What if you could take your children on a trip this summer that would give them enough outdoor adventure and awe-inspiring nature to last their lifetimes? That might sound like a tall order for a weeklong vacation, but that’s just what our nation’s 59 national parks (plus many more monuments and wildlife preserves) have sparked in generations of children for 100 years. All you need is a destination and a plan.
In the western states we call home, you’re never more than a day’s drive from a scene worthy of the cover of National Geographic from Mount Rainer National Park to Yosemite, Olympic, Glacier and Yellowstone parks. The only hitch: We love our iconic national parks, but so do millions of other people, which means that in the summer, you may be waiting in a line to see an erupting geyser, marvel at a spectacular view or glimpse a feeding elk.
The solution? Head to a lesser-known national park, which still provides all the scenery and wonder of our most popular parks, but without the lines and crowds.
You may have not heard of the following three national park destinations, but we guarantee they will capture your child’s imagination through childhood and beyond.
1. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Compare to: Yellowstone National Park
Where: Northern California, 47 miles east of Redding
Best time to visit: Late June through September
Visitors per year: 433,000
Designated as a national park in: 1916
Entrance fee: $20 per vehicle, good for seven days
Miles of trails: 150, including a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail
Star attraction for kids: Hydrothermal features such as boiling mud pots and steam vents
About a 10-hour drive from Seattle, Lassen Volcanic National Park’s smoldering landscape will take you by surprise. Its steam-powered terrain gives a glimpse into earth’s fiery core at every turn, from roaring fumaroles and steam vents to torrid hot springs and boiling mud pots. Kids will be enthralled by the park’s active geology, so long as they can heed warning signs (keep a safe distance from the mud pots!) and don’t mind the occasional smell of sulfur.
Two park entrances (northwest and southwest) are connected by State Route 89, which also provides easy access to many of the park’s family-friendly trailheads and attractions. Always looming in view is the world’s largest plug-dome volcano, 10,457-foot-high Lassen Peak, which is also the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range (“active” in geologic terms — it last erupted in 1917).
Budding geologists, take note: Lassen is one of the only places on earth where all four types of volcanoes are present: plug domes, cinder cones, shield volcanoes and stratovolcanoes. Don’t fret if this vernacular means nothing to you yet: The interactive exhibits within the modern Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center (near the south entrance) demonstrate the volcanic history at Lassen. You can pick up a Junior Ranger booklet here, too.
When you’ve had your fill of the park’s hydrothermal wonders of nature, head down one of the many trails through lush fields of lupine or to wildly tumbling waterfalls and turquoise alpine lakes.
Explore: Take the half-mile paved interpretive trail through the aptly named Devastated Area, northeast of Lassen Peak, to see how a landscape stripped of all vegetation, thanks to the eruption blast almost a century ago, is bouncing back. Older children may wish to scramble up the volcanic-rock-lined Lassen Peak Trail to the volcano’s summit, a 5-mile round-trip ascent that gains just 2,000 feet because of the trail’s lofty starting point. The exciting hydrothermal hikes sit closer to the park’s southwest entrance, such as the 3-mile boardwalk that twists through Bumpass Hell (a name sure to draw giggles from the backseat), where steam billows from the mammoth fumarole called Big Boiler and oddly hued pools gurgle.
Stay: Two large campgrounds in the park offer lake swimming for families: Manzanita Lake, in the northwest corner (179 sites, half of them reservable, $24); and Summit Lake, near the center (94 sites, half of them reservable, $22). And adjacent to the campground at Manzanita Lake are 20 new but rustic camping cabins, each with a bear box, picnic table and fire ring. The camp store here also rents kayaks. Reserve at recreation.gov.
Detour: In Shingletown, about 20 miles from the northwest park entrance, is the Wild Horse Sanctuary, a wild mustang ranch with hundreds of rescued wild horses that roam freely around the ranch’s 5,000 acres at the foot of Lassen Peak.
2. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Compare to: Zion National Park
Where: South-central Utah, 220 miles south of Salt Lake City
Best time to visit: April–June, September
Visitors per year: 786,500
Designated as a national park in: 1971
Entrance fee: $10 per vehicle, good for seven days
Miles of trails: 150
Star attraction for kids: Slot canyons, sandstone arches, hoodoos, buttes and spires
When it comes to stunning national parks, southern Utah has an embarrassment of riches: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands and this one — spectacular Capitol Reef. With this park’s wonderful trails for all levels of hikers and geologic scenery every bit as spectacular as the other parks’, what keeps the crowds at bay? Capitol Reef sits off the beaten path, away from major highways; its remoteness is part of its appeal.
The long, thin park straddles a 100-mile-long buckle in the earth’s crust called the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic wonder resulting in multicolored canyons, fire-red cliffs and layer-cake buttes. Water and wind plus time further conspired to create otherworldly sandstone and limestone structures such as natural bridges, arches, spires and monoliths. Humans left their mark as well; the Fremont Culture was a native tribe that created the park’s amazing petroglyphs at least 700 years ago.
Explore: This park is perfect for families: The variety of short, kid-friendly hikes through different types of terrain permit you to dabble in hiking without overdoing it. Don’t miss the 1-mile hike up 400 feet of trail through a lovely canyon to Hickman Bridge, a copper-colored natural arch that spans across the sky. Capitol Gorge is a flat and easy path that allows hikers to see the petroglyphs up close (you can view another set of them east of the visitor center along State Route 24). The narrow trail through Cohab Canyon offers some fun slot canyons for kids to squeeze through. For bigger kids who like to climb (and grippy sandstone is fun to climb on), try the Golden Throne Trail, a 2-mile hike that lifts you out of the canyon to bigger views of the Waterpocket Fold. Longer day hikes such as Upper and Lower Muley Twist double as perfect first-time backpacking trips.
Note: Always carry plenty of extra water while hiking in this region, and be prepared for high temps and late-afternoon monsoons in summer months (July–August).
Ripple Rock Nature Center (in the Fruita Historic District) is the park’s family-oriented learning center, with interactive games and art projects centered on pioneer life, local wildlife and geology. Capitol Reef National Park’s ranger programs are fantastic: guided hikes, interpretive geology talks, ancient culture walks, astronomy nights and campfire programs.
Stay: Capitol Reef’s main drag is the green, oasis-like Fruita Rural Historic District, which flanks the Fremont River, an old Mormon homestead on the National Register of Historic Places and home to the park’s sole developed campground. Its 71 campsites ($20), situated in shade and green grass, are all first come, first served. If you spot ripe cherries, apples or pears on the campground’s fruit trees, go ahead and help yourself — they’re free. Next door is the Gifford Homestead, selling freshly baked cinnamon rolls and fruit pies.
Just 8 miles west of the park on State Route 24 is the small town of Torrey. It has a handful of decent motels and places to eat, such as the Rim Rock Restaurant (open seasonally) and Café Diablo.
Detour: Goblin Valley State Park/Hoodoo Playground, north of Hanksville, is a bizarre landscape starring wonderfully strange rock formations known as goblins, ready for the most fun game of hide-and-seek ever.
3. Kings Canyon National Park
Compare to: Yosemite National Park
Where: Central California, about 200 miles east of San Jose
Best time to visit: June–September
Visitors per year: 502,250
Designated as a national park in: 1940
Entrance fee: $30 per vehicle, good for seven days for Kings Canyon and Sequoia
Miles of trails: 800 in both parks
Star attraction for kids: Giant sequoias, the world’s largest trees, and wildflowers
Visitors get a two-for-one special when visiting the adjacent and jointly managed Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, which boast all of the grandeur you’d expect at Yosemite with a fraction of the people.
But you’ll find the fewest crowds by planning most of your hikes and camping in Kings Canyon, which is famed for its glorious stands of massive sequoia trees, jutting up into the sky like rocket ships ready for liftoff. Another highlight is the deep, glacier-scooped valleys that lead to rugged alpine terrain, Sierra peaks and wildflower meadows.
The park’s layout is unusual: Two distinct sections (western and eastern) comprise Kings Canyon National Park, separated by a swath of land designated as the Giant Sequoia National Monument and connected by the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (State Route 180), a 30-mile roller coaster of a scenic drive over the Kings River gorge. To see the best of both, camp and hike in the Grant Grove area in the western section for a day or two; then drive the scenic byway to the larger eastern section of the park for a lengthier stay in the Cedar Grove area, exploring breathtaking high country, wild rivers and deep canyons.
Explore: In the park’s western section, hike the interpretive trails that twist through the stand of mammoth sequoias known as Grant Grove, which includes a celebrity specimen, the 1,500-year-old General Grant Tree (it’s the world’s third-largest living tree, at 260 feet tall). Find some solitude just to the south in the more obscure Redwood Canyon, which boasts the largest grove of giant sequoias anywhere (about 15,000 trees).
The eastern section has enough trail miles to last you days. The essential day hike in Cedar Grove is Zumwalt Meadow (a pretty, flat 1.5-mile loop), the most scenic stretch of Kings Canyon’s valley floor. Close by is the paved, stroller-friendly path to Roaring River Falls. Both areas have visitor centers, where you can pick up Junior Ranger booklets and view the schedule of ranger-led hikes and campfire talks.
Stay: Both Grant Grove and Cedar Grove have a handful of campgrounds clustered together, with camp stores nearby. Most of the park’s 14 campgrounds do not accept reservations, although Sunset Campground at Grant Grove does — reserve here. (Note: The parks are home to many bears, so read up on necessary precautions for storing food.) The park also boasts two national park lodges, the John Muir Lodge and Grant Grove Cabins (from $93 per night); and in the eastern section, the Cedar Grove Lodge (from $140 nightly). Reserve here.
National Perks: Parks for free
Most of our nation’s national parks have an entrance fee, which varies by park. However, all fees are waived on designated days each year: Here are fee-free days for the rest of 2016.
- April 16–24, National Park Week
- Aug. 25–28, National Park Service’s birthday weekend
- Sept. 24, National Public Lands Day
- Nov. 11, Veterans Day
Join the National Park Service’s 100th birthday celebration by visiting findyourpark.com and by using #FindYourPark on your social media pictures. Also, the “Every Kid in a Park” initiative allows all fourth-graders and their families to get into national parks for free through Aug. 31. Find details here.
Almost as good as a national park: Stunning Washington state parks
Fort Ebey State Park, Whidbey Island
Once a World War II-era coastal defense fort, this seaside stunner features 28 miles of trails including the must-do Bluff Trail that leads hikers up a wind-swept headland to a dramatic overlook of Puget Sound. Bring a kite.
Steamboat Rock State Park, Eastern Washington
In the heart of the Grand Coulee desert, the basalt geologic features in this park showcase what happened when the last Ice Age ended and the cataclysmic Missoula Floods began.
Federation Forest State Park, Western Washington
This preserved ancient forest ecosystem east of Enumclaw is only an hour from Seattle. Short interpretive loops lead mini-explorers through a stand of old-growth Douglas firs alongside hemlock, spruce and cedar trees.
The National Park Service brings beautiful landscapes to life for children through its excellent Junior Ranger program. When your family arrives at a national park or monument, go to the nearest visitor center and ask for a Junior Ranger booklet. Kids complete hands-on activities, created just for that park, then take the completed booklet back to the rangers for an official Junior Ranger patch and certificate.