I was indoctrinated in the National Parks from a young age. Annual family vacations out west to visit family, join in 1840s era rendezvous and visit National Parks were a huge part of my childhood.
When we went on our most recent park family vacation (Grand Canyon in 2009), I doubt my parents expected that 6 years later their son would be on a crazy year-long mission with his own young family (meaning Elizabeth) to visit all 59 National Parks. But life’s fun like that.
Through our National Park family vacays we experienced a lot of what makes a great trip. My family’s older now, but that doesn’t change much about the trips. So when my family joined us for our most recent stop at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, I got the chance to reflect on what made our visit there, and all the ones before it, so great.
1. Road trip – I’m kind of surprised when people ask Elizabeth and I how we are getting to all these parks across the country… driving of course (except the islands on our route)! Driving to National Parks is best for 4 simple reasons: 1) doesn’t break the family budget 2) allows maximum flexibility for side stops and multiple destinations 3) many National Parks are spread out in remote areas only feasible by driving 4) forced family time.
One tip: have a GPS system (not just your phones). Areas around parks often don’t have service and it saves precious battery and data. And probably the biggest thing it saves is fights about directions – a common scourge of any road trip (or at least ours ;)).
Our Shenandoah visit didn’t quite check the road trip box because we weren’t traveling together. Elizabeth and I were driving down the coast from our last park in Acadia and my family was driving to meet us from Louisville. But the night before we had stayed over at a family’s place in DC and my family got a Motel 6 room – two classic road trip lodging options.
2. Snacks and pre-made food – Nothing can derail the family fun like someone getting “hangry.” It’s always a good idea to have a few snack options to satisfy those mid-meal hunger pangs. Or just to veg on. My parents brought our family-favorites, homemade “party mix” and chocolate chip cookies.
We also recommend having a few pre-made meals to enjoy at the campsite. Of course it can be fun to cook at camp, but sometimes cooking becomes a chore and the cook misses out on the fun and relaxation. My mom brought her legendary lasagna and some hearty chili. It was frozen to start, and by mealtime all we had to do was heat it over the fire. I bet we were the only ones in camp having lasagna!
My biggest tip for my peers is really just to go camping with your parents because, as you can tell, mine really made the food thing easy. It certainly beats our normal camp life fare!
3. Activities of all levels – Families can have very different ages, abilities and levels of enthusiasm. It’s super important to have a variety of activities on the docket at all different levels of difficulty. Then you can mix and match, swap in and out, according to the current mood, available time and consensus of the group.
In our days at Shenandoah we did trails anywhere from 1-6 miles. One day we planned out 3 shorter trails. After two two-mile mountain climbs, my sister Tara wasn’t feeling up for the 3-mile waterfall hike (in fairness she had just gotten over the flu and is a huge trooper) so she was able to take a break without missing the whole day. And the morning before when thick fog was blocking any views we delayed our hiking and took in the exhibits and ranger programs at the visitors center.
4. Trail destination – Sometimes I forget that not everyone is as big a fan of hiking as I am. So it always helps to motivate and interest people (especially those little ones) if there’s a “carrot” at he end of the trail. It’s usually more fun to hike with a destination you’re looking forward to.
All our hikes at Shenandoah ended at either an incredible summit vista or a beautiful gushing waterfall (both guaranteed crowd pleasers).
5. Education – I think everyone can and should learn something from the parks, but it’s especially important for families. And there are so many different lessons to be learned throughout the parks: history, Native American culture, geology, conservation, wildlife, etc.
The Byrd Visitors Center in Shenandoah had the best exhibits we’ve encountered yet. It was really cool to view records of how Shenandoah was created from land acquired from mountain farmers, see pictures of Hoovers presidential summer getaway at Rapidan Camp and learn how Shenandoah was the first park project the CCC took on. And my highlight may have been the ranger program where we learned all about the animal that I always say most represents me… the flying squirrel.
So the bottom line is make sure you set aside some time to learn the lessons the park has to offer.
6. Adaptability – Most families I know plan their perfect parks vacation weeks in advance. But it’s inevitable things will not go as planned. When Murphy’s Law reigns, just do your best to go with the flow, avoid getting upset (because bad moods are contagious) and make the best of the situation. Just remember that as long as the family is together, that’s what matters.
Or at least that’s what my mom said after it stormed the whole first night we camped and they woke up with huge puddles in their tent. This was the first time they had used their “modern” tent since our last National Parks family trip to the Grand Canyon in 2009 (my parents usually use their canvas tent for the primitive camping we do during reenactments). So I found out the next morning about their sleepless night (except for my mom who sleeps through anything) and how the tent had no interest in standing up to the huge gusts and steady downpour.
With all their sleeping gear soaked and poor Tara not feeling very well, my parents decided to abandon the campsite and move into the historic Skyland lodge for our second night. And Elizabeth and I were happy to join them and set up our sleeping bags on the floor. It wasn’t the night we planned, but it was the night we needed.
7. Campfire – Last but not least, every family parks outing needs a campfire. There’s nothing like relaxing by the fire after a long hiking day and then getting up with all your clothes smelling like smoke. Make sure not to forget some camp chairs. Plus, those s’mores can’t just cook themselves! The biggest surprise Elizabeth and I had throughout our trip so far is that we had not made one campfire in over 2 months of camping… until Shenandoah. This was the first park where they allowed you to collect and burn dead and downed wood. And my parents came up big with a bundle of newspaper and split kindling. So we made a great campfire our first night to cool our dinner, roast some ‘mallows and just sit back and relax. Perfect.
As my sister Tara and I have gotten older, our National Park family vacations have changed a lot. They don’t have to coax us into hikes anymore. Elizabeth adds to our foursome. But the all the essentials that make them great haven’t changed. And the essential that hasn’t changed is that we’re spending time together enjoying America’s incredible treasures.
What are your essentials for a National Park family vacation? Comment Below!
Also, make sure to check out our Shenandoah video!