Mom's Guide to National Park Family Vacations
Glacier National Park, Montana
Summer vacation is a perfect time for a trip to one of America's beautiful National Parks, even with small children! With a little planning and practical packing, even the youngest members of the family will have a great time exploring the great outdoors and soaking up a little adventure.
Yoho National Park, Canada
- National Park weekly auto passes are $25 per vehicle, and annual passes are $80 for a year, plus most parks have shorter express entry lines for annual pass holders. If you have a fourth grade student, your family is eligible for a free annual pass from the Every Kid In A Park program (be sure you print your pass before visiting, electronic passes are not accepted).
- Where to stay? Our first choice for family lodging is always a private vacation rental (VRBO) house, cabin, or
condo in the park or close to the park. Hotel rooms are just too
small for us and we love that most private rentals include multiple
bedrooms (yay for good sleep), fully stocked kitchens, and washing machines
(we generate a lot of laundry when exploring all day!). When we factor
in cooking some of our own meals, this option often ends up
significantly cheaper than a park-managed hotel room with restaurant
- If you're planning to book a hotel room or cabin in the park, book it at least a year in advance, and do your research on camping/RVs inside the park as these operate differently in each park and at each campground.
- Research the area and make an agenda before your trip. Look at nearby attractions inside and out of the park— TripAdvisor is a great place to start with plenty of reviews and tips for each hike/lake/drive/attraction/restaurant. Free apps like TripAdvisor, National Geographic’s National Parks, and Oh Ranger! Park Finder are great resources. Free park maps are available online and at the park to plan your trip. Our schedule usually includes hiking or popular attractions in the morning and relaxing or taking a scenic drive in the afternoon, leaving plenty of time for exploring and downtime.
- Avoid crowds by visiting a sister park nearby: Yoho NP vs Banff NP, Grand Teton NP vs Yellowstone NP. Also aim to arrive at main attractions/sights in the morning before 10 am or in the evening after 6 pm.
- Get the kids interested early by watching YouTube videos and checking out books at the library about the area or animals in the park.
- As you plot your route, plan to fill up your vehicle with gas every time you see a station (gas stations are few and far between as you approach and enter NPs)
What to do before you go
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Mt. Rushmore National Monument, South Dakota
- Bug spray and bug-bite itch relief cream
- Sun hats for everyone (these machine washable hats are our favorites)
- Band-aids and basic ouch cream
- Baby wipes (even if you don't have a baby along)
- Thermometer and pain relievers
- Comfortable hiking or walking shoes
- Supportive sandals
- Layers of clothes ranging from fleece to rain jackets to tanks and shorts
- Swim suits and towels
- Roll of toilet paper and hand wash pump bottle or hand sanitizer (camp toilets and pit toilets are usually clean but most don't have soap)
- Basic day hike backpack with chest and waist clips
- Water bottles and/or Camelbak water pouches
- Highway road maps (park maps and basic trail maps are available free inside the park)
- Bag for garbage DON'T LITTER
- Plenty of diapers and wipes
- If you have a baby or child under 3, bring a baby carrier, hard or soft structured depending on your planned activities (these are our favorite soft sided and hard sided carriers). I never bring a stroller.
Packing for your adventure
A starter must-have packing list for families:
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Canada
- Stock up on supplies and snacks before you leave or buy them in a nearby town. Services in the park are expensive and not always available when tummies get hungry.
- Bring a cooler for perishable food and pack plenty of water—general rule of thumb is one gallon per adult per day. Our favorite on-the-go snacks include apples, string cheese, grapes, beef jerky, raisins, baby carrots, whole grain chips, applesauce pouches, sandwiches, and licorice. In-park restaurants get very busy during peak season, but there are always plenty of scenic picnic tables to enjoy a sack lunch.
- Bring smartphones, cameras, and all your favorite gear for gazillions of great photos ... but don't assume you'll have cell/data coverage in the park. Most areas and even most paved roads are too remote for service, so assume you'll be off-the-grid while inside a NP (and feel lucky if you happen upon some!).
- You'll do a lot of driving in the park, and traffic is slow in many areas, so you (and your kids) will spend significantly more time in the car than you anticipate. Pack plenty of snacks, books, and car activities. Our favorites are podcasts and audio books (borrowed free from the library), highway bingo, magnetic games, and journals with pens for the older kids. We also let the kids pick up free brochures/maps at each rest stop, which keeps my kids busy for hours!
- Plan for diaper changes on-the-go: in your vehicle, on the trail, basically everywhere. Restroom diaper changing facilities are rare in NPs.
Denali National Park, Alaska
- Your first stop should be a visit with the park rangers—they have TONS of great information like current weather reports, the best family hikes, wildlife sightings, and schedules for ranger-led programs like stargazing and nature walks, etc. And, ask about the Junior Ranger program; most sites have free activity books that kids can complete for prizes while exploring the park, and your child can be sworn-in as a Junior Ranger. My kids love this program!
- Gypsy Guide is a GPS smart phone app that makes it feel like you have a tour guide in your car as you drive. We've used the Gypsy Guide for Yellowstone NP, and it was a blast, plus we learned a lot.
- National Parks can be really busy, even during off-season, so I suggest matching T-shirts or hats if you have curious kids who tend to wander. This is especially important at places like Old Faithful, park rest stops, and gift shops.
- While driving through the parks, we have found that a slow pace with lots of stops to explore and stretch is best when traveling with kids.
- Hike it! Our family loves to hike and while we're far from being expert hikers, we look forward to getting out and exploring. We've been pleasantly surprised at how far our kids will hike, making it totally feasible to reach waterfalls and views far off the beaten path. At ages three and four, our kids have happily hiked four miles with low elevation. Each summer we start with short nature trails and work our way up gradually to longer, more difficult hikes.
- As you venture out for a family hike, triple check the weather forecast, carry plenty of water and snacks, wear supportive shoes (not sandals), wear sunhats, and carry a map. Pack it in and pack it out—never, ever litter.
- Dance party! We subtly play a silly "get moving" type of song when we get out of the car — Raffi's "Shake Your Sillies Out" or Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" are favorites. After long hours in the car our kids are frazzled until we bust a move.
- It's illegal to take home any natural souvenirs but National Parks offer some great ways to bring pieces of the park home. Some of my favorites are passport stamp stations (free, just bring your own book), hiking medallions, and Junior Ranger explorer vests with patches.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Exploring the Park
Hurray! You've just snapped a photo by the welcome sign and you're officially in the park. Now what?
Our kids love the National Park Junior Ranger Program!
Black Elk Peak, Black Elk Wilderness Area, South Dakota
Ice Field Parkway, Jasper National Park, Canada
Hit the road and get ready for a fun-filled adventure and unforgettable memories!
What is your family's favorite national park?
What are your tips and must-haves for families vacationing in a national park?