Finding the right hike for children can be tricky: The trail needs to be safe and not too strenuous, yet interesting enough to keep the young folks’ attention. As a bonus, it would be nice if the hike stimulated them to want to learn more about the place. America’s national parks abound in good kids’ hikes–both traditional and non-traditional. Here are six of the best and most diverse:
Dune Fields, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
The United States’s tallest dunes are found in of all places Colorado, tucked against the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Between the westerly winds and some unique geological circumstances the main dune field has spread across about 30 square miles, with dune heights reaching above 700 feet.
The dune field is not so much a hiking place as a “Go out and have fun” spot. Kids (adults, too) are welcome to run up the sand dunes and slide or roll down. Certain precautions should be heeded, especially when the sand is scorching hot in summer, but the kids are not likely to hurt themselves if they fall down.
To sand sled, or sandboard, all that’s really needed is something like a flat-bottomed plastic sled. Skis and snowboards work, too; a section of cardboard box does not. If the weather conditions have been too dry, the sand may be too soft for sledding, but the dunes are great to explore any time.
People are free to wander, provided they don’t impact the vegetation. The summit of High Dune, the second highest dune, is a long mile climb through the shifting sands. Nearby Medano Creek offers a great place to cool off afterward, if it’s flowing.
> Sourdough Ridge Trail, Mount Rainier National Park
Fantastic views of western Washington’s snow-capped peaks, including Mount Rainier, make the Sourdough Ridge Trail a mini-adventure the whole family will love.
Located high in the subalpine zone of the park in the Sunrise area, the trail makes a 1-mile loop with only gentle elevation gain.
Passing through flower-filled meadows is a great way to introduce kids to the beauty of the high country. They’ll feel like mountain climbers when they reach the ridge top for even better panoramic vistas.
Snow closes this area most of the year, so plan to visit in the summer or early fall to do this hike; the road to Sunrise may not even open until July.
> Frozen Niagara Tour, Mammoth Cave National Park
Some cave tours are too long for children, or require lots of stairs or squeezing through tight, and possibly scary, spaces.
The Frozen Niagara Tour at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave is short enough (a quarter-mile round-trip, taking just over an hour) and easy enough for kids, yet offers spectacular cave scenery such as Rainbow Dome, Crystal Lake, the Frozen Niagara flowstone, and the Drapery Room.
Young folks can let their imaginations take over here, as formation shapes suggest animals, cartoon characters, and who knows what. With this introduction to underground wonders, a child just might turn into a dedicated caver.
> Giant Logs Trail, Petrified Forest National Park
This northeastern Arizona park has the kind of wide-open space that kids sometimes find unexciting. Get them onto park trails, however, and they’re sure to be astonished by close-up looks at enormous “fallen trees”–made of rock.
One of the best short hikes for children is the Giant Logs Trail, a 0.4-mile loop that beings at the Rainbow Forest Museum, the park’s southern visitor center. This path leads to the largest log in the park: Old Faithful, around 170 feet long and more than 9 feet across at its base.
Here, kids can see (and feel) how ancient tree trunks were permeated by water carrying dissolved silica, which crystallized as quartz, exactly replacing the soft plant structure with hard mineral. They’ll see bark, knotholes, and growth rings, all in amazingly fine detail. Every color imaginable seems to be represented in the shiny agate logs. Interpretive panels along the way explain the science behind the petrified logs.
The Rainbow Forest Museum includes exhibits on dinosaurs, always popular with kids.
> Carriage Roads, Acadia National Park
Thanks to the actions of oil mogul and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., back in the early to mid-20th century, visitors to this park on the Maine coast can enjoy more than 50 miles of carriage roads: broad, smooth gravel paths approximately 16 feet wide open to walkers, horseback riders, and bicyclists but not motorized vehicles.
These paths wind throughout much of the park on the east side of Mount Desert Island, passing developed areas as well as more remote spots, and they’re perfect for families–even those with strollers to push, as Rockefeller specifically designed the roads to be not too steep or sharply curved for horse-drawn carriages.
But rather than a family-friendly hike, consider a family-friendly bike ride. Bikes can be rented in the nearby town of Bar Harbor, making possible a leisurely outing through the wooded landscape of Mount Desert Island. As you ride, stop to admire the striking stone bridges scattered along the routes; there are 17 of them, each designed for its particular setting (and all also courtesy of Rockefeller).
> Thurston Lava Tube, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Lots of families visit Hawaii, and those who visit the Big Island can tour the otherworldly landscape of this fascinating park.
Because this is one of the most volcanically active places on Earth, a last-minute check about conditions is wise. Parts of the park have been closed since a new vent opened in Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater in 2008. The great majority of the time, though, the park can be visited with complete safety.
Kids will love Thurston Lava Tube, located just off Crater Rim Drive. Very small children might be afraid here, but older kids will find it just creepy enough to be fun. Formed when molten lava flowed out of an underground tunnel, leaving it empty, Thurston is about 450 feet long, and is lit by electric lights to reduce claustrophobia; the path through it is paved.
In places the roots of trees hang down inside the cave, adding to the Indiana Jones atmosphere created by the tree ferns outside the entrance. When kids reach the surface again at the end of the tube, they’ll definitely have a unique experience to rave about to their friends.
This article was excerpted from the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks.