Young adventurers travel deep underground to explore one of the many caves at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Children must be 4 or older to participate in a basic cave tour of the Big Room. Brave souls over 12 can shimmy and crawl through a maze of narrow entryways and tunnels at Spider Cave. Check out the resident wildlife outside of the cave during the Bat Flight program, a free summertime special when nearly 400,000 Brazilian free-tail bats fly from Carlsbad Cavern at sunset to search for an insect-filled dinner.
Wyoming, Montana and Idaho
America’s first national park welcomes visitors to check out the hot springs, steaming geysers and extraordinary wildlife, including grizzlies, bison and elk. With the park spread out over a sprawling 2.2 million acres, it’s impossible to experience all the fun at once. As a family, decide on the highlights to experience, like the legendary geyser Old Faithful and the wildlife-viewing at Lamar Valley. The whole family can get a taste of cowboy life at the Roosevelt Old West Dinner Cookout
complete with classic chuck-wagon dinner of steak, baked beans and plenty of sides. Families with children over 8 can enjoy a 2-hour horseback ride to the cookout while families with little ones can ride into the sunset aboard a horse-drawn covered wagon.
Biscayne welcomes families with the free Family Fun Fest program, a celebration of the park’s wonders with stories, superheroes and cool park activities. The festivities take place on the second Saturday of each month from December to April. But don’t fret if you miss the fest as there are still plenty of opportunities for family-bonding in the park. Sign up for a coastal clean-up program to help preserve the park’s beauty and protect the habitat for resident wildlife. Look for some of the park’s cool creatures, including manatees, sea turtles and fish galore, during a snorkeling adventure or kid-friendly ride on a glass-bottom boat. The Dante Fascell Visitor Center has exhibits and even some touch tanks where kids can talk to rangers about Biscayne’s unique ecosystems.
Grand Teton National Park caters to 8- to 12-year-olds with daily Junior Ranger programs throughout the park. Rangers keep kids busy with stories, artwork, kid-friendly hikes and scavenger hunts to uncover secrets around the park. Kids as young as 6 can enjoy the drop-off story time at Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve. And the whole gang can enjoy family-friendly activities including the fire and ice cruise around Colter Bay to learn about the park’s ecology, including the glaciers and towering mountains. On the weekends, gather around a campfire for a cozy nighttime tradition and a chat with park rangers.
Budding naturalists feel right at home at Rocky Mountain National Park where the kids can join in on short, family-friendly hikes around the park. Bring along a magnifying glass to explore the plants, leaves and bugs during a stroll around Bear Lake. And pack binoculars to get a close-up of Albert’s squirrels scurrying around the ponderosa pine forests or bighorn sheep spending a summer day at Sheep Lakes. Kids can scramble up rocks along the trail to Gem Lake or search the water under the bridge for beavers along the Beaver Boardwalk.
Acadia National Park has laid down the law on the many ways that kids should enjoy themselves in the park, summarized in the Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights
. Take note of this decree, and plan for family fun in every corner of the park. Pack the bikes and helmets for a ride along the carriage road system -- flat scenic paths that are made for a 2-wheeler (training wheels optional) or the chubby tires of a jogging stroller. Then head to the shore to enjoy a cool ocean breeze and search for marine life in the shallow tide pools. Set sail on a ranger-narrated cruise including the Dive-In Theater Cruise from May through October where real-time video technology allows passengers to watch scuba divers search the ocean floor for marine life that is then brought onboard for impromptu touch-tank experiences.
Don’t worry if you’re more of a beach person than a woodsy type: There’s a national park experience waiting for your family at the national seashore at Cape Hatteras. This protected seashore is made up of narrow barrier islands along the beloved Outer Banks. There are miles of beaches for swimming, shelling, kite-flying or just chilling out and reading a book. Cruise the beach on foot or in an off-road vehicle that allows cars to leave behind the paved roads and drive the sandy shores. Celebrate the past with a climb up a lighthouse or an evening of pirate tales with a park ranger.