The Best Ways To Discover Your Local Parks
This July, we are celebrating Park and Recreation Month and who better to turn to for advice than Preethi Harbuck, the blogger behind Local Passport Family and a mother of 5 who spends her time globetrotting through parks with her family? Preethi has all the expert advice on finding and navigating parks big and small with your little ones. So tap into the spirit of Trailblazers like Jane Goodall, Juliette Gordon Low, or Junko Tabei and find your own family adventure this summer!
I visited my first national park when I was 17 years old. Growing up in Alabama, where there weren't any big-name parks, I had never even heard of the concept until my family moved to Utah when I was 16. We visited a couple of the major ones Yellowstone and Saguaro each for a few hours. I still had no idea of the extent of fun things to do in a park!
Since then, our family has visited 45 national parks and dozens of other National Park Service sites, as well as many state and local parks. The outdoors have become a refuge and a joy and a place of connection and exploration. They've given us freedom and solitude and also friendship. They've been a gift.
Here are some tips on navigating national, state, and local parks with kids what to do, where to go, and how long to spend if you're also just getting started in your outdoor recreation journey!
Why Visit National Parks with Kids
Especially during this time when many of us are focusing on safe outdoor activities, national parks provide a vast network of safe and protected spaces for families to recreate. It's important to remember that national parks were created to protect lands, to be sure, but they were also created with the purpose of being used by all of us! They were never intended to sit around untouched.
Indigenous communities provide wonderful examples of conservation coupled with stewardship and sustainable use. I personally look to their friendship with the land, and try to enjoy it with less impact than they ever did since the land belongs to them, not me.
With that, national parks provide an incredible opportunity for families to explore and connect in the outdoors. I often find that limiting distractions, responsibilities, and, yes, even cell phone service, provides fertile ground for conversations and camaraderie in our own little brood and I am always thankful we make time for the outdoors for our souls.
Finding Beautiful Parks Near Me
While National Parks are incredible treasures that provide wonderful opportunities for family recreation, there are a whole host of other public outdoor spaces where families can explore outdoors, as well. There's a wealth of information if we know where to look!
Fun Things To Do At Parks
There are amazing recreational opportunities in public parks. When visiting National Parks, I always like checking out the NPS site for the park to get an idea of things to do in a park. This could range from hiking to camping to boating to horseback riding.
Once we arrive at a park, we always start by visiting the Visitors' Center. The rangers have a wealth of information on the best things to do and on planning out your visit with however much time you have available. It's also a perfect opportunity to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet a (usually free) activity booklet for kids to learn about the park, after which they can earn a badge for that particular park. It's such a fun way to learn more about the ecology, indigenous history, natural landmarks, animals, and more.
Here are a number of other ideas for what to do in a national park with kids.
State and local parks often have a huge diversity of family activities, as well. For instance, looking up San Francisco's Parks & Rec department shows that they have 220 city parks with activities ranging from farms to swimming pools to trails. You can even find which ones are pet-friendly!
Which Parks to Visit with Kids: Beautiful Parks Near Me
One of the biggest reasons my family didn't visit many public outdoor spaces growing up was because we had no idea what was available near us! While we'd heard of the big names, they were too far away to be a reasonable trip for us, and we didn't know of anything closer.
It turns out that there are NPS sites spread all across the US! Even if there isn't a full-fledged National Park within driving distance, you almost certainly have another NPS site near you, whether a National Monument, a National Wildlife Refuge, National Lakeshore, or more. While there are only 62 national parks, there are 423 federally protected lands available for visit. The smaller sites can be really incredible because they are often uncrowded and still amazing!
If you're looking for one near you, nps.gov/findapark is the best place to start. You can search by name or location to find beautiful parks near you or ones that are further afield, and that have suitable activities for your family's interest and ability.
That said, pretty much every single NPS site will have family-friendly activities available and are welcoming to kids. It's a wonderful opportunity to branch out beyond your typical activities to discover something a bit new!
Keep in mind that many National Parks do have an entry fee. You can either pay the individual fee or if you're going to visit several parks, it may make sense to get an annual national parks pass. There's a wonderful program where any 4th grader and their families get a free annual pass here are details on how to get it!
As I'm searching, I also like to do a web search for outdoor family activities near me to come up with other ideas. There are always so many outside activities for kids near me that it's often hard to choose!
Finding Local Outdoor Treasures
Even beyond federally protected spaces, there are many that might be close by that are managed by the state and county. County parks, like these in San Mateo County, often have a variety of features such as playgrounds, water play areas, hiking trails, nature preserves, and more. They often have the advantage of having more availability for specific activities (such as camping) than bigger names, as well. County parks also often host events for children and youth, such as summer camps and CPR certifications, and may have nature centers or museums for more hands-on activities.
State parks are also incredible and often as beautiful as national parks. Some of my favorites in our home state include Big Basin for enormous redwood trees, and Point Lobos, with its stunning coastal cliffs. State websites have great features to find parks near you (like this page to find parks in California). And with fewer organized activities than county parks, state parks are a great way for families to explore nature on their own time and schedule. It's wonderful to have an opportunity to listen to different bird and insect noises, or to go on a scavenger hunt for different shapes of leaves.
What Age to Visit Parks
The great thing about visiting parks is that there's truly something for any age! There is no age that is too old or too young. Parks will often have accessible trails, which are perfect for both wheelchairs and strollers if you have a kiddo who likes to ride. Or if you're visiting a park with a baby or a toddler, consider strapping them in a baby carrier or baby hiking backpack to go for a stroll.
Preschoolers and older kids will find plenty to do, as well. Younger kids will love finding sticks and rocks, especially if there's a body of water involved. Older ones will do great on longer trails, and if they're anything like my kids, will especially love any trail that involves some rock scrambling or trees to climb. Either way, most parks will have an abundance of outside activities for kids that are great for a variety of ages.
Of course, it's important to keep a few things in mind when visiting national, state, and county parks to keep them safe and available for use for years to come. Here are a few tips:
Remember you're a visitor on the land. Indigenous communities lived on, sustained, and lived in harmony with these lands long before most of us had any idea they existed. They should still have primary rights to them, including for usage. This is important to consider, especially as we work to reinstate sustainable use instead of solely protecting sites without usage, which is often more damaging to the ecosystems. (For instance, proper planned fire usage to prevent bigger wildfires in dry areas like California a method long used by indigenous communities and neglected for a time by white colonists to the detriment of the overall environment.)
Always do your best to minimize your personal impact. That means doing things like never littering and picking up other trash you see, never approaching wildlife, always using proper food storage to not attract animals, and staying on established trails or approved backcountry areas. If you're unsure, the rangers are always willing and excited to help with any questions you may have.
Everyone connects to the land in their own way, including children. It's wonderful to give them a chance to explore how they do! This also means that sometimes our family must compromise on which activities to do. While I may prefer a longer hike, my kids may prefer spending time climbing rocks. So we build in a little bit of both to help us all feel connected and happy with our outdoors experience.
Enjoying Outdoor Family Activities Near Me
As our family has prioritized getting outside and enjoying nature together, we've found connection and courage and fun. Sure, we still have arguments and frustrations and we've forgotten a diaper or wipes a time or two. But we find that as we actually engage in those outside activities for kids, the grumpy attitudes usually dissipate and we're able to chat and connect. The outdoors are restorative for us, and I hope this helps them become that way for you, too.
About The Author
Preethi is a mom of 5 who writes about family travel and outdoor recreation over at Local Passport Family. She focuses on helping families explore, connect, and recreate with a social justice lens. She provides travel tips, ideas for exploration, and opportunities for education, both local and global. You can follow along with her over on Instagram and Facebook.