All kinds of benefits come with getting kids outdoors, from fond memories to improved scholastic performance. Discover just some of the national parks where kids of all ages can explore, learn, and grow.Less
“Water world” is an apt description of this south Florida park, as 95 percent of it is underwater. Slip beneath the surface, though, while snorkeling and you’ll discover a realm of rainbow-hued coral reefs swarming with fish. Beginning snorkelers can sign up to explore coral ledges, while those who don’t like to get wet can take a glass-bottom boat tour to peer into the park’s marine life. Families can also hop into a canoe or kayak and drift through mangrove swamps and lagoons.
Appalachian lore and beauty are woven like a tapestry through this veiled playground. Streams that cascade and rest in pools are perfect for fending off summer’s dog days, while hikes show off this park’s diverse and beautiful vegetation. Spot deer, and occasionally black bears, along Cades Cove, or take the time to head out to Cataloochee to peer out on the park’s elk herds.
Straddling the Tennessee-Kentucky border with cool streams for splashing and paddling and deep forests and gorges with sandstone bluffs, Big South Fork is popular with paddlers, hikers, campers, and mountain bikers. Paddle along the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, or try one of the park’s mountain bike trails.
A thin string of barrier islands make up this national seashore. It’s a setting said to have been popular with Blackbeard the pirate, though these days it’s favored by those who enjoy surf fishing, wild horses, and beachside camping. Camp out at one of the park’s nearly 600 campsites, make a side trip to the Wright Brothers Memorial, or spot one of the seashore’s famed wild horses along the beach.
Creamsicle-hued ranks of stone soldiers -- stubby hoodoos -- show off nature’s whimsical personality. Carved by wind, rain, and freeze-thaw cycles, these peculiar formations rise over you as you explore the trails that weave through the colorful underbelly of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Try one of the park’s many hiking trails or camp out in the park’s North and Sunset campgrounds, not far from the short hikes that dip down into the canyon’s geologic wonders.
Once viewed as a wasteland, Death Valley is, in truth, a magical land. Dune fields ripple the park’s interior, geology shows its pastel hues at Artists Palette, and an oasis rises above a “furnace.” Hike the sandy hills on the dunes that slightly rise above this sweltering landscape or explore the salt pan that makes up the floor of Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level.
This Great Basin icon is unusual in that you can stand atop its 13,063-foot summit and then go underground to marvel at its artfully carved caverns. Descend into the park’s Lehman Caves to find an underworld of marble and limestone, where budding geologists and spelunkers can work on telling their stalactites from stalagmites.
A footpath, towpath, and key moments in the United States’ formative history converge at this setting along the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers in eastern West Virginia. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail also passes through Harpers Ferry, as well as a portion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which features a towpath perfect for a bike ride with the kids.
Perched high on a southwestern Colorado mesa, the dwellings squeezed into the cliffs offered both great views, and great protection, for a culture that vanished about 700 years ago. Today Mesa Verde National Park both protects, and explains, those dwellings and their mysterious builders. Climb up into Balcony House, where the ancestral Puebloans protected themselves from both hot summer sun and cold winter storms or enjoy a ranger-guided tour through Cliff Palace for close-up views.
Spring-fed rivers are the focal point of this destination, though there’s more than meets the eye at first glance. Paddling, angling, and horseback riding are just some of the ways to explore this unit of the park system with your family. Float Jacks Fork, Upper Current, or Lower Current River, or spend overnight trips along the river.