5 Best Adventure Vacations for Families In The USA

by | Apr 2, 2024 | Destinations, Family Adventures, Traveling with Teens, USA, Weekend Trips

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Grand Teton National Park cemented my love affair with craggy mountain peaks, frothy rivers and sleeping under the stars. Growing up in Vermont, I’m no stranger to nature, but it was the staggering size of the nature out west that appealed to me – and ultimately called me to settle out in the Pacific Northwest. 

My own kids have grown up in the PNW and have been immersed in as much nature as they can handle since birth. Whether being carried in a backpack around Seattle’s leafy urban parks, tackling their highest peak in Jasper National Park in Canada, kayaking on Lake Champlain when visiting grandparents in New England or tackling the summit of Mount St. Helens, all three kids have adventure in their blood.  

Our country’s national parks are a great place for adventurous families to enjoy the outdoors together. If you’re just introducing active travel to your brood, or they’re hooked on adrenaline and fresh air already, these precious, protected areas are the ideal playground. To give you just a taste of what’s on offer, we look at national parks that provide some of the best adventure vacations around. We’ll suggest an activity for the youngers and an activity for the olders at each of the parks below, and a taste of what else there is to do there. 

 

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Yosemite National Park 

With the iconic El Capitan and Half Dome dominating its skyline, majestic waterfalls, and ancient sequoia groves, Yosemite National Park is the crown jewel of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains—and easily accessible from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Naturalist John Muir is credited with Yosemite’s continued protection and helped ensure that kids can experience everything from the awe-inspiring Mariposa Grove to the vast Tuolumne Meadows

 

For Little Legs: Feel the Spray of (Many) Waterfalls 

Set up camp in Yosemite Valley (you can tent it or stay in a luxury lodge if that’s more your style) and discover a new waterfall every day. The best family-friendly choices include the 0.5-mile Bridalveil Fall Trail, the 1-mile Lower Yosemite Falls hike and the slightly more challenging, 1.6-mile Mist Trail that leads to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. 

 

Best Adventure Vacations for Family in the USA, family travel, Yosemite National Park

Give your kids a sense of wonder. Photo credit Nathan Dumlao.

 

For Longer Legs: Learn to Use that Smartphone (for Good!) 

The Ansel Adams Gallery runs a cool photography class for older kids in Yosemite Valley. They’ll spend three hours traipsing along mostly flat paths, covering 2 to 3 miles as they learn how to creatively photograph the landscapes and wildlife they come across during the session and later with their family.

 

More Great Adventures

Take a rock climbing lesson from a local adventure outfitter or boulder at Camp 4, ride horseback through giant sequoias (don’t miss the Grizzly Giant, the oldest and largest sequoia in the park), ride bikes along the valley floor.

 

Where to Stay Near Yosemite National Park

We love the Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite. The current owners bought the property in 2001. Sinking millions of dollars into the resort for renovations and upgrades since then, they also recently built 50 stand-alone, two-bedroom cabins called Explorer Cabins, that offer guests a more intimate experience of Yosemite. This area has its own community clubhouse called the Explorer Clubhouse, which has a library, board games, and special events like wine tastings. Cabin guests also have access to all the amenities in the 75-acre resort, like the indoor and outdoor pools, the three hot tubs, and the Kid’s Adventure Club.

 

DON’T MISS! 8 Best Colorado Resorts for Families

 

Acadia National Park 

Nestled along the rugged coast of Maine, Acadia National Park is one of the best places for families of all ages to get outside and play together. With scenic vistas, diverse ecosystems, granite peaks, lush forests, and pristine lakes, it’s everything a national park should be. Explore miles of scenic biking and hiking trails, watch for wildlife, and set out on the water for kayaking and sailing adventures. 

 

For Little Legs: Hike Around Jordan Pond 

Jordan’s Pond Path is a 3.3-mile loop around the scenic pond. It is ideal for younger kids (and parents hiking with a child in a carrier) and a great way to spur a love of nature. The trail is well-maintained and mostly flat, with plenty of benches and picnic areas along the way for snack breaks. Bring a pair of binoculars and try to spot various wildlife, including plenty of birds and some friendly squirrels—keep those snacks out of reach! 

 

For Longer Legs: Bike the Carriage Roads

Acadia and Mount Desert Island are made for biking. Rent bikes at the Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop (or bring your own if you’re on a road trip) and pedal your way along 45 miles of pretty, car-free, century-old carriage roads. Or take a bike tour! There are miles of trails ideal for all skill levels, whether you’re cruising along or mountain biking. 

 

More Great Adventures

Hike Cadillac Mountain, scramble through boulders along the Great Head Trail, catch the big boom at Thunder Hole, go kayaking, navigate the ladders and rungs of the challenging Precipice Trail

 

Pro Tip: Have a couple weeks? Combine Acadia National Park with New Hampshire’s White Mountains for even more outdoor adventures in New England.

 

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First-rate views from Cadillac Mountain. Photo credit Mick Haupt.

 

Where to Stay Near Acadia National Park 

The Salt Cottages are about as adorable as they come. With a great swimming pool, a retro snack bar with fun treats for kids (and adults), a game shed with ping pong, cornhole, bocce ball, and more – this is summer on the coast all wrapped up in a tidy package – did we mention the daily ice cream sundae social and bonfire? 

 

Yellowstone National Park 

As far as an introduction to the western United States goes, Yellowstone National Park makes a remarkable first impression. From spouting geysers—hello, Old Faithful!—to colorful geothermal hot springs and mud pots, it’s a natural wonderland. Did we mention the roaming bison, wolves, grizzlies (from afar!), elk, and moose who live here? Marvel at the geology and explore the trails of America’s first national park, which spans Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. 

 

For Little Legs: Gape at Geysers

Those boiling mud pots are (probably) like nothing your kids have seen before. Flat boardwalks make it easy to get up close to the steaming pots, mesmerizingly colored hot springs and hissing vents. Check out Upper Geyser Basin, Norris Geyser Basin and Midway Geyser Basin, where you’ll find the world’s largest hot spring.  

 

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Show them a watercolor painting come to life! Photo credit James Lee.

 

For Longer Legs: Saddle Up at Tower-Roosevelt Junction 

Nothing says Wild West like horseback riding through the sagebrush. Saddle up for a ride near the park’s Tower-Roosevelt Junction, culminating in a chuckwagon cookout of steak, beans and all the fixings. For more ambitious riders, there are tour operators that offer multi-day horse expeditions through the park. 

 

More Great Adventures

Go hiking to the Yellowstone Lake Overlook (for littles) or up Mt. Washburn (for bigs), go rafting on the Snake River, bike through pronghorn and elk habitat on Old Gardiner Road, canoe or kayak on Lewis Lake.

 

Pro Tip: Consider combining a trip to Yellowstone National Park with time in the Grand Tetons. Start in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and head north through the parks, or fly into Bozeman, Montana, and head south. Whitewater rafting (and calmer float trips), horseback riding, world-class fishing, and hiking are waiting for you. 

 

DON’T MISS! Yosemite With Kids: Nature and Pamper at Tenaya Lodge

 

Where to Stay Near Yellowstone National Park 

If you’re not staying right in the park at one of the national park lodges (if you are, plan to book your accommodations well in advance), Gardiner, Montana, at the northern end of the park, is a great choice. The access road here is open year-round. Family-owned Park Hotel Yellowstone offers comfortable, historical rooms, including a spacious family suite with two queen bedrooms, bathrooms with rock showers, a full kitchen, two sofas, and laundry facilities.

 

Glacier National Park 

Our family is spoilt for choice when it comes to national parks within driving distance (which I define as one that is bound to include at least three meal stops and 18 potty breaks). We had Glacier National Park in our sights as soon as the kids were old enough to hike on their own (although there are plenty of options for younger children, too). With its postcard-perfect mountains, gorgeous alpine meadows, 200 stunning turquoise lakes, unfettered wildlife, and, yes, 25 or so glistening glaciers, it was a no-brainer when seeking a summer vacation destination. There aren’t many roads in the park, leaving it as picturesque and primitive as possible. Check out this itinerary for the best sights when visiting Glacier National Park

 

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Staggering views from the Highline Travel in Glacier National Park. Photo credit Michelle Peters.

 

For Little Legs: See a Glacier from the Lake 

Head to the Rising Sun boat dock on St. Mary Lake, board the historical Little Chief or Joy II, and set off to Baring Falls and the famed Wild Good Island—all the while enjoying 360-degree views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains and getting a peek at Sexton Glacier. 

 

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Taking geography lessons to new heights! Photo credit Michelle Peters.

 

For Longer Legs: Hike Atop the Continental Divide

It was an early morning wakeup, but well worth it, that got our family to the blustery, 6,646-foot Logan Pass before the crowds. Beat the rush to be among the day’s first hikers to tackle the 3.2-mile Hidden Lake Overlook Trail to see Dall sheep and alpine flowers in the meadow. We loved the longer Highline Trail, which took us past the Garden Wall, a bighorn sheep, and a very photogenic marmot above the treeline to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. 

 

Glacier National Park, family travel, best adventure vacations for families in USA

Do marmots say “cheese”? Photo credit Michelle Peters.

 

More Great Adventures

Drive and hike along the epic Going-To-The-Sun Road, go on a boating and hiking excursion on Swiftcurrent and Josephine lakes, raft on the Flathead River, go ziplining.

 

Where to Stay Near Glacier National Park 

We stayed at Timber Wolf Resort outside the park in Hungry Horse, Montana. The cabins here are ideal for those who love to camp but don’t feel like pitching a tent. We opted for a heated Pioneer Cabin with two double bunk beds and a twin. You can bring your own linens/sleeping bags or rent from the resort. Each cabin has access to its own picnic table and fire ring. 

 

Rocky Mountain National Park

Quintessentially adventure-packed, the emblematic Rockies make up one of the most visited national parks in the country. Within the boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park, families will find more than 100 peaks higher than 11,000 feet, the beautiful Estes Valley, and incredible wildlife (including the chance to view elk in rut during the mating season). However you want to access it—by horseback, on foot, or by car along Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved highway in North America—is full of fresh-air family fun. 

 

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Get to know the VIPs of Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo credit Christie Greene.

 

For Little Legs: Become a Junior Ranger

Embrace nature, get rewards … and a badge! Your little explorer can view wildlife, hunt for animal tracks, go on scavenger hunts for flora and fauna, and learn all about what they’re seeing from a National Park Ranger. Stop by the visitor center to pick up an age-appropriate activity book and a cool badge, then hit the trails.

 

Pro Tip: Grab a Junior Ranger passport booklet while you’re there. Your kids can collect stamps at most national parks in the United States.  

 

For Longer Legs: Go Geocaching 

Get adventurous as you search for hidden caches through the mountain towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake. Enter Rocky Mountain National Park and cross over the Continental Divide—you’ll reach an altitude of 12,183 feet! It’s a fun, goal-oriented way to see the park’s various landscapes. Be sure to get your geocaching and national park passports stamped. 

 

More Great Adventures

Hike to the Calypso Cascades, go fishing, paddle a canoe or go stand-up paddleboarding on Grand Lake, walk on the tundra trails, sled in Hidden Valley (the park is open 365 days a year)

 

 

Where to Stay Near Rocky Mountain National Park 

The Landing at Estes Park spoils you for choice with accommodation styles, including villas, cabins, standard hotel rooms, and suites outfitted with handcrafted barn wood and old hickory furnishings. Check out the riverside fire pit and pavilion and do a little on-site fishing.

 

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Whatever floats your boat, just get out there and play as a family together in the wilderness. Photo credit Unsplash.

 

Choose Your Own Adventure

And there’s more! Wiggle your way through slot canyons in Zion National Park or stargaze from your campsite in Grand Canyon National Park. Trek through a rainforest or hike to an ocean beach in North Cascades National Park. Swim in the bracing waters of Lake Tahoe, go whitewater rafting on the Colorado River, or cruise on an airboat through the mangroves in the Florida Keys

Close to home, or across the country, we are lucky to have easy access to these natural playgrounds. Depending on the time of year, you can head north, south, east or west and find an unforgettable experience as your family communes with nature, and has a great time doing it. 

 

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From her home in Seattle, Michelle writes for a variety of internationally based travel companies. When not writing, she’s hiking, skiing, reading, or (in actuality) working her other job as “mom taxi.” Check out her other work at Eagle Eyes Editing.