Our teenage daughter’s favorite childhood memory of Yellowstone National Park is waking up to the sound of a bear…that turned out to be her Dad snoring in the tent! Many years later we all still laugh about it, although at the time the poor little soul was petrified. Our family has spent countless days exploring new trails, spotting wildlife up close, perfecting the art of S’mores and sleeping squeezed together in a tent, all while vacationing in National Parks across the country. We’ve found National Parks to be great places for family vacations due to their affordability, unique beauty and the opportunity to spend time together (often unplugged from the world).
The top five reasons to make your next family vacation a trip to a National Park are…
1. Bargain-Basement Prices
You won’t get more bang for your buck than visiting a National Park. This type of family vacation is about as affordable as it gets! The costs are minimal — Your greatest expense (once you get to the park) is the park pass itself. An annual pass will run $80 and gets you into more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. And if you’re only planning on visiting one National Park, you can often purchase a one-time/per vehicle pass for just $25.
You also don’t have to be outfitted to the gills—cramming mountains of gear into your car so your kids are forced to share a seat (and fight) for hours is an automatic fail! If you can round up a tent (borrowing stuff is awesome), you can grow your gear collection from there. And if you aren’t a camper (although I highly recommend it – kids love the experience of roasting marshmallows and sleeping in a tent) there are often motels, or if you’re lucky, a historic lodge nearby. You’ll also save money around mealtimes (no $20 sandwiches from the resort restaurant here) as you need to bring your own food from home.
2. Picturesque (Instagram worthy photos)
Oh my goodness, the scenic grandeur is breathtaking. I might be a little bit biased, but anything man-made doesn’t even come close. Who doesn’t want to take in incredible vistas, unique natural features and starry night skies (free from city lights), all while nurturing an appreciation for the world around you? As Thomas Berry stated, “Teaching children about the natural world should be treated as one of the most important events in their lives.”
For those who are a bit more adventurous or have older children, interesting hikes abound! There are big hikes and little hikes, hikes on paved asphalt or hikes on sand…There is honestly something for every age, size and ability level. Hiking is not only great exercise (a plus given how many roasted marshmallows you’ll likely inhale around the campfire), but it also allows you to slow down the pace and really take in your amazing surroundings.
3. One of a Kind!
Each National Park is different and unique. Once you start, you’ll soon find that you want to keep ticking them off your list (or coming back for additional exploration)! These parks have been designated national treasures, and every single one of them has something rare and beautiful to offer. Just a few of our family’s amazing experiences include visiting exceptional cultural heritage sites (e.g. cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park), observing endangered animal habitats (e.g. California Condors at Grand Canyon National Park), and witnessing rare natural features (e.g. stalactite and stalagmite formations at Wind Cave National Park) and phenomenal geysers (e.g. Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park).
4. Nothing but Freebies
All the free activities a National Park visit affords is what helps keep your budget in check! Once in the park, it doesn’t cost a thing to explore new paths or wander around the Visitor’s Center (which typically has a list of free scheduled events throughout the day you can participate in). There is often an educational movie continuously playing in the Visitor Center’s theatre, which gives a great overview of the park and what you’ll want to explore while you’re there. Park Ranger Kiosks (with free maps) are standard features, where you can get almost any question answered (even dumb ones like, “How much is the free shuttle bus?” or “Does Old Faithful erupt at night?”), as well as gather plenty of suggestions for free activities (like a guided hike or twilight educational presentation led by a Park Ranger).
A fantastic program for kids is the Junior Ranger Program. The program encourages children to explore the special facets of the particular park they’re visiting, learn about the animals and land features unique to their surroundings, and nurtures a genuine appreciation for Mother Nature. A small booklet is given to each child and lists lots of different exploratory activities for them to complete. And after finishing the booklet they are given a fun (and collectable) badge to pin on their shirt! (Truthfully it’s become a bit of a competition among my kids and their cousins to see who has the most Junior Ranger badges, as you can collect one at each park you visit.)
5. Squeaky Clean
Because National Parks are funded with federal dollars, they are regularly maintained, which really means they are clean, clean, clean! I LOVE this. It’s hard to feel like you’re one with nature when there’s a funky stench in the air that brings you back to your littlies’ toilet training days. Thankfully, this isn’t the case at National Parks. Park Rangers maintain the facilities throughout the day, the campgrounds are manicured, the restrooms are clean and the hiking trails are well defined and clearly labeled with signs. All this upkeep means the amenities are enjoyable for all!
At some (not all) National Parks, there are also facilities to hook up a camper/RV. (While this type of “glamping” has never been in our repertoire, my in-laws, a.k.a. the grandparents, genuinely appreciate the increased comfort that comes with being able to bring their camper along.) Another great thing is, depending on where you are in the park, you DO NOT ALWAYS HAVE WI-FI! (Although don’t worry about potential isolation too much as most Visitor Centers have Wi-Fi.) Some might see this as a disadvantage (in particular the teens in your family), but as a parent with two teenagers who love to check their social media accounts, I consider the ability to be forcibly unplugged a real perk!
With a little forethought, your family can easily create a new vacationing experience and visit a National Park. While we’ve predominately visited parks in the West (where we live), there are designated National Parks across our entire country, and there’s likely at least one (if not more) within driving distance of where you live. You simply can’t go wrong enjoying the beauty of Mother Nature to make lasting and affordable memories with your own clan (unless that snoring sound in your tent actually does turn out to be a bear)!