Trip-Planning Strategies for the National Parks

A kid-friendly way to experience wilderness is by visiting a national park. Harley and Abby McAllister of Spokane Valley travel extensively to national parks with their four sons, ages four through 15. Last year, they compiled their research and experiences to publish two guidebooks, “Yellowstone National Park with Kids” and the other about Utah’s five national parks. Each includes suggested itineraries, recommended activities, and hiking trail descriptions for creating an epic family vacation. (Their guides are currently available as ebooks from Amazon’s Kindle store, and a new one about Glacier National Park will debut this fall.) “We want our kids and other people’s kids to see the value that exists in the national park system – nowhere else on earth does something like that exist,” says Harley. “If children don’t love it and protect it [in the future], then no one else will,” says Abby.

The McAllisters have learned important planning strategies for visiting any national park. “You want to make your time there efficient. Some of these parks are so big – if you’re not careful you can spend too much time in the car driving,” says Harley.

Choose destinations that offer plenty of hands-on interaction. “Get your kids immersed in nature. They are more interested in being able to see, touch, and feel the outdoors rather than seeing a big vista,” says Harley. Plan excursions that include a stream or lake or wildlife.

Photo courtesy of Harley ad Abby McAllister.
Photo courtesy of Harley and Abby McAllister.

Once you decide which natural attractions to visit, cluster them together on daily itineraries and choose convenient lodging based on what your family will see and do each day. Camping in the national park is the most economical option. To reduce travel stress, the McAllisters recommend reservations for your first night, and then selecting first-come/first-serve campsites later in your trip.

Schedule a kid-friendly pace. Arrive at trailheads or other destinations by 9 am to avoid crowds. “Do less things but do them well. Move at a pace where it allows kids to stop at what interests them and ask questions,” says Harley.

“Our kids’ favorite memories are always the experiences they have, never the scenery by itself. Even our 15-year-old son wants to stop and look into the creek and observe the smooth rocks,” says Abby. “That’s what we’ve found to be important as parents – making sure we have time for that in our agenda.”

As for experiencing the backcountry, they say it “doesn’t always require that you’re that many miles away from the main entrance. We look for trails that have very little elevation gain, and there are a lot of backcountry trails like that,” says Abby.

Photo courtesy of Harley ad Abby McAllister.
Photo courtesy of Harley and Abby McAllister.

In Yellowstone NP, they recommend the Midway Geyser Basin area for backpacking and include a chapter in their guidebook about it. For Glacier NP, they recommend the Many Glacier area, which offers a “less arduous way to get into the backcountry,” says Abby, with a two-part boat tour – two lakes connected by a hike ( The Two Medicine area also has easy-to-access lakes and kid-friendly hikes.

As for the visitor center, they recommend waiting until the end of your trip to visit the exhibits. It’s more interesting for children once they can incorporate their experiential memories and questions and “connect the knowledge.”

Last, keep your specific plans a secret from your children, Harley says, “so they have that sense of anticipation and then surprise and discovery” once your family arrives.

For more information about Harley and Abby McAllister’s guidebooks, visit Planning a national park trip? Admission is free to all national parks August 25-28 this summer.

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