Imagine posing with your partner, parents, and children in front of North America’s most incredible landscapes. From the deserts of California to the rocky outposts of Utah, the West lends the United States a number of iconic destinations.
While the big names like Yosemite National Park and Arches National Park have rightly earned their spots on your itinerary, one of the best ways to create national park vacations for families of all ages is to include lesser visited state parks and nature reserves. These sites are just as spectacular as their larger counterparts yet offer more opportunities for multigenerational activities.
Come with kids, leave with Junior Rangers
First thing’s first: if you’ve got little ones aged 3 and above, sign them up for the free Junior Ranger Program offered through the National Park Service.
Parents will love the engaging, educational activities offered to Junior Rangers at dozens of national parks around the country; and the kids will be too busy collecting their official Junior Ranger badges to realize that they’re learning on their family vacation to America’s great national parks.
You can sign the kids up online before your trip or at select national park visitor centers.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
When you look back on the family photos of Mount Rushmore, your smile will stretch almost as wide as the iconic rock carvings themselves.
Part of Trafalgar’s National Park Wonders tour, the gigantic granite faces of George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are the main draw for Mount Rushmore National Memorial, but this site’s not just a quick photo stop.
A walk through the ponderosa pine forests of the Presidential Trail offers tons of different Mount Rushmore viewpoints on a low-impact half-mile trail. The first leg of the trail leads to the base of the mountain and is handicap accessible, perfect for multigenerational families.
The Blackberry Trail is slightly longer and moderately strenuous; however, it is pet friendly so you and your golden retriever can enjoy the walk while grandparents and little ones visit the exhibits in the Sculptor’s Studio and Visitor Center.
Sonoran Desert National Monument
The beauty of the American West is that there are so many stunning landscapes to explore in a relatively compact area.
The catch is that there’s always the risk that the kids might get a little antsy, impatient, or plain bored looking at the same scenery that the grown-ups are in awe of.
Enter Sonoran Desert National Monument: the easy way for parents and grandparents to get their fill of the desert with a Plan B readily accessible. It’s also a stop on our America’s Great Desert National Parks tour.
The history buffs and shutterbugs in your herd will love the historical trails and saguaro cactus forests that fill this exceptionally biodiverse desert. You can hike, drive, or bike through the area, though a horseback ride is certainly one of the most family-friendly ways to see the landscape and get perfect vacation photos.
And here’s where Plan B comes in clutch: Sonoran Desert National Monument is only 92 miles from Tucson and 53 miles from Phoenix — practically begging for a daytrip.
The moment the kids start getting restless, you can be back in the city in just over an hour where they can go for a swim in the hotel pool or bask in the glow of their cellphones in an oasis of WiFi that the unforgiving desert lacks.
Related content: The 9 best cities in the US for family-friendly outdoor fun
Sequoia National Park
You don’t need to visit Yosemite National Park for some of The Golden State’s coolest wildlife viewing; Sequoia National Park is home to dozens of animals ready to wow you. (Although you can visit both on our California’s Great National Parks tour).
Park officials suggest staying at least 23m away from most animals and 46m away from black bears. If you don’t have your tape measure on you, that’s about two-to-four school bus lengths.
Mule deer, mountain lions, and pikas are the main game to keep an eye out for, though you can easily create a Sequoia scavenger hunt with the 44 different species of reptiles, bats, and fish throughout the park.
Bonus points if one of the kids spots a bighorn sheep, gray fox, or California condor.
But let’s be honest: the moment you gaze up at the towering giant sequoias, few other sights will captivate your attention.
Goblin Valley State Park
Disc golf and dark skies — what more could you ask for in Utah’s wilderness?
Goblin Valley State Park may have steep competition surrounding it, but it’s an underrated yet worthy stop on any national park vacation for families. The strange landscape is dotted with sandstone goblins which are mushroom-shaped rock formations that give this otherworldly state park its unusual name.
Reassure your kids that they won’t find a single grotesque gremlin hiding in the canyons, but they will find fun. Along with mountain biking and hiking, a 20-hole disc golf course offers a few hours of active exploration. Holes 1-11 are mostly flat and link to a short hiking trail that leads right to the parking lot. Any teens on trip looking for a challenge will find it amongst the steep climbs and winding dunes of holes 12-20.
What makes Goblin Valley State Park an ace of a visit is that it’s a great way to break up days spent doing national park tours for families at Utah’s major sites. Located between Arches National Park and Zion National Park, Goblin Valley has one of the darkest night skies on the planet. So even if disc golf isn’t on the agenda, jaw-dropping views of the Milky Way are only a short detour from your hotel.
Kodachrome Basin State Park
We like to think of Kodachrome Basin State Park as the cool cousin of Bryce Canyon National Park. It has a similar landscape to neighboring Bryce, but there’s just something more astounding about the way Kodachrome Basin’s red-tinged rocks stand beautifully beneath the bright blue sky.
With fewer crowds, Kodachrome Basin State Park is a welcome addition to any national park vacation for families. Park hours last until well into the night which means you can beat the heat without being rushed to beat a 5pm closure. The visitor center has loads of full-day fun to rent including corn hole, giant Jenga, e-bikes, and mountain bikes with helmets. Plus, food options like hot dogs and mini tacos are a great detour from fast food or picnic PB&Js.
Want to see the sandstone goblins, red-rock spires, and more of the Beehive State’s colorful landscape? Join Trafalga’s exciting Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks tours for families. You’ll spend 10 days making your way across the state, hitting everything from Zion and Arches to Kodachrome Basin, Goblin Valley, and six other protected parks.