Hey there! Are you looking for the best national parks to visit with toddlers and young kids? I’m here to help!
My name is Ash, and I’m a former park ranger and the founder of Dirt In My Shoes. But more importantly, I’m a mom of two amazing little boys who love to explore and get dirty.
These boys have traveled to nearly every national park already while they’ve been under the age of six.
Spending time outside in the national parks with toddlers and young kids is an extremely rewarding experience. Adventuring with them will open your eyes to things you’ve never noticed. It will help you slow down, discover your inner child, and have wild and crazy fun with your family.
And while I truly believe that any national park can be great for young kids and toddlers, there are definitely a few that stand out as the best places to visit with that age group.
As a parent, it makes a huge difference if you don’t have to constantly be worried about your toddler — you’ll have a more enjoyable vacation if your stress levels are low!
Here are the things I considered when making this list of the best national parks to visit with toddlers and young kids:
- FUN FACTOR — will the popular, can’t-miss activities be exciting for your young children? Pick a park that allows you to see the coolest stuff and still keeps your kids excited and engaged no matter their age!
- DRIVE TIME — toddlers and young kids don’t typically enjoy long rides in the car, so visiting a smaller park that doesn’t require hours of driving between sights can make a big difference.
- DANGEROUS CLIFFS — pick a park that doesn’t celebrate large cliffs (like the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, or Crater Lake). Your stress levels will stay low if you aren’t always worried about your toddler falling off something.
- NO TOUCHING RULES — some parks are less friendly for your young explorers who love to touch everything! Parks like Saguaro, Mammoth Cave, and Carlsbad Caverns strongly discourage you from touching the natural features.
- GATEWAY TOWNS — is it easy to get back to your hotel for meals and naptimes if needed? Try to pick a park where the nearby town is exciting enough to keep the rest of your family entertained while your little one sleeps!
The Best National Parks to Visit With Toddlers and Young Kids
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is always my top pick for a great place to take young kids! You’ll see an amazing number of natural arches in a short amount of time, and there are SO many other activities in the area. It’s impossible to run out of exciting things to do!
FUN FACTOR — most of Arches most famous features can be seen from the road or by taking a short hike (less than a mile roundtrip).
DRIVE TIME — you can drive the whole length of the park in 45 minutes!
DANGEROUS CLIFFS — not many, and usually only found on longer trails like Delicate Arch or Devils Garden.
NO TOUCHING RULES — there are lots of rocks to climb on and sand to play in! But please stay on the trails — this park has “living soil” that is extremely fragile and important for the plants and animals that live here.
GATEWAY TOWN — Moab is right outside the park entrance, and it has everything you could ever need! With rock climbing, biking, jeeping, hiking, and rafting within a few minutes of Main Street, this town is a destination by itself.
When To Go to Arches
June through August is peak season, but it can easily be 100+ degrees at this time of year. If you can, try to go in the spring or fall for milder temperatures.
What to Do in Arches
Balanced Rock, The Windows, and Double Arch are particularly great for toddlers, but you can do everything in this can’t-miss list (with the exception of the Fiery Furnace) with young kids.
Arches is located in Southeastern Utah, about 3.5 hours from Salt Lake City.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes is just like one giant sandbox, which is enough to keep any small child engaged for hours! Add in some sandsledding or sandboarding for the adults, and you’ve got yourself the perfect family adventure.
FUN FACTOR — this park has lots and lots of sand…need I say more?!
DRIVE TIME — it’s only ten minutes from the park entrance to the dunes. Your kids won’t even have time to say “are we there yet?”.
DANGEROUS CLIFFS — if you climb high up on the dunes, you’ll have some big cliffs to deal with. But it’s easy to find smaller dunes for your toddlers to play on.
NO TOUCHING RULES — there are no trails and nothing but sand on these dunes, so your kids can touch everything. You’ll be finding sand in their diapers for a week!
GATEWAY TOWN — you can camp in the park or stay at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis if you want to stay close to the dunes. Otherwise, it’s about 40 minutes to get to Alamosa.
When to Go to Great Sand Dunes
May through September.
What to Do in Great Sand Dunes
If you visit the park in May or June, Medano Creek may be running and you’ll be able to play in the water and the sand. This is a phenomenal experience!
Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in the middle of Southern Colorado, about 4 hours from Denver.
Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park has it all….mountains, beaches, lakes, waterfalls, and even a rainforest full of big moss-covered trees! You’ll find so much diversity and variety in this park, which makes it the perfect place to take curious kids (and adults) who love to discover new things.
FUN FACTOR — with such a big variety of landscapes and environments in this park, it’s impossible not to find something that is fun for everyone!
DRIVE TIME — you’ll spend a good amount of time in your car here. It’s a large park with many different sections! But I suggest staying near Forks if you want to be close to the beaches, rainforest, lakes, and waterfalls. You’ll have to drive further to get to the mountaintops of Hurricane Ridge, but otherwise you’re within an hour of everything else.
DANGEROUS CLIFFS — the trails at Hurricane Ridge have a few drop-offs. You may also encounter some beachside cliffs, but it’s definitely not a main theme in this park.
NO TOUCHING RULES — your senses will be going crazy here…the creatures in the tidepools, the mosses on the trees, the mist from the waterfalls! There is so much to discover, but just remember to stay on the trails and leave no trace.
GATEWAY TOWN — Port Angeles and Forks are both considered gateway towns to Olympic. Port Angeles is much larger with more options for dining, lodging, and non-park activities. Forks is a small town with a few lodging and dining options, but it is closer to the in-park activities.
When to Go to Olympic
June through September.
What to Do in Olympic
Tidepooling in Olympic is the most memorable and exciting activity for my young kids. They absolutely love discovering the amazing sea creatures living in the rocks!
All of the activities on this can’t-miss list can be done with toddlers. There are some great short hikes in this park, and playing at Lake Crescent is always a highlight!
Olympic National Park is located on the northwestern tip of Washington State, about 3 hours from Seattle.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Short hiking trails, beautiful waterfalls, tree-covered mountains, and historic homesteads characterize Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park is great for adventurous young kids who get excited about throwing rocks in rivers and seeing wildlife from the car!
FUN FACTOR — this park has it all, but the waterfall hikes are what keep my kids excited. They can sit and throw rocks in the water for hours if I let them, and the Smokies has water everywhere….and sticks, leaves, and dirt too!
DRIVE TIME — Great Smoky Mountains National Park is large, so expect about an hour’s drive time to each main section of the park.
DANGEROUS CLIFFS — in general, no. You will find some drop-offs along a few of the trails, especially as you get near the waterfalls. Keep your little ones close as you approach the rivers and streams though!
NO TOUCHING RULES — stay on the trails and leave the park better than you found it.
GATEWAY TOWN — one of the main draws of the Smokies for kids is all of the extra activities you can find for families in the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. These gateways towns for the park have every type of activity you can possibly imagine!
When to Go to the Great Smoky Mountains
Visit the Smokies anytime from spring-fall.
What to Do in the Smokies
See the history and look for bears in Cades Cove, hike to Grotto Falls, or enjoy the view at Clingmans Dome. Learn about these activities and more with this list of things you can’t miss.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located along the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, about an hour from Knoxville.
Grand Teton National Park
If you’re hoping to encourage your little ones to be good hikers, Grand Teton National Park is the place to be. This park has it all — amazing mountain views, fantastic trails, lakes to swim in, and wildlife. My parents brought me here starting at age two, and I give this park the credit for my love of hiking and nature!
FUN FACTOR — whatever your style of experiencing nature looks like, you can find it here. If you want to be adventurous, you can find trails for any age and ability. Maybe you just want to relax and soak in the beautiful views? There are many easy-to-get-to viewpoints in the Tetons. Or, if your kids just want to run and play in the forest or swim in a lake, you’ll find that here too!
DRIVE TIME — Grand Teton is a smaller park, so the points of interest are typically only 10-15 minutes apart. You won’t have to spend much time in the car at all.
DANGEROUS CLIFFS — unless you’re planning a longer hike up into the mountains, you’ll mostly be along the valley floor, which is perfect for toddlers and young kids.
NO TOUCHING RULES — stay on the trails and leave no trace, but otherwise, there are some great places to play!
GATEWAY TOWN — the town of Jackson is an exciting old west town just outside the park entrance. You can find shops, activities, and even a nightly “shootout” here. As far as national park gateway towns go, Jackson is one of the best!
When to Go to Grand Teton
June through September.
What to Do in Grand Teton
Playing in String Lake, hiking to Taggart Lake, and riding the boat and hiking to Hidden Falls are family-favorite Teton activities. There are so many fun things to do, and you can find a great list here.
Grand Teton National Park is located in the northwestern corner of Wyoming, about a half an hour south of Yellowstone.
Have a fabulous time exploring these national parks with your toddlers and young kids! Happy trails!
Looking for more ideas? Find your next national park vacation spot here.