7 Less Crowded National Parks for Your Next Family Vacation
For relaxing vacations, our list of selected destinations spans the country, from Washington State to West Virginia
America’s national parks are a great choice for family vacations because they give parents and children an opportunity to explore the outdoors together. These destinations feature activities that the whole family can enjoy. A trip to one of the country’s 63 national parks is a great option for a road trip, and admission costs are fairly inexpensive.
Here are seven less crowded national parks where families can reap the benefits of beautiful scenery and fun activities while minimizing the risk of encountering crowds.
Channel Islands National Park, California
Comprising five islands and one mile of the surrounding ocean, Channel Islands National Park offers families a relaxing escape off the coast of southern California. The 249,364-acre park provides opportunities for parents and children to enjoy beautiful beaches, hiking, boating and diving.
While visiting Channel Islands National Park, families can take in the scenery and enjoy activities like hiking, picnicking, bird and whale watching, wildflower viewing, and seal and sea lion spotting. In aquatic areas of the park, they can participate in boating, kayaking, diving, snorkeling, fishing, surfing and tide pooling.
Children can take part in the Junior Ranger program to learn about a variety of topics through educational activities focused on the park’s culture, history and wildlife. Visitors of all ages can partake in free interpretive programs led by naturalists and park rangers, including tide pool talks, lecture series and guided hikes.
Channel Islands National Park can only be accessed by a short boat ride from the Ventura or Oxnard harbors via Island Packers park concessionaire boats or by private boat. Guests can enjoy primitive camping on all five islands. There is one campground on each island, so reservations should be made in advance. Lodging is also available in Ventura, Oxnard and Santa Barbara areas on the California mainland.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, great for family visits, is teeming with history, scenic beauty and badlands wilderness.
The park features hiking trails ranging in length from a tenth of a mile to 18 miles round trip. Families can enjoy wildlife viewing, including opportunities to see bison, mule deer, elk, horses, longhorns, bobcats and more. The park’s South Unit features a 48-mile scenic drive, and the North Unit includes a shorter option with 28 miles of road leading up to stunning Oxbow Overlook.
The park offers multiple activities for kids including Junior Ranger programs for children ages 6 through 15 and older to learn about the park’s history, animals, plants and geology. Kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge by completing various activities. Families can borrow a free Family Fun Pack for their day visit which includes field guides, binoculars, hand lenses and activity descriptions.
Camping is a great option for lodging at the park, with most sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Some areas have the ability to accommodate large RVs as well.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Featuring the world’s longest known cave system, Mammoth Cave National Park offers an opportunity for families to explore west-central Kentucky’s geology and wilderness. The park has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
The park offers various cave tours, including tours of the historic areas and the naturally decorated scenery. Families should plan to purchase tickets for cave tours in advance. Ranger-led talks and evening programs offer opportunities for guests to learn about the park’s plants, animals, geology and history.
Guests can hike, bike or horseback ride along the more than 80 miles of scenic trails in Mammoth Cave National Park. The Green and Nolin rivers run through Mammoth Cave National Park and offer opportunities for canoeing, kayaking and fishing. A self-paced Junior Ranger activity book is available at the visitor center for kids interested in earning their Mammoth Cave National Park Junior Ranger Badge.
Located next to the visitor center, The Lodge at Mammoth Cave is the closest option for guests to stay overnight at the park. Historic Cottages and modern hotel rooms in The Lodge are within walking distance to the park’s cave tours and scenic trails. The park also has three front country campgrounds close to the park’s visitor center and cave tours, plus 13 backcountry sites.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota offers the perfect combination of land and aquatic ecosystems for the whole family to enjoy. It encompasses 218,055 acres of exposed rock ridges, wetlands, forests, lakes, and streams. Guests can explore the park by land, water or ice during the winter months. The Northern Lights can sometimes be spotted in the skies over Voyageurs National Park.
Families can comfortably adventure through Voyageurs National Park on a guided boat tour. Boating and fishing are popular at this water-based park. Trails offer hiking options ranging from easy to strenuous. The park’s “Hike to Health Trail Passport” allows guests to keep track of their explorations.
Voyageurs National Park is America’s largest waterways park. Houseboats are a sought-after lodging option, as they can provide multi-day access to Crane Lake, Lake Kabetogama, Lake Namakan and other popular areas. Houseboat rentals with kitchen facilities are available through companies located just outside of the park boundaries. Permits are required for overnight stays.
Front country and backcountry campsites are water-based, require a permit and can only be accessed by boat. The on-site Kettle Falls Hotel, immersed in the wilderness, is located 15 miles from the nearest road and only accessible by water.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is America’s newest national park. Nestled on over 70,000 acres of land along West Virginia’s New River, this stunning park contains canyons, wildlife, breathtaking scenery and a wealth of opportunities for outdoor adventure.
Families enjoy a variety of activities including whitewater rafting, hiking, biking, climbing, fishing and scenic drives. Ranger-led guided walks, tree identification hikes and nature journaling are free programs to help guests learn about the nature and history of the park.
Kids interested in becoming a Junior Ranger can access a Junior Ranger book from any of the park’s visitor centers. Upon completion of the activities in the book, children receive the New River Gorge Junior Ranger badge. Those interested in fishing can earn their Junior Angler Badge. The park also offers programs for Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts.
Primitive camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis at various sites along the New River and is fee-free. Lodging at motels, cabins and bed and breakfast inns is available in surrounding towns near the park.
Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Located in Tucson, Arizona, Saguaro National Park offers access to the Southwest’s striking desert scenery and wildlife. It is home to the nation’s largest cacti.
Families can explore the park’s 150 miles of designated hiking and biking trails or participate in guided programs on site. Programs offered include indoor presentations, patio talks, short guided walks and guided hikes. Visitors can also enjoy Saguaro National Park’s Cactus Foot Drive, an eight-mile scenic drive providing great views of the Sonoran Desert. The Cactus Garden enables guests to learn about desert plants through signage and ranger-guided talks.
Saguaro National Park offers a popular Junior Ranger program. Kids interested in earning their Junior Ranger badge can participate in activities that include hiking in the desert, cooking a trail snack, dissecting owl pellets and drawing a cactus.
Backcountry campsites are available at one of Saguaro National Park’s beautiful sites. Lodging options in the greater Tucson area include hotel and ranches within miles of the park. Among family-friendly options are Tanque Verde Ranch, White Stallion Ranch, Westin La Paloma, Loews Ventana Canyon, Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort and The Lodge at Ventana Canyon.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Home to more than 300 glaciers, North Cascades National Park in Washington offers access to breathtaking alpine landscapes. The park encompasses more than 500,000 acres with over 1,600 species of identified plants, so families have plenty of terrain to explore.
Families can enjoy hiking, biking, climbing and boating in the North Cascades. There are also opportunities for nature-oriented adventures and pursuits including horseback riding, bird and wildlife viewing and fishing. Guided tours are available, including boat tours designed to provide visitors with background on the history and culture of the park.
North Cascades National Park offers a Junior Ranger program that immerses kids and families in the nature and cultural history of the area. Upon completion of the educational activities, children earn free Junior Ranger patches and certificates.
Advance reservations for camping sites are highly recommended. Lodging is also available at Ross Lake Resort, where guests can stay in one of 15 floating cabins. The North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin provides options ranging from private cabins and lake houses to standard guest rooms.
By Gina Musso
Header Photo Courtesy of Visit Ventura