I was 28 years old before I first set foot in the open spaces of the U.S. National Park Service. Because I grew up in New England, touring America’s national parks—with their jaw-dropping landscapes, unusual ecosystems, fascinating wildlife, and thousands of miles of hiking trails—simply wasn’t something our family did. But, as an adult, once I lay eyes on the otherworldly sandstone formations in Arches National Park, I was hooked. And I knew I wanted my children to experience nature’s bounty in the United States through the national park system.

The first park my children were able to explore on their own two feet was Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. My son, just two years old at the time, could scale the ladders to reach some of the ancient dwellings set into the cliffs. Does he remember the ranger-led tour, on which we learned how the Ancestral Puebloans lived centuries ago? Nope. But I distinctly recall him toddling around the archeological sites, grinning and so proud of himself as he ascended those ladders. I mark that moment as a “We can do this!” revelation. I realized how capable my toddler was, how much his older sister enjoyed filling out Junior Ranger activity booklets. From that initial national park visit, we made a point to visit at least one a year as a family.

From taking a boat tour in Florida Everglades National Park to watching a volcano erupt in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and spotting buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, our family has made some incredibly special memories in national parks over the years. Here’s why I think national parks should play a role in every family’s vacation plans.

Viewfinder Tip: Don’t forget about national monuments; there actually are more of these protected areas in the United States than national parks.

Each U.S. national park is distinctly different. The National Park Service operates 59 national parks (including one in American Samoa and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands), and each has its own wonderfully unique characteristics. I’ll be honest, when I was first introduced to the National Park Service, I thought national parks were all about rocks and trees and mountains. But, no! National parks feature hot springs, caves, volcanoes, mangroves, and coral reefs. If there is one way for your children to learn to appreciate the natural beauty of the United States, it’s by visiting the country’s national parks.

The national parks’ Junior Ranger program is brilliant. When my teenagers were younger, our first mission at any national park was to pick up the park’s Junior Ranger activity booklet in the visitor’s center. These free booklets help children learn about the history, flora, and fauna of the area through word searches, bingo cards, crossword puzzles, and other activities. Upon completion of all of the age-appropriate activities (questions and games for 4-year-olds are different from those for 12-year-olds), children report their answers to a ranger back at the visitor center, and then earn a Junior Ranger badge after reciting the Junior Ranger pledge. I like that the program’s booklets always have at least one section that teaches children about safety (don’t feed wild animals) and another that teaches them about the importance of being a good steward of the land (pick up litter). Most children have so much fun filling out these booklets they don’t realize they are learning along the way.


Rolling at Great Sand Dunes National Park

National parks are filled with interesting U.S. history. National parks aren’t only about showcasing the natural surroundings; they are filled with all sorts of fascinating history lessons, as well. And I’m not talking about the ancient geologic history—though children visiting Grand Canyon National Park will learn how the Grand Canyon was cut by the Colorado River over millions of years, while kids visiting Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park will learn how the tallest sand dunes in America were formed. Parks also offer insight into the area’s first inhabitants, as well as those who settled later, with original homesteads preserved on property. Some parks even have opportunities for children to try on pioneer clothing or pretend to rope cattle. At the Grand Canyon’s Verkamp’s Visitor Center, my kids and I learned via informative displays what it was like for souvenir-seller John Verkamp and his family to be part of a community that lived on the rim in the early 1900s.

National parks spark a love of the outdoors. U.S. national parks showcase some of the best scenery our country has to offer. Steep and deep canyons, massive glaciers, dramatic rocky coastline…the list goes on and on! Even preschool-aged children are wowed by a dramatic geyser eruption or walking close enough to a waterfall to feel its spray. That’s the beauty of exploring national parks with kids: Instead of seeing pretty pictures in a book or watching a movie that features amazing scenery, children can see, touch, smell, and hear nature up close. Hiking and camping in striking surroundings can only foster a desire to spend more time outdoors. (Of course, on-the-trail sweet snacks and s’mores by the campfire only help the cause.)

Tech-free time is fabulous family time. When my family camped at Yellowstone for four nights, WiFi and decent cell service were gloriously absent. We purposely didn’t charge the kids’ electronics during that time (so they couldn’t play video games offline either), and we all survived­—and thrived. Storytelling, card games, cornhole, and other non-techy pursuits filled our time when we weren’t sightseeing in the park. Social-media and work e-mails didn’t distract Mom and Dad, so we could focus on making memories with our children. We appreciated the break from the screens, and I know our kids appreciated our attention, too.

Up close with buffalo at Yellowstone

National parks are inexpensive vacations. With opportunities for reasonably priced cabins, lodge rooms, and tent and RV campsites in the parks, a national-park vacation can be very affordable. Visitors also can find moderately priced lodging just outside of national parks. For example, the gateway towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake on either side of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park have budget-minded hotels and condos. Remember that once you’re inside the park, activities such as hiking, scenic drives, star gazing, ranger-led talks, and wildlife viewing are totally free, while other pursuits, such as horseback riding, guided snowmobiling, and boat tours may carry an additional (reasonable) fee.

If you’re planning on visiting a few national parks in any given year, consider the annual pass, which not only covers entrance fees to the national parks, but also national wildlife refuges, national forests and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management—more than 2,000 federal recreation sites in all. Active members of the U.S. military are eligible for free annual passes, and any U.S. citizen age 62 or older can get an inexpensive lifetime pass (this is great if you’re traveling with grandparents).

What’s more, an exciting initiative from the National Park Foundation, called Every Kid in a Park, will give every single fourth-grader in the country a free annual pass beginning this 2015-16 school year, allowing their families to gain entrance to these multitude of national parks and recreation sites, as well. Finally, keep an eye out for “fee-free” days at the national parks several times during the year.

 How do you like to experience the U.S national parks with your family?