20 fun things to do with kids in national parks

A Junior Ranger being sworn in.

R Barron, flickr

Last year, Americans made over 292 million visits to our beloved national parks. Many of these visits were families adventuring in our country's most enjoyable places.

Kids who visit national parks with their families are sure to create memories of wild lands that will last them a lifetime - and they also often have the opportunity to take advantage of some special activities and programs.

If you're looking for ideas for some new experiences and challenges to try this year, our list is sure to supply plenty.

Check out recreation.gov to find national parks near you. 

1. Be a Junior Ranger. Let's start with the basics. No national park trip is complete for a child without going through a fun Junior Ranger program, which typically includes checking in at the ranger station for specific Junior Ranger activities like going on a ranger-led hike and completing a fun nature workbook. At the end, little ones can attend a swearing-in ceremony and receive their own Junior Ranger badge! 

Photo: Junior Ranger Day at Lake Mead NRA, by Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs, flickr.

2. Be an amateur photographer. Yosemite National Park boasts a free hands-on workshop to help kids not only get tips for taking better photos but learning to see the scenery with fresh perspectives.

3. Dare to be a Junior Smokejumper. Just outside Yellowstone National Park, kids (ages six and up) can check out equipment and learn about fire-fighting in a Junior Smokejumper program.

4. Scope out the stars. Many parks have skies dark enough to spy constellations that you can’t see in the city - check out our tips for stargazing and for capturing photos at night. Many national parks host night sky programs that offer opportunities to see faraway planets with powerful telescopes. 

5. Hike under a full moon. Some national parks like Bryce Canyon and Rocky Mountain offer ranger-guided hikes under moonlit skies. You may even spy some nocturnal wildlife.

photo credit: Flickr, eGuide Travel.

6. Ride a mule. Learn about the Grand Canyon as you travel its trails by mule. Be sure to plan ahead because these trips book up to 13 months in advance and fill quickly.

7. Take a scenic train ride. At Cuyahoga Valley National Park, you can take a roundtrip scenic train ride, or bike one-way and relax on the train during your return.

8. Become a Junior Geologist. Kids can learn about colorful rocks and earn a Junior Geologist patch at Capitol Reef National Park (between Memorial Day and Labor Day).

9. Test yourself with a geological scavenger hunt. Be sure to study up on rock formations before taking on the Geology Challenge at Badlands National Park.

10. Go on a geocache adventure. Kids and adults alike will enjoy looking for treasures hidden by others in national parks. You can also hunt for EarthCaches at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

photo: tide pool hunting at Redwood National Park. credit: Flickr, David H. Webster.

11. Tiptoe through a tide pool. Kids will love scavenging for sea creatures found lingering on beaches at low tide. You can explore great locations at Olympic National Park or check out the ranger-led program at Redwood National Park.

15. Track wildlife. Kids can spy for signs of wildlife at any national park by searching for tracks, scat and other clues. Snow makes it easier to find tracks, perhaps even inspiring a game for little detectives pretending to solve a “cold case” mystery. You can even make a cast of a cool track using plaster.

16. Snowshoe through a wild winter landscape. Grab your snowshoes and join a free, ranger-led snowshoe walk at Rocky Mountain National Park, which is celebrating its centennial this year!

12. Snorkel in coral reefs. Biscayne National Park is the only one underwater, so it’s the perfect place to spy sea life. You can also choose to stay dry on a glass-bottom boat trip.

13. Build sand castles. Create lasting memories at Sand or Echo Lake Beach at Acadia National Park - or at Great Sand Dunes National Park in the spring when Medano Creek flows through. For more destinations, see our list of America's 15 best wild beaches.

photo:kids at Great Sand Dunes National Park. credit: NPS.

14. Sled a sand dune. There are only a handful of places where you can board or sled all year and Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of them. You’ll need a special board in summer because you’ll be sliding over hot sand instead of cold snow.

17. Go horseback. Have an unforgettable experience of the wilderness trails in Glacier National Park by riding them horseback.

18. Try spelunking. Mammoth Cave National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park are world-famous destinations for caving.

19. Become a Junior Paleontologist. Kids can learn about fossils and earn a Junior Paleontologist badge at parks that preserve these treasures like Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Badlands National Park.

20. Be a scientist-in-training. At Yellowstone National Park, kids can check out a Young Scientist Toolkit to investigate the area around Old Faithful and earn a Young Scientist patch or key chain. Some other parks have citizen scientist programs that allow visitors to participate in important scientific research, helping underfunded agencies better understand and protect these cherished lands.

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