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Choosing Age-Appropriate National Park Family Vacations

For every family, there is a perfect national park vacation. Choosing the right family vacation experience, however, requires a bit of planning and research as well as factoring in family dynamics such as age and fitness level.

“National park vacations are all about making memories, and even young children can have positive experiences they will remember for a long time,” said Judi Lages, vice president of sales & marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts. “Some park experiences are perfect for families with older children while others call out to families with high-energy youngsters. And within most parks there are a wide variety of experiences from which to choose.”

Here are some suggestions for a variety of age-appropriate national park family vacations:

Families with very young children (five and under): 

  • Even the little ones will enjoy the Old West Dinner Cookout in Yellowstone National Park. Horse-drawn wagons carry visitors through sagebrush flats to the cookout site while wranglers tell stories about the Old West. Guests enjoy a hearty buffet-style meal while listening to a cowboy sing Western ballads. Dinner and the horse-drawn wagon ride is priced at $55 for adults and $44 for children between five and 11. The ride is free for younger children if they share an adult’s plate. (Reservations: 1-866-GEYSERLAND; 1-307-344-7311.)
  • The Volcano Boat Cruise Tours at Crater Lake National Park can also be enjoyed by families with very young children. This guided tour of Crater Lake lasts one hour and 45 minutes. A steep 1.1 mile hike is required to get to the boat launch, so adults should be prepared to carry little ones. At 1,945 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest and clearest lake in the country. It is surrounded by lava walls up to 2,000 feet high. In 2007, the boat cruise tours were priced at $25.50 for adults, $15 for children between three and 11 and free for children under three years old. Pricing for the 2008 summer season will be announced soon. Tickets for boat tours can be obtained upon check-in at the Crater Lake Lodge or Mazama Village. (Hotel Reservations: 1-888-77-4CRATER; 1-888-774-2728.)
  • Ice cream. Many adults will tell you some of their first and most vivid childhood memories are about food. The “Monumental Scoop” of ice cream at Mount Rushmore National Memorial is practically enough to feed a family of four on its own. The hand-dipped or soft-serve ice cream is served in the Memorial Team Ice Cream station, named in honor of the baseball team formed by Mount Rushmore carvers. Other fun places to enjoy a national park ice cream cone: Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, the Bright Angel Fountain Bar in Grand Canyon National Park and the Painted Desert Oasis in Petrified Forest National Park.

 Families with children between five and eight:

  • Most children are fascinated by trains, and the Grand Canyon Railway ride to the Grand Canyon gives kids a chance to experience a real train ride, be entertained by the pre-train “wild west shootout” and see the Grand Canyon all in one day. Prices for round-trip train travel begin at $35 for children between two and 12 years old and $65 for adults. (Reservations: 1-800-THE-TRAIN; 1-800-843-8724.) 
  • What kid wouldn’t just love to blow something up and not get into trouble for it? Children stand in line for the chance to virtually “blow up” Mount Rushmore at the National Park Service Visitor Center. The interactive exhibit features a plunger that can be pushed down to trigger a perfectly timed video of an actual Mount Rushmore sculptor’s dynamite-driven explosion. Although the Park Service clearly designed this interactive feature for children, it is not uncommon to see Dads – and the occasional Mom – stand in line for their turn to blow up the mountain.
  • The Furnace Creek Inn and the Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley National Park are among the few lodging facilities within a national park that offer swimming pools. Both pools are fed by natural by warm springs that keep the water temperature at a comfortable 82 degrees. (Reservations: 1-800-236-7916; 1-303-297-2757.)

Families with children between eight and 11:

  • Xanterra has created a five-night vacation for families with children over the age of eight. Called the Total Yellowstone Package, the trip includes day tours and experiences including a horseback ride, guided walk along the geyser basin, lake tour, tour aboard a historic Old Yellow Bus, stagecoach ride and private campfire program. The package also includes meals, accommodations, a special gift and photo CD. Price is $1,229 for adults and $619 for children between eight and 11.
  • Climb the Desert View Watchtower at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Modeled after ancient ancestral Puebloan watchtowers, this 70-foot tower is the highest point on the South Rim and offers stunning 360-degree views of the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the San Francisco Peaks and the Vermilion Cliffs. But kids will get a kick out of climbing the spiral stairs along rock walls that feature colorful Hopi murals. The watchtower is a featured part of an entertaining half-day motorcoach tour along the East Rim of the Grand Canyon. The cost for the tour is $35 for adults; children 16 and under are free. (Reservations: 1-888-29Parks; 1-888-297-2757.)

Families with children between 12 and 16:

  • Many people have yearned to ride the mules to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, but few people actually get the chance. With a little planning, families can take that trip of a lifetime: a 10 1/2-mile trip on a mule to Phantom Ranch, one or two nights on the canyon floor in comfortable accommodations, and a return trip to the South Rim. All mule riders must weigh less than 200 pounds, be at least 4 feet 7 inches in height, speak and understand fluent English and be in good physical condition. The rate for a one-night ride for the first person is $420.09 and $743.03 for two people. The rate includes the ride, accommodations in a Phantom Ranch cabin, breakfast, lunch and steak dinner. Rates are available for additional riders. Xanterra also offers a seven-hour day trip that takes riders from the South Rim to Plateau Point and back.
  • Yellowstone Lake is home to native cutthroat trout as well as the exotic lake trout. Xanterra offers charter boats with experienced fishing guides, gear, life jackets, and even fish-cleaning services. This is a great choice for families who want a customized experience with a guide to themselves. Rates vary.

 Families with older children:

  • Teens do love a chance to show up their parents, and a physical activity like hiking just might give them that chance – or at least the opportunity impress their parents with their superior physical endurance. Choosing the right hike in the wilderness should not be a lighthearted decision, however. Xanterra recommends that families consult National Park Service rangers for advice and recommendations. A classic and extremely strenuous hike is Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. This five-mile hike takes approximately four hours to complete. The hike ends at a summit high above Zion Canyon, and the last half mile follows a steep, narrow ridge where chains have been added for support. Xanterra Parks & Resorts operates the Zion Lodge, the only in-park lodging. (Reservations: 1-888-29-PARKS; 1-888-297-2757.)
  • Teens also enjoy a good story, especially if it is a little weird. And Scotty’s Castle, named for “Death Valley Scotty” certainly fits. Located 55 miles from the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort, Scotty’s Castle was built between 1922 and 1931. The Moorish-style castle was built on the site of a “secret gold mine” discovered by Death Valley Scotty. Park Service staff dressed in 1930s costumes tell the tale of Death Valley Scotty and his mine while they guide visitors on a tour the spectacular complex, which contains exquisite tile work and furniture, including a rare Welte Pipe Organ.

Additional information about activities, lodging and parks can be found online or by calling the reservations numbers for individual parks. More information is also available at the Xanterra website: www.xanterra.com

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