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TravelTop US national parks to visit with kids and family

Top US national parks to visit with kids and family

From geothermal geysers in Yellowstone to the verdant forests of Acadia, and an otherworldly crater atop Haleakala, the United States is home to a majestic collection of national parks — 63, in fact.

Each is wholly unique and full of awe-inspiring natural wonders that deserve a spot on anyone’s travel bucket list.

But visiting a national park should be especially top of mind for families. There are very few other vacation destinations where you can get the whole family together, outside, engaged, and off screens.

As a parent of two young children, I liken it to enrolling the whole family in an epic summer camp, though many of these trips can be taken year-round.

Set amid the great outdoors, national parks offer hiking, swimming, boating, bicycling, fishing and other activities that inspire childlike wonder. From simple nature walks to dipping toes into bubbling streams, bringing my kids to national parks introduces them to nature and helps create a lifelong relationship with the world around them. Not to mention, it’s way less stressful than taking them to a theme park.

Whether you have opinionated teenagers — or toddlers for that matter — or a baby ready to be strapped to your back, these national parks are as family-friendly as they are beautiful, with easy trails, Junior Ranger programs and attractions parents will love, too.

How to choose the national park that’s right for your family


With 63 national parks in the U.S., and 429 national park sites overall, it can be tough to pick just one.

Of course, the “best park” is a subjective term, and choosing where to go should depend highly on your specific family’s interests, budget and plans. For example, do you have older teens who want to hike, or little ones who might tire easily on long walks and would prefer experiential activities like swimming?

Also consider the time of year you’re going to visit, and whether your desired activities will be available. For example, you can swim in the ocean on the shores of Maine at Acadia National Park in summer, but you might rule out a visit entirely during the state’s frigid winter. Meanwhile, many of the national parks in U.S. western states are pleasant year-round with milder winters (though some do experience snow) and warm but tolerable summers (aside from the deserts, of course).

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Related: TPG’s favorite national parks: A month-by-month guide

Another important consideration is whether you’d like to see firsthand the big, bucket list-worthy national parks like Yellowstone — and contend with the accompanying crowds — or go off-the-beaten path to less visited places to savor a bit more solitude. If you’re willing to travel in the shoulder or offseason, you might give up some prime-time summer activities but you’ll enjoy fewer crowds and likely cheaper lodging, too.

I strongly suggest you choose a destination that participates in the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program, especially if your kids are on the younger side. Most parks do. In this initiative, kids of all ages — though they’re typically intended for those between 5 and 13 — are invited to complete a series of activities and adventures, after which they receive an official Junior Ranger patch and certificate. Simply stop into the visitor center when you arrive at a national park and ask for the Junior Ranger booklet; most are available to download online, as well.

Some parks also have additional perks for Junior Rangers. For example, Grand Teton National Park puts on a free “Celebrate National Junior Ranger Day” each spring with park-themed games, the chance to explore rescue vehicles, and a 15% discount on bookstore purchases.

Arches National Park (Utah)


Set in stunning Southern Utah, 2,000 red-clay natural rock formations dot all corners of this park’s 76,000 acres. Kids love pointing out and posing under these famed arches.

Drive through the park to pick and choose the ones you want to see, or embark on any of the short hiking trails that are available. Many are just a short walk from adjacent parking lots, making this an ideal pick for families with young kids. Older teenagers will also love the longer hikes, including the 3-mile trail to the 46-foot-high iconic Delicate Arch. This fully freestanding sight is one of the park’s most famous, and as it’s situated on a steep cliff, it’s best not to let little ones roam free here.

Related: Explore Utah’s national parks with TPG’s guide to the ‘Mighty Five’

Better for kids is the Park Avenue and the Courthouse Towers area. Here, you can park and walk on flat areas set beneath massive monoliths, or explore the short adjoining trail.

Another good option is the Windows section of the park, where you’ll find large clusters of arches including North Window, Turret Arch, Double Arch, Garden of Eden, Elephant Butte and Parade of Elephants. It’s easy to take quick photo ops here, jumping in and out of the car whenever you feel inspired.

The only potential drawback to Arches is its popularity. Crowds swell here in the spring and summer months, but if you’re staying in nearby Moab —which is really the only place you’d want to — it’s wise to pair a trip to nearby Canyonlands National Park, too. This hidden gem park sees fewer visitors. For example, in 2023, Arches saw 1,482,045 visitors, according to data from the National Park Service. Canyonlands, meanwhile, capped 2023 with 800,322 visitors, according to the same data. Canyonlands is also significantly larger, measuring 337,598 acres, and filled with wide open spaces, jaw-dropping canyons, and incredible vistas as far as the eye can see.

Where to stay

As noted above, the most convenient place to stay while visiting Arches or Canyonlands is nearby Moab, which has many options for lodging.

I recommend Comfort Suites Moab Near Arches National Park. I stayed here a few years ago and found it to be budget-friendly, well located and comfortable. Rooms are suite-style and generously sized with one king or two queen beds and a separate seating area (though it’s a studio-style setup all in the same large room) with a sofa bed, refrigerator, microwave and desk. Free Wi-Fi and breakfast are included, and there’s a seasonal outdoor pool. Rooms start at just $66 in offseason winter months and peak at a still reasonable $263 in summer.

For more of a resort-style stay that kids will love, The Moab Resort, a WorldMark by Wyndham Associate property, is located at the basin of Arches and Canyonlands National Park. Rooms range from studios to one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom suites with full kitchens. An infinity-style swimming pool overlooks the red rocks landscape, and younger kids will love the splash pad and playground. There are also fire pits, grills, a game room and an educational terrarium. Children of all ages can also get an up-close view of some of the resort’s other guests: bats. Keep an eye out for bat boxes throughout the property, request a free bat-themed coloring book, or check out books about bats from the front desk. Rooms start at $212 per night.

Acadia National Park (Maine)


The West is well known for being home to some of the best national parks, but this gem in the Northeast is equally enticing.

Within the northern tip of Maine, Acadia National Park comprises nearly 50,000 acres along the state’s Atlantic coast, including outer islands like Mount Desert, Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut.

In the summer, it’s a paradise for all kids with hiking, swimming, kayaking, canoeing and biking. In fall, the park puts on an eye-popping annual show as the leaves on the trees turn from green to crimson red, burnt orange, bright yellow and other autumnal hues.

Related: 10 of the best national parks to visit in the fall

Families will also appreciate the park’s Island Explorer, which is a free shuttle bus operating from June to October, with service between many of the park’s attractions, campgrounds, trailheads, area hotels, as well as Hancock County-Bar Harbor Regional Airport (BHB). There are designated pick-up points, but drivers will also pick up passengers — and their bikes — anywhere it is safe to stop. So you can easily make this a car-free vacation and skip the rental or the hassle of driving and parking.

And, along the rugged coastline, rocky tide pools reveal sea life that kids can see up close. Twice a day, watch as plants and animals become exposed when the tide retreats and the seawater empties, creating a living science classroom for youngsters.

Where to stay

Located in Bar Harbor overlooking Frenchman Bay, and just five minutes from the Hulls Cove park entrance, Salt Cottages is a boutique property with 30 stand-alone studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom cottages, and 20 bungalow-style rooms. There is a heated outdoor swimming pool, hot tubs, fire pits and s’mores. A clubhouse keeps kids entertained with board games, skee-ball, pingpong and arcade games, and there’s also a snack bar. Rooms start at $420 per night.

In warmer months, check into the seasonal glamping resort Under Canvas Acadia. These luxury tents are hardly roughing it with West Elm furnishings, upscale toiletries, private bathrooms and suites that have separate, additional tents for kids. Children will enjoy included activities such as campfire s’mores, live music, bingo, scavenger hunts, outdoor games, movie nights, painting, trivia and bingo. Tents start at $299.

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho)


Yellowstone is one of the country’s most famous and popular national parks that also happens to be a great choice for families with kids of any age.

The park is made up of a whopping 2.2 million acres, spread over three states, making this easy to reach from so many different places. The majority of the park resides within Wyoming, though small portions extend to Montana and Idaho, as well.

I love this park for kids, specifically, for the opportunity to observe wildlife. I’ve seen bison and moose here, and according to the national park, it’s home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, including 67 different species. Depending on when and where you visit, in addition to the aforementioned animals I saw, you might spot bighorn sheep, elk, mountain goats, deer, black or grizzly bears, badgers, bobcats, lynx, coyotes, mountain lions, wolverines and wolves.

Additionally, the massive park size means seemingly countless places to stop and walk, admire nature, and observe the geothermal wonders. Raised boardwalks make it easy to see active geysers like Old Faithful, and hikes for every skill set are available.

Where to stay

There are nine hotels within Yellowstone National Park that have hotel or cabin-like accommodations. Due to the park’s massive size, it’s wise to choose one of these as your home base.

A top choice is Old Faithful Inn, a designated historic landmark from 1903 that is right in view of its namesake geyser. The log cabin-style lodge creates a real sense of place, and a dining room serves buffet meals in a large hall. Rooms with private bathrooms are standard in how they’re appointed, and start at $429 (about half the price for a shared bath) — but you’re really paying for the proximity to the park, which is as good as it gets.

Related: Where to stay when visiting Yellowstone National Park: Best hotels and lodges

Only two of the nine hotels stay open in winter, and so my other pick is one of those, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins. Named for the nearby springs of the same name, the hotel was recently renovated, though standard accommodations are simple, no-frills and lack an en-suite bath. Choose it instead for the front-row view of the herd of elk known to graze here, and the hotel’s on-site dining and daily guided tours to popular in-park hot spots. If budget allows, upgrade to a room with a private bath or a suite with a separate living area, or a cabin. Rooms start around $200 and go up depending on type.

Joshua Tree National Park (California)


Joshua Tree National Park is just under an hour from where I live and it’s a favorite in my family. My husband and I loved hiking here before we had kids, and now that we have two, we still visit regularly.

The park covers nearly 800,000 acres in the harshly beautiful Mojave Desert, with a main thoroughfare you can drive on that takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on where you start and plan to end. We love timing a ride with naps so we can enjoy the passing scenery. Once they wake up, it’s a veritable playground for kids with several flat, short and easy walking trails, as well as climbable boulders that look plucked from a Dr. Seuss book, and of course the namesake Joshua tree — which is actually a succulent!

I like to take my kids to Skull Rock, a large boulder that, due to rain erosion, resembles a huge skull. Older kids love to try and climb it, and there’s an adjoining 1.7-mile nature trail, as well.

Hidden Valley Nature Trail is another favorite. It’s a 1-mile loop with a bit of light climbing to start, similar to sets of stone stairs, that make way to an open, flat valley filled with giant rocks and lush plants where kids can run free. Our toddler is able to do it on her own with just a bit of hand holding in the beginning.

Additionally, the Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail is only a quarter of a mile and has a partially raised walkway for an even easier hike.

Where to stay

There are two entrances to the park, one in the town of Joshua Tree, and the other in the adjacent town of Twentynine Palms. Within the latter are several good options for budget accommodations from major hospitality brands that are standard but comfortable. My pick is Marriott’s Fairfield Inn and Suites, which is on the newer side, with studio or suite rooms, and all stays come with a complimentary breakfast buffet and the use of an outdoor pool. Rates begin at $110.

Additionally, AutoCamp Joshua Tree is a glamping-style resort with accommodations like luxury Airstream trailers and pampered cabins and tents. There’s a clubhouse for gathering and dining, a pool, bicycle rentals and morning yoga. Hilton loyalists can also earn and redeem points here now that the hotel brand has created a new partnership with Autocamp. Rates start at $199.

Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)

Tourists at Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. DANIEL VINE GARCIA/GETTY IMAGES

Grand Teton National Park truly blew me away the first time I visited. Perhaps because it was lesser known to me at the time and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but more likely, it was the magnificent, snowcapped mountain range presiding over a postcard-worthy landscape filled with tall forests, crystal-clear lakes and vivid nature from end to end.

Related: How to plan an epic road trip through Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks

There’s also an incredible array of things to do, especially in the summer. Set amid the great outdoors, the offerings for families are a dream — hiking, boating, paddling, bicycling, fishing, climbing, wildlife, and a lake where water skiing, wakeboarding, sailboats, motorized boats and windsurfing are allowed.

If you’re not arriving with your own boat or gear in tow and are short on time, families can board a shuttle boat across Jenny Lake. Doing so costs $20 round-trip for adults and will give the feel of being out on the water without making a whole day of it. It can also replace a 20-mile hike around the lake, which is a good thing for little ones who may tire easily. When the ferry docks, you can hike to a waterfall or a lookout point with views over the park.

For-hire guides and tour companies offer even more to do. Bookable daytrips range from guided wildlife tours to river rafting, horseback riding, scenic boat cruises, fishing excursions and so much more that adventurous and imaginative kids will enjoy.

Where to stay

One of a few options within the park, Jackson Lake Lodge is a full-service resort that impresses as soon as you walk inside the grand lobby with 60-foot, floor-to-ceiling windows framing the park’s dramatic views. Choose from stand-alone cottages and suites, or traditional hotel rooms within the main lodge. The hotel offers a slew of family-friendly activities to add to your stay, such as river rafting and horseback rides, and there are two pools, a main one for all guests and a toddler pool for little ones. Rates start at $350.

Or, stay just 15 minutes from the park entrance in charming Jackson Hole at Cowboy Village Resort. Kids will get a kick out of staying in one of the log cabins, which start at $115. All come with private full baths, continental breakfast in winter, kitchenettes and configurations with bunks, queen or king beds; some have separate living areas with sleeper sofas. The resort itself is just a few blocks from the town square, and amenities include an indoor pool, hot tub and fitness center.

Zion National Park (Utah)


Zion National Park is a spectacular destination in Southern Utah that I firmly believe everyone should visit once in their life. When I went, it was a stark reminder that this country is filled with incredible places throughout its 50 states; not all of the best ones are on the coasts.

It’s also Utah’s first national park, and dazzles with sandstone cliffs, impossibly narrow slot canyons and sedimentary rock formations forged by the Virgin River that glow in fiery shades of red and orange, as if constantly lit up by the sun.

While there are several iconic trails here, I would not recommend that families with young kids or teens who are inexperienced at hiking attempt the famous Angel’s Landing or The Narrows. However, there are scores more that any age would love. Many, in fact, are rated as easy, such as The Pa’rus Trail, Lower Emerald Pools Trail, and Riverside Walk Trail.

In addition to a visitor center, the park also has a Nature Center. It’s open seasonally from spring to early fall, and includes an interactive children’s museum where kids can learn about the surrounding geology, listen to bird songs and frog calls, and understand the park’s ancient history.

Where to stay

The only in-park hotel, Zion Lodge places you as close as possible to Zion’s stunning beauty. Open year-round, accommodations range from standard hotel rooms to cabins and suites, all with a woodsy, Southwest-inspired look. I stayed here and was in awe of sleeping mere steps from the park’s major sights, which felt peaceful and private early in the morning, before the outside crowds arrived. Rates start around $200.

Another option right near the park entrance is Cliffrose Springdale, Curio Collection by Hilton. Situated on the picturesque Virgin River, the Zion National Park Visitor Center is a half-mile away, accessible by the hotel’s free shuttle. The two heated outdoor pools and hot tubs are open year-round, and rooms look modern and contemporary. They offer suites that are great for families, with one or two bedrooms and kitchens. Hilton Honors members get the cheapest rates, which start at $162.

Related: The best places to stay near Zion National Park

Death Valley National Park (California)


It might seem like an odd choice to select one of the hottest places on earth for a laidback family vacation, but hear me out. While Death Valley, on average, can hit around 120 degrees Fahrenheit over the summer, for most of the year, it’s a paradisiacal destination families will love.

Only two hours from Las Vegas and four hours from Los Angeles, teens will liken it to something they’ve only seen in sci-fi movies like “Mad Max,” and younger kids will appreciate the wide-open spaces to run and explore.

In spring, if there’s been enough rain that winter, the ground blossoms with a swell of wildflowers known as a superbloom. In fact, the bounty of rain Death Valley received in late 2023 and early 2024 has now blanketed the grounds with these flowers, some of which previously remained dormant waiting for the perfect conditions. Superblooms don’t happen every year, but even when they aren’t en masse, they are never totally gone, and if you time your visit right, you can get that perfect family pic in front of a sea of yellow, purple, or pink petals.

Flowers aside, Death Valley is also the largest national park outside of Alaska, with backcountry roads, historic sites, and 3 million acres for hiking, camping, backpacking, stargazing and trail running.

It’s particularly a must-visit for “Star Wars” fans in the family. Death Valley is the location behind the movie’s fictional land known as Tatooine. Scenes from “A New Hope” and “Return of the Jedi” were filmed here, with six locations listed on the park’s website for fans to see for themselves.

Where to stay

There is really only one place to stay in the national park, which is actually a property that comprises two hotels. It’s The Oasis at Death Valley. Dating back to 1927, the historic property includes luxury-leaning The Inn at Death Valley and the more family-friendly The Ranch at Death Valley.

The mission-style Inn at Death Valley is an indulgent choice for families with older kids looking for a more pampered stay. It reopened at the end of 2018 after a major $250 million dollar renovation that transformed 66 rooms, 22 one-bedroom casitas, a fine dining restaurant, a spa, and a spring-fed pool naturally heated to 87 degrees. Rates start around $260.

For a more laid-back option, The Ranch at Death Valley also underwent extensive renovations including an ice-cream parlor and soda fountain, a restaurant and Western-themed saloon. Staying here comes with access to the spring-fed pool, as well as sports courts, horseshoe pits, and a children’s playground. The Ranch also offers horseback and carriage rides at its on-site stables, and you can book Jeep rentals to explore the park or play a round of golf. Prices start at $135 in summer.

Haleakala National Park (Hawaii)


Many people visit Maui for its ample selection of luxe properties and top-tier beaches, but there’s a less frequented part of the island that looks like you’ve been transported to Mars. Haleakala National Park is a long climb up 10,000 feet from sea level where roads mingle with dangling clouds and temperatures at the visitor center can dip to frigid levels.

Related: TPG’s favorite national parks: A month-by-month guide

Haleakala is an active volcano and once atop the crater, Sliding Sands Trail is a hike that isn’t to be missed for experienced hikers. This 13-mile round-trip hike is one of the most memorable I’ve ever done. While I did it pre-children, I’d absolutely attempt it with kids, too.

For starters, the landscape alone is simply jaw-dropping, a sight that must be seen to be believed, and one I’d love for my children to witness, no matter their ages. Additionally, it’s a well-maintained out-and-back trail with a gentle slope, so you can walk as much or as little as you like. Just know that the descent happens first, so it will take twice as long to return as it will to go down. If your kids are little, be sure not to venture too far. Teenagers will love it, though.

Less experienced hikers or those with younger kids may prefer to visit the Haleakala Visitor Center, situated at the summit of the Haleakala crater. The views go on for days and it’s a gorgeous spot to watch the sunrise.

Finally, it’s on Maui so there’s plenty more to see and do.

Where to stay

Most of the major resort areas on Maui are a lengthy drive from the 10,000-foot summit atop Haleakala. If you plan to visit before the sun rises, you’ll be waking up in the middle of the night if you’re staying far away. Kula Lodge is one of the few Upcountry options nearby. There are five rooms, called lodges, starting at $365, for families who don’t want to pair a visit to the volcano with a long ride. All rooms have a private bathroom, an electric fireplace heater and a private lanai (balcony), and some have lofted sleeping areas with additional beds for kids.

For more of a resort-style vacation, the area of Wailea has multiple properties families will love. The Wailea Beach Resort from Marriott Bonvoy combines luxury with a family-friendly ethos and a beachfront location facing calm, gentle waters. There are also three pools, including one with the longest resort waterslide in Hawaii. Rooms start around $700.

Olympic National Park (Washington)


Seattle is a relatively easy place to fly with a family on points and miles from most major cities. After a few hours of driving east, you’ll arrive at one of America’s most diverse national parks. You can also get from Seattle to Olympic via ferry, which is almost a guaranteed kid-pleaser.

The Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park is said to have the “quietest square inch in the United States.” Kids might not be known for their silence, but they’ll love a challenge (at least for a few minutes). It doesn’t hurt that the trees are magical in their own right, and if your kids grew up with the characters in “Twilight,” they’ll appreciate that many of those films were set here. In fact, the town of Forks is easily accessible from the park.

Related: Pacific Northwest road trip: The San Juan Islands and Olympic National Park

Hikes from Hurricane Ridge are suitable for kids of all ages, and even if no one in your crew is up for hiking, the drive to the visitor center is awe-inspiring. It’s the most easily accessible mountain area in the park, though the road is only open on weekends during the winter, and even that is dependent on weather conditions. Some trails, like Wolf Creek and Little River that descend 8 miles into the valley, are best left to more experienced hikers, while the Cirque Rim and Big Meadow trails are much shorter and paved, with little elevation change.

If you’ve got a kid who prefers water to mountains, the Ozette Loop in a remote section of the park leads to a magnificent under-the-radar beach that almost no one visits.

Where to stay

There are four hotels within Olympic National Park, three of which operate seasonally, and one that’s open year-round. The last is The Kalaloch Lodge, an oceanfront retreat located on the Olympic Peninsula. There’s a main lodge, cabins and an additional building with more rooms and suites. Cabins are the top pick for families for their well-stocked kitchens or kitchenettes and generous layouts varying from studios to multiple bedrooms and duplexes. Rates start around $200.

If visiting in-season, try Lake Crescent Lodge. Built in 1915, this historic property places you underneath towering fir and hemlock trees, and while standard rooms are available, families should consider the one- or two-bedroom cabins and cottages for a more comfortable stay. Prices start at $287.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina/Tennessee)


There’s a reason this park continues to be the most visited within the entire national park system: It’s drivable from a staggering number of places, and it’s simply beautiful.

While this park’s popularity hardly makes it a hidden gem, it’s a great option if you live within driving distance and flying your family to another park is cost-prohibitive. Plus, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is enjoyable in much of spring and fall, enabling you to plan a cheaper trip in the shoulder season, if school schedules allow for long weekends.

The great part about this park is how picturesque it is from end to end. I suggest spending as much time on the Blue Ridge Parkway as possible, popping out for quick hikes when the kids want to stretch their legs and snapping photos whenever the desire strikes – alongside a safe pull-off area, of course.

The surrounding towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are essentially giant theme parks, so there’s plenty of fun to be had near the hotel, too. Plus, these two towns are shockingly affordable compared to most gateway towns just outside national parks. (And there’s always nearby Dollywood, too.)

Where to stay

The only place to stay within the park is the seasonally operated LeConte Lodge. Open from March through November, the rustic lodge books up far in advance. One-, two- and three-bedroom cabins have single and bunk beds that are ideal for large families. Meals are included and served family-style in the main dining room. Staying here is as bare bones as it gets with no TVs, a policy that asks you to bring your own towels, and bathing by way of basins and buckets for a sponge bath. But it’s a wholesome option you’ll never forget. Rates are per person since most meals are included, and start at $184 per adult and $100 for kids over the age of 4.

For something a bit more modern — i.e., running water — stay in neighboring Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg. Both are filled with whimsical and unique Airbnbs ranging from treehouses to A-frame cabins, but you can also find plenty of hotels for every budget here, too. Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg is just over a mile from the park’s entrance and has a tropical-themed pool with a waterslide, a zero-entry kids pool, hammocks, a spa, several beachy-themed restaurants, and comfortable, spacious rooms with one or two beds, as well as suites with separate bedrooms. Rates start at $129 in winter.

Big Bend National Park (Texas)


It’s not that easy to get to Big Bend National Park, but that makes the payoff even sweeter. Time spent in Big Bend is time your kids will never forget. You can row across the Rio Grande and feel as if you’ve flown into a different country altogether.

And actually, you can. Head to the Boquillas Crossing with valid passports for your party and pay the $5 round-trip fee per person to board a ferry boat that will take you across one of the world’s most famous rivers to have lunch in a tiny border town — Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.

Once across the river, you can walk the half-mile trek to the village or pay an additional fee for burro, horse or good ol’ four-wheel vehicle transport. You must check in with immigration officials upon arrival and pay an entrance fee of $3 per person to visit the Mexican Protected Area where Boquillas is located.

Once you’re back on U.S. soil, families with older kids should head to Lost Mine Trail, which culminates with spectacular sunset views over Texas. The desert backdrop means shade is limited, so a sun hat and protective clothing (as well as SPF and plenty of drinking water) is essential. There are some switchbacks and steep elevation changes, but it should be manageable for older kids and little ones (in a carrier).

The only downside to this park is how far it is from civilization. I highly recommend camping. If you have access to an ATV, there are loads of off-road trails within the park borders.

Where to stay

Nestled within the park at 5,400 feet elevation, the Chisos Mountains Lodge is the most convenient hotel for families. It’s the only option inside the park and is open year-round with motel-style rooms alongside stone cottages. Cell service is limited, Wi-Fi is only available in public areas and rooms lack phones and TVs, so this is a great place to get kids to unplug and cut down on screen time. Not that you want to stay in the room anyway — hiking, river trips, horseback riding, bicycling, birdwatching and stargazing are all available right outside the front door. Rates start around $170.

Just near the park is an option any cowboy aficionado will adore. Ten Bits Ranch is loads of fun with a full-on Western theme where each guest room is designed to be a part of an Old West town. Choose to sleep in the Bank, Gun Shop, Schoolhouse, Barber Shop, General Store or other stand-alone cabins that all look like they were created for a movie set. They all have a bathroom, air conditioning, TVs, a gas log fireplace, Wi-Fi and a porch with rocking chairs. Rates start at $159.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (Colorado)


I can’t speak for every kid, but the vast majority love sliding down huge hills. Find a massive mountain of sand, and you’ve got a winner. Located in the proverbial middle of nowhere in south-central Colorado is just that, and it feels like something you’d expect to find along North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Gargantuan dunes spring up from the high prairie, and visitors with energy to burn can rent sleds at various locations near the park. It’s a great opportunity for your kids to meet other kids and slide down the dunes together.

This park is ideally part of a larger road trip, given how far it is from any town of note, but it’s just a few hours from another spot that kids will appreciate: Four Corners, where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah come together.

Where to stay

There is no official lodging within the national park or preserve but there are a few choices nearby. One of the closest is Great Sand Dunes Lodge. Located at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, the motel has views of 14,000-foot peaks, the San Luis Valley and the Great Sand Dunes. Rooms include one or two beds, patios, microwaves and refrigerators, and some have separate seating areas and kitchens. Breakfast is included for all guests and there are designated barbecue areas, as well as on-site sand board and sled rentals. Rooms start at $209 and the motel operates from mid-March to October.

Slightly farther away, Rustic Rook Resort has glamping-style tents or, new for 2024, guests can sleep in a converted grain bin or a camper cabin. The former working grain bins will be revamped this summer to include a loft with a king bed, a seating area with a telescope, bathroom, kitchen, and a patio with a grill and fire pit. Families who book tents can add an additional kids tent next to the main tent. These come with two cots, a nightstand and a lantern. The resort operates from May through December; however, only the grain bins are available in the colder months, and start at $350 per night with a two-night minimum. Otherwise, tents start at $170.


The best way to take a trip to a national park is to be as prepared as possible.

  • If you plan to stay in remote areas such as Joshua Tree or Death Valley National Parks, make sure to arrive fully stocked up on food, water and gas if you’re going to camp or stay in isolated areas. This is especially important if you visit in summer or winter, when risks of dehydration and heat stroke, or on the flip side, hypothermia, are real threats.
  • When visiting in the offseason or shoulder season, make sure that roads on your plotted route or planned pit stops for meals are open. Many places close seasonally, even if the park does not.
  • Be sure to pack for all possible climates. For example, if you’re visiting Haleakala, even though it’s on a tropical island, the summit sees different weather than the beach below, especially if you plan to visit before sunrise when it’s very chilly. The best strategy is to dress in layers and be prepared for rain, even in the desert.
  • I strongly recommend purchasing an annual parks pass (currently $80, or free for U.S. military members or citizens/permanent residents with permanent disabilities), which pays for itself if you plan to visit more than one national park in a year.
  • Plan your trip around national park fee-free days, which fall on national holidays, when the cost of admission is waived.

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