My family recently spent April vacation out west, where we visited 6 National Parks and 2 National Monuments. I have a 4th grader so we took advantage of the Every Kid Outdoors pass, which allows our entire family into any park for free.
This trip planning started last summer, when my then-3rd grader studied Zion National Park as part of his research project at school. He got super interested in America’s National Parks and loves to learn about the different ones. We stayed with in Colorado – and started with research which kid-friendly parks were drivable from Denver.
Here is how we planned our National Parks trip with kids….
Go to the library
- We checked out National Parks books and did our own research, flagging a couple of locations that interested us most.
Grab a map
- AAA has free maps for members, we found one of the states where our national parks were, and highlighted them, determining mileage and travel times in between. AAA also had some “Oh Ranger!” publications that were specific to the parks in that region.
Pick a time of year
- Depending on when you’re going, you may be dealing with snow. For example, the north rim of the Grand Canyon National Park was not open until May 15, and we traveled over April break. That added a few days to our trip, since we drove to the south rim and then had to plan flights. We also visited the Everglades National Park in February, but I wouldn’t plan on that in July/August.
- RVs – lots of families go this route to travel out west to see the National Parks. I was nervous about driving on the roads in an RV, especially since there was still lots of snow. If you’re travelling with more than 4 people, this might be the way to go, as hotels get expensive. You will likely have to park the RV at a visitor center and take park transportation, not being allowed to drive the RV through the National Park.
- National Parks lodges – This was ideal for us because we were squeezing in as much as we could, and it narrowed down options for meals, etc. We got to maximize our time inside the park, and the lodge allowed for easy breaks during the day, etc. Most lodges are managed independently, so look for them individually online.
- Camping – Considering the time of year, camping is a cool option. I just learned about the Under Canvas company that rents “glamping style” tent setups near several National Parks out west. This seemed next level for me!
- Regular hotels – We racked up (and redeemed) some Marriott points when we couldn’t stay in park lodges. I have a new appreciation for the Fairfield Inn – breakfast included, pools, comfy beds, and some have laundry rooms. We started in the snow in Denver and ended in 97 degree heat in Vegas. We packed light…… and did laundry as we went.
Once things are planned, here are some more tips
Get the details –
Once you have your dates/parks/accommodations lined up, look again at the individual National Parks at Recreation.gov website. Here I learned that some of the National Parks were piloting timed entries for 2023, and I needed to secure reservations. Other National Parks were limiting visitors to certain areas, and there were lotteries and permits for some of the popular hikes. You should familiarize yourself with those requirements and mark your calendars accordingly (for example, Arches National Park released permits 14 days in advance at 8am mountain time – I was ON it).
Mark the map –
We ordered a TripTik from AAA that mapped out our exact routes and stops, and marked construction/rest stops/towns with services. It allowed our kids to follow along with the drive, and helped answer the “How much longer” questions.
Keep it visual –
My kids and I made large sticky notes for each National Park with the top family hikes and “must see” areas/attractions. I enjoyed reading blog posts by The Big Brave Nomad – about the parks that their family had visited, and jotting down their tips and tricks. I put the map with our route on the kitchen wall for the month leading up to our trip.
Road trip activities –
I ordered a bunch of travel games in advance like magnetic Battleship, chess, bingo, and trivia. Plus, I packed a whiteboard for hangman and tic-tac-toe. We downloaded several audiobooks on Hoopla and Libby (check your local public library for card holder access) and looked to our youth librarians for recommendations (Harry Potter #5 is 26 hours. We are still listening). There were long stretches of road with NO cell service and NO Wi-Fi. My family has a log-in for Sirius XM radio so we used that often on the car rental to listen to music.
Download the app –
The National Park Service has an app. You can access maps and guides, calendar of events, road closures (we encountered that). Download the individual parks for offline use, as there is little to no internet availability in many parks.
Earn your Junior Ranger Badges! –
Definitely ask for a booklet at the Visitors Center for each National Park when you arrive. It kept my children very busy, and they learned lots about each location. Return it at the end of each visit for a badge and have the kids get “sworn in” as Junior Rangers. My children collected tokens for each park that they kept in a holder, as well as stickers that they added to their journal.
A window into MY FAMILY’S TRIP……
Outline of our itinerary
- Flights from Boston to Denver, then visit with family
- Denver / Rocky Mountain National Park / Garden of the Gods (Not a NP)
- Drive 235 miles, stay overnight/visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Drive 200 miles, stay at Mesa Verde NP Lodge
- Drive 50 miles, visit Four Corners National Monument
- Drive 150 miles, stay in Moab UT, visit Arches NP
- Drive 250 miles, visit Bryce Canyon NP
- Drive 85 miles, stay and visit Zion National Park and lodge
- Drive 250 miles, stay and visit Grand Canyon National Park and lodge
- Drive 250 miles, visit Hoover Dam
- Drive 35 miles, depart from Las Vegas to Boston
- One way car rentals are EXPENSIVE, so pay attention to the “drop fee”. Four-wheel drive was crucial as we tackled the Rocky mountains at the end of their snow season. We brought our own booster seats, as it was $15/day to rent them. Although they recommended a toll pass for another $15/day, we encountered NO tolls between Denver and Las Vegas, so were thankful that we didn’t elect to add it. When driving, there were gaps of a 50-100 miles in between exits/rest areas where gas/food were difficult to find, so we had to plan accordingly. In sparse areas – gas was more than $6/gallon, so we stayed on top of the tank levels!
- Packing was tricky – We stayed at 7 different hotels/lodges along the way. Plus, the weather ranged from heavy snow to 97 degree dry heat. I used packing cubes to divide our stuff by night/state/park. I didn’t want to pack/unpack each suitcase every night looking for pajamas or a swimsuit. Each kid had a cube with 2 days of weather-appropriate clothes, underwear/socks, a bathing suit and pajamas. I quickly had a sense of what was clean/dirty and where the next cube of clothing was coming from.
- Low-style hiking shoes were key to manage the terrain out west. I am glad I invested in a good pair for each of us before we left. Refillable water bottles and hydration-style backpacks were helpful for each child to carry their own water/snacks. Make sure to pack a headlamp for night-time programs/hikes.