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Sunday 28 April 2024

Our Favorite National Parks

This past week has been National Parks Week here in the US, so I figured it was time I updated my post sharing all of the National Parks sites that we have visited over our thirteen years living in America. 

Have you visited any National Parks? I'd love to hear which one is your favorite.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Yellowstone, Wyoming
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Cape Cod National Sea Shore, Massachusetts
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
Dinosaur National Monument, Utah
Zion National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, UT
Muir Woods, California
Boston National Historical Park, Massachusetts
Grand Canyon, Arizona

As there are many different types of national parks locations around the country, I've sorted this post by categories. You'll find the following categories:
  • National Parks
  • National Historical Parks
  • National Historic Sites
  • National Monuments
  • National Preserves
  • National Memorials
  • National Recreation Areas
  • National Seashores
I've also included an extra special park favorite at the very end of this post so make sure to read all the way through!

Let's take a look...

National Parks

Alcatraz Island, CA
Did you know that Alcatraz Island is a National Park? It is! We've visited Alcatraz twice and it's been a hit with both the kids and the adults each time. Technically, Alcatraz is free to visit, but there's only one company allowed to dock their boats there, and the ferry trip, of course, is not free. It also books up rather quickly so it's always good to book as far in advance as possible. The self guided tour is incredibly interesting and takes in many parts of the prison and the island. Even if you're not interested in history, Alcatraz is a wonderful day out with stunning views over the Bay. The ferry ride there alone is worth it.

Arches National Park, UT
All those red rocks! Aren't they stunning? Arches National Park is filled with the most amazing red rock structures, carved by millions of years of wind and water erosion. As the name suggests, you can see quite a few arch shaped rock formations here, the most famous being Delicate Arch. It was incredibly hot when we visited and even though we waited until about 6pm to start our drive through the park, it was still over 105F and too hot to hike. I would definitely love to go back at a cooler time of year, and also see nearby Canyonlands National Park too.

Grand Canyon, AZ
We've visited the Grand Canyon twice over the years. The first time was back in 2005, before the kids were born, when Kim and I visited the US on vacation from Sydney. On that trip we visited both the north and south rims of the canyon. They're quite different to each other, with the south rim being the dry, desert-like scenery that we tend to picture when thinking of the Grand Canyon, and the north rim being alpine and much greener. There was a distinct temperature difference too. In fact, the north rim is only open to visitors between May and October most years due to high snow fall. We visited the week before it closed for the season. Our second visit to the Grand Canyon was over Spring Break a few years back. We only visited the south rim on this trip, and as the kids were quite a bit younger, we didn't hike down into the canyon as far as we did on our first trip.

Grand Canyon, Arizona

Great Sand Dunes, CO
Located about 4 hours south of Denver, Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the tallest sand dunes in the country. Not only that, but they're giant sand dunes set against a backdrop of snowy mountains. Definitely not something you see everyday. If you visit during late Spring you might be lucky enough to experience the creek at the base of the sand dunes flowing. We were lucky enough to see it, but unfortunately we were also met with below freezing temperatures and merciless wind, so our visit was fairly brief. If you do get good weather for your visit, the sand dunes are a great spot for hiking, sand boarding and just general sand dune fun. The park is open 24 hours which means it's a great spot for photographers to capture starry skies, sunrises and sunsets.

Indiana Dunes, IN
More sand dunes! This time they're in a more expected place - along the edge of a large body of water. Located on the southern edge of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes is just a short drive from Chicago. We stopped by for a few hours on our drive from Chicago to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The park is great for hiking, bird watching, beach fun, and cooling off in the water. Well, if you visit on a nice day, that is. It was windy when we visited which meant there were some pretty big waves and the life guards were not allowing anyone into the water.

Joshua Tree, CA
We visited Joshua Tree over Winter Break back in 2014. I had been super excited about visiting Joshua Tree, but one thing I didn't take into consideration was just how cold it would be there. In fact, it snowed during our visit! Can you believe that? Because I wasn't expecting it to be so cold, none of us were dressed for the weather (I only had sandals and Kim didn't have anything long sleeved). This meant that for much of our visit to Joshua Tree we were in the car. I would've loved to have gone hiking here, but it was simply far too cold. Driving through the park was still a highlight of our trip though. We saw some stunning sights, including giant joshua trees, towering boulders and spiky cholla cacti, and the kids were able to take part in the junior ranger program and earn new badges for their collections.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Pinnacles, CA
This National Park is a fairly short drive south of San Francisco, but unlike closer parks, it gets far fewer visitors. I really don't know why though, because the landscape here is stunning. Giant rocks rise from the earth creating walkable caves underneath. Parts of the park are shady, green and filled with moss covered rocks. Others face full sun and feel dry and arid. Then there are the caves. An afternoon hike here will leave you feeling like you visited several different parks. Make sure to check for closures before visiting as the caves are often closed to protect resident bat colonies.

Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Rocky Mountain National Park is a must visit if you're in Colorado. We visited a few years back when we had friends visiting from New York and it was such a lovely day. The cool mountain air was just what we needed in the hot Colorado Summer. We spent our time hiking around Bear Lake and driving the scenic road to the Alpine Visitor Center. We spotted moose, mule deer, chipmunks, elk and even a marmot who posed nicely for photos on a rock!

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Saguaro National Park, AZ
We visited Saguaro National Park on a Spring Break trip to Arizona a few years back. With towering saguaro cacti, scrubby brush, prickly pear set against a back drop of mountains I felt like we were transported to another world. I honestly had no idea just how tall saguaro cacti can grow until we visited. Check out that photo at the top of this post for scale against Lola and Mathilde! As well as the prickly plant life the park is home to must see petroglyphs. 
Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Yellowstone, WY
I think that Yellowstone has to be one of the most spectacular National Parks we've ever visited, and so very different from anywhere else we've been around the world. Most people think of Old Faithful when you mention Yellowstone, but there's so much more to see here than just the famous geyser. In fact, in the area that Old Faithful is located there are dozens of smaller geysers and hot springs that are much more impressive. We spent two days in Yellowstone visiting as much of the park as we could. Mammoth Hot Springs and West Thumb were my two favorite areas and so very different from each other. We saw geysers, hot springs, mud volcanoes, travertine terraces, underwater geysers, waterfalls, canyons, and a lot of wildlife including bison and elk. 

Yellowstone, Wyoming

Zion National Park, UT
Zion National Park is probably my favorite out of all the National Parks we've visited so far. Or at least, it's home to the most stunning scenery. Seriously, you won't find many places with more breathtaking scenery than what you'll see at Zion. The park itself is huge and really warrants at least a two day stay, however we only had one day here before heading on to the Grand Canyon. As the kids were still quite young (Mathilde was in a baby carrier much of the time) we stuck to fairly easy hiking trails. While we missed some of the parks most well known sights, including The Narrows, what we did see was simply beautiful. We'll definitely be back!

National Historical Parks

Boston National Historical Park, MA
Did you know that there is a National Park right in the middle of Boston? There is, and it makes for a wonderful adventure, especially with kids. The Boston National Historical Park is spread over many famous Boston landmarks connected by the Freedom Trail. We spread our journey along the Freedom Trail over two days, but you can easily do it in one. Along the trail we found historical graveyards with graves from the 17th century (I always love trying to find the oldest grave), Paul Revere House, Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill Monument, Boston Massacre Site, and USS Constitution. The kids filled out junior ranger booklets and earned themselves new badges for their collections.

Constitution Printing Press at Boston National Historical Park, Massachusetts

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, WA
Ok, so this one is a little unexpected given that the Klondike gold rush took part in Alaska and Canada, but there is a little museum in Seattle that makes up part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. "Why in Seattle?" I hear you ask. Well, Seattle was the starting off point for most miners seeking to strike it rich in the Klondike. This park is actually just a museum. While it may be tiny, it's packed full of interesting information and artifacts about the Klondike Gold Rush. Kids can even earn a junior ranger badge here like mine did.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, CA
This historical park is a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It's located right next to Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square on the waterfront. In fact, much of this Historical Park is a pier! The highlight here is the historic ships that line Hyde Street Pier. The views are the Bay are a highlight too.

National Historic Site

Lincoln Home, IL
Ok, so I'm counting this one in my list of visited National Parks even though we visited after hours and were unable to tour inside the building. But we got a photo out front and that counts, right? We stopped briefly in Springfield on our drive from Detroit to St Louis a few Summers back and while the Lincoln Home itself might have been closed it was still really interesting to explore the neighborhood. There was plenty of signage around the historic buildings so we learned quite a bit, and the tree lined streets were the perfect place for an early evening stroll on a hot day.

Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois

Salem Maritime, MA
The first thing most people think of when they think of Salem is the 1692 witch trials. But there's so much more to the town's history than this. Salem has a great shipping, trade and ship building history with many wealthy merchants calling the town home over the centuries. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site pays tribute to this history and is located along the waterfront. The site includes historic wharves, a lighthouse, a replica ship and many historic buildings that played a major part in Salem's past.

National Monuments

Bandelier National Monument, NM
We visited Bandelier National Monument on our Spring Break trip to Santa Fe and Phoenix in 2022. Bandelier was definitely a highlight of the trip. Located a short drive from Santa Fe, this national park features stunning landscapes and history. Two of my favorite things together! The Ancestral Pueblo people called this area home from approximately 1150 through 1550. The made their homes in the caves on the high cliffs. Many of these can be accessed by visitors today by climbing ladders. It's a pretty interesting place to visit. The park is also home to many petroglyphs.  

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

Cabrillo National Monument, CA
Cabrillo National Monument is located along the coast near San Diego. We visited over Winter Break in 2015 and as you can see from the pictures it was incredibly windy. We took in the views over San Diego's water front as well as a visit to the historic Old Point Loma Lighthouse which was built in 1854. We watched the sun set over the city and it was just lovely. There are lots of hiking trails here and tide pools down on the beach.

Cabrillo National Monument, California

Dinosaur National Monument, UT
In 2017 we took a Winter trip to Utah and one of the highlights was a visit to Dinosaur National Monument. If you have dino loving kids this park is a must visit. While the park is full of stunning landscapes, hiking trails and campsites, the main attraction is seeing dinosaur bones in their original location. Most times when you see dinosaur bones they've been excavated from their original site and taken to a museum. That's not the case here! This particular spot proved to be such a treasure trove of fossils that rather than digging them up, many were left in place and a large open plan building was built over the top to house them. When you enter the museum you will literally see a wall of dinosaur bones. It's pretty amazing. Some of the lower bones are accessible for visitors to touch. 

Dinosaur National Monument, Utah

Florissant Fossil Beds, CO
More fossils! This time they're of the plant variety. Florissant Fossil Beds in Colorado was once the site of a towering redwood forest. Now it's home to a handful of fossilized redwood stumps. These stumps are as large as 41 feet in diameter and are approximately 34 million years old! It's believed that the trees were over 230 feet tall and 500 to 750 years old when they buried (and subsequently fossilized) due to volcanic activity. The visitor center features a museum where many more fossils can be viewed.

Florissant Fossil Beds, Colorado

Governor's Island National Monument, NY
Our day spent on Governor's Island was one of the highlights to our Summer Break trip to New York back in 2018. The island is an amazing park right in the middle of the East River. It has plenty of green space to run around, trails through and around the island, fun playgrounds, cafes, camp sites, stunning views, and as if all that wasn't enough, it's also home to two National Monuments. Castle Williams and Fort Jay are both early 19th century military fortifications. We only got the chance to visit Castle Williams as we spent so long enjoying the rest of the island that we didn't make to to Fort Jay until closing time. It was nice to take in a little history during our visit. 

Muir Woods National Monument, CA
Muir Woods is a popular tourist spot located just north of San Francisco's Golden Gate. We visited there twice during our time living in the Bay Area, although we did actually attempt several more visits. Seeing as Muir Woods is so popular it can be tricky to find a parking space, which means that several of our attempts to visits resulted in us going elsewhere for the day. If you do manage to find a park (or take the shuttle bus from Sausalito), Muir Woods is a lovely place to spend half a day. There are many different hiking trails with varying difficulty and accessibility. The kids loved seeing the towering trees and learning about them through the junior ranger program.

Muir Woods, California

Rosie the Riveter WW2 Home Front National Monument, CA
Located right on San Francisco Bay in Richmond, Rosie the Riveter WW2 Home Front National Monument is a museum dedicated to the hardworking civilians of World War 2. Many of these workers were women who stepped up to work on war efforts while the men where away at war. The museum features lots of interesting and interactive displays and is incredibly informative. The kids really enjoyed the hands on aspects.

Rosie the Riveter WW2 Home Front National Monument, California

Statue of Liberty National Monument, NY
Now, this is one that the kids haven't actually been to, but I have. Back in 2006 I spent a few weeks working in New York and in my downtime I got out and about to explore the city as much as possible. One weekend I hopped on the ferry and made my way to Liberty Island to see the Statue of Liberty up close. It was such an amazing experience to see this symbol of America up close like this. I'd seen her from Manhattan and ferries many times, but you really can't appreciate the scale until you're up close. I hope to take the kids here one day and fingers crossed we'll be able to score tickets to go up inside her crown. 

National Preserves

Mojave National Preserve, CA
In early 2020 I drove through Mojave National Preserve with my friend Sareka on our way from Las Vegas to Palm Springs. Being a desert locale, you would imagine that there's not an awful lot to see in Mojave National Preserve, but it's actually quite the contrary. The desert is alive with joshua trees, cacti, chollas, wildflowers, lizards, roadrunners, hummingbirds, and so much more. The joshua trees are always my favorite so I loved seeing so many of them as we drove through the preserve. 

Mojave National Preserve, California

National Memorials

Mount Rushmore, SD
I have mixed feelings about Mount Rushmore given that it was built on sacred Lakota land. We stopped by Mount Rushmore right after a visit to the nearby (and still under construction) Crazy Horse Memorial. Our time at Crazy Horse had felt special as so much thought and cultural sensitivity has gone into the construction and the nearby museum. Mount Rushmore, on the other hand, felt like the complete opposite. I mean, yes, it is very impressive, but it really should be there. I knew we couldn't drive through the area without making a stop though and I'm glad we can cross it off our list.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

National Recreation Areas

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Golden Gate National Recreation Area encompasses a large area of San Francisco's waterfront and the Marin Headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge. This area includes several smaller National Parks such as Muir Woods, AlcatrazLands End and Fort Point; a few of which I've shared here in this post. Because this National Recreation Are is so large, we've visited many parts of it on many different occasions over the years. From beach trips, hikes through the Presidio, taking visiting family and friends to Crissy Field, and even celebrating the National Parks 100th birthday. One of my favorite things about this area (and San Francisco in general) is that there are views of the Golden Gate Bridge from so many different perspectives.

National Seashores

Cape Cod National Sea Shore
Cape Cod National Sea Shore is a sprawling park that runs along the coast of Cape Cod. We spent several days in the area after visiting Boston and it was beautiful - although due to several shark attacks many of the beaches were off limits. We visited lighthouses, hiked along trails, played at a few beaches (keeping an eye out for sharks!), and took in the beautiful scenery. Once again, the girls earned new junior ranger badges here.

Cape Cod National Sea Shore, Massachusetts

Junior Ranger Program
One of my favorite things about visiting all of these National Parks, is that the kids have been able to take part in the Junior Ranger program at almost all of them . Have you heard of the Junior Ranger program? It's fantastic! Kids of all ages are invited to learn more about each park by completing an activity book during their visit. Once they have competed the required number of pages (it varies by age group) junior rangers are then sworn in by a real ranger and awarded their very own Junior Ranger badge. The badges made a great little souvenir, as do the activity books. 

Paul Revere House, Boston National Historic Park, Massachusetts
Rosie the Riveter WW2 Home Front National Monument, California

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