Best US national parks for families
People of all ages on USA holidays are spellbound by the epic glaciers, towering trees, plummeting canyons and crashing waterfalls. But national parks are particularly good for family holidays. Kids can be epic explorers, run wild and get dusty and tired to their hearts’ content. And they’ll also learn about the wonders of the natural world along the way.
Here’s a rundown of some of our favourite national parks for USA family holiday fun:
Yosemite National Park, California
Best for: jaw-dropping views of craggy peaks and glistening glaciers
Soaring granite peaks like mighty El Capitan and torrential waterfalls are Yosemite’s biggest draw. But there’s masses to see in this vast natural paradise. Kids will love letting loose in meadows scattered with flowers, taking in the vast panoramas of ancient peaks and staring up and up at 200-foot high sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove. Even if they aren’t keen walkers, there are easy trails for shorter legs to Bridalveil Fall and Mirror Lake. Yosemite is one of the most popular parks in the USA and it gets busy. Remarkably, most people only visit the seven square miles of the Yosemite Valley. So if you get away from this area – and there are over 1,000 square miles to choose from – you’re in the middle of pristine wilderness.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Best for: seeing armies of crimson hoodoos
Ever heard of a hoodoo? It’s a huge spire of rock, often larger on top than at the bottom. They’re created by wind erosion. In Bryce Canyon you’ll see armies of them made of ochre sandstone disappearing into the distance. They’re sometimes called fairy chimneys and they’re a truly magical sight. What’s also cool is reaching them on foot is easy. The famous Navajo and Queen’s Garden Loop hike is less than three miles – so very doable for older kids. If the kids are too small or don’t want to walk, don’t worry. Shuttle buses connect the four main viewpoints at Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, Sunset Point, and Sunrise Point in summer months. If your kids are aged over seven you could time your visit for the full moon. Numbers are limited, but if you’re in luck you can do a hike by moonlight to see the shadows and moonlight make the hoodoos take on all sorts of spooky shapes.
Death Valley National Park, California
Best for: Star Wars-style sand dune adventures
It’s called Death Valley for a reason. This is America’s hottest, driest and lowest national park, located in the Mojave Desert. If you’re a Star Wars fan this is the park for you. The Mesquite Flat sand dunes were where dune racer and sand crawler scenes from Episode IV – A New Hope and Episode VI – Return of the Jedi were shot. Older kids will have a ball running up and sliding down the dunes here and there’s all manner of other strikingly unusual natural landscapes to explore. The Badwater Salt flats feature vast fields of salt crusted pools, while Devils Golf course is an expanse of weirdly misshapen ground formed by the evaporation of a huge lake. Death Valley is one of the hottest places on Earth and in summer, hiking is not advised. The best time to visit is the cooler winter months from November to March. And carry lots of water. You’ll need it.
Grand Canyon, Colorado
Best for: bragging to friends when you get home
Over 270 miles long and up to 18 miles wide, Grand Canyon is without question the most famous of the USA’s national parks. Your friends will be full of envy when you post your shots on social media. It’s easy to drive up, stroll along the top and take a few selfies with those swirling cliffs of red and brown rock behind. And then leave. But if your kids are old enough to hike, try walking down inside for even better views. The South Rim is the most popular side of the canyon and one of the best routes here is aptly named Ooh-Ahh Point (no prizes for guessing why they called it that). It’s a round trip of a couple of miles on a steep but well-defined path. If you’re on the North Rim, Bright Angel Point is an easy stroll offering similarly spectacular views. Older kids will also love white water rafting through the Canyon itself. And if you have a head for heights try the glass-bottomed Grand Canyon Skywalk. It’s like walking on air.
Sequoia National Park, California
Best for: tree-mendous adventures
The clue is in the name. Sequoia National Park is home to hosts of utterly huge sequoia trees. Here in the Giant Forest there are around 8000 of them. You really will walk among giants. If you fancy seeing the largest on our planet, see if you can find General Sherman Tree. It powers 83 metres high into the sky and its huge red trunk is 11 metres wide. It’s a spellbinding site and people think it’s over 2000 years old. Kids will also enjoy learning more about these incredible trees in the free Giant Forest Museum. While most people come for the sequoias, there’s lots more to see. In summer you can book tickets to explore the eons-old stalactites and stalagmites in magical Crystal Cave, a huge underground cavern of shimmering marble. There are lots of scenic drives offering panoramas of rolling countryside, mighty granite mountains and (of course) immense sequoia forests. Keep your eyes peeled – you might even see bears from your car.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Best for: spurting spumes of hot spray and steam
The USA’s oldest national park was established way back in 1872. Many people think it’s the best too. There’s heaps to see here, but stars of the show are the geysers. The Upper Geyser Basin contains huge numbers of them and the trail is flat and easy – ideal for young children and even pushchairs. Old Faithful is the most famous geyser, sending spumes of steam and water high into the air every 90 minutes or so. But there are lots of others to see. Don’t miss Morning Glory pool with its weird green and yellow colours and bubbling waters and Grand Prismatic is an amazing expanse of rainbow coloured hot springs. Fancy a dip? You can even swim in the natural hot waters at Boiling River. Don’t worry, although it’s hot, it’s certainly not boiling. Elsewhere in the park there are crashing waterfalls set amidst Yellowstone’s very own Grand Canyon and the vast plains are often thronging with huge hairy bison.
Zion National Park, Utah
Best for: messing about in the river
If there is only one thing you do at Zion, it has to be hiking the Narrows. The trail follows the Virgin River and in places, the canyon is so narrow, the water completely covers the bottom. So be ready to get wet! You have to wade to keep going. It’s usually ankle-deep, but some spots are deeper at certain times of the year. Getting wet is hardly a problem during the hot months of summer. In places, the canyon narrows to a few metres with the sides rising skyscraper-tall above you. It’s really atmospheric and older kids will love the sense of adventure. Even if you don’t want to get your feet wet, the Riverside Trail that’s the gateway to the Narrows is an easy wander for younger ones with lots of shallow places to splash around in the river. The other must-see here is the Emerald Pools. There are several hikes along the river to this series of desert oases surrounded by lush vegetation with waterfalls tumbling into them.
Joshua Tree, California
Best for: skulduggery and scrambling
While many US national parks feature towering chunks of rock that are popular with hardcore climbers there’s less opportunity for kids to go clambering. Joshua Tree has the high altitude stuff for climbers to get their highs but also offers lots for kids to let off steam too. Jumbo Rocks is the section to head for. It’s a huge natural playground of giant boulders just perfect for climbing and scrambling. There’s an easy 1.7-mile circular walk here too. Look out for Skull Rock – a huge boulder with holes in exactly the right place for eyes and a mouth. The Live Oak and Barker Dam walks are also packed with unusual rock structures and narrow corridors just made for exploring. If you can hang around for sunset the rocks bathed in the golden light of the setting sun are truly spectacular. You’re in the desert here and summertime temperatures can be very high, so you’re best off avoiding a visit between June and September.