If your family has never done a national parks vacation, then here are some of my recommendations for the best national parks to visit. This list is based on the national parks I have visited and explored for more than a day with my kids. I will share some easy family-friendly hikes and where you should stay nearby if you want some restaurants, hotels, and shopping opportunities (not a campground).
The Best National Parks to Visit
For the best national parks to visit are those filled with unique scenery, plenty of short hiking opportunities, a scenic drive, and a great town to explore nearby. While we do enjoy visiting national parks and hiking, we are not intense, avid hikers. We plan short hikes, scenic drives, picnic lunches, and time at the Visitor’s Center to break up the visit. Our kids also love completing the activity books to receive junior ranger badges and learning about the animals and landscape of the area.
The following list of the best national parks to visit is based on my 5 favorite national parks I have visited thus far at the time of posting. I am sure this will change once I visit the Utah national parks (which are not on the list). If you are planning a multi-park visit and one of your children is in fourth grade, don’t forget to sign up for the Every Kid in a Park pass which gets your entire family into the national parks for free. Read more about the basics of the 4th grade national park pass.
Yellowstone National Park
Stay: West Yellowstone, WY
Yellowstone was the first national park in the world, and it is also one of the largest in the U.S. It is one of the best national parks to visit because it has such a variety of landscapes and unique features. Located mostly in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park has five entrances and is primarily known for its’ collection of geothermal features such as hot springs, geysers, and boiling mud pots. To really explore the vastness of Yellowstone, you would need at the very least 2-3 days to see it all (more if possible).
Since the park is huge, there are many towns just at the borders of Yellowstone. However, if you are able to plan at least a year in advance, there are a few lodges, hotels, and campgrounds located inside the national park (this would be my recommendation). We planned our trip 8 months in advance and the majority of the cheaper lodging options inside the park were already booked, so we opted to stay in the closest town, West Yellowstone. If you cannot stay inside the park, this is where you should stay, as it is right by the western entrance. My advice is to plan at least 2 days to see the park – one day drive the Lower Loop and the second day drive the Upper Loop.
Families should plan to be without cellular service throughout the park, and try to pack your own lunch if possible as Visitor’s Center restaurants can get pricey. I also recommend to wake up early and start driving by 7:00 AM, so that you can at least beat some of the crowds. July and August are the busiest months and there were hundreds of people and cars everywhere. Must-see attractions for families include watching Old Faithful erupt, walking around the Upper Geyser Basin Loop to see all the different types of geysers, and driving to Grand Prismatic Spring. Be aware that the sulfur smell around geysers is pretty bad. Most geyser viewings have boardwalks that take you right up to them, but be careful and warn children about their extreme heat.
There are also many waterfalls just off the highway that you can stop and take pictures in front of or take small hikes to view them close up (Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Firehole Falls, Kepler Cascades, and Gibbon Falls). Towards the northern loop is where Mammoth Hot Springs is located. Here you can take the boardwalks to view the upper and lower terraces. The kids will love these, as they look like upside-down caves and it seems as if you are on another planet. Stopping at the town of Gardiner in Montana is a great place to have lunch/early dinner and take a beautiful picture with the national park sign and a mountainous backdrop.
In terms of wildlife viewing, there are two major valleys to drive and see bison, moose, deer, bears, and other wildlife – Hayden Valley and the Lamar Valley. Bison are everywhere in Yellowstone, so always be on the lookout when you are driving through the roads for a herd or a lone one just grazing or walking along. Due to the amount of wildlife along the roads, people often stop to take pictures. This causes huge delays and is why traffic is always an issue at Yellowstone. You will see the biggest game animals active early in the morning or later at dusk.
For even more specifics, check out my detailed itinerary and description of our Grand Teton to Yellowstone trip.
Glacier National Park
Stay: Whitefish, MT
Glacier National Park is simply stunning! Its’ location in northeastern Montana does make it a remote national park, but in my opinion, it is probably the most beautiful. Glacier is known for its mountains, alpine lakes, and over 700 miles of hiking trails. If you and your family love to hike, then this is the park for you. I feel it is one of the best national parks to visit because of its’ pristine natural beauty and glacial blue lakes amidst mountains.
There are trails of varying difficulty, yet almost all trails are at least 2 miles long. My favorite hike was the Trail of Cedars/Avalanche Lake (2.5 miles). This hike begins on a boardwalk among the tall cedar trees and then a path connects it to a trail leading to Avalanche Lake. This hike meanders through a rushing river, takes you through the forest, and then finishes in a clearing revealing a gorgeous green alpine lake. It was one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done. The kids really enjoyed climbing over logs, crossing small streams and then picnicking at Avalanche Lake. There are some sections with an incline, but this hike should be fine for most children.
Our second favorite hike, Aster Falls, was in a remote section of the park called Two Medicine. One of the main reasons we loved this hike was because there were so few people with us. We had grown accustomed to the throngs of summer crowds and were pleasantly surprised to be relatively alone throughout the hike. It was another short hike at about 2 miles and we saw beautiful wildflowers, a black bear in the distance, mountains, rivers, lakes, and green trees as far as the eye could see. This hike was very gentle and the kids enjoyed climbing around the rocks near the waterfall.
Perhaps the highlight of Glacier National Park is the famous Going to the Sun Road that is only open about 3 months of the year. While we did enjoy hiking, part of the beauty of Glacier national park is driving this road. If anyone is scared of heights, this may not be the drive for you. Although the road does have railings, it is quite high. There are a number of scenic overlooks along the drive to stop and take pictures as well. I would also highly recommend driving the entire road until the end at St. Mary’s Visitor’s Center, with a stop at Logan’s Pass.
While there are a few campgrounds and lodges to stay inside the park, once again, they fill up over a year in advance. If you can manage to book early, then I highly recommend staying inside Glacier National Park. If not, I do recommend staying the charming town of Whitefish, Montana. Although it is not located at the entrance like the closest town, West Glacier, Whitefish is only 27 miles away and has some great restaurants, biking trails, shopping, and a walkable downtown area.
If you are looking for even more information on this park, then check out my complete guide on visiting Glacier National Park with kids.
Acadia National Park
Stay: Bar Harbor, ME
Acadia National Park is located in the southeastern corner of Maine. It is the only national park in the northeast and one of the first places to see the sunrise in the U.S. It is also a perfect national park for families. Acadia has miles of coastline and forests that make for a great adventure. Among the best hiking trails for families in Acadia are Ocean Path, Bar Island, and Bubble Rock.
Ocean Path is a relatively flat trail that follows the Ocean Road. The highlight of this trail is the many side adventures that can be taken from the main path. Kids will enjoy scrambling over the granite rock formations and seeing the Atlantic Ocean waves crash into the majestic cliffs nearby. You can determine how far you want to travel the trail and turn back at any time (2 miles each way). This trail is one of the best hikes on the East Coast for sure!
Bar Island is a trail that is only accessible during low tide and is located at the edge of downtown Bar Harbor. Once the tide recedes, your family will enjoy walking on the ocean floor and finding tiny crabs, shells, and smooth rocks as you approach Bar Island itself. You do have a few hours to explore the island and the tide pools, but be sure to check the tide charts to make sure your family does not get stuck.
My last recommendation is to hike to Bubble Rock. Bubble Rock is a giant rock that is perched over the edge of a cliff left behind during the last Ice Age. It miraculously stays “hanging over” and many take pictures trying to “push it off”. While this trail is only 2 miles round trip, it does have some slight elevation gain as you are climbing towards a summit point. It is not difficult, though, and kids will enjoy trekking through the forests and reaching the top and seeing the oddity that is known as Bubble Rock. Once you do reach the top, there are sweeping ocean and forest views all around. A fair warning though, hold on to your kids as your near the edge (it is very high up).
In terms of where to stay when visiting Acadia National Park, I highly recommend Bar Harbor. The charming seaside town is located adjacent to Acadia and has tons of hotels, inns, vacation rentals, and campgrounds. Although on the pricier side, if booked in advance, a family can find a place to stay for under $200 a night. The town itself is beaming with delicious restaurants and local vendors offering carriage rides, bike rentals, and boat tours of the area. Summer is prime time in Acadia, as the temperatures are the mildest. If you are planning on visiting between June-August, be prepared for crowds and arrive early to the trails.
Grand Teton National Park
Stay: Jackson, WY
The mountains of Grand Teton National Park are the star attraction here. You can see these this huge range from a distance miles away and enjoy their splendor from the road. Although Grand Teton is a fairly small national park, its’ beauty is quite large. There are lodges and campgrounds inside the national park; however, staying in the western chic town of Jackson, Wyoming is a must!
Jackson served as our home base for exploring the region, and although we enjoyed our hikes and scenic drives in Grand Teton, the town itself stole the show. Jackson is an upscale western town with a picturesque downtown, tons of shops, hotels, vacation rentals, and delicious restaurants. In addition, Jackson is an outdoor lover’s paradise. It is less than 10 minutes away from the southern entrance of the park and offers many biking and rafting opportunities. If you are visiting this area in the summer, as we did, I highly recommend that you take your family white water rafting on the Snake River. It is suitable for kids ages 8+ and provided 2 hours of laughter, cold water, and paddling fun.
Moose sightings are pretty common in the Teton Range, and driving through the park allows for plenty of wildlife viewing. I recommend that you hike around one of the popular lakes, Jackson Lake or Jenny Lake. Both lakes have gentle walking trails that lead you through the forest and around the lake shores to see the Teton mountain range. Fishing is another popular outdoor activity in this area as there are many rivers and streams in the vicinity.
For even more details about where to stay and what to do in Grand Teton NP, check out my itinerary about spending 4 days in Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Stay: Pigeon Forge, TN
The Smokies are the most visited national park in the United States. Located on the border of Tennesse and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains are filled with lush forests, rivers, and beautiful mountain scenery. The famous Appalachian Trail runs through here and it has miles of hiking trails and scenic overlooks. As with most national parks, summer is peak season as is October (during the Fall). However, due to its location in the Mid-Atlantic region, over 9 million people visit this park each year, yet there seems to be plenty for everyone.
My favorite hikes in the Smoky Mountains are Laurel Falls and Cades Cove. Laurel Falls was the first hike we ever did as a family. It is a short 2-mile hike round-trip through with very little incline. This hike will likely become a family favorite as there are small streams to cross, rock formations to climb, trees surrounding you, and a gorgeous waterfall at the end. There are some steep ledges throughout the hike; however, the trail is plenty wide that parents can keep smaller children far away from the edge.
Cades Cove is one of the most popular places to visit in the park. It is a giant valley that is surrounded by mountains and usually filled with plenty of wildlife. The Cades Cove Loop Road is a great idea for those wanting a scenic drive around the valley or you can choose to take one of the many hiking trails that start in the cove. We did the short Cades Cove Natural Trail and enjoyed seeing the deer and the historic buildings still standing from the 1800s. There is a granary mill, log houses, churches, and old barns all left for tourists to see.
Pigeon Forge is my recommendation on where to stay as a home base for exploring the Great Smoky Mountains. There are so many activities for families here that you will never run short of things to do. From miniature golf to go-kart racing and theme parks, to lumberjack shows and country dinner theaters, Pigeon Forge is a family-friendly destination. Cabin rentals are a must when visiting this area, as it enhances the overall mountain experience. In addition, ten minutes away is the charming town of Gatlinburg that offers great dining, shopping, and a mountain ski/tubing resort.
Why Visit the National Parks on a Family Trip?
In the last few years, many families have opted for visiting the national parks during their vacations. I jumped on the bandwagon, as I have found that there are so many benefits to visiting the national parks on a family trip. For one, it promotes exercise and outdoor activity. Secondly, it provides an opportunity to experience something new in nature and gives kids the freedom to explore a bit. Even taking a drive within the national park itself, going to the Visitor’s Center and seeing the exhibits, or taking a short tour with a park ranger are all ways families can enjoy the national parks too.
For more adventurous families, camping is possible at many of the national parks (some even offer glamping options). For a review of other national parks I’ve visited, even though they didn’t make the best national parks to visit list, click below:
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