Our country’s national parks hold a trove of kid-friendly fun. Yes, there’s hiking and biking, but there are other fun adventures that may not yet be on your radar, such as a helicopter ride over the Gateway Arch in Missouri or a kids-only cave tour in Kentucky. And, of course, there’s the ever-popular (and free) Junior Ranger program that rewards children with badges and patches for exploring and engaging with our national parks.
“The Junior Ranger program is a great way to learn about park geology, ecology and native wildlife—and also get a souvenir from the sites we visited,” says Jen Basile of Beaverton, Oregon. Her two sons have collected a combined 168 Junior Ranger badges and patches since 2013, which can be earned at almost all national parks by completing park activities and participating in ranger programs, such as guided hikes and wildlife talks.
Got a fourth-grader? He can get you in for free, thanks to the Every Kid in a Park program that debuted in 2015. Starting each September, fourth-grade students can go online with an adult to everykidinapark.gov to print out a paper voucher. Exchange this voucher at the park entrance on your next visit for a plastic card that grants free park admission for your student and your family through August 31 at all national parks that charge a fee.
Here are 10 ways to wow your kids on your next national park adventure, including several free experiences you won’t want to miss.
1. Go Caving at Mammoth Cave National Park - Kentucky
Children have their own guided tour—as in, no parents allowed—at the world’s longest underground cave system, which spans more than 400 miles. On the two-and-a-half-hour Trog Tour (summer only), kids ages 8–12 don coveralls, hard hats and headlamps to explore cave passages and chambers on hands and knees. Children learn how the caves were formed, what lives inside (think bats and bullfrogs), and how to protect the caves. Kids can also complete learning adventures year-round in a Junior Cave Scientist activity booklet available at the park to earn a badge.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Photo Courtesy of NPS
2. Go on a Quest at Acadia National Park - Maine
Acadia Quest is a scavenger hunt-like adventure available year-round, created by the nonprofit conservation organization Friends of Acadia. Teams of at least one adult and one child complete park hikes and activities, such as tide-pooling at Ship Harbor and riding the fare-free Island Explorer bus, and then they chronicle their quests with photos, paper rubbings and signatures from park rangers. Teams that complete the adventure receive prizes such as patches and park passes. Some 150 teams from 17 states and two countries participated last year. Friends of Acadia released a brand-new mobile app in April to allow participants to play on their smartphones.
Photo by Yehyun Kim/Friends of Acadia/NPS
3. Frolic With Fossils at Badlands National Park - South Dakota
Budding paleontologists can visit the park’s Fossil Preparation Lab, a working paleontology lab (open mid-June through late September), to see paleontologists at work and learn about the discoveries being made, including a seven-year-old girl’s discovery in 2010 of a fossil of a saber tooth cat. The quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail has fossil exhibits and replicas that encourage kids to ponder now-extinct creatures, from ancient rhinos to cats, that once roamed the area. Download an activity booklet, and complete puzzles and mazes to earn a Junior Paleontologist badge.
Rainbow over Badlands National Park
Photo by Larry McAfee/NPS
4. Ride the Rails at Cuyahoga National Park - Ohio
Kids can enjoy a new perspective on this Midwest park with a scenic excursion on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Book a seat on the National Park Scenic coach train, which chugs the length of this 33,000-acre national park. Board the train at the Rockside Station in Independence for a ride through the picturesque Cuyahoga Valley. The Bike Aboard program allows cyclists to ride the Towpath Trail in one direction and then flag the train for a return ride to the parking lot.
Photo courtesy of NPS
5. Ride a Horse at Glacier National Park - Montana
Book a horseback trail ride to experience this park from a new vantage point—three or four feet above the ground—on the back of a horse. A two-hour ride is plenty for kids, although Swan Mountain Outfitters does book all-day rides. Kids as young as age seven can ride at three of the park’s corrals—Apgar, West Glacier and Lake McDonald—for views of forest-covered mountains and lush valleys. (Kids must be at least age eight to ride at Many Glacier Corral.)
Photo courtesy of Swan Mountain Outfitters
6. Go to Family Camp at Great Smoky Mountains National Park - North Carolina/Tennessee
There’s a lot to see and do at this 520,000-acre park that straddles Tennessee and North Carolina. To help families make the most of our country’s most-visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont created a summer family camp. This six-day adventure allows kids and families to revel in hiking, biking, backpacking, morning yoga, and fun and games with naturalists. Separate from the family camp, make time to hike a half-mile to the summit of Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee.
Photo by Victoria Stauffenberg/NPS
7. Complete a TRACK Trail Adventure in Shenandoah National Park - Virginia
More than 180 TRACK Trails adventures exist in 10 states, including 3 in Shenandoah National Park. Created by Kids in Parks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids and families get more physically active outdoors, in Shenandoah National Park these self-guided adventures take children on the 1.2-mile Fox Hollow Trail, 1.3-mile Limberlost Trail and .8-mile Blackrock Summit Trail. The downloadable adventure guides encourage children to explore habitats, engage their senses in nature, and draw or write about their hikes in the printed guides.
Photo courtesy of NPS
8. See the Night Sky at Bryce Canyon National Park - Utah
Kids will love using high-powered telescopes to see planets and constellations. Bryce Canyon is an incredible spot for stargazing, providing the opportunity for visitors to see as many as 5,000 stars with the naked eye. In late June, an annual four-day dark sky festival features hikes and hands-on activities. The park also holds 100 astronomy programs each year, inviting kids and families to celebrate the celestial wonders of the night sky. Another fun way to enjoy the park after dark is on the park’s monthly full-moon hike.
Photo courtesy of NPS
9. Experience the Arch at Gateway Arch National Park - Missouri
Last year’s completion of a $380 million redevelopment project at this national park in St. Louis—one of our country’s newest parks—opened up a massive green space and added miles of walkable and bikeable paths. It also made the Gateway Arch even more exciting to experience from all angles. Take a tram ride to the top of the 630-foot Arch for panoramic city views. Or, enjoy views of the Arch from above on a three-minute helicopter ride with Gateway Helicopter Tours.
10. Become a Young Scientist at Yellowstone National Park - Montana/Wyoming/Idaho
At the Old Faithful Visitor Center, take out a Young Scientist Toolkit for free at the information desk, which includes a thermometer, stopwatch, and journal for recording observations about Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin. Also at the visitor center, purchase one of three self-guided activity booklets that kids can complete to earn a Young Scientist patch or key chain. The Young Scientist program encourages children to solve science mysteries by way of investigation both in the visitor center and in the field. An interactive map on the park website helps kids plan adventures.
Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
There’s so much for kids to see and do in our national parks that can open their eyes to nature and spur an interest in protecting and preserving the environment. Engaging in kid-friendly hikes, train excursions and horseback rides may be just the start of your child’s lifelong love of our country’s national parks.
To learn more about national park activities, including those designed for children, go to nps.gov.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of AAA World.