A Family Guide to National Parks


How many National Parks have you visited? These 63 patches of land are some of America’s greatest treasures, housing everything from waterfalls to geysers, volcanoes to canyons.

Free photos of Yosemite

National Parks: A Brief History

In 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park – widely considered the first “national park” in the world. This launched a global trend toward protecting swaths of natural lands. These days, more than 100 countries contain about 1,200 national parks or equivalent preserves, according to the National Park Service.

As of 2022, the United States had authorized 423 national park sites in the United States, spanning more than 84 million acres and including parks, battlefields, historic sites, monuments, recreations, trails, seashores and more.

That’s a lot of real estate, folks. Time to get out there and explore!

Our Favorite National Parks… So Far

Our family has visited about 25 of the 63 official national parks so far, plus other national park sites and loved every single one. While it’s impossible to choose a favorite, we do have a handful of front-runners:

Bison, Buffalo - national parks

    • Yellowstone – Arguably the most diverse national park with geysers, bison and more.
    • Redwoods – Feels as sacred as a cathedral, but no quick way to get there.
    • Bryce Canyon – Otherworldly landscape and it’s a tad less busy than some other popular Utah spots.
    • Glacier – Lakes and glaciers and hikes, oh my!
    • Acadia – Check out the earliest sunrise in the continental United States from Cadillac Mountain.
    • Zion – Hiking for all levels of fitness, canyoneering and more.
    • Grand Canyon – Want smaller crowds? Go off season or try the more rustic North Rim.
    • Yosemite – Waterfalls and climbing, with a side of redwoods.
    • Mesa Verde – Sprawling collection of Anasazi cliff dwellings; travel back in time.

Even as I type the list above, my brain clicks through the many others we have visited. Every one of them was well worth our time – from the urban St. Louis Arch and Cuyahoga to the far-out Great Sand Dunes and Joshua Tree. Our family has a goal of visiting every national park and I’m fairly certain we’ll make it happen because those parks? They are simply amazing.

national parks - Joshua tree

Getting Kids Outdoors

Kids and outdoors go together like peanut butter and jelly. The National Park Service knows this and does whatever it can to encourage it. From junior ranger programs to helpful guides to the thing every parent should know about: the Every Kid Outdoors program.

The Every Kid Outdoors program is a jewel. It allows every fourth grader in the United States and his/her family members free access to over 2,000 federal lands and waters, including national parks. The program is designed to help families discover resources, history and wildlife. Public lands are for everyone, after all.

national parks - kids at Grand Canyon

The best part? It’s ridiculously simple. To get a pass, fourth grade students may visit the bilingual Every Kid Outdoors website, answer a couple of fun questions, then download a paper voucher to print and bring with them to visit public lands and waters all across the country. It takes about 30 seconds and doesn’t require any personal information.

Once they have their passes, kids can even plan out trips for their families. Fun!

The pass begins each year on September 1 and runs through August 31.

National Parks Ideas from Other Moms

Here are some great tips from Military Mom Collective about visiting national parks with kids:

Our Top Tips for Visiting National Parks with Kids

Here is guidance from Houston Moms about what gear to bring, resources, apps and emergency preparedness:

How to Enjoy State and National Parks Like a Pro with Your Family

East Valley Moms has a “How To” guide for Rocky Mountain National Park:

Exploring Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park with Kids

Interested in learning more about the Every Kid in a Park Pass, the Junior Ranger Program and more? Portland Mom Collective has you covered:

Exploring National Parks with Kids

El Paso Moms assembled a terrific list of five national parks within easy driving distance of the far western tip of Texas:

5 National Parks Within Driving Distance of El Paso

Planning a trip to the Everglades? Miami Mom Collective has all the details:

Everglades National Park: Perfect for a Family-Friendly Adventure

Cincinnati Mom Collective offers thoughts on why families should consider choosing national park adventures over leisurely beach vacations:

Choosing National Park Adventures {Over Leisurely Beach Vacations}

Thinking about a trip to Colorado? Colorado Springs Mom Collective offers an overview of its state’s four national parks:

Colorado Camping: Our Favorite Spots

Not sure you want to visit national parks with kids? Vermont Mom gets real about the challenges and the rewards.

Looking for more travel ideas? Check out our fabulous Ultimate Family Vacation Guide.