10 Fun National Park Activities for Kids

Sure, you can take your kids hiking, fishing or camping in a national park, but if you really want to wow them, take them on a helicopter ride into the Grand Canyon or go sledding with them down sand dunes at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Take a look at 10 of the coolest ways kids can explore our national parks this year.

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Become a Junior Ranger

Nearly every national park has a junior ranger program, enabling kids to earn badges or patches for completing various activities. But some parks have additional youth programs, such as the Junior Paleontologist program, which teaches kids about fossils at Badlands National Park in South Dakota and many others. Yellowstone National Park helps kids become Young Scientists by using toolkits to investigate the area around Old Faithful.

Take a Helicopter Ride

For a new perspective, try a scenic helicopter ride with your kids, such as the North Canyon Tour with Papillon Helicopters. This 30-minute aerial tour of the Grand Canyon beats elbowing your way in for a good view at Mather Point on the South Rim any day of the week. There’s also Gateway Helicopter Tours, which offers 3-minute rides around the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Participate in a Triathlon

A triathlon may not be top of mind when planning a trip to Everglades National Park in Florida, but families can have fun exploring the park by way of the Tamiami Trail Triathlon. Bike a 15-mile loop, hike 3 miles, and then paddle 3 1/2 miles in a canoe or kayak to finish the challenge. Along the way, complete activities to earn prizes. Some national parks, such as Saguaro National Park in Arizona, also host half-marathons and 5K fun runs.

Go Sledding on a Sand Dune

At New Mexico’s White Sands, kids can sled down sand dunes on snow saucers. Bring your own or buy them for $15 each in the gift shop. Get a $5 refund for each sled you return. Or try Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Rent a sled or sand board in nearby Alamosa. The rentals are pretreated with a special sand wax for great sliding, whether you’re sledding or sand-boarding down the dunes.

Take a Scenic Train Ride

See your favorite parks by taking a train ride, such as the one offered at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. Use the Bike Aboard program, which lets you bike the Towpath Trail in 1 direction and then hop on the train for the return trip. Another option is the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad near Yosemite National Park in California. Enjoy a barbecue dinner before taking a steam train to Lewis Creek Canyon for a sing-along around a campfire.

Go Horseback Riding

Try a horseback ride to experience wilderness trails in an area such as Glacier National Park in Montana. Kids can explore Lake Sherburne and the old mining town of Altyn on a 2-hour Cracker Flats ride, which can be booked through Swan Mountain Outfitters. SK Horses at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park offers 1- and 2-hour rides that start in Estes Park, and children as young as 4 can ride.

Try a Night Sky Program

Several national parks, including Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, offer stargazing programs. Kids will love using high-powered telescopes to see planets and constellations. Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah is another great park for stargazing, enabling visitors to see as many as 7,500 stars. Some parks also have dark-sky festivals during the summer, with hikes and hands-on activities.

Go on a Cave Tour

At Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, the kids-only Trog Tour lets young adventurers don hard hats and headlamps to trek through the caves. Or try Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, whose 90-minute King’s Palace Tour is among the most popular. At dusk, join a ranger program and prepare to watch thousands of bats fly out of the cavern entrance.

Enjoy a Tide-Pool Walk

At Redwood National Park in California, kids can join a tide-pool walk led by a park ranger. Little ones hunt for sea creatures as the ranger/naturalist teaches them about life in the ocean and sea life to be found at low tide. Olympic National Park in Washington offers tide-pool programs at Kalaloch’s Beach 4 and Mora’s Hole in the Wall.

Go on a Full-Moon Ranger Hike

Several national parks, including Bryce Canyon and Rocky Mountain National Park, offer full-moon ranger hikes or walks. These popular nocturnal adventures are a fun way to explore the parks and wildlife while seeking out the best views of the full moon. Yosemite even offers full-moon bike rides, which leave at 8:30 p.m. It’s best to sign up in advance.

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