Must-Haves for Visiting National Parks with Kids
We love traveling to the National Parks with our kids. One thing that always amazes me is how many vastly different parks our country has to offer. Quite literally from sea to shining sea, you can visit more than 400 National Park Sites (these include the National Parks, as well as National Seashores, National Historic Sites, National Military Sites like battlefields, etc.). National Park Sites cover more than 84 million acres of land in the United States!
This year during our epic summer road trip, we crossed several National Park Sites off of our list including: Yellowstone National Park, Shoshone National Forest, Bighorn National Forest, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Badlands National Park, and Mount Rushmore National Monument. In addition, we saw Devil’s Tower National Monument and Grand Teton National Park from a distance.
As we traveled day after day to site after site, we worked on a list of our must-haves for visiting National Parks with kids.
1. National Park Passports – Available for purchase in just about every National Park gift shop, there are two versions of these passports: a junior (kid) edition and a standard (adult) edition. We actually bought the standard edition for both of our kids so that they can use the same book throughout their lifetimes and not feel the need to upgrade from the junior book. When you travel to a National Park/Site, look for the stamp area in the visitor center. You can change the date to reflect the exact day that you were there. Find the region in your passport book that corresponds to the National Park you are visiting and place a stamp on the page. This is a fun way to collect “proof” of a National Park visit!
2. Water Bottles with Filters – Staying hydrated is always a top priority for us when we’re traveling, especially when we are at very high altitudes such as in Yellowstone. Water bottles with filters are not only an eco-friendly choice, they also make it easy to fill up from sinks and water fountains.
3. Bug Repelling Bracelets and Bug Spray– Sometimes in the deep woods or other bug-prone areas, I do bring out the big guns, so to speak, and use traditional bug spray on myself and the kids. I avoid using those chemical sprays whenever possible and we have had a lot of luck with bug repelling bracelets. These deet-free alternatives to spray tend to work well in areas that aren’t super infested with biting bugs. I always pick up bracelets for the whole family before going on a trip where we will be exploring the great outdoors.
4. Kid Sized Binoculars – A lot of time out in the great outdoors usually includes looking for wildlife and other interesting nature features. We have a pair of regular adult sized binoculars but learned quickly that these are frustrating for the kids to use because they are too big and too heavy for them to be able to use efficiently. Kid sized binoculars give them a chance to get in on the fun!
5. Sketchbook – Even if your child is not old enough to read and write, they can draw their observations in sketchbooks and travel journals. We always travel with notebooks and colored pencils and the kids love to draw pictures (and Lily will write) about what they have seen and places they have visited.
6. Sturdy Shoes – Save the flip flops for the beach trip. When you are hiking, climbing and putting in some serious walking and exploring time, sturdy closed-toe shoes are best. You will want to put the kids in shoes that protect their feet, give them some traction, and also give some good support. Some of our favorite hiking shoe brands for kids include Keen, Merrell and Columbia.
7. Junior Ranger Activity Book – We LOVE the National Parks Junior Ranger Program! Most (if not all?) National Parks offer a Junior Ranger program. The Junior Ranger Program is specific to each park and while requirements differ slightly, the main idea remains the same. Pick up a Junior Ranger Program booklet at the visitor center (many parks offer them for free, some parks charge a small fee. Yellowstone, for example, charged $3 per booklet at the time of our visit). Kids have to complete a certain number of pages in their book (more pages based on age of child). They usually have to attend a Ranger Program as well. Check the park schedule to see when these will take place – there are usually at least a couple a day.
When your kids have completed the necessary requirements for the program, you can return to the visitor center where a park ranger will swear them in as Junior Rangers. It’s totally cute, entirely educational and the kids had a blast. At Yellowstone they received REAL patches which was the icing on the cake – a very neat and unique souvenir for sure!
We also really like Junior Ranger Activity Book which is full of puzzles, games and facts about the National Parks.
8. Sunscreen – Sounds like a no-brainer, but make sure you pack some sunscreen! You never know when your wooded hike might turn into a sunshine filled one thanks to a break in the trees.
9. Hat – Hats are great for extra shade on your head!
10. Snacks and Drinks – Another one that sounds like a no-brainer, but think ahead and if you will be out exploring the parks with the kids for any length of time beyond an hour or two, snacks will help you avoid some cranky time! Take your travel time into consideration as well. When we were in Yellowstone it was at LEAST an hour’s drive inside the park from our campground to many of the major attractions (such as Old Faithful). We got into the habit of packing sandwiches, drinks and other little snacks before we left our camper each morning. This saved us from cranky hungry kids (okay, parents too!) AND saved a bunch of money on food!
11. Water-Resistant Blanket – These things are all the rage (and for good reason)! We have actually owned a couple for a few years. They have earned a permanent spot in each of our cars and have given us a nice dry spot to sit at many horse shows, beach trips, fireworks nights and more.
Have a blanket in your car or backpack and you will have an instant spot for a picnic lunch or snack or diaper change, etc.
13. National Park Annual Pass – If you have plans to explore several National Park Sites during the same calendar year, I highly recommend checking out their annual pass for unlimited visits! (Yes, some National Park Sites are free to enter, but others charge an admission fee.)
p.s. 4th graders get a FREE National Parks pass. Did you know that ?
14. PATIENCE – If you think that this addition to the list is silly, you probably haven’t done a lot of traveling with small children. In most cases, kids will tire quicker and sooner than you. They will need more breaks and maybe a snack. Also keep in mind that during peak season the most popular parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, etc) experience massive crowds of visitors. Expect and plan for long waits, lines, and full parking lots. It’s very important to pack your patience and go in with the expectation of having to wait and deal with crowds.
Must-Haves for Visiting National Parks with Kids
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