From Yellowstone and Yosemite to the Everglades and Acadia, the U.S. National Parks, instituted by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, see more than 80 million visitors each year. Road trips to the parks are a rite of childhood, and for good reason: There’s no adventure quite like the great outdoors. While the National Park system includes some 60 different areas, some are better than others for exploring on foot with kids. Here are our top picks for a family hiking excursion.
The most visited of the parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits right along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, with old-growth forest, waterfalls and wetlands stretching for 800 square miles. The 4-mile Porters Creek trail, especially beautiful in the spring with wildflowers covering the forest floor, follows a stream and forks left toward Fern Branch Falls, where a 90-foot fall cascades down moss-covered rocks and ferns.
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This otherworldly desert landscape, a few hours east of Los Angeles, is dotted with twisty native Joshua trees — they look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Kids will love climbing boulders (the 1.5-mile Barker Dam trail is a favorite), visiting the Cholla Cactus Garden and gazing up at the star-filled night sky. Given National Park status in 1994, Joshua Tree, which is close to Palm Springs, is steadily rising in popularity.
Spanning 3,500 square miles and situated mostly in Wyoming, Yellowstone was the first U.S. National Park, wooing visitors with its canyons, rivers, hot springs and geysers — including, of course, Old Faithful. Kids will also want to keep their eyes peeled for wildlife such as bears, wolves, bison and antelope. Consider viewing Yellowstone Canyon from Artist Point or Uncle Tom’s Trail, or visiting Lamar Valley to see herds of bison. The Grand Prismatic Spring, a dramatically hued hot spring, is also easy to view with kids.
Established as a national park in 1890, Yosemite sits in central California and draws four million visitors each year. Known for its waterfalls and iconic El Capitan and Half Dome monoliths, Yosemite still offers plenty for young families to explore, especially majestic sequoias in the Mariposa Grove, which reopened this past spring. Kids will especially love the trails leading to the Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree.
Home to the American crocodile, Florida panther, West Indian manatee and hundreds of species of birds, fish and reptiles, the Everglades comprise wetlands that pour out into the Florida Bay. Canoe, kayak and hike through this tropical wilderness that’s known as “River of Grass.” The Shark Valley trail gets a unanimous thumbs-up from visitors of all ages.
A 90-minute drive from Denver, this park, studded with 147 lakes and 355 miles of trails, is an easy add-on to a Colorado itinerary and well worth it. Sightings of elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer and moose are frequent. Consider the 0.6-mile Bear Lake trail as a great starting point for exploration with kids; it continues on and connects to the cluster of nearby alpine lakes, such as Nymph, Dream and Emerald, all of them formed by glaciers as they passed through.
Along the rugged coastline of Maine, Acadia is a great summer road trip destination from the northeast U.S. Or go in autumn; September is very popular for fall colors and thinner crowds. You might encounter moose, foxes, falcons, herons and salamanders within the park’s forests, ponds and mountains and even spot whales off the coast. On the eastern side of Mount Desert Island, the 1.6-mile Gorham Mountain trail starts off slowly through a spruce forest and weathered sea caves, then climbs to a granite summit for spectacular coastal views.
Located in southwestern Utah, Zion leaves visitors awestruck as they explore its beautiful canyons, mesas, arches and cliffs. At its heart is 15-mile long Zion Canyon. Both the Weeping Rock Trail, which ends in a spring with water seeping through Navajo sandstone, and Emerald Pools Trail, which follows a series of spring-fed pools, are great introductory hikes for families.
Editor’s Note: Photos by the U.S. National Park Service.
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