We booked a job in Utah so we decided to take a circuitous route through Arizona (Grand Canyon), Utah (Bryce Canyon), Wyoming (Grand Tetons), Idaho and Nevada. We ended up the next week in California for our next booking. The plan was to enjoy four national parks with our three year old and one year old.We wanted to visit Grand Canyon National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Tetons National Park.
We expected to spend a week driving around and plunking down $30 for each national park. We visited AAA to get our maps and set out. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I told my family that we could do it. I told them it would be fun. Here are some tips that we picked up along the journey:
#1 Buy the Pass
I knew that each park would cost $30 per carload to get in but what I didn’t realize was that there is a pass that will get you into all the national parks for the low price of $80! We paid $30 to get into the Grand Canyon and then found out that though the park is fine, the canyon doesn’t stop once the official park gates are behind you. After exiting the park, we noticed that the Grand Canyon (a huge gorge) runs for miles and miles outside the park. I pulled over to the side of the road and took a peak … for free. Hmmmm …
Next up was Utah. There are plenty debates over whether Zion National Park or Bryce Canyon National Park was the better park. I didn’t want to spend $30 for each park when I knew we’d only be able to visit for a few hours each. I decided to do a little Googling. Sure, I’d like to see the both parks but if it was going to save me $30 I don’t mind being cheap. We decided to visit Bryce Canyon National Park ($30 saved from not paying for both parks). The night before we reached Bryce Canyon National Park we realized that there is a hike that is perfect for toddlers with the same views of the hoodoos outside of the official park gates. *slaps forehead* Instead of plunking down another $30 we did the free hike and spent about two hours viewing the little waterfall, crossing bridges, playing in the stream, and taking photos. We, of course, drove right by the actual park and I would have gone in … if I had known that for $80 there was a pass that would get me into all the national parks … but I didn’t … so I didn’t … and we missed a great opportunity and see Zion and Bryce Canyon.
Along with the Annual Pass, there are also passes for seniors, passes for 4th graders and their families, and passed for disabled folks. View all the passes here.
#2 Enjoy the Outskirts
Some of our most enjoyable times happened just outside of the national park we planned to visit. I mentioned the hike we did up to Mossy Cave outside of Bryce National Park. It was an easy hike for both children and it provided a way for them to engage with nature (playing in the stream, touching the rocks, ducking into the cave, crossing the bridges, etc.).
I didn’t mention the short hike up to Horseshoe Bend outside of Grand Canyon National Park (outside of Page, Arizona). It was the best part of visiting Grand Canyon National Park. Driving around the edge of the Grand Canyon was cool but I wouldn’t run to do it again. Doing the short hike up to Horseshoe Bend was exhilorating. It’s free, it’s a bit of a challenge (there are uphill parts on the way there and the way back), and of course the view is beautiful. I had seen photos of it but I didn’t realize that it was outside of the park grounds. Taking time to explore things outside of the park made the trip memorable and made us feel like we were having a trip that no one else was having.
#3 View the Little Things
On each trip, we tried to visit small, local things to break up the drive and help us learn a bit about local culture (can you tell we’re unschoolers? Lol). After driving through a snowstorm we realized that some of the streets in Yellowstone National Park were closed and it probably wasn’t a good idea for us to continue on. Instead we spent the day in Idaho visiting the Space Museum, getting stuck in the mud trying to find Hell’s Half Acre (volcanic rock), and made it on down to Shoshone Falls. Crossing from Nevada into California, we found Donner State Park (yes, where they ate each other) and spent a morning chasing butterflies and learning more about the native peoples in the museum. Taking time to stop and see what’s around us, instead of only focusing on reaching the next goal, makes for an enjoyable trip and give the kids time to get out of the car.
#4 Find a Park
Yelp is our friend. Little ones need to stretch their legs and RUN. At least once a day we find a park in whatever city we’re in to let the kids run around. I try to think of our trips as family endeavors, not just things I wanna see. To that end, we make an effort to let the kids have free time to play. It does take a little time away from the drive but it’ll save everyone’s sanity when the kids are sleeping after a run and a meal. Take my advice, find a park.
#5 Let ‘Em Explore
Half of the fun of visiting the national parks is enjoying the wildness of it all. We do babywear and put them up when they are tired or we need to keep them safe but often you’ll find our kids running loose along the trails. Touching things, looking at things, dipping their fingers and toes into things …. it’s how kids learn. Instead of us always telling them how to play and where to play we try to let them lead the play. It leads to things that I wouldn’t have thought of and the kids enjoy.
We really enjoyed visiting the national parks and look forward to visiting more. See you on the trails!