Exploring National Parks with Teenagers

Since my kids were babies, my husband and I have exposed them extensively to outdoor recreational activities, mainly in the form of hiking and backpacking.  Our family vacations often revolve around visiting a national park, to expose our kids to what we wholeheartedly believe are “America’s Best Idea.”

Our kids are older now (15, 13 and 12 years old), and our visits no longer include multiple pit stops for diaper changes and short hikes that take an entire day to complete.  The trade off to the time we’ve gained back is sometimes dealing with sullen, moody adolescents who are questioning why we’re not having “a laid back vacation with plenty of time to chill” (translation: 24/7 unfettered access to wifi and their friends while lounging on a couch).  

So we’ve had to get creative with our national park vacations and engage the kids more than we ever have in the past.  While the order of events we’ve followed for years has roughly stayed the same, we’ve tweaked it a bit to suit their ages and interests.  The good news is that we’ve dialed in a fairly proven method to put a smile on even the moodiest of teenager’s faces while visiting a national park.

Watch a Movie

Say what?!  Watch a movie in a national park?  Yep, it’s almost always the first thing we do.  The main visitor’s center of most parks will have a looping movie, usually about 15-20 minutes in length, that gives a broad overview of the park’s cultural and natural history.  When my kids were younger, they were often wiggly and bored watching these movies. Now, however, they can appreciate the content and learn something in a way that suits their digitally programmed minds.

Buy a Book in the Visitor Center Gift Shop

Once the movie is over we head straight to the visitor center gift shop.  Often a purchase in these gift shops will benefit the park’s foundation, so I’m happy to support them.  Since my kids were itty bitties, I’ve steered them towards the book section. Picture books were eventually replaced by chapter books, and these days, they are often interested in the books that pertain to the flora and fauna they may encounter in the park.  

Field guides, especially colorful ones, are both educational and interesting to teens

In addition to purchasing books, I usually sneak a park-themed jigsaw puzzle into the mix for Christmas Day.  It’s a great way to relive our vacation over the holidays as we put it together. Puzzles also have the added bonus of engaging kids in something besides technology for an extended period of time!

Let Them Help with Our Itinerary

When my kids were younger, I did all our planning before our trip even began, specifically mapping out the itinerary around nap and known meltdown times, with easy trails in mind.  These days, with teenagers in tow, there aren’t many meltdowns but there are certainly strong opinions about what they’d like to see.

To keep everyone happy, I include the kids in the planning discussion, usually after we’ve arrived in the park and they know what to expect after watching the park’s movie.  A hike is a much more pleasant experience if they feel empowered in helping choose it. An added bonus? If it turns into a really difficult hike, they can’t complain as much since they helped choose it!

Also, if we allow something they enjoy specifically, such as horseback riding or fishing, it’s a guaranteed pleasant experience.  As long as they don’t choose to simply visit the park from behind a car window or only at pull outs, the sky’s the limit with planning options.

Because we let them help map out our itinerary, the kids chose to visit two areas of sand dunes in Death Valley (and had a blast at both!)

Surprise Them

Even though I engage my kids in the planning process more now, I still keep some of our schedule to myself, usually revolving around hikes or locations they might balk at initially, but will eventually earn me cool parent points once they arrive.  Because let’s face it, teens like to impress their friends. If they can capture an Insta worthy photo while they’re doing something that looks impressive or requires courage, like standing on the top of Cassidy Arch in Capitol Reef National Park, or hiking to the top of the Beehive in Acadia National Park, it’s a guaranteed “baller” experience in their minds.   

My daughter, Paige, scrambling up the last pitch of the Beehive in Acadia National Park
Standing on the top of Cassidy Arch in Capitol Reef National Park was a huge hit (and I promise, it’s much safer than it looks!)

**It’s important to note that I’m not referring to taking a selfie with a Bison in Yellowstone National Park or standing on the very edge of the Grand Canyon.  I would never put my kids in jeopardy by taking them somewhere incredibly risky, but there are plenty of places to stretch the limits of their comfort zone and stay safe with common sense precautions.

Attend a Ranger Program

Ranger programs never cease to amaze me with their creativity and engagement.  Because they are geared towards everyone from toddlers to adults, we can almost always find one that suits all of our interests.

An added advantage to having teenagers is that some of the more physically rigorous programs are a better fit for our family now.  The Fiery Furnace tour in Arches National Park is a perfect example of this.  While the park service allows younger kids to participate in some of these programs, as a parent, it’s a much more pleasant experience when I know I can count on my kid’s physical and emotional abilities to see them through the experience safely, without me hovering constantly.

Ranger programs are also a great way to introduce your teens to future career opportunities.  At my kids’ ages, I try to expose them to job opportunities that exist in the environmental and outdoor industry, as they approach the age where they need to hone in on what might interest them in a career path.  

Junior Ranger Programs

Most folks think of Junior Ranger programs for younger kids, but not in my family.  In my opinion, completing the books is actually more enjoyable to the kids (and parents!) as they get older, since they can read fluently and understand the content better.  Admittedly, some of the activities in them are a bit simplistic for their ages by now, but even as an adult, I always learn a lot about the park we’re visiting when I read through them. I think they’re a worthy activity for people of any age (and that includes you, parents!).  

Go Camping

Whether you’re a front or back country kind of family, camping in a national park is something we always add to our itinerary.  While the historic lodges may provide a better sleeping experience, the purist in me wants my family to have the most authentic experience possible in a national park.

When we took our kids to Death Valley National Park, we arrived at night and simply pulled over on the side of a dirt road to camp (dispersed roadside camping is allowed in many areas of Death Valley).  Instead of our kids immediately asking for the wifi code in a hotel room, we marveled at the light of a nearly full moon over Panamint Dunes in the distance, our hiking destination for the next morning.  Camping provides the perfect environment to untether your kids from the multitude of distractions the world presents to them, even within the confines of a national park.

Our awesome roadside campsite in Death Valley National Park

Find Local Food

As a foodie, I love exploring local cuisine when my family travels.  National parks may not always offer the most unique gustatory experience, but sometimes you’ll find something special.  For instance, in Capitol Reef National Park, the Gifford Homestead store offers pies made with fruit from the Park’s orchard and locally produced ice cream, and Bryce Canyon’s Lodge offers elk chili.  As my kids have become more adventurous eaters with age and less inclined to scowl at something new and different, exposing them to regional food is a must-do on any trip these days and something they enjoy as well.  

In conclusion, this is by no means an exhaustive list.  Just like parenting, it’s a continual work in progress depending on our kids’ ages, abilities, and even hormonal mood swings!  The good news is that whatever you choose to do in a national park with your kids, you are exposing them to the most sacred piece of real estate they’ll ever own.  

Comment below and let us know your favorite thing to do in national parks with tweens and teens!  And if you’re looking for a fun destination that teens and tweens will enjoy, Death Valley National Park is a fabulous choice for a spring break trip, before the temperatures soar to unbearable heights.  Here’s my family’s trip report and itinerary, if you’re looking for a ready-made, tween/teen tested game plan on what to do while you’re there!

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Meet Team Member, Nancy: Nancy lives and plays in the mountains of western North Carolina with her husband, three children, and dog.  She is a small animal veterinarian but  she is also passionate about her blog, Hope and Feather Travels.  She writes extensively about her hiking adventures and outdoor education topics, inspired by her position on her county’s search and rescue team and her commitment to educating hikers with knowledge that will keep them safe in the backcountry.  Her greatest passion is spending time in the Great Outdoors, and she is a strong advocate for curing “nature deficit disorder” in children.  Her family spends as much time as possible hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, kayaking, and skiing, and she is a firm believer that good gear makes for great adventures.


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