| By Amy Alipio, TRAVEL Deputy Managing Editor
Confession time: I’ve never been much of an outdoorsy person. Sure, I’ve hiked, biked, dived, climbed, skied, paddleboarded, and—on one particularly painful occasion—snowboarded, but my preference has always leaned more toward museums, theaters, bookstores, and other indoor spaces. Until COVID hit.
Now my family and I have gotten into nature-based pursuits like trail walking, bird watching, and lake swimming. And parks have become our go-to weekend destination. We’re not alone, as these images of crowding at national parks show. But there are things we can do to keep family-whining to a minimum and help protect our wild spaces at the same time. (Tell me what your tips are!)
Of course, heading to lesser-known parks, ones that don’t have TV series named after them, allows you to avoid the lines but not the natural wonders. It also helps to ask park rangers their tips. At Indiana Dunes National Park (pictured above), for example, they urge beachgoers to stick to the West Beach area, which has more parking than the entire east section of the park combined.
To keep kids engaged and learning, the National Geographic Society recently launched Summer Adventures on the Road, a free, immersive educational experience that takes kids on virtual journeys to U.S. national treasures. This year, the guides help families explore three different wildernesses—Yellowstone National Park, Everglades National Park, and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The materials can be used for at-home virtual learning or during in-person trips.
Printable activity guides tell stories of Indigenous peoples’ history and teach how to read park maps; blank pages leave room for creative minds to sketch wildflowers or recount the day’s adventures. Access the guides on the road and kids can find links to Kahoot trivia games (“Wyoming’s flag depicts what animal that can be found in Yellowstone?”) and Nat Geo wildlife videos. My favorite aspect of the guides are the lists of age-appropriate recommended reading. (Because I believe kids can travel the world via books.)
Nat Geo Kids’ Junior Ranger Activity Book is also a good way to keep them busy, with puzzles, games, and fun facts, and is inspired by the National Parks’ outdoor-based Junior Ranger Program.
Once you’re out of the car, help kids discover wildlife clues to spot animals, but read these tips to avoid disrupting wildlife and having awkward animal encounters.
Sometimes the issue is less about what to do at national parks, but how to imagine yourself welcome there in the first place. Groups such as Outdoor Afro and the teen-focused Rainbow Conservation Crew help make our national parks more accessible and inclusive.
As for me, I’ve learned that I don’t have to give up my indoorsy interests to be outdoors. After all, I can always find art in nature, drama in sunsets, and stories in the stars.
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