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Planning Your First National Park Trip With Kids

Planning Your First National Park Trip With Kids

 We are in an odd season of life when it comes to planning family travel. My oldest is almost twelve and my youngest is four. Planning family vacations that meet the needs of toddlers and tweens, as well parents can be tough. Families with big age gaps, or lots of kiddos understand this. 

 Over the years, I’ve figured out what works for our family in terms of trip planning.  I know who needs a day or two during the trip when they can sleep in, who needs down time in the afternoon and what activities check multiple boxes for us.

 When I sat down to plan this summer’s vacation, I had the following things to keep in mind:

 1.    It needed to be domestic (we just bought a new house, so budget blues).

2.    It needed to have an outdoor or “adventure” component that all or most of our family could physically do.

3.    It needed to include flexible scheduling most days (few pre scheduled activities that required specific arrival times).

4.    We didn’t want to feel crowded the whole time.

Pretty quickly, the above criteria ruled out a few typical family options (cruises, the entire state of Florida, etc.). It really felt like we wanted something where we could spend most of our time in nature, which made a National Park the perfect option. 

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There are a ton of resources online for helping families visit a National Park, but what I didn’t find much of was advice on planning the trip. We just returned from our first National Park trip as a family (some of us have visited individually) and we had a blast!

 So, I am passing on a few tips I learned while planning our family’s trip to Great Smokey Mountains National Park, but these tips apply to other parks too:

1.    Consider a sticking “close to home” for your first trip. 

 There are 58 national parks in the U.S. While some regions are blessed with more than others (I’m looking at you Pacific Coast), many of us live within a 6-8 hour drive of at least one National Park. I wouldn’t recommend a National Park that requires extensive and expensive air travel to get there for your first trip. If possible, pick a park that is within driving distance. 

 2.    Choose a park that has activities that meet the needs of most of your group. 

Here’s what I mean by this: Maybe you live in south Florida and Dry Tortugas National Park looks amazing to you. I agree. But, it’s probably not going to be a great fit for families with little babies who can’t kayak or snorkel. Or, maybe you’ve always wanted to see Grand Canyon National Park, but the only time you can go is August and your spouse gets over heated easily.  

You really need to find a park that has activities that the majority of your family can actually do. I’m all for divide and conquer (where on parent takes the littles and on takes the bigger kids), but if you’re in the planning process and every day requires you to split up, maybe pick a different park. 

The Appalachian Trail is accessible on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We walked down it just to say we’d “hiked the Appalachian trail”.

The Appalachian Trail is accessible on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We walked down it just to say we’d “hiked the Appalachian trail”.

3.    Start by making a list of the top 3-5 things you want to do or see.

 You can go directly to the National Park’s website and click on the “things to do” category in the “plan your visit” drop down box. You can also, go to Trip Advisor for ideas and reviews. Remember that the most popular attractions will likely be the most crowded and require the most pre planning. Also remember that the most popular attractions might not work for your family (see the next tip).

 

4.    Take a hard look at the physical limitations of each family member. 

 We aren’t a super athletic family, but we enjoying walking and hiking, so we had a good idea of our family’s limits. Any trip can go from fun to miserable fast if your pushing a family member past their physical limits. That goes for adults as well as kids. 

 Once you’ve narrowed down a park to visit, and what trails, tours or attractions you’ll be tackling, do the research ahead of time to make sure it’s a fit for your family. Most National Park websites have detailed descriptions of trails that include total miles and “difficulty level”.

If you’re planning on canoeing or kayaking, you can check to see if there are spots that require portage. Even if you’re just planning on picnicking and driving to a few landmarks, you’ll want to think about  rest rooms and lunch stops.

 

Bonus Tip: Consider taking a practice hike that covers a similar distance and terrain to any hikes you’ll be taking. If you’re planning on using a backpack carrier or baby carrier, try that out too.  

We hiked up to Clingman’s Dome. From the parking lot to the base of this cement ramp was only half a mile, but seriously steep. We saw a few families heading back down before making it to the top.

We hiked up to Clingman’s Dome. From the parking lot to the base of this cement ramp was only half a mile, but seriously steep. We saw a few families heading back down before making it to the top.

5.    Plan, Plan, Plan. 

I’m not a “wing it” type of person in general. But, I definitely don’t understand spending precious time and money on a trip and having no plans. I mean, even if your agenda is: lay out  on the beach in the morning, take a walk in the afternoon and go out for seafood at night, that’s a plan. 

 

If you’ve had kids for more than 5 minutes, you’ve probably figured out that life is made infinitely easier with a plan. I’d put National Parks in the category of vacations that require some advance planning. Here’s a list of things to consider when planning your trip:

 

·     Where will you stay? If staying off site, how long will it take you to get to a particular park entrance.

·     What type of weather can you expect at that particular time of year and elevation (if applicable)?

·     If you’re driving, what type of terrain can the driver expect? Are there adults in your group who get nervous driving in the mountains, over bridges, etc?

·     For each of the 3-5 main attractions you want to see, is there a preferred start or viewing time? If you’re hoping to see wildlife, what times of day are best?

·     Do you have a plan b or rain plan for each day if weather doesn’t cooperate?

·     How will you handle meal times? Some National Parks have limited dinning options. Or, once your “in” the park, you might not be near what food they do have. Will you be packing a lunch, heading back to the cabin or hotel for meals, planning around them? 

Hopefully, these tips help you in the planning process. I definitely believe in building  down time into each day and being flexible when needed. What about you? What trip planning tips have helped you make the most of your family vacation? What’s your family’s favorite National Park?

 

Happy Planning!

 

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