As teachers, one of the statements that we hear over and over is “But what do we do?” Usually we’ve already given the directions six times, and it drives us nuts, but in your case, we’ll make an exception because it can be challenging to figure out what to do in the national parks, especially if you’ve never been to one.
National parks are great for camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, sightseeing, backpacking, canoeing, rafting, climbing, riding, snorkeling, diving, geocaching, picnicking, birding, tidepooling, photographing, cycling, boating, stargazing, wildlife watching, kayaking, and just some plain old relaxing.
While most national parks are famous for their geology, each one has its own unique biological, historical, and cultural aspects, too. Most offer wildlife sighting of some sort, and all offer unique and unparalleled natural beauty.
We recommend starting at the National Park Service website, nps.gov. This site has lots of very good information. There are general information pages and specific park pages. However, it can be challenging to find information on this site, even for those of us who’ve done it a time or thirty-eight! It will take a little navigating, so be prepared to spend some time, and keep going through the layers. Luckily, NPS has started to standardize all of the park websites to make navigation easier.
You can also request an information packet online. Use the Contact Us button on the bottom of any park’s page on the nps.gov site to send them an e-mail. The park will mail you an envelope with brochures, maps, schedules and other helpful information. These are generally packed with information and also pared down to the highlights which is helpful. Be specific in your request: if you’re into hiking, ask about good trails. If you’re a birder, ask about birding hotspots. If you’re an angler, ask about fishing opportunities and regulations. Plus, I just think it’s exciting to have the glossy park brochure to look at! (Many of the brochures and maps can also be downloaded from the website.)
Don’t hesitate to call the park directly and ask questions. You’ll find the park phone numbers via the Contact Us buttons as well. The park rangers are specialists about their parks and usually more than willing to answer questions for you. It is a good idea, however, to have some questions ready for the ranger. If you call and say, “What do I do?”, that question will be much more challenging to answer than if you say, “We’ll have two days to spend at the park, what are the highlights you don’t think we should miss?” or “We have our own canoe — where in the park can we use it?”
Another option would be to ask us! We’re not park specialists like the rangers, but we have been to thirty-eight parks (plus four new ones coming this year), and we love to talk travel. We’ve been to lots of national monuments and historic sites as well. Leave us a note in the comments and we’ll reply, or send us an e-mail.
Families should definitely participate in the junior ranger programs available at all the parks. Junior ranger booklets are available from the visitor centers and require kids to complete some written activities, sometimes attend a ranger led activity, maybe do some drawing. Most parks also let adults participate – we are proud to say we have several junior ranger badges ourselves – so you can make it a family activity. Some parks really ham it up during the ceremony to honor the newest junior rangers! There are also several virtual junior ranger activities kids can do from home. Try out this link to start exploring!
A few parks also have family activity backpacks available for checkout at visitor centers. At Denali we checked out a backpack with our nephews that had a water pH kit, an animal print making kit, binoculars, a thermometer, a bird book, crayons and paper, a make-a-postcard kit, wildlife identification information, and more. And the best thing about it? It’s FREE!!!
This weekend we’re actually in Washington, DC, for the inauguration festivities, so we’ll be visiting some of America’s most famous National Park Service spots on the National Mall. You can be sure we’ll have our NPS map in hand and our National Mall app on our phones to be sure we don’t miss anything. [Update: we’re not heading to DC after all because Erin’s sick. In her words, “it totally bites!” But DC is awesome — and entry to nearly every sight, museum, and government building is free!]
Enjoy your week or your weekend!