It’s no surprise that five of the top six most visited U.S. national parks are in the western half of the United States. (Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee is the outlier.)
Indeed, these bucket-list destinations are popular for a reason: They offer ridiculously amazing sightseeing, hiking, and wildlife-viewing, their natural landmarks are mind-blowing (Yellowstone geysers, anyone?), and they offer oodles to do for all ages, including children — from Junior Ranger programs to mellow hiking trails to learning how to identify bear poop.
So any roundup of the best national parks out West for RVing families would be lacking without listing the country’s most popular:
- Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
- Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
- Zion National Park, UT
- Yosemite National Park, CA
- Yellowstone National Park, WY
For sure, I’d plan an entire RV road trip around a visit to any one of these national treasures — with or without kids!
But you might also consider some of the lesser traveled, but no less amazing, national parks out West. These are four parks I’ve visited with my own children, and I can tell you firsthand, they’re kid-tested and parent-approved:
Arches National Park, UT
Home to more than 2,000 natural stone arches, this is one of Utah’s “Mighty 5” parks. It’s a favorite among RVing families not only because it’s fun to play “spot the arches and funky rock formations” (“Hey kids, who can be the first to see Balanced Rock?”), but because there are a handful of easy-to-moderate hikes with jaw-dropping views that even preschoolers can do.
Consider the 2-mile round trip to Landscape Arch, a narrow ribbon of stone as long as a football field stretching above the ground. The 3-mile round trip to Delicate Arch is a bit more difficult, but there’s plenty to distract school-age kids along the way, from skittish, colorful lizards, to blooming wildflowers, to teetering cairns (piled rocks to mark the path). For teens, the 8-mile Primitive Trail to Devil’s Garden includes scrambling on boulders and maneuvering along narrow ledges.
Another plus for visiting families: Arches National Park is located in Moab, Utah, a red-rock outdoor playground with opportunities for family-friendly mountain biking, horseback riding, and river rafting. It’s fun to walk through downtown to check out the various souvenir shops, and there are plenty of reasonably priced restaurants — from brewpubs to Italian bistros — if you’re looking for a break from cooking.
Pro tip: This desert locale gets sizzling hot in the summer months, so if you visit between mid-June and Labor Day, plan to do the bulk of your outdoor activities in the early morning.
Nearby Harvest Host: At time of this writing, the closest Host, Canyon Country Discovery Center, is 47 miles south on Highway 191 in Monticello. But if you’re coming from the East, chances are, you’re passing through Palisade, Colorado, which is known for its wineries, including Host Sauvage Spectrum.
Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Less than an hour’s drive east of Palm Springs in Southern California, Joshua Tree is a mecca for rock climbers and boulderers who appreciate the opportunities to tackle the numerous rock piles, slabs of stone, and pillars that dot the desert landscape here. But your kids will likely get a kick out of the oddly shaped trees — so named after the Biblical Joshua raising his hands in prayer, and they look like something out of a Dr. Seuss picture book!
The whole family will have the opportunity to scramble all over rocks on hikes like the 49 Palms Oasis Trail, which I did with my kiddos when they were about 8 and 10. The 3-mile roundtrip trek is deemed moderately strenuous, with plenty of ups and downs. It’s an out-and-back trail to a really cool (literally and figuratively) oasis of towering fan palms.
If you happen to be overnighting at one of Joshua Tree’s campgrounds, and you’re in the park after dark, note that this is a fabulous place for stargazing, with its lack of area light pollution.
Pro tip: Get advice from the friendly rangers at one of the visitor centers before beginning any hike (some are not recommended in the heat of the day). And don’t forget to bring along plenty of water and sunscreen!
Nearby Harvest Hosts: The winery regions of Temecula and Ramona, California, are southwest of Joshua Tree and they’re home to a number of Hosts.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO
You’ll find the tallest sand dunes in North America at Great Sand Dunes National Park, and yes, you can climb up and run, slip, and slide down them! In fact, if you or your kids are interested in “sand sledding” or “sand boarding,” you’ll want to rent your gear before you arrive at the park. But from personal experience, trudging up and rolling down can be just as fun.
If you visit between mid-May and mid-June, chances are Medano Creek at the base of the dunes will be flowing heavily, so much so that kiddos can float along this seasonal stream and “ride the waves” (okay small ones) on inflatable rafts or tubes. Pack your sand and water toys!
Pro tip: Cell service is limited, and there’s no public Wi-Fi at this remote location, so don’t plan on Instagramming any live stories while you’re there.
Nearby Harvest Hosts: At the time of this writing, the Colorado Farm Brewery and Cattails Golf Club are two Hosts in Alamosa, the closest city to Great Sand Dunes.
Grand Teton National Park, WY
If you’re making your way to Yellowstone National Park, you absolutely can’t miss the Grand Tetons, just a few miles south. This park is not only much smaller than Yellowstone, but it’s typically less crowded (especially in non-summer months), so your kids might appreciate a more mellow day (or two) of exploring here beneath soaring, jagged, snow-capped mountains.
Keep your eyes peeled for bears, moose, deer, elk, bald eagles, and great blue heron, among many other different types of wildlife that live here. Plenty of easy hiking trails that are ideal for young children skirt the lakes in the park. If you and your family want to get on the water, you can take a scenic cruise or rent a canoe or kayak at Jenny Lake.
Pro tip: A handful of U.S. national parks have their own apps, including Grand Teton. Consider downloading it for info at your fingertips as you explore.
Nearby Harvest Host: At the time of this writing, Jackson Hole Still Works, a craft distillery in Jackson, welcomes Harvest Host members. Find more RV camping in Wyoming here.
What’s your favorite national park out West? Let us know in the comments below!
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