Which National Park?

The National Parks Foundation recently announced a new initiative: Every Kid in a Park. As part of this effort, every 4th grader in the country will receive a family pass to our National Parks for the 2015-2016 school year. This is a fantastic program aimed in part, no doubt, at countering the condition known as Nature Deficit Disorder (see Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods). And what better way to do that than get families into the great outdoors to experience some of our national treasures. It’s not just National Parks that are included; the entire National Park system is at your disposal which additionally comprises (from nps.gov): “monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.” That’s a lot to choose from!

Our National Parks also happen to be some of my favorite destinations for road trips. I love everything about our National Parks: the scenery, the fresh air, the unplugged-ness of the experience … and the Visitor Centers. The latter may seem like an interesting mention but they are an indispensable first stop, featuring helpful Rangers who offer maps and recommend best ways for your particular group to enjoy the Park. Most Visitor Centers also provide an excellent overview of the Park through a video or multimedia presentation; some also offer film shorts throughout the day showcasing the ecology and history of the area (a welcome break if your kids need a reset between trails or activities or just if it’s hot out). But most of all, I love the Ranger Programs for kids of all ages; most are included with your Park admission or annual pass.

Your kids can become Junior Rangers by learning about the parks, attending Ranger Programs with knowledgeable guides, completing workbooks demonstrating their newfound understanding of the particular Park and its ecosystem, and promising to be good stewards of our Park system for the next generation. We’ve done some excellent programs, including Damsels and Dragonflies, Tidepool School, Salt Pond Paddle, Tidal Flats Foray and more – my kids have even dissected squid as part of a Ranger Program – no joke – Hands-On Squid at Provincelands, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Parents usually tag along with their children and I have found the quality of instruction unparalleled, allowing me the full opportunity to enjoy the experience with my kids.

Now, for my next trick, how to figure out where to go first. You could follow the herd. News outlets often publish lists like Top 10 National Parks by annual visitors – and I’ll do the same for perspective but I’ll go one better. These were the Top 15 National Parks in 2014:

  1. Great Smoky Mountains NP
  2. Grand Canyon NP
  3. Yosemite NP
  4. Yellowstone NP
  5. Rocky Mountain NP
  6. Olympic NP
  7. Zion NP
  8. Grand Teton NP
  9. Acadia NP
  10. Glacier NP
  11. Cuyahoga Valley NP
  12. Hawaii Volcanoes NP
  13. Joshua Tree NP
  14. Bryce Canyon NP
  15. Hot Springs NP

So, you can join the masses – hey, millions of people can’t be wrong, right? The most frequented parks are chart toppers for a reason: the combination of spectacular sights and accessibility. At some point, these national treasures are definitely worth a visit. But, if you’re feeling slightly agoraphobic in the meantime, you could take a different look at the offerings.

How about this? The Top 15 Least Visited National Parks:

  1. Gates of the Arctic NP & PRES
  2. Isle Royale NP
  3. Lake Clark NP & PRES
  4. North Cascades NP
  5. Katmai NP & PRES
  6. Dry Tortugas NP
  7. Wrangell-St. Elias NP & PRES
  8. Great Basin NP
  9. Congaree NP
  10. Guadalupe Mountains NP
  11. Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP
  12. Pinnacles NP
  13. Voyageurs NP
  14. Kenai Fjords NP
  15. Big Bend NP

Heck, being one of the least visited National Parks may be its own best recommendation!

Or if you’re feel the need for a change in latitude after this winter, what about a Park with coastal appeal? Lots of exploration and relaxation to be had. I can almost hear the water lapping on the beaches and feel my toes in the sand right now. Here are the Top 15 National Seashores or Lakeshores:

  1. Gulf Islands NS
  2. Cape Cod NS
  3. Point Reyes NS
  4. Assateague Island NS
  5. Cape Hatteras NS
  6. Indiana Dunes NL
  7. Canaveral NS
  8. Sleeping Bear Dunes NL
  9. Pictured Rocks NL
  10. Padre Island NS
  11. Cape Lookout NS
  12. Virgin Islands NP
  13. Fire Island NS
  14. Apostle Islands NL
  15. Cumberland Island NS

OK, #12 is actually a National Park, but it doesn’t get more coastal than VINP, which features an underwater snorkeling trail. The combination of beaches and Ranger Programs (for adults and kids) at the National Seashores and Lakeshores provides enough to keep the kids engaged and happy so the parents can enjoy the visit, too!

There are lot of other “theme” trips you could do: tours of battlefields, Civil War sites, national monuments, a geographical selection. I’ll write about more of these in future blog posts. In the meantime, I think I’ll start close to home with a few local gems in the National Park system: Boston Harbor Islands, Saugus Iron Works, and Boott Cotton Mill.

Wishing you a happy Life in the Car!

What’s your favorite National Park?

* All data taken from irma.nps.gov as of 23 Feb 2015. Any errors or omissions are mine.

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