Family Travel to U.S. National Parks

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

A visit to one of the nation's 58 national parks is an iconic American family vacation. It is that one big vacation that leaves an impression for a lifetime. Standing atop the greatness of the Grand Canyon, witnessing the famous geysers and vast wildlife in Yellowstone and playing in one of the hottest places in the world in Death Valley, our national parks offer treasures and memories like no other vacation can.

Compared to many other vacation options, a national park visit also is affordable when you consider:

• There are no admission costs to most of the parks. Your primary costs are travel and lodging.

• ALL rates for food and lodging in parks are regulated so you will not encounter price gouging.

• Most park activities are free.

• Package deals offer the best savings.

AAA suggests saving even more by driving instead of flying. The thousands of requested TripTiks out west last year suggest that many families make it a road-trip vacation.

Though a short distance from the urban areas of Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park seems worlds away. The park is a refuge for native plants and wildlife, and provides routes of discovery for visitors. The winding Cuyahoga River gives way to deep forests, rolling hills, and open farmlands.

Location: Ohio

Distance from Columbus: 121 miles

Things to Do: A ranger-led hike to Ritchie Ledges lets you explore and experience the park's unique geology. Walk or ride the Towpath Trail to follow the historic route of the Ohio & Erie Canal. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (CVSR) operates regular excursions and special excursions from Rockside Station in Independence to Akron Northside Station, and from Canton Lincoln Highway Station to Akron Northside Station. Gorgeous waterfalls such as Blue Hen Falls and the ever popular Brandywine Falls.

Lodging: The only accomodations within the park is the Inn at Brandywine Falls which overlooks Brandywine Falls. It is a six-room bed and breakfast, built in 1848 is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been luxuriously renovated and modernized but keeps its historic Greek Revival appearance and character. It is furnished in Ohio antiques and features quality amenities and gourmet foods. The Inn at Brandywine Falls provides easy access to Brandywine Falls and nearby hiking and biking trails. Other options are the Silver Fern Bed and Breakfast and Stanford House. For more lodging options click here.

Miles of sand beach, bluffs that tower 450' above Lake Michigan, lush forests, clear inland lakes, unique flora and fauna make up the natural world of Sleeping Bear Dunes. High dunes afford spectacular views across the lake. An island lighthouse, US Life-Saving Service stations, coastal villages, and picturesque farmsteads reflect the park's rich maritime, agricultural, and recreational history.

Location: Michigan

Distance from Columbus:445 miles

Things to Do: You will want to start at the Phillip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, MI to get oriented. The Dune Climb offers plenty of pure, wind-blown sand for your climbing pleasure. While the climb can be strenuous, the run back down is a blast! Take a drive on the 7-mile drive Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive loop through the Beech-Maple forest and sand dunes and enjoy spectacular views of Glen Lake and Lake Michigan or take a dune hike along the Cottonwood Trail. You can also stop for a picnic at one of the picnic areas on the drive. Other things to see are the Lighthouse at South Manitou Island, Glen Haven Village and the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum.

Lodging: There are no accomodations within the park's boundaries but there is a large variety of hotels, B&Bs and more at the Sleeping Bear Dunes CVB site.

Mammoth Cave National Park preserves the cave system and a part of the Green River valley and hilly country of south central Kentucky. This is the world's longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles explored. Your visit to Mammoth Cave National Park can include cave tours, surface hikes, canoeing on the Green River, picnicking, horseback riding, bicycling, camping and more.

Location: Kentucky

Distance from Columbus:305 miles

Things to Do: The only way to see the cave is to take one of the tours offered by the National Park Service. The Domes and Dripstones Tour includes a dramatic series of domes and pits, typical large trunk passageways, and a short journey through dripstone formations. The Grand Avenue Tour is best suited for families with older children as it is a physically demanding trip. It will give you an excellent idea of the size and complexity of the Mammoth Cave System. Learn of the cultural and natural history of the cave and how they are interwoven as your journey takes you through some of the most dramatic passages in this "mammoth" cave. Walk through a variety of cave as you encounter gypsum lined passages, narrow canyons, steep underground hills, large rooms and ares with dripstone formations. In the Violet City Lantern Tour

you travel exclusively by lantern light as guides recreate a nostalgic experience of days gone by. A short tour for families with small children is a trip to the famous Frozen Niagara flowstone.

Lodging: The Mammoth Cave Hotel provides comfortable year-round accommodations and convenient access to the Historic Entrance to the world-famous Mammoth Cave and the park Visitor Center. The hotel and its other facilities are operated by Forever Resorts, Inc., a licensed concessioner to the National Park Service. The local area around the park offers hotels, motels, Bed-and-Breakfasts, Cabins, and Campgrounds. For lodging nearby the park, click here for information on accommodations in the Cave City area.

Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America's most visited national park.

Location: Tennessee

Distance from Columbus: 405 miles

Things to Do: Auto Touring: There are 384 miles of road to choose from in the Smokies. There are over 100 major waterfalls in the park and hiking to them can be difficult to easy. A portion of the Appalachian Trail lies within the park. A popular destination for all ages is the lookout tower atop Clingman's Dome.Cades Cove offers a glimpse of pioneer life in Tennessee. Kids can learn how flour was made in the 1800s at Mingus Mill.

Lodging: There are no motels or rental cabins located within the national park other than Le Conte Lodge. The lodge is located on the crest of Mount Le Conte and can only be reached by hiking. Advance reservations are required. Several popular hiking routes lead to the top of Mount Le Conte, including Alum Cave Trail (a 5-mile hike up the mountain), the Boulevard Trail from the Appalachian Trail (8.3 miles), Rainbow Falls Trail (6.5 miles), and Bullhead Trail (6.8 miles). Communities surrounding the national park offer a wide choice of accommodations including hotels, cabins, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds.

At Olympic, forest, coastal, and mountain ecosystems combine to create a spectacular wilderness park. Designated as both a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, the park serves as a living laboratory for scientists and students, as well as an incredible natural playground for visitors. Millions of people visit Olympic each year to experience its beauty, diversity, and many opportunities for adventure, exploration, and recreation. Come explore, whether for a few hours or a lifetime.

Location: Washington state

Distance from Columbus:2,549 miles

Things to Do: From Port Angeles, drive about 30 minutes west to Lake Crescent where you can stroll along the shores of the 12-mile long, glacially-carved lake. On Both Ruby Beach and Rialto Beach, you can walk along a beach amidst drift logs and stones, watch waves crash onto offshore islands, and perhaps spot a bald eagle soaring overhead. Hike among the ancients in the Hoh Rain Forest. You can reach nearly a mile in elevation with a trip to Hurricane Ridge, where you'll find a visitor center and nature trails. Beginning early in the morning will increase your chances of seeing wildlife and help avoid the larger number of visitors later in the day.

Lodging:Log Cabin Resorthas a variety of lodging options, along with a camping area for RVs and tents. A dining room, soda fountain, boat rentals, a grocery and gift shop and is located on the north shore of Lake Crescent, about 20 miles west of Port Angeles. On Lake Crescent's south shore, about 25 miles west of Port Angeles is Lake Crescent Lodge. The lodge has cabins, motel rooms and rooms in the historic lodge building, along with a dining room, lounge and coffee bar, gift shop and boat rentals. Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort offers cabins, hot spring pools, a dining room, poolside deli and a grocery store. An RV park with hookups is also available. The resort is located 40 miles west of Port Angeles. On the park's Pacific Coast, the Kalaloch Lodge has cabins, motel and lodge rooms, along with a dining room and grocery store. This lodge is about 90 miles southwest of Port Angeles, on U.S. 101.

Padre Island National Seashore separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, one of a few hypersaline lagoons in the world. The park protects 70 miles of coastline, dunes, prairies, and wind tidal flats teeming with life. It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp's ridley sea turtle and a haven for 380 bird species. It also has a rich history, including the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554.

Location: Texas

Distance from Columbus:1,405 miles

Things to Do: From the beach to the bay, Padre Island National Seashore offers countless opportunities to discover and enjoy the amazing recreation and resources of the park. Take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico and build a sand castle. Drive down the beach until civilization fades away and camp under a dazzling blanket of stars. Fish for red drum and black tipped shark. Watch a squadron of pelicans glide by, or watch newborn sea turtles crawl to the sea. Walk through vanishing coastal prairies to a historic cowboy camp. Take a boat or kayak out for an adventure in the Laguna Madre, or try your hand at windsurfing at Bird Island Basin, one of the top destinations in the U.S. for the sport.

Lodging: Closest lodging is in nearby Corpus Christi.

Rocky Mountain National Park's 415 square miles encompass and protect spectacular mountain environments. Enjoy Trail Ridge Road – which crests over 12,000 feet including many overlooks to experience the subalpine and alpine worlds – along with over 300 miles of hiking trails, wildflowers, wildlife, starry nights, and fun times.

Location: Colorado

Distance from Columbus:1,332 miles

Things to Do: Rocky Mountain National Park has 355 miles of hiking trails. They range from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs. If you are new to the park consult with rangers at the visitor centers and backcountry office. They can provide advice about trails which are appropriate to different fitness and experience levels. Be sure to take a scenic drive during your visit. For spectacular high mountain scenery, Trail Ridge Road is hard to beat. Scenic overlooks abound and the alpine tundra will take your breath away. Cresting just over 12,000 feet, it is the highest through paved highway in the nation, and crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass.

Lodging: The park has five established campgrounds, four of which are open to tent or vehicle camping (tent trailers, pickup campers, trailers, and motorhomes) and one which can only be used by tent campers. Reservations are strongly suggested during the busy summer and fall months. here are no overnight accommodations in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are many lodging options in the nearby communities of Estes Park and Grand Lake.

Not just a great valley, but a shrine to human foresight, the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, the persistence of life, and the tranquility of the High Sierra. First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more.

Location: California

Distance from Columbus:2,277 miles

Things to Do: Yosemite Valley is world famous for its impressive waterfalls, meadows, cliffs, and unusual rock formations. Yosemite Valley is accessible by car all year. The Mariposa Grove is the largest stand of giant sequoias (also known as Sierra redwoods or big trees) in Yosemite. The road to the Mariposa Grove is not plowed in winter and is often closed to cars (but not to hikers or skiers) from sometime in November through April. Yosemite is also home to countless waterfalls with the most famous being Yosemite Falls.

Lodging:Lodging options in Yosemite National Park range from simple tent cabins at the High Sierra Camps to deluxe rooms at The Ahwahnee. Visit the Delaware North at Yosemite website for full descriptions, prices, and online reservations. Reservations are available 366 days in advance and are strongly recommended, especially from spring through fall and during holidays. A variety of lodging options is available in the gateway communities surrounding, and on private land within, Yosemite. In these areas, options range from luxurious to affordable, including hotels and motels, bed & breakfasts, vacation rentals, hostels, and tent cabins.

Besides the breathtaking views, the Grand Canyon National Park is giving families new reasons to visit.

Location: Arizona

Distance from Columbus: 1,865 miles

Things to Do: The newest feature to the park is the Canyon Vistas Mule Ride where visitors ride mules along the East Rim. Wranglers stop along the way giving you the best views in the house. While there is no age limit for this trip, riders must be at least 4 feet 7 inches tall. If riding on the rim is not your style, there are plenty of hiking trails and historic buildings to explore on your own.

Lodging: The Grand Canyon features seven very different and unique options for lodging from rustic to elegant. There are lodge rooms available starting at $83 per night to suites in the new El Tovar Hotel for $464, and every price point in between. While Xanterra lodges renovate the historic El Tovar, you can get a 30 percent room discount through March.

There are additional revolving discounts throughout the year and guests under 16 stay free with a paying adult. Your best savings will be through packages like Learning & Lodging which combine your overnight stay with interactive excursions during the day.

As the world's first national park established in 1872, Yellowstone is a destination every family should explore at least once. If you are driving, you can plan a stop at Mount Rushmore and the town of Cody along the way.

Location: Wyoming

Distance from Columbus: 1,770 miles

Things to Do:Recreation - Horseback rides, lake cruises, wildlife tours, bike rentals, sunset tours, stagecoach rides and hiking; Wildlife - The park is home to grizzly bears, bison, wolves and elk; Nature - Observe the world's largest preservation of geysers

Lodging: There are nine lodges in the park with a range of pricing to fit almost any budget. There are multi-night vacation packages available including Yellowstone for Families (see below), which is a great deal if you have kids between 8 and 12 years old.

For the truly adventurous, Far and Away Adventures offers "Two Nights on Yellowstone Lake." You are dropped off by boat on the shores of a remote part of the park where guides are waiting to set up your tents and make dinner. You play during the day in the great outdoors and relax at night in comfortable camping accommodations.

Additional packages and price points are available that offer lodging, excursions and extras like family cookouts.

For those who want to experience a little bit of the Wild, Wild West, Death Valley National Park is a memorable experience. You experience the heart of the American Gold Rush and one of the hottest places on the earth. Located less than a three-hour drive from the Las Vegas airport, you can arrive late morning from Columbus and still enjoy activities on your first day of vacation.

Location: California & Nevada

Distance from Columbus: 2,133 miles

Things to Do: Become a Junior Ranger – A FREE program for kids who want to take an active role in preserving our natural resources; Recreation – Biking, swimming in spring-fed pools, horseback riding, hiking, exploring canyons, moonlight walks; Scotty's Castle – an odd attraction in the desert that shows the stories of gold miners and Wild West swindlers; Jeep tour through Titus Canyon – visit a canyon ghost town where abandoned buildings and a train station still stand

Lodging: There are several family-focused lodging options and nine campgrounds within the park. The Ranch at Furnace Creek Resort is western-themed with family amenities including a playground. Panamint Springs Resort offers rooms (two beds starting at $114 per night in March), cottages (starting at $169 per night in March) and pet-friendly accommodations. Stovepipe Wells is a hotel with an American pioneer theme. Standard rooms start at $126 per night.