Family road trips are an important piece of our heritage, so it’s likely that most of us have a special road trip tucked away as a favorite childhood memory. Mine was a summer jaunt to visit family in Lake Stevens, Wash. Endless “license plate game” and “cyclops” hours later, and we arrived at our first main stop — Redwood National Park. As I unfolded myself out of our station wagon, I’ll never forget my jaw-dropping awe as I peered to look up at these giant trees kissing the sky. Although we camped only a night among the canopies of these behemoths, it’s that part of the two-week trip that was forever etched in my memory. As an adult and parent, state and national parks remain a favorite; there’s something about the unspoiled beauty and beckoning adventure that makes everyone feel like a kid.
With dozens of national parks dotting the United States, families have no shortage of options when it comes to creating their own life-long memories, but where should they start? While every park is worth a visit, some parks are so special they deserve to be at the top of any “must see” list.
Therefore, as a travel resource, in no particular order, below is AAA’s list of six national parks your kids need to see before they grow up:
• Grand Canyon National Park. Maybe we’re biased, but we don’t think this list would be complete without one of the world’s Seven Wonders. This mile-deep cavern offers unmatched beauty and views. While most people visit the South Rim of the canyon as it’s the most accessible point year-round, the North Rim is also worth the drive, partly because far fewer people access the canyon from this point. The Grand Canyon can be visited by car, foot, air, mule, and raft. Older kids will love backpacking or taking a mule into the inner canyon to stay at Phantom Ranch, or take a river rafting trip. The South Rim is open year-round, but the North Rim is only open during summer.
• Redwoods National Park. Technically, both the National Park Service and the California State Park Service jointly manage these lands. The park is worth a drive just to get a glimpse of the tallest tress on Earth, but the park also hosts prairies, woodlands, and abundant wildlife, as well as 40 miles of pristine coastline. Temperatures range 40 to 60 degrees year-round, although summer is high season.
• Yellowstone National Park. Covering nearly 3,500 miles, mostly in Wyoming, this landmark was established in 1872 as the first national park. This complex ecosystem houses the majority of the world’s geysers, including the famous Old Faithful. Abundant wildlife also roam through these lands, including bison, grizzly bears, wolves, and elk. The park has no shortage of offerings for the outdoor enthusiast; kids will love the variety of outdoor activities to maintain their interest, including hiking, camping, backpacking, fishing, boating, or biking pursuits. Special wildlife viewing, fishing and rafting tours may also be arranged. Yellowstone is an American icon not to be missed.
• Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. As a kid, what could possibly be cooler than traipsing over lava beds, hoping for a glimpse of molten lava bubbling to the surface? Although not an exclusive road trip, this park is included for the uniqueness and coolness factors that only volcanoes can offer. Located on the Big Island, you can access the summit of Kilauea volcano via Crate Rim’s 11-mile drive. This breathtaking drive will take you through various ecosystems, including the summit caldera, the desert, and lush tropical rain forest. Lava flow activity within Kilauea and Halema‘uma‘u Crater change daily, so be sure to check with the National Park Service for possible activity to maximize your visit.
• Mesa Verde National Park. Located in Mesa Verde, Colo., this park features the largest collection of Pueblo home sites and cliff dwellings in the world. Families learn about the Native American culture in an entertaining and informative manner. During summer, the most popular time for visitors, the park has arts and cultural festivals and activities for kids that enhance the educational value of the cliff dwellings. The park also features hundreds of campsites, as well as the Far View Lodge, for those families less interested in roughing it. Hiking and wildlife opportunities will also keep little ones busy in-between exploring the pristine Pueblo dwellings.
• Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a site that offers such biodiversity that’s contained within the 500,000 acres of this nature park. Located in Tennessee and North Carolina, this site is actually a combined international biosphere reserve and World Heritage site.
It’s truly nature’s playground; more than 13,500 species have been identified in what is believed to be the richest bio diverse areas in the United States. Kids are likely to discover fireflies, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals never before encountered. The park also has a plethora of hiking, camping, biking, horseback riding, and fishing opportunities. Nearly a dozen waterfalls are accessible by foot, and several more are accessible by car.
Of course, this list is just a starting point. With a variety of options throughout the country, you can create your own park adventure. If you’re thinking of visiting a few of these parks in one year, it might also make sense to purchase an annual park pass for $80. Keep in mind that children age 15 and under are admitted free to all national parks.
For more information, visit AAA.com/travel.
• Linda Gorman is communications and public affairs director for AAA Arizona. Reach her at (602) 650-2716 or firstname.lastname@example.org.