During a day hike through Rocky Mountain National Park as an 8-year-old, I still remember marveling at the bursts of colorful wildflowers blanketing the trail, the clean smell of pinecones and the towering mountains all around. The adventure led to a yearlong obsession with wildflowers, where I drew and redrew what I’d seen and made a guidebook to give to family and friends.
Such is the power of the 411 “areas” run by the U.S. National Park Service – 59 of which are full-fledged parks. They let visitors, especially kids, step into nature and discover something just for them, whether it’s stunning flora, the feeling of majesty standing under a giant sandstone arch or the quiet reverence on a historic battlefield.
This summer marks the service’s 100th anniversary – President Woodrow Wilson officially got the party started Aug. 25, 1916 – and a perfect excuse to get out with your family and visit a spot or two. Here are some favorite destinations and lesser-known spots, both near southeast Michigan and farther away, that are worth a drive.
Arches National Park, Utah
What it’s known for: The name says it all. Spread out over 73,000 acres in southern Utah, this park is home to more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches.
Just for kids: Through the Junior Ranger program, tykes can check out an Explorer Pack for the day, which includes binoculars, a hand lens for a close-up look at discoveries, a naturalist guide, a notebook and activity guides.
Family tips: This popular park can get busy during the day and have long lines to enter. Avoid the crowds by coming before 8 a.m. or after 3 p.m. The later time is better anyway, since it’s cooler and great for pictures as the setting sun casts a red glow over the landscape.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
What it’s known for: Your kids will feel as though they’ve traveled to another planet in the Badlands. At 244,000 acres, the park is prized for its chiseled rocky fissures and plentiful fossils – that’s right, dinosaurs were once travelers here (but now its legendary occupant is the rattlesnake).
Just for kids: Try the night sky observing program Friday-Monday evenings.
Family tips: For older kids or avid hikers, hit the 1.5-mile Notch Trail, where you’ll crawl up and down a log ladder and squeeze through narrow paths. While most visitors stick to the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway, you’ve got a better chance to see bison and bighorn sheep if you drive through the less-traveled Sage Creek Wilderness and Sage Creek Rim Road areas.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
What it’s known for: Unlike many national parks that are tucked in out-of-the-way spots, 33,000-acre Cuyahoga weaves right through suburban and metropolitan areas. While here, ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, where you can take your bike one direction and ride the train back.
Just for kids: The Canal Exploration Center includes various kid-friendly exhibits about the history of the valley. It also gives kids a chance to push a canal lock gate.
Family tips: Many trails are easy enough to navigate for kids of all ages and skill levels. For example, Brandywine Falls Trail is only one-eighth of a mile to see the falls, which descend over a series of sloping rocks.
Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania
What it’s known for: The site of the most pivotal battles during the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s famous address given in 1863, the park has been carefully preserved and includes an expansive visitors center and markers along the road that explain significant locations of the battle.
Just for kids: Gettysburg works with living history groups to position Civil War re-enactors throughout the park during the summer months – all of whom welcome kids’ questions.
Family tips: Driving through Gettysburg isn’t the only option. For something more unique, rent or bring bikes, go on horseback or take a Segway tour.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
What it’s known for: Covered with 350 miles of trails, this park begs visitors to take a hike – whether your family is looking for something easy or a longer, backcountry adventure that includes a stop at the Continental Divide.
Just for kids: Pick up a coloring activity book at any park visitor center or attend one of the park’s astronomy programs held Friday nights (kids earn a Junior Ranger Night Explorer patch for participating).
Family tips: Not ready for a steep hike (or the little legs in your family can’t take it)? What about a drive that feels just as adventurous? Try the scenic, tight-curved, nine-mile dirt pathway known as the historic Old Fall River Road.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
What it’s known for: Surrounded by mountains, the Shenandoah area is a hiker’s haven with trails spidering through the valley, through deep gorges and passing by waterfalls, farmlands and forests.
Just for kids: In the summer months, park rangers offer a daily 20-minute talk about one of the park’s more notorious inhabitants – bears!
Family tips: Go fish. There are more than 70 mountain streams to choose from. You’ll need to purchase Virginia fishing licenses for any anglers over age 12.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
What it’s known for: While it’s not technically a national park, this “national lakeshore” is the one of only a handful in the country. The 71,000-acre area includes 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and envelops two islands, North and South Manitou, adding another 30,000 miles of freshwater shores. Yet what sets Sleeping Bear apart for many is its famed Dune Climb.
Just for kids: Visit the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum in Glen Haven, where a daily show at 3 p.m. lets your kids feel like they’re part of a rescue mission.
Family tips: While many families spend time at the dunes or on scenic drives, head to the southern end to find plenty of spots for a quiet picnic – or to jump into the Platte River (if you’ve got an inner tube, bring it to use in the water).
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
What it’s known for: Reaching nearly 70,500 acres in the western part of the state, there’s no mystery about who made this park famous. Teddy Roosevelt first visited the park in 1883 and later commented, “I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” But what really makes this park singular is its wildlife – expect to see bison, elk, wild horses, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs. Lots of prairie dogs.
Just for kids: As part of the Junior Ranger program, kids can complete a field journal and earn an official badge.
Family tips: Make sure to stop at Wind Canyon. It’s one of the most scenic spots in the park and offers easy access to picture-worthy overlooks. And if your kids are set on seeing wildlife, the best time to go is in the morning or at dusk.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
What it’s known for: Yellowstone is the world’s first national park. Besides abundant wildlife, the park has become famous for its trusty attraction – Old Faithful. The geyser is one of 500 in the park.
Just for kids: Along with its own Junior Ranger option, Yellowstone includes a Young Scientist program, available to ages 5 and up.
Family tips: Plan ahead. This large, popular park can draw crowds. Visit its website to plot out your must-sees, whether you’re set on biking, fishing, boating, horseback riding, camping – or enjoying the spray from Old Faithful.