Add These Top Five National Parks to Your Kick the Bucket List (places to go before you die)

Vacation time’s coming up and that leaves you with one dilemma; Where are you going to go? Sure you could go on that all-inclusive vacation, but that type of vacation won’t teach you and your family anything.

If you are looking for one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences; that learning experience that will always stay with you; a vacation that will give you a bonding experience, then it’s camping you wanna ago.

There is nothing my family likes to do more than camping and hiking.  Well, my teenage son might disagree now that he has a girlfriend, but that’s another story.  As a family, we have done a lot of travelling around to find the best places to hike and camp from our point of view.  Naturally, the season can play a significant role in whether or not everyone has a good time.  But we have found some great places that either have good weather all year round or are particularly great during one or two specific seasons.

Here are our top 5 picks for National Parks with the best hiking and camping. 

Big Bend National Park: Texas

Big Bend has almost 200 miles of hiking trails, and best of all, there is desert, riverside and mountains all in one park, so you just can’t get bored with the terrain.  We have explored various parts of the park and have always had a great time.

In the Chihuahuan Desert, you can see hills and mesas and never encounter any sign of civilization.  We rented some canoes and paddled the Rio Grande River which flows along the border of the park for more than 100 miles.  I would say that we had a marvelous time, but my daughter, the punster of the family said, “It was just Grande.”

In the winter, the temperature stays around 60, so it’s perfect for hiking comfortably, and for camping, it’s not too cold.  But if you get up into the Chisos Mountains, the temperatures can be 20 degrees colder, so you will need extra layers there.

Shenandoah National Park: Virginia

If you are looking for a great place to camp and hike to see the autumn colors, look no further than Shenandoah National Park.  It is truly a spectacle when all of the trees and foliage are changing colors.  As my youngest would say, “It is splendiferous.”

There are literally dozens of stunning waterfalls and over 500 miles of hiking trails.  You start out hiking above the waterfalls, so you go downhill to get to them, which is great.  But then, you have to hike back up.  And the distance, as well as the climb can be too much for your kids.  So check out these things on the web; there are downloadable maps.

We took the Limberlost Trail, which had a crushed greenstone walkway, a gentle grade, a boardwalk and a bridge. The kids loved it.  There are campgrounds but also backcountry and wilderness camping (which my husband says is on his bucket list.)

By the way, your kids will really enjoy and learn a lot from the Ranger Explorer Guides.  As well, the Rangers provide informative talks and even campfire programs.  And the really neat thing is that the park has webcams, so the kids can check out a Peregrine Falcon nest for weeks after they get back home.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Tennessee/North Carolina

This is the most visited national park in the USA, which surprised all of us because we thought that the Grand Canyon National Park would take the top place for visitors.  We liked it here in the spring, when you can see the wildflowers.  We took the guided walks and hikes during the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage and saw an abundance of trillium, orchids and violets.  It was absolutely spectacular.

There are a number of options for camping, but for our middle child, the only one that she would consider was the horse camp at Round Bottom.  (She’s a lot horse-crazy).  This camp was a little primitive with only portable toilets and no drinking water, but we brought water and there was a fire ring, so we could cook at least.

The next day, we took a guided horseback ride, so our daughter was in seventh-heaven.

Mammoth Cave National Park: Kentucky

Aside from the adventure of exploring the world’s largest cave system, you can beat the heat here in the summer, since the caves are nice and cool.  Our boys loved it here.  They climbed, crawled and squeezed their way through unimaginably small spaces on the Wild Cave Tour.  There are more than 400 miles of caves in the park, and they are really quite beautiful and interesting.

Although swimming is not allowed due to the brisk 5 mile per hour flow rate of the Green and Nolin Rivers, there is fishing.  Great fishing; bass, crappie, bluegill, muskellunge and catfish, along with almost 100 other species.  You do not need a fishing license, but you do need to abide by the creel and size limits, as well as the method and bait rules.  Check out the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources Sport Fishing Guide before you fish in the park.

We camped right beside the Green River, and it was peaceful, pretty and reasonably cool.  Dad fished, the kids “helped” him, and I read a book.  Then, we cooked the fish, had a wonderful meal and sang songs around the fire until late.  A blissful summer day.

By the way, if you can plan your summer vacation around August 25, all national parks waive their entrance fees in honor of Founder’s Day, the National Park Service’s birthday.  At Mammoth, they also offer the Discovery Tour for free that day.

Biscayne National Park: Florida

This park is great in the winter if you are trying to beat the cold, and also wonderful in the summer for beating the heat because you can swim.  The park is 95% submerged underwater!  There are glass-bottom boat tours, of course, but we suggest canoeing and snorkeling.

We like Elliott Key which has both a waterside and a forested camping area.  There are picnic tables and grills, restrooms and cold showers.  Two trails run through the island; one trail is 7 miles long and the other is 1 mile long.  Both of the trails are fun and interesting.

Using a canoe to get around gave us lots of time to explore and see everything in the lagoons, creeks and channels.  Since it is too shallow for motorized vessels, the canoeists have it all to themselves.  You can see huge schools of fish, large wading birds, and even sharks and rays.  In Hurricane Creek, we snorkeled under the mangrove roots and saw lots of marine life; giant sponges, spiny lobster, crabs, sea squirts.  Too bad the area is a lobster sanctuary or we would have had a feast.

Although, you will beat the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter at Biscayne National Park, my kids wanted me to tell you that you won’t beat the mosquitoes (or as my youngest calls them, “the blood suckers.”  Be sure to bring your bug spray!