlife as you drive the 50-mile Going to the Sun road. As an alternative, you can use the free shuttle along Going to the Sun Road between the nature center and the St. Mary Visitor Center. You’ll also want to make sure to make time to explore the park with a hike. Plenty of trails are popular with children, such as Trail of the Cedars, Hidden Lake Nature Trail or the Oxbow Trail. After you’ve worked up an appetite, don’t forget to make a stop for a scoop of huckleberry ice cream! A Glacier must.
Tips & When to Go: Glacier is open every day of the year, although hours at visitor stations vary by season. Summer is the most popular season to visit. Weather-related events may affect Going to the Sun road plowing and opening, so follow the park’s current road status to get the latest information.
White Sands National Monument, NM
Visiting White Sands feels a little bit like running through a dream. Acres and acres of soft white gypsum sand dunes will have the kids running, rolling and sliding for hours.
What to See & Do: Hit the Visitor Center first to learn all about how White Sands formed, and then head out to experience it! The eight-mile ride down Dunes Drive will take you to the center of the dune field. Sleds can be purchased at the Visitor Center, and little ones (and adults!) will love the chance to take a slide down. Sledding is permitted in the loop area of Dunes Drive. The Visitor Center also has a Junior Rangers program, a gift shop and a native plant garden. Kids can also check out an Adventure Pack for the day, containing binoculars, field guides, a compass and other items to help them explore the dunes.
Tips & When to Go: White Sands is open daily all through the year, with the exception of December 25. The monument occasionally closes for inclement weather or unsafe road conditions. Hours vary depending on the season, so check the website for the latest times. Pack sunglasses and don’t forget the sunscreen, because the sun shining off of those white dunes is bright.
Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Joshua Tree’s beautiful desert landscapes, nature trails and Dr. Seuss-like trees make this park a consistent favorite for families. It’s definitely worth a stop on your next California journey.
What to See & Do: You’ll find plenty of short trails and nature walks that won’t be too strenuous for small hikers. The Bajada, Cap Rock, Hidden Valley and the Cholla Cactus Garden are loop trails that are all one mile long or shorter and take an hour or less to complete. Let the kids pose for a photo with the appropriately named Skull Rock, located along the main park road. If you’re there at night, don’t miss the change to gaze up at some unbelievable stars.
Tips & When to Go: Joshua Tree can get extremely hot in the summer, so a spring visit might be more comfortable, weather-wise. You’re in the desert, so plenty of water is also a must!
Yellowstone National Park, ID, MT, WY
Yellowstone is definitely one for your national parks list! With geysers, hiking trails, animals and forests on display, this gorgeous park is a can’t miss stop on your road trip.
What to See & Do: No trip to Yellowstone is complete without a visit to Old Faithful, the world’s most famous geyser. Take a stroll on the boardwalks around the geyser, and then stop by the Visitor Center to find out when the next eruption is scheduled to take place! You can get a great look and a photo op from the viewing area nearby. While you’re in the Visitor Center, kids can sign up for the Yellowstone Junior Ranger program, where they can earn a badge after completing a series of activities around the park.
Grand Prismatic is another stunning feature on your Yellowstone trip. The park’s largest hot spring boasts bright colors that almost seem unreal. The boardwalk surrounding Grand Prismatic does get crowded, so hold tight to little hands as you check out this amazing thermal feature.
Driving into Yellowstone, you’ll catch some great wildlife sightings, and maybe even a bison crossing, which is always a thrill for little ones.
Tips & When to Go: Summer offers a ton of available activities but is by far Yellowstone’s busiest season, so expect crowds and a slow drive into the park. Spring, summer and winter offer fewer crowds, but some roads and activities are not available depending on weather, so keep up to date on Yellowstone’s website and plan your trip well in advance.
Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
Little fossil fans will love imagining past prehistoric days and dinosaurs as they explore the Painted Desert landscape of Petrified Forest National Park.
What to See & Do: Be sure to make a stop at the Rainbow Forest Museum where your kids will enjoy the interactive exhibits and skeleton displays. From the museum parking area, you can find the trailhead for the Agate House trail, a two-mile trek with a paved portion, leading to an old pueblo made of petrified wood. At the Painted Desert Visitor Center, you’ll find an orientation video, a restaurant, gift shop and plenty of information about the park.
Tips & When to Go: Petrified Forest National Park is open year-round, with the exception of December 25th. However, visitor center hours and park road hours vary by season.
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, HI
Be wowed by the active volcanoes of Kilauea and Mauna Loa on Hawaii’s Big Island!
Things to See & Do: Start at the Visitor Center and check out the video Born of Fire, Born of the Sea. You’ll want to cruise the main road of Crater Rim Drive, where you’ll find tons of scenic stops to admire, such as Kilauea Overlook for unbeatable views. Swing by the Jaggar Museum where you can learn all about lava, seismographs and everything volcano-related. Finally, take your flashlights and explore the magnitude of Nahuku, the Thurston Lava Tube.
Tips & When to Go: The park is open year-round, including all holidays. The park contains two active volcanoes, so safety is always a priority. Stay up to date on volcanic activity and air quality before visiting by checking the park’s website.
Arches National Park, UT
With over 2,000 natural stone arches, beautiful red rock formations and hikes for all ages, Arches National Park is a treat for the whole family.
What to See & Do: Drive through the park to catch a glimpse of some of the famous arches, and stop for strolls and photos. Kids will love Balanced Rock, a gravity-defying structure with a short loop trail that is perfect for small hikers. Another great spot for your little road trippers is Sand Dune Arch. With a 0.3 mile hike and tons of soft sand to play in, kids will have a blast making a detour here.
Tips & When to Go: March through October is the park’s busiest season, so expect crowds and longer lines to drive into the park. Rangers programs are offered in spring, summer and fall, and the Visitor Center is open daily, except for December 25.
Crater Lake National Park, OR
Kids love volcanos, and they'll love that this lake formed from a volcano is also the deepest one in America. But there’s more to Crater Lake National Park than just the lake, and you’ll want to hit the trails (and fishing holes, and swimming holes) before you wrap up your visit.
What to See & Do: Trying to spot the Phantom Ship (a rock formation along the rim) is worth the trip all by itself, and Crater Lake National Park also offers boat trips to Wizard Island. With its volcanic past, this park is perfect for littles with big imaginations.
Tips & When to Go: Accessible nearly year round, Crater Lake is rarely overwhelmed by visitors, even in the summer. Go between July and September for the best weather (and best chance to get out and explore).
Channel Islands National Park, CA
Located just off the coast of Ventura, California, Channel Islands National Park is the perfect family day trip. Accessible only by boat or plane, the Park includes five islands.
What to See & Do: Not only are the islands great to explore by foot or kayak, but the necessary boat ride to get there adds to the trip’s element of adventure. Since these islands are truly remote, don’t take anyone whose needs might exceed what you can carry in a backpack. Tiny tots and need-to-nappers might be better off going when they get a tad older.
Tips & When to Go: While the islands are open to visitors year-round, fall, with warmer water and animal migrations, is a sure bet for the WOW factor. Keep your eyes peeled for blue and humpback whales off the coast, and you’re sure to see dolphins as you make your way to the islands by boat.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
From mountain waterfalls to ice-cold streams running through rhododendron-laced valleys, the Smokies are full of crystal-clear swimming holes, easy and moderate hikes for all legs, and scenic drives.
What to See & Do: Getting to the Smokies is relatively easy from anyplace in the southeast, and it's easily accessible from both Tennessee and North Carolina. Pigeon Forge and Sevierville are both mountain towns just outside of the park and offer plenty of lodging and entertainment options for families looking to neon-light their vacation. A true naturalist would be hard-pressed to find anything wrong with the Smokies, and it’s equally suited for families who prefer to balance their bouts with nature with outlet shopping, live entertainment and restaurants (all available just outside the park).
Tips & When to Go: It’s rare to have a true off-peak season in the Smokies, so if you’re looking for isolation this isn’t the park for you. However, solitude can be found inside the boundaries of the park, and we recommend going in the early spring to catch the incredible display of ephemeral wildflowers in bloom. Or, go in the fall around the second or third weekend of October to see the brilliant fall leaves.
What’s your favorite national park? Have you been to all of the ones on our list? Let us know in the comments below!
— Anna Doogan & Shelley Massey