America's national parks are an 84-million-acre wonderland of fields and forests, canyons and coastline. For the military family looking to "unplug" and enjoy time outdoors together, national parks are the perfect recreation destination. Not only can outdoor exercise and play reduce the stress of the mobile military life, they also help keep service members and their families physically fit and strengthen family bonds. For budget-conscious military families, national parks offer the fun of a theme park vacation at a fraction of the cost. National parks also help nurture an appreciation for America's history and natural beauty — things that can take on special importance for the military community. America's 397 national parks offer endless opportunities for hiking, biking, swimming, climbing, camping and exploring, so pick a park, pack up the family and hit the road.
Finding a park
Whether you're looking for a real change of scenery or want to stay close to home, there's a national park for every military family. Tools at the National Park Service website let you search parks by name or location, activity, topic (e.g., Civil War, endangered species, mountains, etc.), or state. You might also ask fellow service members or neighbors on your installation about national parks they've visited — which ones were their favorites and what activities they enjoyed there. Take into consideration your family members' preferred vacation destinations, interests and favorite outdoor activities, and choose a park that offers something everyone can get excited about.
Activities for all ages
National parks offer military families a multitude of activities almost as diverse as their plant and animal life. In many national parks, hiking trails abound, offering beautiful scenery, wildlife encounters or just the chance to learn more about the park's history or native plants. Service members can hone their survival skills in the great outdoors and teach the young ones how to pitch a tent, fish or even identify edible or poisonous plants. Where the coast, lakes or rivers are part of the landscape, you and your family may be able to go swimming, canoeing or kayaking. The more skilled or adventuresome members of your family may enjoy more demanding activities like rock climbing in Yosemite National Park in California or skiing at Essex National Heritage Area in Massachusetts. For fun "under the sea," you can even go snorkeling at Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean.
You'll find more information about things to do on the pages of each individual park; there's sure to be something to suit almost any age or fitness level. Also, if someone in your family uses a wheelchair, be sure to check in advance for wheelchair-friendly activities and accessible trails or sights.
Park-sponsored activities and programs
Parks frequently offer guided programs combining hiking or some other activity with informative commentary on notable sights, historic events or other interesting park trivia. You can take a guided full moon hike in Bryce Canyon National Park, join the Hudson River Valley Ramble in New York or take a narrated tram tour into the "River of Grass" at the Everglades. To keep the kids busy, Junior Ranger events and programs are also available. Kids can earn an official Junior Ranger badge and certificate by completing a series of activities during their park visit and sharing their answers with a park ranger.
If you visit the National Park Service website for information on a particular park, look under "Plan Your Trip," then "Things to Do" for details on guided or park-sponsored programs and activities.
Along with the scenery, sun and fun, there's a lot to learn in a national park. Individual national parks offer information about the plants and animals that live there along with area history and environmental issues affecting that park.
The history buff in your military family can learn more about the events that shaped America's history at the National Park Service's 11 National Battlefields, nine National Military Parks, four National Battlefield Parks and one National Battlefield Site. Teach young patriots about how America got its start at Minute Man National Historical Park (Massachusetts). Relive the drama of Civil War battles by visiting Antietam National Battlefield (Maryland). Check out where General George Custer made his fateful Last Stand at Little Bighorn National Monument (Montana). All the while enjoying the fresh air and getting some exercise on foot or a bicycle.
The lessons learned at these national parks not only contribute to your family's education, they can also help instill a lasting appreciation for America's places and its natural and national history.
To play it safe, use common sense when visiting our national parks always making it a priority to read and strictly follow all national park rules, warnings and signs, even when a particular place or activity seems or looks safe. Remember that depending on where you are and what you're doing, conditions can change quickly from safe to hazardous to life-threatening. You'll find safety tips for each park at on NPS website by clicking "Plan Your Visit," then "Things To Know Before You Come."
Before you go
Pages on the individual national parks offer directions and information on operating hours and seasons, fees and reservations. Entrance fees vary from park to park, and some parks don't charge admission at all. You'll also find details on available activities, accessibility, maps, brochures and much more.
Get out there and enjoy all our national parks have to offer!