Planning a trip out West to visit the national parks with kids? It can be an overwhelming feat but these tips will help you plan the best national park family vacation!
Our National Park Family Vacation
This past summer we spent two weeks out west in Colorado, Utah, and Page, Arizona visiting some of the National Parks and other interesting places so I thought I would share some tips for traveling. This is actually our second trip out there in three years. Our list of places visited so far, in that region, includes:
- Grand Canyon-both north and south rim
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Zion National Park
- Monument Valley (Navajo Nation)
- Best Friends Animal Society (includes Kanab, Utah)
- Page, Arizona (includes Antelope Canyons-part of Navajo Nation, Lake Powell-Glen Canyon NRA, Rainbow Bridge)
- Arches National Park (includes Moab, Utah)
After both trips, I’ve learned a lot about visiting the national parks with kids so I wanted to pass that wisdom on to you today.
Planning a trip out west to the National Parks can seem like a daunting task for any family. And it may feel like an impossibility if your child has significant disabilities. But with proper preparation, a can-do attitude and willingness to roll with the punches, it can be done.
Many of these famous places are on my personal bucket list that I have for me and my kids and I’m determined to do them.
Tips for Planning a National Park Vacation with Kids
There are a few things that any family or parents should do, but especially disability families. With limited options for medical care as compared to more populated areas, I suggest you read these tips on planning for a vacation with your disabled child. It has lots of good information as far as your insurance companies and so on.
- Get your free National Parks pass if you qualify. This is something you’ll want to look into weeks in advance. Many people with disabilities qualify for a free lifetime pass but you shouldn’t wait until the last minute. If you do not qualify for a free pass, poke around the website because senior citizens, veterans and a few other groups qualify for greatly reduced rates. The parks out west can be as much as $25 per day so you definitely want to get a free/reduced pass if you can.
- Decide where you want to go. For us east coasters, the sheer size of the west can be overwhelming to us. We’re used to having a zillion options within 45 minutes of us. Out west, you can drive for 6 hours and not see another person. And this is only the national parks “out west” for kids. It doesn’t even include the National Parks on the West Coast. I mean, Utah is not a coastal state, right?! There are SO many different options out west that you likely won’t be able to see everything in one family trip. I would look at a map, decide your priorities and begin planning your trip from there.
- Pick a home base. I recommend picking a home base that’s within reasonable difference of the places you want to see, versus moving around every night or two. Many of the small towns-Page, Arizona or Kanab and Moab in Utah have plenty of restaurants and lodging options within the town. You can see more of my recommendations below.
- The internet is your best friend for planning a trip like this. BUT, don’t rely on the internet when you’re actually on the road! Wifi and 3G/4G service is not available every place you go out there, like what we are used to here on the East Coast. If you are looking at something online, either write it down or print it off if necessary. Don’t assume that “I’ll just look at it on my phone when I get out there” because phone service may not be available.
- Bring refillable water bottles. Due to environmental concerns, most parks out there frown up bottled water (in disposable bottles). Bring or buy a refillable one and they have plenty of ice machines and water-stations to stay refilled.
- Make reservations in advance. Some of the restaurants and lodges get crowded during busy seasons. See if they recommend reservations. Some of the lodges IN the national parks can be booked up a year or more in advance!
- Know you won’t be able to do everything. The national parks area out west is vast and there’s just so much to do. I recommend managing expectations ahead of time that you likely won’t get to do EVERYTHING in one trip, especially if you’re visiting a handful of the parks. Be sure to plan some down time too!
Where to Stay for a National Park Family Vacation Out West
For my child (with disabilities), I know that I would rather spend one week in the same hotel and do several out-and-back trips instead of making a big loop and staying in a different place every night.
For example, from Page to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon or Zion National Park are all within a 2 or 3 hour drive. So you may want to stay in Page and do lots of day trips from there. Many people do this and the town thrives on tourism.
Page, Arizona also has more chain hotels than the other park towns (though I didn’t count). In the smaller towns, you’re more likely to find a small, privately owned motel. Page also has a Safeway, Walmart and fast-food restaurants that your kids may be used to.
Try to stay in a hotel that offers suites or small kitchenettes or at the very least, refrigerators. If you have a padded, insulated cooler or lunch box that you can pack at the bottom of a suitcase, pack it. You should load up each day before a road trip with drinks and snacks.
When you are driving from attraction to attraction or town to town, you sometimes can drive 50 or 100 miles without seeing a store or gas station.
National Park Safety Tips for Families
Safety is always at the top of my mind for any trip I plan with the family but when traveling out West, it is even more important. Here are a few specific tips to help you stay safe on your family vacation to the national parks.
Be Prepared for The Weather
You can’t talk about traveling to this region of the country without talking about the weather. This photo is an actual thermometer reading for one of the days that we were there.
Yes, at about 2:00 in the afternoon it was 106 with 2% humidity! If your child is non-verbal and cannot request things or has temperature regulation issues, you need to be prepared.
Of course, you don’t have to visit there in June or July as we did, but they have a very dry climate year-round.
The problem can be exacerbated by elevation, and some spots like the Grand Canyon can be at 7000 or 8000 feet.
Take Water to the National Parks
My boys do not drink water. I do not like to drink water. I just don’t care for it and prefer flavored water. But now is not the time to play drill sergeant and force them to drink water because it’s healthier overall and better than juice.
It’s just not a battle I need to fight when we are in a climate where they could dehydrate very quickly. They drank lots of juice pouches and juice boxes that week. The weather can be a very serious safety factor.
Be Aware for Kids who Run Off
Another really big safety factor is all the high ledges and cliffs and drop offs. Out there, there is a much bigger burden of responsibility on the traveler for making sure that they are safe, compared to what we are used to here on the East Coast.
You’re allowed to walk and climb on some pretty precarious ledges. I am afraid of heights so I enjoyed the beauty of the Grand Canyon from a very safe distance.
Even today as I sit here, when I think of the edge of the Grand Canyon, and Kevin and his poor motor planning, general clumsiness and impaired vision….my stomach does flip-flops!
Do Research On Hikes Ahead of Time
Talk to Park Rangers, talk to seasoned hikers who have been there and heed the warnings. There are some dangerous hiking trails, so maybe doing Angels Landing is just not in the cards for you.
And that’s ok. I feel just as fulfilled for going as those who have hiked it. I’m all for pushing yourself and our kids to do bigger things, but you have to be safe and reasonable. There are plenty of fun, flat trails with wading options too.
What Are The Best National Parks for Kids?
I’m not sure there’s a national park out west that’s NOT good for kids. All of them have at least something to offer! But, based on our experiences, here are the best national parks for kids out West:
Perhaps the most popular of the national parks in this area, the Grand Canyon is great for kids. There are so many kid-friendly lookout points and hikes, plus there’s a shuttle that runs along the rim so you can get great views without walking. Check out my full Grand Canyon guide for details.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is another of our favorite national parks. The rock formations are like no other! It’s also a compact park, which is nice as you can see pretty much everything in one day.
I recommend starting in the visitor’s center with the 30 minute video (which is air conditioned…SUPER nice during the summer!) and then continuing on to some of the viewpoints.
The Rim Trail will take you from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point on mostly flat terrain and it’s just about 1 mile long, which is perfect for most kids.
Zion National Park
Another of our favorites, Zion is just 90 minutes from Bryce but I definitely recommend spending a whole day here instead of splitting it into two. There are many trails here of varying difficulty but one of the most family friend hikes is the Pa’rus trail. It begins at the visitor’s center and is paved, so it’s quite accessible. It runs along the floor of the canyon and will give you some epic views.
There are many other hikes in Zion that are family-friendly but difficulty levels vary so do your research first!
Distances between Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon
If you’re trying to figure out which parks and activities you want to hit, here’s a handy charge with the driving time between some of the national parks.
|Starting Point||Ending Point||Est Driving Time|
|Grand Canyon North Rim||Zion National Park||3 hours|
|Grand Canyon South Rim||Zion National Park||5+ hours|
|Zion National Park||Bryce Canyon||90 minutes|
|Bryce Canyon||North Rim Grand Canyon||3 hours|
|Bryce Canyon||South Rim Canyon||6-8 hours|
|Page, Arizona||North Rim Canyon||2.5 hours|
|Page, Arizona||Zion National Park||1 hr 45 mins|
|Page, Arizona||Bryce Canyon||2.5 hours|
|Page, Arizona||South Rim Grand Canyon||3-4 hours|
|Page, Arizona||Best Friends Animal Sanctuary/Kanab||90 minutes|
Hopefully this illustrates why we love to stay in Page and just do day trips. Even though Zion and Bryce are only 90 minutes apart, each one deserves at least a full day of your time. Sure, you could visit both in a day, but you wouldn’t get to see everything. And, if you need a down day to just stick close to the hotel, you can go to the dam (photo below) or Horseshoe Bend, or the caves. The caves are a part of Navajo Nation, more info below under that heading.
Other Nearby Activities
While these aren’t national parks, I think they’re well worth checking out when you’re in the area.
We visited Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and for some of the tours, reservations are required. For some of the tours, they don’t do every tour or activity every day, so you have to plan your trip according to what you want to see. We planned our trip around my niece wanting to see the horses. I would hate for any of my readers to travel all the way out there and then have to miss out on an important segment of something due to timing.
Kanab also has several hotels and restaurants and can be a great spot to stay and do “out and back” day trips to the various canyons.
Navajo Nation Parks
Some of the places like Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon are not National Parks but are part of Navajo Nation. Visit those websites and see what your fees will be and if reservations are required. Plan ahead (but be ready to roll with the punches, of course).
Here is my son and my niece at Antelope Canyon. For this outing, we left Kevin at home with my mother-in-law, and I am glad that we did. While it makes me uncomfortable to say “you can’t do this” I have to tell myself to add a “yet” on to the end of that.
Some day he will be able to climb Antelope Canyon, just not this trip.
I hope these tips for visiting the national parks with kids are helpful!