Photograph by Simon Russell, Getty Images
Finding the right hike for children can be tricky: The trail needs to be safe and not too strenuous, yet interesting enough to keep the young folks’ attention. As a bonus, it would be nice if the hike stimulated them to want to learn more about the place. National parks abound in good kids’ hikes; these are ten of the best and most diverse.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
The United States’ tallest dunes are found in of all places Colorado, tucked against the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Between the westerly winds and some unique geological circumstances the main dune field has spread across about 30 square miles, with dune heights reaching above 700 feet. The dune field is not so much a hiking place as a “Go out and have fun” spot. Kids (adults, too) are welcome to run up the sand dunes and slide or roll down. Certain precautions should be heeded, especially when the sand is scorching hot in summer, but the kids are not likely to hurt themselves if they fall down. To sand sled, or sandboard, all that’s really needed is something like a flat-bottomed plastic sled; skis and snowboards work, too; a section of cardboard box does not. If the weather conditions have been too dry, the sand may be too soft for sledding, but the dunes are great to explore any time. People are free to wander, provided they don’t impact the vegetation. The summit of High Dune, the second highest dune, is a long mile climb through the shifting sands. Nearby Medano Creek offers a great place to cool off afterward, if it’s flowing.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Sourdough Ridge Trail
Fantastic views of western Washington’s snowcapped peaks, including Mount Rainier, make the Sourdough Ridge Trail a mini-adventure the whole family will love. Located high in the subalpine zone of the park in the Sunrise area, the trail makes a one-mile loop with only gentle elevation gain and passes through flower-filled meadows. It’s a great way to introduce kids to the beauty of the high country. They’ll feel like mountain climbers when they reach the ridgetop for even better panoramic vistas. Snow closes this area most of the year, so plan to visit in the summer or early fall to do this hike; the road to Sunrise may not even open until July.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Frozen Niagara Tour
Some cave tours are too long for children, or require climbing lots of stairs or squeezing through tight (possibly scary) spaces. The Frozen Niagara Tour at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave is short enough (a quarter-mile round-trip, taking just over an hour) and easy enough for kids, yet offers spectacular cave scenery such as Rainbow Dome, Crystal Lake, the Frozen Niagara flowstone, and the Drapery Room. Young folks can let their imaginations take over here, as formation shapes suggest animals, cartoon characters, and who knows what. With this introduction to underground wonders, a child just might turn into a dedicated caver.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Giant Logs Trail
This northeastern Arizona park has the kind of wide-open space that kids sometimes find unexciting. Get them onto park trails, however, and they’re sure to be astonished by close-up looks at enormous “fallen trees”—made of rock. One of the best short hikes for children is the Giant Logs Trail, a 0.4-mile loop that begins at the Rainbow Forest Museum, the park’s southern visitor center. This path leads to the largest log in the park: Old Faithful, around 170 feet long and more than 9 feet across at its base. Here, kids can see (and feel) how ancient tree trunks were permeated by water carrying dissolved silica, which crystallized as quartz, exactly replacing the soft plant structure with hard mineral. They’ll see bark, knotholes, and growth rings, all in amazingly fine detail. Every color imaginable seems to be represented in the shiny agate logs. Interpretive panels along the way explain the science behind the petrified logs. The Rainbow Forest Museum includes exhibits on dinosaurs, always popular with kids.
Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Base Loop Trail
There’s a reason why Native Americans have long considered this site in northeastern Wyoming a sacred place and why it was designated as America’s first national monument in 1906: It’s awesome, in a way that’s truly otherworldly. The solidified magma of an ancient volcano (phonolite porphyry, similar to granite, if you want to be precise), Devils Tower rises 867 feet above the rock rubble at its base in distinctive multisided columns. The molten magma forced its way upward but didn’t reach the Earth’s surface. Over millennia, it was exposed by erosion, creating this massive, flat-topped geological wonder. Don’t just take a couple of photos and drive on. Walk the 1.3-mile loop trail around its base to marvel at this amazing structure from all angles. Kids and parents alike will enjoy seeing how the tower’s shape changes from different viewpoints and watching rock climbers scaling its height. One more hint: Take time before your trip to watch the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which unforgettably turns Devils Tower into an alien landing site.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland/Virginia
Life of the Marsh and Woodland Trails
It’s probably safe to say that all kids love ponies. At this Atlantic Ocean seashore park—encompassing a 37-mile-long barrier island on the Maryland–Virginia border—parents can promise their children the chance to see “ponies” (small horses, actually) living in picturesque fields and marshes, far from the county fairs and farmyards where they’re usually encountered. The famous wild horses of Assateague Island are descended from animals brought to the island in the 1600s by local planters. Their small size is thought to be a result of their restricted diet, and their chubby look comes from the amount of water they must drink to offset the salt they intake. The horses delight visitors young and old with their appealingly shaggy charm—especially those who’ve read the classic book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, based on the true story of a pony born here. On the Maryland part of the island the horses wander freely and might be seen anywhere; the half-mile round-trip Life of the Marsh Trail that winds through a salt marsh is a good place to look for them. On the Virginia side the horses are kept in a large enclosure and can be seen from the 1.5-mile-loop Woodland Trail.
Muir Woods National Monument, California
Trails Along Redwood Creek
Children will feel like they’re in the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids as they walk through the forest of coast redwoods in this park north of San Francisco. Some of the trees here top 250 feet in height and are more than 14 feet across at the base; the average age of the redwoods is 600 to 800 years old. Expect to see lots of people walking around with upturned faces and wide-open eyes. If any landscape in the country can be called magical, this cathedral-like forest qualifies. Easy paved trails run alongside Redwood Creek, crossing it on bridges and making possible loop walks of a half mile to two miles in length.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
Kids have seen them in schoolbooks, on television, and in movies. Four gigantic presidential heads—Washington, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt, Lincoln—way up on the mountain, looking just as distinguished as they should. Nobody can fail to be impressed by the first sight of South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore through the Avenue of Flags (try to arrive in the morning for best light). To get a closer view, walk the half-mile Presidential Trail, which approaches the base of the mountain and passes the studio where sculptor Gutzon Borglum worked. Consider renting audio wands for a narrated tour of the park as well, to learn lots of fascinating details about the monument’s history and creation.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Thanks to the actions of oil mogul and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., back in the early to mid-20th century, visitors to this park on the Maine coast can enjoy more than 50 miles of carriage roads: broad, smooth gravel paths approximately 16 feet wide open to walkers, horseback riders, and bicyclists but not motorized vehicles. These paths wind throughout much of the park on the east side of Mount Desert Island, passing developed areas as well as more remote spots, and they’re perfect for families—even those with strollers to push, as Rockefeller specifically designed the roads to be not too steep or sharply curved for horse-drawn carriages. But rather than a family-friendly hike, consider a family-friendly bike ride. Bikes can be rented in the nearby town of Bar Harbor, making possible a leisurely outing through the wooded landscape of Mount Desert Island. As you ride, stop to admire the striking stone bridges scattered along the routes; there are 17 of them, each designed for its particular setting (and all also thanks to Rockefeller).
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Thurston Lava Tube
Lots of families visit Hawaii, and those who visit the Big Island can tour the otherworldly landscape of this fascinating park. Because this is one of the most volcanically active places on Earth, a last-minute check about conditions is wise. Parts of the park have been closed since a new vent opened in Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater in March 2008. The great majority of the time, though, the park can be visited with complete safety. Kids will love Thurston Lava Tube, located just off Crater Rim Drive. Very small children might be afraid here, but older kids will find it just creepy enough to be fun. Formed when molten lava flowed out of an underground tunnel, leaving it empty, Thurston is about 450 feet long, and is lit by electric lights to reduce claustrophobia; the path through it is paved. In places the roots of trees hang down inside the cave, adding to the Indiana Jones atmosphere created by the tree ferns outside the entrance. When kids reach the surface again at the end of the tube, they’ll definitely have a unique experience to tell their friends.
From the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything—National Parks