safe summer adventure,
nothing beats the national parks)
with kids is an activity that presents many opportunities for disaster-rainstorms,
insects, and burned wienies-yet also has the potential to be a great
bonding experience. One way to make the most of a camping expedition
is to pitch your tent at one of the 379 National Park Service units
scattered across the country.
NPS facilities include National Parks, National Recreation Areas,
National Seashores and Lakeshores and National Monuments. Each exists
to preserve either an historic site or an area of natural significance,
which will give your visit a built-in theme that you can match to
your child's personal interests. Each also offers a variety of organized
programs and events, from hikes to historic interpretations to Junior
Ranger programs that take some of the pressure off Dad to organize
all of the entertainment. The rangers, in their classic Smoky Bear
hats, are your friends.
Teton National Park
National Parks and other NPS facilities are also safe places to visit
because they are patrolled by "protective ranger staff,"
essentially police officers with a naturalist bent, who keep a close
eye on the campgrounds and recreation areas.
The best source of information on National Parks is the NPS web site
(www.nps.gov) which offers detailed information on every park. Click
on the "Visit Your Parks" area and the site will allow you
select from a menu of activities, interests and states you'd like
to visit, and then matches parks to your selection. There are links
to sites for each individual park which have information on fees,
camping reservations, activities and directions.
Most National Parks have a Junior Ranger program that's designed by
the staff at each park. It may be as simple as a workbook you purchase
and use as a guide to seek answers to questions or as elaborate as
hikes or hands-on activities led by rangers. Kids who complete the
program are usually awarded a patch.
Grand Teton National Park, for example, offers a free Junior Naturalist
program for kids aged 8 to 12. Rangers lead a two- to three-hour hike
that focuses on specific aspects of environmental education. "We
see the kids as a blank sheet," says Jackie Skaggs, ranger/naturalist
at Teton Park. "It's very easy to interest and enlighten them,
to get them in touch with the natural world that's unfamiliar to so
many in today's urban society.
Another great reason to camp at a National Park is the low cost. Most
parks charge $10 per car for a seven-day pass. Camping fees range
from about $10 to $16 per night. Almost everything else is free.
with kids requires more preparation than a hotel-based vacation.
You want to be prepared to make things go as smoothly as possible,
so get out your old Boy Scout Handbook and review your skills.
One way to avoid problems is to practice with equipment like
the tent, cooking stove and sleeping pads before you leave.
If you've erected the tent or the pop-up camper a few times
in broad daylight in the back yard, getting it up at night after
a long drive to the park will go much more smoothly. And you
don't want to be reading the stove directions when the gang
is hungry for breakfast.
Fire building is of course a critical camping skill for Dad to master.
If it's been a while since you've lit anything besides a cigar or
the Weber grill, practice at home. It also pays to bring a little
of your own dry kindling wood from home, especially if it's been raining
and firewood at the park is apt to be damp. When planning menus, keep
it simple. Kids will eat hot dogs and beans over and over.
If you have very young children who have never camped before, start
with a "sleep-out" in the back yard and help ease any anxiety
about sleeping in a tent. Bring along a favorite pillow, doll or blanket
for further comfort and keep the flashlight close by.
Because some National Parks can get very busy during peak weekends,
you may need to make camping reservations in advance. The park website
will help in this regard. Most also list interesting activities away
from the park, and the smart Dad will have a rainy-day plan ready
that includes indoor activities such as local museums. Keep 'em busy
and the trip will be a fun one.
Parks to Visit With Kids
Mention national parks and most people think of Yellowstone, Yosemite
or the Great Smoky Mountains, which also happen to be three of the
most crowed parks. Here are some alternatives that kids will enjoy:
Dinosaur National Monument: Northwestern Colorado. Kids love
dinosaurs and this place has 'em. A quarry contains more than 1,500
dino bones and you can watch technicians working in the paleontology
lab. Other attractions include a trout hatchery, hiking trails to
waterfalls and petroglyphs, and white-water raft trips on the Green
and Yampa Rivers.
Lassen Volcanic National Park: North Central California. Established
in 1916 around Lassen Peak, an active volcano that erupted in 1914,
this park features many of the thermal features-sulfur vents, hot
springs, lava pinnacles and cinder cones-you'll see at Yellowstone
but never the crowds. There's snow in the higher elevations until
July, which is always fun to see.
Assateague Island National Seashore: A 37-mile-long barrier
island along the Atlantic coasts of Maryland and Virginia offers white
sand beaches and ocean swimming, crabbing and clamming, bay canoeing,
and backcountry camping for the adventurous. An historic village with
boardwalk is located on the mainland.
Rocky Mountain National Park: Central Colorado. This park offers
exceptional activities for kids, with a hands-on Junior Ranger program.
Rangers also lead the Rocky Explorers study of the engineering behind
a beaver dam. Lots of hiking and horseback riding for your posse.
Apostle Island National Lakeshore: Northern Wisconsin. Older
kids who like adventure will enjoy this park, which offers camping
on 21 islands scattered along the Lake Superior coast. You can move
from island to island in your small powerboat or by sea kayaks rented
from local outfitters. There are old lighthouses and it's almost always
cool here in the summer, though the lake may be cold for swimming.
the father of five daughters, is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.
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