Do you want to visit National Parks with toddlers but don’t know where to start or where to go to? In this guide we round up our best tips for visiting national parks with toddlers and rank the best national parks for toddlers based on what there is to do with toddlers in the parks and how easy it is to get around with kids.
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Are National Parks with toddlers a good idea?
National Parks have always been one of our favorite vacations, especially where you can road trip to several parks on one trip, but are they good with toddlers?
In our opinion, yes National Parks are a fantastic toddler friendly vacation. We love them as toddler friendly vacations because:
- they prioritise outdoor time which our littles ones love.
- they aren’t cities where you re stressing over public transit and crowds (though some national parks can get crowded)
- they are, in the cases listed below, close to some really cool towns which offer other toddler friendly attractions
- and they can be done even if you are traveling with toddlers on a budget due to the many camping and budget hotel options that are nearby many national parks.
For these reasons we really don’t think you can beat a national park vacation with family.
Are National Parks safe to visit with toddler?
Now we are often asked are national parks safe to visit with a toddler. I would say yes they are safe but with a few caveats.
Some parks are obviously safer than others. Some risks to consider when traveling to National Parks with toddlers are:
- are there any sheer drops or cliff edges in the park you have chosen for instance the Grand Canyon may be beautiful but there are some more inherent height dangers there than in some of the other parks
- are there hot springs to worry about such as Geysers at Yellowstone National Park or
- is there any wildlife that could be dangerous toddlers such as the bison at Yellowstone National Park, rattlesnakes at Joshua Tree or the alligators in the Everglades
Now I don’t think any of the above are reasons not to visit a specific national park with kids however they are reasons to take extra precautions at certain parks with toddlers and might affect what you add to your packing list. And as with toddler travel anywhere you need to be careful about what your children are doing.
Note: in order to stay safe in any national park it is really important to follow the safety advice of the park rangers, stick to the marked paths and follow all rules of the park.
Visiting National Parks with toddlers tips
So now we know why we think national parks are a great vacation and that they are safe with the right precautions we will turn our attention to giving you our top tips for visiting national parks with toddlers.
When I first started traveling to National Parks I loved the idea of rolling up to a National Park without a booking or specific agenda but letting the journey take us where it may – in fact we booked a last minute Yellowstone trip which I wouldn’t recommend anymore.
It is just not sensible anymore especially when traveling with toddlers. Many of the national parks and state parks have instigated timed tickets to alleviate some of the crowd pressure. And on top of that parks with accommodation within the park itself book up well in advance.
Therefore we recommend booking your park tickets and accommodation as far in advance as possible to get the most toddler friendly options.
Book Accommodation wisely
Days in National Parks can be long for adults but especially so for toddlers. We recommend booking accommodation as close to the park as you can to cut down on drive time.
If there are accommodation options in the park, such as the lodges in Yellowstone National Park, these are a great option as toddlers won’t get bored on journeys getting into the parks.
However if in park accommodation isn’t an option we recommend booking accommodation with a pool. When we booked our accommodation near Arches National Park this was a huge bonus as it meant we could get the toddler out of the heat but still be close enough to the parks to go back in the early evening.
It is also a great way of letting the toddler burn off some energy if your national park itinerary has involved a lot of driving.
Book outside of school vacation
One of the biggest bonuses to traveling with toddlers as opposed to older children is that you aren’t beholden to traveling in school holidays. This means you will get to see the parks when they aren’t as crowded and will also save some money as school vacations tend to be peak season.
Now that you know about how to book your national park vacation we will turn our attention to tips for in the parks.
My first tip is make sure you take plenty of snacks for your toddler. A hangry toddler is not someone you want to be traveling with and national parks aren’t renowned for their snack stops and restaurants.
Be sure to pack plenty of snacks and drinks so that even if your day is long your toddler will be happy.
Now while I would love to think my toddler will sit nicely for the trip staring at the wonders outside the window. But let’s be honest that isn’t realistic especially in parks where there is a lot of driving such as Yellowstone.
To keep everyone happy be sure to have some entertainment for the toddler for in the car. We usually have some car games or crafts with us but we also have the iPad and let the toddler have some screen time on the longer drives.
Pick the right car seat
While on the topic of car journeys I would also recommend checking your toddler’s car seat before you travel. When there are long journeys with things to watch out of the window you will want to make sure your toddler can see them.
Plan your day around your toddlers schedule
If you have something that you are desperate see plan to see it early in the morning and definitely not during your toddler’s usual nap time.
For instance if you want to do a longer hike it is probably worthwhile doing that early in the morning when your toddler won’t be too tired. Or plan the longest journey you have between sights for nap time so you are maximising your whole day.
Pack a Potty
If you toddler has been potty trained before you visit a national park my top tip is to take a potty with you. Although there are restrooms in national parks they can be few and far between and some of them aren’t the most pleasant places. My toddler has refused to use some of the stinkier ones.
Therefore I recommend packing a potty so you aren’t panicking about finding a restroom and you control the conditions a bit more.
Do a practice hike before you
One of our favourite things to do in national parks is taking on toddler on a hike. If you can however don’t let your toddler’s first experience of hiking be in a national park. It is best to get them used to trail heads, hiking boots and build up their hiking stamina if you get chance.
10 Best National Parks for toddlers
So now we have looked at why you should visit national parks with toddlers and our tips for visiting them we will tell you our top 10 best national parks for toddlers based off our personal experience looking in particularly at amenities nearby, things to do in the park that toddlers will enjoy and ease of visiting with littles..
Arches National Park with toddlers
Arches National Park with toddlers is one of our all time favourites. Firstly the park is super accessible and easy to get around as it has a loop road that can be driven in half a day and the viewpoints and trails off it are very toddler friendly.
We also love the nearby town of Moab because it has lots of other toddler friendly attractions such as
- the Mill Canyon Track where toddlers can see actual dinosaur footprints
- Moab Giants – a great place to see replica dinosaurs that kids will love.
And on top of that you have another national park, Canyonlands, and a state park, Dead Horse State Park, that are easy to get to from Arches National Park. Although Canyonlands National Park with kids may not make it into our top ten list for toddlers it is still worth a visit. The only reason it misses out on a spot in our top 10 is because there are limited trailheads to do with toddlers and there are lots of sheer drops.
However we did this with our toddler and had a blast you just need to take some extra precautions.
We also recommend trying to visit this park in the shoulder seasons as Moab in summer can get very hot and you will also save yourself some $ visiting outside of the school holidays.
Badlands National Park with toddlers
Badlands National Park in South Dakota is another unusual park that makes it into our top ten. We love Badlands National Park for kids as there are many easy Badland hikes that can be done with kids (there are also some harder ones for those traveling with older kids), a loop road which is easy to drive and some amazing wildlife that kids will love to see. Our favourites were seeing the Prairie dogs and the bison.
Badlands is also nearby to the quirky town of Wall where you can get food and drinks and some amazing souvenirs.The nearest town however is Rapid City. Rapid City with kids is the perfect vacation destination as not only is it easy to get into the national park from there, but there are lots of hotels with water park access which toddlers will love and has lot of toddler friendly attractions that can be combined with your trip to the National Park such as
- Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse
- Custer State Park – our favorite state park in the US for kids hands down
- Dinosaur Park – historic dinosaur statues
- Story Book Island – a children’s fairytale themed park and
- Animal parks such as Bear Country USA and Reptile World
For more information on visiting Badlands National Park with toddlers click here.
Everglades National Park with toddlers
Everyone knows that Florida with toddlers is a great idea but most people associate Universal, Seaworld and Disney World as the most toddler friendly attractions in toddlers. However the Everglades with toddlers should not be overlooked.
The Everglades are fantastic for toddlers who love nature as you can see alligators, flamingoes and deer to name but a few animals that you might see on your trip there.
One of the best things to do in the Everglades with kids has to be an airboat tour. These tours last around 30 minutes or 1 hour depending on which trip you decide to take. There are also many great trailheads in the Everglades that can be done with kids such as the Anhinga Trail or if you are worried about your little one walking then you could take the tram around the Shark Valley.
IMPORTANT NOTE: given the presence of alligators in the Everglades it is very important to follow all of the safety advice in the park and stick to mark pathways and not to let your children wander off.
For more information on visiting the Everglades with toddlers click here.
Grand Tetons with toddlers
We love the Grand Tetons with toddlers as you can combine this into one national park road trip featuring both this park and Yellowstone.
We love the fact that there are a few great Grand Teton hikes for toddlers including but not limited to
- Lakeshore Trail and
- Lake Creek and Woodland Trail loop.
On top of the hikes here that can be done with toddlers there is also a great scenic drive and lots of wildlife to spot along the way.
We also love the gateway town of Jackson hole, and after Moab it might be the best gateway town for toddlers. Some of the great toddler friendly attractions in Jackson Hole include the Jackson Hole Children’s museum with many exhibits aimed specifically at toddlers, and the Bar T 5 Chuckwagon dinner with toddlers is an absolute must.
For more information on visiting the Grand Tetons National Park with toddlers click here.
Joshua Tree National Park with toddlers
We love visiting Joshua Tree National Park with toddlers. Like many of the other parks on this list Joshua Tree is really close to some amazing gateway towns and is one of the reasons we think Joshua Tree is worth visiting. When we visited Joshua Tree National Park with our toddler we stayed in Palm Springs which has lots of toddler friendly attractions such as the Living Desert Zoo. However the nearby Pioneer town is also well worth a visit with kids.
And the park itself is fantastic with toddlers as it is small and compact with an easy to drive lop road and some toddler friendly trailheads. Now none of the trail heads we went on were stroller accessible and given the nature of the Joshua trees there are prickles and spikes near the trails. However if you stay on the paths this shouldn’t be a problem.
For more information on visiting Joshua National Park with kids check out this post.
Olympic National Park with toddlers
We love Olympic National Park because of the diversity of things the park has on offer. There is everything from mountains to beaches, rainforests to lakes in this park so your toddler is never going to get bored.
Our toddlers are particularly fans of the beach so Olympic has a lot on offer for them. Perhaps the biggest hit with toddlers is the Rialto Beach with its great tide pooling opportunities and mounds of driftwood my kids could spend the whole day here.
And for toddlers who love animals a walk through the rainforest is an absolute must. Just be sure to add bear bells and other safety equipment to your national park packing list if you are deciding on heading out into the wildlife’s territory.
For more information on Olympic National Park with toddlers click here.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is known as one of the best parks to go hiking in, and the good news is that this is possible even if you are visiting with toddlers.
Some of the best toddler friendly hikes in the Rocky Mountain National Park are:
- Alluvial Fan
- Bear Lake Loop and
- the Copeland Falls trailhead.
And if you don’t want to do list of hikes there is also a beautiful scenic drive. The gateway town to the Rocky Mountains National Park is Estes Park which is another great place to visit with toddlers.
For more information on visiting Rocky Mountain National Park with toddlers click here
Great Smoky Mountains National Park with toddlers
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most popular parks in the US and it is easy to see why. With its beautiful views and waterfalls. We recommend not visiting this park in winter however and heading here with toddlers in summer during the warmer temperatures or during fall to see the amazing fall colors.
The easiest way to see Great Smoky Mountains National Park is from the car as there are many great driving loops but there are also some amazing trailheads that can be done easily with toddlers such as the Clingsman Dome which offers the best views in the park.
We also love that this park is located next to one of the coolest towns in the US, Gatlinburg which has lots of toddler friendly attractions such as Ripley’s Aquarium and the Ober amusement park.
For more information on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park here.
Yellowstone National Park with toddlers
Whenever I think about US National Parks the park that springs to mind first is Yellowstone. But is Yellowstone with toddlers a good idea? We think it absolutely is but there are a few things you should know before you go:
- There are lots of hazards such as Geysers, hot springs and wildlife so ensure you keep your toddler close to you at all times so they don’t get hurt.
- There is lots of driving involved in any visit to Yellowstone so be sure to pack some in car entertainment for your toddler.
However toddlers will love watching the wildlife, seeing Old Faithful erupt and playing in the rivers and lake.
Also, there are several gateway towns to get into Yellowstone but our favorite is West Yellowstone. There are lots of great family friendly restaurants in West Yellowstone, lots of great West Yellowstone accommodation options with pools that are great to get your toddler to burn off some energy after the long drives and some other toddler friendly attractions such as the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.
Yellowstone in our opinion should be top of your toddler travel bucket list.
Yosemite National Park with toddlers
Yosemite with toddlers is a fantastic park to visit with toddlers as there is a great mix of toddler friendly sights and activities that will keep every member of the family happy.
A great activity to do with toddlers in Yosemite is to rent bikes with carriages for toddlers and cycles some of the great cycleways. Having lived in Amsterdam with toddlers we know how much kids love being cycled around so this has to be a must do on any visit to Yosemite and there are plenty of bike rental places in the park (though top tip it is worth renting them early in the to avoid disappointment).
However probably the best thing to do in Yosemite with toddlers is to head to Mariposa Grove to see the amazing Sequoia trees. While there are many trees to marvel at here the best thing to do is the California Tree Tunnel where you can actually walk through a tree.
For more information on visiting Yosemite with toddlers check out this post.
Have you been to a National Park with toddlers? What is your favourite and what advice would you give to other people looking to visit a national park with preschoolers? Please let us know in the comments.