Crater Lake National Park

Visit National Parks with Kids for a Learning Experiences

Everyone loves National Parks and for good reason. They offer some of the best outdoor experiences and explorations of historical sites for visitors of all ages. But National Parks and kids are the best combinations for a great outing, and best learning experiences. Some of our best family trips over the years included visits to National Parks all over the country – and beyond.

Over the years I noticed that visits to National Parks were the easiest with our kids, at almost any age. Those were the trips when they forgot to complain, and enjoyed themselves. For years, they were collecting Junior Ranger badges and stamps on their National Park Passports. All while they were learning about nature, history, and conservation, without even trying.

And we didn’t even need to wait for them to get older; we started taking them to visit National Parks from their first days of life. To be fair, they probably didn’t get much out of the experience until they were at least toddlers, but taking them allowed us to enjoy the sites. I think they enjoyed it most during their elementary-school years, though National Park visits didn’t get old even during their teenage years.

We had over twenty years of experience visiting National Parks in Arizona and all over the country with our kids at different ages. During this time I found some of the best ways to get the most out of these trips.

Teach Very Young Children About the Natural World

When they are very young, children learn intuitively, while having fun. National Parks offer opportunities for this intuitive learning in a wide variety of settings. Even toddlers learn about the wildflowers and other plants surrounding the easy trails, as they learn to walk.

For them, the best experiences involve the short interpretive nature trails usually surrounding the Visitor Centers, or camping in a National Park. They learn about plant and animal life while watching their surroundings in these easy-to-walk places in the wild.

Give them the Opportunity to Become Junior Rangers

Our older two kids collected their first two Junior Ranger Badges in Mount Rainier National Park. They were five and three when we first visited this park. Since it was our first time, we visited in June, when most of the kid-friendly trails were still under snow. So we explored Paradise Inn and the Visitor Center.

Watching them run around in the Visitor Center, one of the rangers asked them if they wanted to become Junior Rangers. Of course they did! He gave them each a booklet to work on and told them that after they completed it, they should come back to get their badge.

Paradise Inn - Mt Rainier National Park
Paradise Inn in Mount Rainier National Park

What a great activity it turned out to be! While working on their booklet, we learned about fragile ecosystems, wildflowers, animals that call Mount Rainier home, ancient people who lived there before. We also learned about the glaciers on the mountain and found out that Mount Rainier was an active volcano. The kids were proud to earn their Junior Ranger badges, and they swore to protect the National Park.

Even at that very young age, they took their Junior Ranger duty very seriously. From that day on none of us could set a foot off a trail. My five-year-old son explained how even where we didn’t see vegetation, the alpine environment is filled with tiny plants that are so delicate, we’d kill them if we stepped on them.

On the Trail in Paradise. Mount Rainier
On the Trail in Paradise, at a later date, in August. This was under snow in June, the first time we visited..

They were even more serious about their job as guardians of the forest. No matter where we hiked in the wilderness, they took it upon themselves to pick up any trash they found. Once they turned my backpack into a trash bag on a longer trail, when their pockets were not large enough to hold every piece of man-made garbage they found.

Every National Park has a Junior Ranger program. Over the years, our kids collected badges from almost all the parks we visited while they were young enough to be interested in the program. Ask a ranger in the Visitor Centers. They will be happy to help your children participate.

Supplement Older Children’s Classroom Studies with Lessons Learned in National Parks

By the time they lose interest in the Junior Ranger program, children are old enough to understand the connection between what they learn in school and what they see outside of it. National Parks are some of the best outdoor hands-on classrooms for a wide variety of subjects.

When visiting various National Parks, ask your children how the experiences connect the learning experiences in the park with their classroom studies. Ask them about what they learned in school about things you see in the National Parks. Encourage them to talk about their school studies connecting to what they see or experience on the trip. When returning to school, encourage them to talk about their experiences in the classroom, adding real-life examples to the material their teachers present.

Some of their school subjects lend themselves to easier connection than others, and these connections also depends on the National Parks you take them to. The following are only a few subjects you can supplement with your National Park visits.

Earth Science: Geology

Geology is a branch of Earth Science studying the Earth’s solid material and the processes that create them. In geology they study how landforms are created, and these processes are clearly visible in many National Parks.

Young Volcanoes and Cinder Cones: Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Sunset Crater and its surrounding area is one of the best National Park where they can learn about volcanoes. Filled with hands-on exhibits the kids enjoy, the Visitor Center is a great first stop. After learning about volcanoes and creating their own earthquakes, kids walk on the lava bed, and experience first-hand the aftermath of the eruption about a thousands years after it happened.

A perfect cinder cone, Lenox Crater in the park, near the famous Sunset Crater offers a close-up view of this landform, since you can hike up to the top and look inside its bowl.

Relatively close to our home, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument has always been one of our favorite National Parks. We loved to spend summer weekends here, away from the heat of the desert. We camped on the lava bed, walked the interpretive trail around Sunset Crater, and hiked inside Lenox Crater. The kids always loved it, no matter their ages at the time of our visit.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
View of Sunset Crater from Lenox Crater

Volcanic Lakes: Crater Lake, the Deepest in the US

Volcanoes leave lava trails, they form mountains filled in time with deep green forests, and they also form lakes. When Mt Mazama erupted 7,700 years ago, it formed Crater Lake.

Though we visited in the summer, a lot of the surroundings were under snow. The kids enjoyed playing around the lodge where we spent one night and climbing on snow-hills around the parking lot.

The kids had fun learning about the lake in the Visitor Center when we found out that no streams run into or out of this lake. So where is all the water coming from then; we wondered? It’s seeping from the rocks and the level is kept by the rain, snow and evaporation cycle. With its depth of 1,949 feet, it is the deepest in the US and one of the clearest in the world. Like all lakes formed inside a volcano, it is circular. Wizard Island, fitting its name, sits in the center, in the shape of a perfect cone.

Designated as a National Park in 1902, Crater Lake and the surrounding area is protected from development and so it awaits visitors to enjoy its beauty.

Crater Lake NP
Crater Lake National Park

Hoodoos: Bryce Canyon

Not all spectacular landscapes result from violent eruptions like volcanoes. A trip to Bryce Canyon National Park offers a different lesson in geology. Hiking though hoodoos made kids wonder how they were formed.

Here, the process was reversed. The lake came first, some 30 or 40 million years ago. From inside this ancient lake originated a huge rock formation, called Claron Formation.

The hoodoos we see today, those tall formations, resembling orange totem poles, were carved from this one rock, over millions of years. Rain, snow, the freeze-drying cycle of the water, and wind all contributed to their shapes as we see them today. This process is still ongoing though we don’t notice the differences in one lifetime.

Ranging in height from 5 to 50 feet, hoodoos are spectacular and intriguing enough that the kids have fun not only hiking through but also learning about them.

Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon
Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon

The Layers of the Earth: Grand Canyon National Park

The most spectacular showcase of Earth’s geology is the Grand Canyon. The walls of the best-known Wonder of the World showcase both volcanic activity and erosion, during the time of about two billion years. This spectacle is out in the open, for those who try to understand it. Mind-boggling and kids love it!

Grand Canyon National Park
Layers of the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon National Park is so close to our home, we could visit it every weekend. While we don’t go that often, we still stop there often. The South Rim gets very crowded, but we found that few visitors walk the Rim Trail since they have a free shuttle to take them from one viewpoint to the next. So with the kids, we take the time to walk the Trail of Time.

When our oldest kids were little, it was simply the Rim Trail. But in recent years, the Park System put up stop points throughout the trail, showing different levels of the rocks, and explaining the ages and stages of the formation of the Canyon, helping us all learn about geology. Children especially enjoy it, and it isone of the best hands-on addition to classroom learning.

The oldest rocks displayed, dating about 2,000 million years ago, are volcanic. The kids recognized a lava rock, and they stopped, intrigued. As we read up about it, we found out that erosion only came after volcanic activity in the Canyon’s formation. As we walked the trail, we recognized newer rocks, learned colors and layers, and time-lapse in between them.

They would never learn all this in a classroom, no matter how good their teacher was. But seeing it all out in the open, helps them appreciate the age, and beauty of our planet.

Environmental studies: Ecosystems

Kids learn about ecosystems, all living and non-living things in a specific natural setting. We have National Parks in a few different ecosystems, and visiting them gives the kids the opportunity to deepen their understanding of everything they studied in school about them.

The following are only two examples of ecosystems highlighted in some of the best National Parks in the US.

Deserts: Joshua Tree National Monument

Desert environments are intriguing, not only for kids, but for all of us. Seemingly devoid of life, we wonder how anything or anyone can live there. Yet, if you visit desert environments in different National Parks, you’ll notice subtle differences. Death Valley, for example, is at one of the extremes, with less vegetation, but more spectacular land formations than Saguaro National Park for example.

We live in the Sonoran Desert, so our kids understand this unusual environment. Saguaro and Organ Pipe National Monument both protect large patches of this desert, showcasing the columnar cacti that gave them their names.

But Joshua Tree National Park showcases a different desert environment. The Joshua Tree the park got its name from looks like it can’t decide if it wants to be a tree or a cactus. Or maybe a weird combination of both. Prevalent in the Mojave Desert, it is rare to find it anywhere else.

Visiting Joshua Tree National Monument they learn about this unique plant, a variety of yucca, and the environment it grows in.

Joshua Tree National Monument
Cactus or tree? Joshua Tree – part of the Agave family of desert plants.

Forests: North Cascades National Park

Many National Parks in the US preserve and showcase forest environments, North Cascades National Park being only one of them. This National Park offers the largest areas of pristine forests, showcasing this environment at its best.


Ancient History: Mesa Verde National Park

Many National Parks in the US preserve archaeological sites, ancient monuments, Mesa Verde and Chaco Culture National Historic Parks the two largest ones. Others include Navajo National Monument, Walnut Canyon National Monument, Wupatki, Montezuma Castle, and many more.

On a high plateau in the desert, with views of three states, Mesa Verde National Park was established to “preserve the works of men”. It was the first one designated for this.

Preserving the homes of the Ancestral Puebloan People, the ruins offer a lesson in human history. Yes, our kids have Junior Ranger badges from here, too. While earning them, they learned about an ancient people who not only survived but built a civilization in the desert.

Mesa Verde National Park - Cliff Palace
Mesa Verde National Park – Cliff Palace

People settled here in 550 AD, and at first, they built pit houses, the remnants of which we visit on the top of the mesa. But the most spectacular ruins are the cliff dwellings, built between the 1190 and 1270s. Inside alcoves on the sides of the canyon, these cliff dwellings are the most spectacular features of Mesa Verde.

Our kids’ favorite hike is the ranger-led tour to Balcony House. Climbing up and down long ladders, squeezing through a narrow tunnel between high rocks keeps them from being bored, and the ancient Puebloan structure is fun to explore.

But the best-known and most spectacular cliff dwelling in the park is Cliff Palace, with several kivas and more rooms than any other structure in the park. Kivas are ceremonial centers of these ancient people and climbing into one in Cliff Palace is a great adventure for kids.

Besides earning a Junior Ranger badge and exploring the sites, they can do a scavenger hunt at the Morefield Campground. You don’t have to camp, just you stop there for a short break.

And, if you stay overnight, either at the campground or at the Farview Lodge, try to catch the evening program, ranger talk at the campground’s amphitheater. They last about an hour, are free, informal, and the whole family can learn a lot from them.

Astronomy: Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Known as one of the most important archaeological Park in the Southwest, Chaco Culture National Historic Park is a World Heritage site. Like Mesa Verde, it also preserves ancient structures built thousands of years ago.

But far from towns, in the middle of the Navajo Reservation, it is also one of the dark sky parks in the US, and the only one with its own observatory, making it the perfect place to supplement any astronomy studies from the classroom.

One of our family’s favorite National Parks, we visit Chaco often. When open, we look through a small Observatory by the Visitor Center, with a telescope. We watch the celestial objects and teach our kids about them. I can’t think of a better way to introduce them to astronomy.

Sometimes we camp there, the only way to stay overnight in the Park. Our reason is more than the desire to spend two days in the ruins. We want to experience the night skies here. Far from any origins of light pollution, when the stars come out, we see them like the ancient Chacoans would have.

The Milky Way
The Milky Way is clear where we have no light pollution. (Photo: Pixabay-Creative Commons CCO)

The Park System makes protecting the dark skies a priority by designating 99% of it as a “natural darkness zone”. This is why you won’t find permanent outdoor lightning anywhere within the Park’s boundaries. They don’t do this for us, though when visiting, we enjoy it, but to preserve the nocturnal ecosystem in a place where it is still possible.

National Parks Are the Best Outdoor Classrooms

Over the years, the National Parks proved to be the best classrooms for our kids. We visited many of them, and they learned something each time. Without electronics and television distracting us, (they are not available in the parks), we connect as a family. Though we hike at different levels, we all enjoy it, while breathing fresh air, far from polluting cities.

Young deer in Mount Rainier National Park
Young deer in Mount Rainier National Park

We always see wildlife in the parks we visit. Most of the time it is a deer, squirrel, or other smaller animals, and birds like bluejays, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds. But we encountered a rattlesnake in Organ pipe National Monument and we stayed safe since we understood their behavior. We saw elk a few times at the Grand Canyon, marmots at Mount Rainier and wild horses in Mesa Verde. Once my daughter even noticed pronghorn sheep, two members of an endangered species in Sunset Crater National Park. We stopped to look and she wasn’t mistaken. She knows her animals; she wants to be a wildlife conservationist.

Each year, in mid-April the US celebrates National Park Day. What does this mean? During the week, one day is designated as a free day in every park, and all other days each park offers activities highlighting its best features.

Though most parks get crowded during this time, you can always find a remote one to explore with fewer people. Or visit them early or late in the day, when you’ll be more likely to find solitude even in the most crowded ones.

Then, for future visits, get a National Park Pass. We renew ours every year; I don’t remember not having one. It is one of our best investments to our kids’ education outside the classrooms and to our health.


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