It’s FanSided Entertainment’s Back to School Week, so let’s take a look at some more weekend family trips that could score your kids some extra credit at school: National Parks.
National Parks are popular family trip destinations, and that means they are often crowded. Here are some recommendations for spectacular but less crowded national parks (and one national monument). Bear in mind that destinations in the northern latitudes are best visited in late spring through early autumn unless your family is particularly adventurous and adapted to winter climates.
As you might expect for Minnesota’s only national park, Voyageurs is all about lakes. More than one-third of the park is water, and features more than 500 islands and 655 miles of wild, untouched shoreline. If a park whose only lodging is a hotel reachable exclusively by boat appeals to your family’s sense of adventure, then Voyageurs will reward you with gorgeous scenery and absolute solitude. Reserve one of the park’s 270 camping sites for an unforgettable weekend.
An underground national park? That ought to get the kids excited about a trip. Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world, and you can enjoy it with an unforgettable ranger-led cave tour. There’s plenty to do on the surface, as well, including camping, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, bicycling, and ranger-led programs.
Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president and the man known as “the conservation president” for his prominent role in expanding the national park system, enjoyed unforgettable adventures as a young man on the land here in North Dakota, and your family can share in the wonder he felt. Bison graze throughout the park, and the prairie dog villages are epic. For big horizons and lots of critter-viewing, large and small, head for this uncrowded park.
Whereas many national parks showcase natural wonders, the attraction at Mesa Verde is the extensive and well-preserved ruins of the native Americans who lived in this southwestern Colorado canyon 1400 years ago. Your kids will love exploring the cliff dwellings, built into natural recesses in the canyon walls, and the underground kivas, where the Ancestral Pueblo are believed to have held sacred ceremonies. Tours of the cliff dwellings are offered May 2 to October 23. Self-guided tours with views of the dwellings and a downloadable audio tour that you can listen to while driving through the park are available year-round. Consider camping at the park, and you’ll be rewarded with inspiring views of the night skies.
If a remote and supremely uncrowded destination is what you seek, Grand Staircase-Escalante is the place for you. The national monument is among the last land in the United States to have been mapped, and much of it has still only been seen by the teams who mapped it. The jaw-dropping scenery of monoliths, slot canyons, natural bridges, and arches can be enjoyed in a drive-through visit, as long as you build in plenty of time to pull off at all of the scenic viewpoints for photos, a picnic, and some hiking. Start your exploration at any of the four visitor centers, located in Cannonville, Big Water, Escalante, and Kanab.
The Southwest is a treasure trove of uncrowded national parks (and also quite a few colossally crowded national parks), and Petrified Forest is a gem among them. And it comes with a bonus: the Petrified Forest NP adjoins the stunning Painted Desert, so you see and explore both attractions on the main road. The National Park Service website suggests three ways to enjoy the park: a 1-hour drive-through, a 2- to 3-hour drive-through with stops at the overlook, the paleo lab, and for a couple of hikes among the petrified logs, and a half-day visit that includes all of the previous, along with a ranger-led hike or backcountry exploring on your own. Other activities include backpacking, bicycling, and even geocaching, which is a great way to engage kids with the outdoors.
A small part of the largest desert in the United States, Great Basin NP is Nevada’s only national park. Don’t let the fact that it’s a desert fool you. The park, straddling the Utah/Nevada border, offers a family-pleasing range of sights and activities, including a guided tour of Lehman Caves, where you can walk through 1-1/2 miles of stalactites, stalagmites, and other interesting rock formations, and an early morning (to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms) round-trip drive on the paved scenic road up the face of 13,064-foot Wheeler Peak. Along the way, you can marvel at the stands of twisted and wind-battered bristlecone pine trees, some as old as 3,000 years.
If you close your eyes and imagine a national park, the odds are good that what you see in your mind’s eye closely resembles North Cascades. The park is home to more than 300 glaciers, stunningly blue glacier-fed alpine lakes, rugged mountain peaks covered in conifers, a population of black bears, gray wolves, eagles, osprey, and hundreds of miles of trails and scenic drives. Take a drive north of Seattle and discover what many refer to as the American Alps.