The best national parks to visit with kids this summer
Get outside this summer and explore the great outdoors with kids in tow, from the Grand Canyon to Maine’s Acadia National Park. | By Tanvi Chheda | June 15, 2023
Like all family trips, a national park visit with your crew requires some planning and prep. Choosing family-friendly trails that are more suitable for little legs; packing ample food, water and bug repellent; and grabbing a Junior Ranger booklet (filled with scavenger hunt-style pages) and badge from the visitor centers are a few of our tips for successful and tear-free nature adventures.
Make it fun: Rent bikes and (safely) ride along a portion of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim
Be adventurous: Spot alligators, manatees, herons and maybe even the elusive Florida panther in the Everglades
Take it all in: Marvel at meadows of wildflowers in the foothills of Mount Rainier National Park
Grand Canyon National Park
A sight to behold, the 277-mile-long (446-kilometer-long) and 18-mile-deep (29-kilometer-deep) Grand Canyon National Park should be on every family’s travel bucket list. A layer cake of geological history, the Grand Canyon was carved out six million years ago by the Colorado River and continues to transform due to erosion.
To get a better sense of the canyon’s grandeur, walk part of the Bright Angel trail, easily accessible from the South Rim. Or rent bikes at Bright Angel Bicycles & Cafe located at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center and ride along a portion of the rim (the designed bike path is quite wide so not to worry!) to see the park in a more active way.
Be on the lookout for elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer and some of the 450 bird species that call the park home, including red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons and California condors. Kids will also love searching the exposed rock for fossils, most of which are marine fossils, indicating the canyon was once underwater.
On your way to or from the Grand Canyon, it’s also worthwhile to stop at the Hoover Dam for a guided power plant tour or to take in the impressive Lake Mead and desert views.
Just 45 minutes away, Hilton Grand Vacations Club on the Las Vegas Strip, makes for the perfect home base while exploring the region. With rooms featuring kitchenettes and property highlights like two pools, a spa and basketball court, it checks all the boxes for families. The unique Neon Museum, an illuminating exhibition of the history of Las Vegas, and Fly Over Las Vegas, an immersive flying theater attraction, are also nearby.
Everglades National Park
Spanning more than 2,357 square miles (6,104 square kilometers) across southern Florida, the Everglades National Park is one of the largest wetlands in the world with mangroves, sawgrass prairies and river deltas. Given the park’s size, there are three entrances: Homestead (main entry point), Shark Valley (closest to Miami) or Everglades City (closest to Naples).
The Everglades is the only place where American crocodiles (which typically live in saltwater habitats), and American alligators (which prefer freshwater marshes) manage to coexist. While most visitors come hoping to see these reptiles, the park is also home to the Florida panther, raccoons, river otters, deer and hundreds of species of fish and birds.
Other park highlights include an airboat tour, boardwalk-style trails such as Anhinga Trail and Pa-hay-okee Trail and kayaking with a guide. The Shark Valley tram tour is another family-friendly way to see portions of the park, ending at the Shark Valley Observation Tower. It’s also possible to bike the route the tram takes if you're traveling with older kids. Adventurers-in-training will especially love the naturalist-led guided tours and canoe trips by the non-profit Everglades National Park Institute.
Top tip: Given the park’s subtropical climate, be sure to pack bug spray along with your sunscreen!
Rocky Mountain National Park
The mountains are calling! Heed the call and head to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. The 415-square-mile (1,074-square-kilometer) park features snow-capped peaks, forested valleys and shimmering alpine lakes. The easy Alluvial Fan trail, with cascades of water flowing through boulders, is great for hikers of all abilities, and allows for some scrambling among rocks and dipping toes in water.
Next, soak up the scenery while driving along Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in America, nicknamed Highway to the Sky. The road (which is only open Memorial Day through mid-October when snow has cleared) leads to the Alpine Visitor Center (equipped with a cafe, bathrooms and gift shops) and the short ¼-mile trail that takes you to one of the park’s peaks for stunning panoramic views. The peak can be quite windy and cool, even during summer, so dress accordingly.
A quick 30-minute drive from the national park, DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Denver offers connecting rooms, in-suite kitchens and an ideal location to also explore Denver’s family-friendly attractions such as the Children’s Museum, with its Adventure Forest aerial course, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, known for its dinosaur bones.
Mount Rainier National Park
The highest mountain in the northwestern Cascade Range, 14,410-foot-tall (4,392-meter-tall) Mount Rainier was formed over thousands of years by volcanic eruption and ash clouds. The mountain has 25 known glaciers, dense slow-moving packs of ice, including the Nisqually Glacier, and is accessible to visit from the Paradise area. Wildflowers – aster, purple lupine, broadleaf arnica, fairy slipper and more – transform the national park into a sea of color in July and August.
Consider the following trails for further exploration: The 1.1-mile (1.7-kilometer) round-trip Grove of the Patriarchs trail which loops through an old-growth forest and features a suspension bridge; the moderately challenging 2.7-mile (4.3-kilometer) Glacier Vista Loop for gorgeous panoramic views; and the easier 0.7-mile (1.1-kilometer) Trail of the Shadows for beautiful lakeside scenery. Food options are limited within the park, so our advice is to pack sandwiches, snacks and plenty of water!
Acadia National Park
Located along the Maine coast, Acadia National Park is a bit of a commitment to reach, but families will be rewarded in spades with the breathtaking beauty of granite mountains, rock-strewn coastlines and darling nearby villages such as Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor and Tremont. With some 158 miles of hiking trails, there’s something for everyone.
The more challenging 1.4-mile (2.2-kilometer) Beehive trail is a favorite for rock scrambling, while the easier 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) Bubbles hike and 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) Jordan Pond Path both offer spectacular views. Another option is driving to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the eastern seaboard, but be aware that advanced reservations are required for car access.
A handful of lighthouses also sit on the edges of the park, including the highly photographed Bass Harbor Head Light station.
With so many enthralling national parks around the country, it’s easy to experience an adventurous and scenic outdoor vacation the whole family will enjoy.
Tanvi Chheda is a travel writer and family travel expert based in Los Angeles. From taking her daughter to Peru at the age of 2 to visiting several U.S. National Parks with her family, she loves seeing new places through her kids' eyes and encourages other families to do the same. A former Travel + Leisure editor, Tanvi has written for The New York Times, AFAR.com, Robb Report, Virtuoso Life and Ciao Bambino, among others.