Horseback riding at Shenandoah National Park
Miles of wooded hills characterize Virginia's largest national park, and there essentially are 2 ways to explore them: on foot or by horse. For families who prefer the latter choice, saddle up and follow rangers on 2.5-hour guided horseback tours from Skyland Stables in the center of the park. The rides wind through a small portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, passing beneath oak, hickory and hemlock trees draped with moss. If you're lucky, you might even see a peregrine falcon--after disappearing from the region all together, the birds were reintroduced to the park in the 1990s and have flourished ever since. Skyland Stables offers 1-hour tours as well.
Stargazing inside Denali National Park
Ever wondered what makes the Northern Lights so colorful and spectacular? Get a crash-course in astrophysics this summer during the Special Emphasis Series at Alaska's Camp Denali, a 17-cabin retreat inside Alaska's Denali National Park, which sits 11 miles north of Healy in central Alaska. During 2- and 3-night programs titled "Curtains of Light," Neal Brown, space expert and acting director of the Alaska Space Grant Program, will explain the magnetic forces that create the Aurora Borealis and other atmospheric phenomena. By day, you'll be able to grill Brown with any questions you might have about celestial wonders; at night, join him on hikes through the tundra in the hopes of spotting the lights above.
"Beetlemania" lectures at Rocky Mountain National Park
Media outlets from all over the world have documented the alarming rate at which the mountain pine beetle has ravaged a majority of Colorado's pine forests, but as part of this free family-friendly lecture series, rangers explain the situation in a way kids can understand. At least one interpreter dresses up in a full-body beetle costume; others lead the crowd in a sing-along to tunes from the Beatles (of course). The hands-on portion of the lecture lets kids touch beetle carcasses. Children also get to see before-and-after images of forest after a beetle infestation--stark reminders of exactly how much damage to an ecosystem these little insects can cause.
Cruise the shoreline of Acadia National Park
With more shoreline than any other national park, Acadia is a perfect place to explore by boat. Park rangers offer a number of different boat cruises inside the park, but the most popular is the 3-hour "Dive-In Theater." On this tour of Frenchman Bay, families can look out for seals and porpoises, and watch in real-time (on video monitors) as a diver scours the ocean floor for marine life to bring back aboard the boat for further hands-on exploration. The cruise also includes an, um, boatload of information about coastal and pelagic birds commonly seen in the area. Tours leave from the dock at the College of the Atlantic, just outside the main gates of the park.
Sing about animals at Yosemite National Park
Parents of young children (6 and under) often complain that family programs are too sophisticated for their tots. At Yosemite, however, the "Wee Wild Ones" was designed with these toddlers in mind. In spring, the free, 45-minute program is held during the day in front of the great fireplace at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel. In summer, the program precedes evening events at Yosemite Lodge, the Falls Amphitheater and the Curry Village Amphitheater. Classes themselves include a lot of singing. Also on the agenda: reading books, playing games and making crafts--all of which pertains to animals native to the park (such as hawks, bears and big horn sheep). All participating children must be accompanied by an adult; no pre-registration is required.