5 Awesome Things to Do with Kids in Our National Parks

Happy Birthday, National Park Service!  We are celebrating 100 years of service on August 25th.

Watching Old Faithful Erupt from the Deck at the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park

I love our nation’s national parks.  I am constantly amazed that many parents decide to skip the national parks as a family travel destination in favor of something more “kid-friendly.”  They assume their children won’t really be able to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of these natural wonders.  I’ve found the opposite to be true.

Every national park is unique and amazing in its own way.  There are icy tundras, grassy plains, burning deserts, towering mountains, and amazing rock formations.   A national park is an amazing place to run and play, to hike and bike, to wander and learn.  It is an opportunity to learn history, commune with nature or just breathe fresh air.   

While every park is unique and amazing in its own way, there are five awesome things that you can do at almost every major National Park:

1.  Get a Stamp in Your Passport

Did you know that you don’t have to leave the country to fill a passport with unique stamps?  The National Park service offers its own Passport to Your National Parks book.  The books can be purchased in any park gift shop or online for less than $10.  (Proceeds support the national parks.

From the Grand Canyon to the Statute of Liberty—it is so fun to collect all the stamps.  Most National Parks or Monuments have at least once cancellation station where you can stamp your passport.  Larger parks such as Yosemite or Yellowstone feature multiple cancellation stations for various attractions.  Participation by the parks is voluntary.  Check here to find out if the park you plan to visit participates.  

In addition to the cancellation stamps, which are free, you can also purchase a set of limited addition commemorative stamps which feature color photographs of a park or monument.  These are placed on the designated pages in your passport.  These sticker sets change each year.  You can find the sticker sets in the park’s gift shop or online.

2.  Earn a Junior Ranger Badge

The Junior Ranger Program has been around since my children were little.  They loved it and now my grandchildren it.  The National Park Service designed the Junior Ranger Program to help make the national park experience extra special for children ages 4 to 14 (although people of all ages can participate.)

The program gives kids and families the opportunity to explore and learn about our national parks, and how they can help protect them today and into the future.  This nationwide program is designed to familiarize children with the duties and responsibilities of a park ranger,

There are currently over 200 Junior Ranger Programs in the National Park Service.  In each of these programs, kids interview Rangers, complete games, and answer questions about the park and the National Park Service.  At the end of their experience in the park, kids are sworn in as Junior Rangers and receive a special certificate and official Junior Ranger badge.

Becoming a Junior Ranger is a mark of distinction.  These special badges issued cannot be purchased or otherwise obtained except through the dedication of the child and the support of his or her parents or guardians.  Parents wishing their children to become Junior Rangers should plan several hours at a park toward the completion of this program.

All Junior Ranger programs are free of charge.

A little known fact is that Gerald Ford, our 38th president, was the only American president to serve as a park ranger in the National Park Service.

3.  Go on a Ranger Walk

I love the ranger walks and tours offered by the ranger.   It is surprising how much you learn and besides at least one talk or walk is required for the junior ranger badge.  The rangers have a vast wealth of information about the parks they work in.  I find them to be passionate about their jobs.  Many of them have worked at the same park for years and know every square inch of it.  Their excitement is infectious, especially for kids!

4.  Take a Scenic Drive

PBS made an incredible documentary about the National Parks.  One of the things it talks about is how the roads in the National Parks were designed by artists first and then civil engineers second—Yosemite is a beautiful example! 

Most National Parks feature at least one scenic drives.  There is gorgeous scenery to appreciate and often they will have scenic lookout points or short trails along the drive.   Directions are found in the park maps.   Be sure to ask at the ranger station for recommendations—most rangers will be full of advice on which trails to take, as well as what wildlife and other attractions to look out for along the way!

5.  Stay Overnight

The National Park service offers some of the most beautiful and scenic campsites you’ll find.  The prices are usually cheaper than private campgrounds.  During the summer many popular park campgrounds fill up quickly, so if you are planning a trip, be sure to book ahead.  Be sure to also check what amenities are available, as well as check policies regarding food and fire. 

Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the AhwahneeHotel)

I will admit that roughing it is not my style anymore, I have come to appreciate the creature comforts of a good bed, electricity, and a private bathroom. But besides camping, there are some great opportunities for overnight lodging in the parks.  Many older parks feature beautiful (and famous) lodges, many of which were work projects during the Great Depression.  Some parks also offer simple cabins that are a step up from camping, but a little more rustic than a hotel. 

No vacation is ever perfect but a vacation in one of the over 400 national parks is very close to it. 

 

The Neon Museum in Las Vegas

In June I went to Las Vegas with my sister, Elizabeth, for a week.  I took my 15 year old granddaughter, Elyza, with me.   I'm not much into gambling but there is so much else to do in Vegas besides gambling.  There are great restaurants and great museums and other attractions.  One of the best things we did was go on a tour of the neon boneyard at the Neon Museum.  Now if you're looking for a Las Vegas museum that would appeal to tweens, teens , and adults, this is the museum for you. 

The Neon Museum in Las Vegas is a unique little museum.  The museum is part art, architecture, design, advertising, and history.  It is a monument to one of the world’s most fascinating cities and to the art form it made famous.  This outdoor museum is the final resting place for more than 200 of Las Vegas' former neon signs and displays about 120 of them.

I’m always on the lookout for museums and tours that will entertain tweens and teens and this certainly fit the bill.   Although the museum allows children on the tour, it is best appreciated by kids 5th grade and above.

The visitors' center is located inside the historic La Concha Motel lobby, which was saved from demolition and relocated to its current location. The main lobby and a small gift shop is there.   There is also a self-guided "touch screen" that has some good information on Vegas and a selfie photo booth but the real exhibits are outside in the Neon Boneyard.  It is only available to the public through a guided tour and participants are limited.  In the Boneyard you’ll find a collection of neon signs ranging from local businesses, to casinos, to food places, Mom & Pops, etc.  The signs with their spectacular colors, intricate animation and size are also considered by many to be true works of art. The collection ranges from the 1940s to present day.

Volunteer guides provide context for the signs.  Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable on Las Vegas history.  We booked our tour for the first tour of the day (hoping to avoid the mind-melting Las Vegas heat.  The museum does provides shade umbrellas.)  There are also night tours available.  It must be something to see at night - there are seven restored signs that are turned on and the rest of the collection is illuminated by led lights along the ground.

It was something to see in the daytime too!  We had a great time and even a 15 year old girl was impressed by the signs and their histories.  I want to share some of my favorite exhibits on the tour.

The Ugly Duckling Car Sales sign

This is my hands-down, my number one favorite sign in the boneyard!  This two-sided baby duck is just too cute!  It’s from the former Ugly Duckling Car Sales.  Now the duck’s neon head peeks over the wall of the Neon Museum, and it was the first sign I noticed from the parking lot and the last sign visited on our tour.

Steiner’s “Happy Shirt” sign

This is one of the animated signs in the boneyard.  The sign was for a dry cleaner and designed by the owner’s daughter when she was only 12 years old.  Our tour guide also pointed out that this happy, well-pressed, button-down shirt originally had a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Doc and Eddy’s Pool Hall “Pool Player”

This 10-foot-tall Pool Player once stood on the roof of Doc and Eddy’s Pool Hall.  The body is made of hand-welded steel, his hair locks are made from rebar and his clothes, including his jeans and the partially unbuttoned pseudo Hawaiian shirt, was painted on.  It is not technically a sign in the traditional sense, but is an interesting addition to the boneyard.

The Green Shack sign

The oldest sign in the collection came from the Green Shack restaurant on Fremont Street and dates back to the 1930s.  The sign was put together with a flat head screwdriver.

At the sign for the Green Shack restaurant, find out about owner, Mrs. Mattie (Jimmie) Jones and her “spirited” brand of entrepreneurship—prior to opening the Green Shack, she sold bootleg whiskey out of her house.  She is the mother of the Las Vegas liquor license; the Green Shack was issued was the city’s first liquor license.  The Green Shack was one of the longest running restaurants in Las Vegas closing in 1999.

The Moulin Rouge sign

Our guide shared how trailblazing woman sign designer, Betty Willis, made significant contributions to Las Vegas’ visual landscape.  (She also designed the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.)

Our guide shared with us a little of the history on integration in Las Vegas.  It wasn’t that long ago Las Vegas casinos made racial “exceptions” only for entertainers (i.e., Sammy Davis Jr.).  Advertised as the “first major interracial hotel” in the nation, Moulin Rouge set the standard for other hotels in Vegas to loosen up their segregation policies.

With about 120 signs in the boneyard to choose from, it was challenging to narrow it down to just five.

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