Hiking in Mount Rainier with Teenagers

cascading waterfall with a wooden bridge over it and mount rainier in the background

Like any activity with teenagers, hiking in a National Park takes planning and patience. We had an awesome experience hiking in Mount Rainier with teenagers and we are excited to share all about it. This post will focus specifically on Mt. Rainier National Park as well as some tried and true tips and tricks about hiking and exploring outdoors with teens.

teenagers standing at river water's edge with gray boulders in the background

Mount Rainier National Park, WA

Mount Rainier is located in Washington state, about midway between Portland, OR and Seattle, WA. The park was founded in 1899 by a group of conservationists, local businesses and railroad companies headed up by the famous John Muir. Mount Rainier National Park is part of the traditional lands of indigenous people who have been there for generations. The park is part of a complex history that deserves respect.

Upwards of 2 million visitors descend on the park each year as people seek a glimpse of the highest volcanic peak in the contiguous U.S. The geological wonders and incredible landscapes draw people in. One thing is certain, people seek out hiking in Mount Rainier. As visitors and park use continue to increase, please do your part to leave no trace as you enjoy the beauty.

family with teenagers standing in front of Mount Rainier volcano

Getting to Mt. Rainier

If you will be flying to get out to Mount Rainier National Park, you have two options for airports. You can either fly into Portland, OR or Seattle, WA. You will need to rent a car from there. The drive from Seattle to the Nisqually Entrance (open year round) takes about 1 hour 45 minutes. The drive from Portland to the Nisqually entrance takes about 2 hours 25 minutes. The other option from Portland is to enter from the South east at the Ohanapecosh Entrance station which will require about a 2.5 hour drive. The entrance fee per single vehicle is $30 and will provide a 7 day pass.

Lodging at Mt. Rainier

Like most National Parks, Mount Rainier is in a remote area with lots of wilderness around it. There are not a lot of lodging options. If you are looking for cabins near Mt. Rainier, check out Gateway Inn & Cabins just outside the Nisqually entrance or this A-frame near Packwood, WA. Lodging at Mt. Rainier is limited to the Paradise Inn which fills up quickly and the National Park Inn with only 25 rooms total.

Camping at Mt. Rainier may be your best option if you are willing. Fees are $20 per nite per site. With close to 500 individual sites you can get an incredible in park experience. If backpacking Mt. Rainier is what you’re after, make sure to get a backcountry permit before taking off on your adventure. You can obtain those permits at a ranger station. Climbing permits must be obtained also for getting on the glaciers. During peak season, you may get permits with advanced reservations. Check the site for further information. Hiking in Mt. Rainier is excellent no matter the skill level you have.

The Best Hikes in Mt. Rainier

Mount Rainier offers over 260 miles of trails to choose from. Keep your hiking plans flexible as weather in the area can change drastically and parking lots fill quickly during the busy summer months. Have a back-up plan ready. Keep in mind that bicycles and pets are NOT allowed on most of the trails inside this park. As always, stay on the trails so as to protect the meadows and resist the temptation to feed the wildlife. Keep nature wild, y’all!

Day Hikes in Mt. Rainier

Due to the close proximity to major metropolitan cities of Settle and Portland partnered with the lack of nearby lodging, Mt. Rainier hiking trails are extremely popular for day hikers. As mentioned above, try to keep your plans flexible and your hiking group to less than 12. Your best bet for parking is to arrive at your trailhead as early as possible. For example, the park visitor center located at Paradise fills quickly. The upper parking lot near the trailheads was 75% full by 7:45 am on a Sunday morning in late July.

  • Silver Falls Trail: Located near the Stevens Canyon entrance station you have two options to start this trail. One is to begin at the campground and loop all the way around for a 3 mile hike with 300 feet of elevation gain. The other is to start across from the parking area at Grove of the Patriarchs and do a 3 mile out and back hike, turning around at the bridge. This trail can experience wash outs if the rains have been heavy so be prepared. The water is impossibly blue and the deep growth forest cover makes this a popular family hike. Our teenagers loved climbing out on the rocks to get a better look at the falls. Beware that rocks can get quite slippery.
  • Grove of the Patriarchs: this easy 1.3 mile loop trail near the Stevens Canyon entrance station will give tree lovers lots to gawk at. These monster trees reside on an island so you’ll cross a low swinging bridge over the Ohanapecosh River. This is one of the best hiking trails for kids, but also impressive to teens.
  • Skyline Trail to Myrtle Falls: park in the upper parking lot at Paradise and take the paved path to the right. The wildflower meadows and marmots will keep you entertained as you trek upward. Take the small offshoot trail down to get a good look at the falls and then cross over the bridge and continue on narrow trail to go deeper into the meadows. The views of Mount Rainier are incredible! You can make this hike as long as you want for an out and back, but if you turn around at the falls it’s only a 1 mile roundtrip hike.
  • Skyline Loop: If you’re looking for a more strenuous hike, but still want to see Mt. Rainier in all its glory, this is the one. This 5.5 mile loop trail will take 1700 feet of elevation gain. Give yourself about 4 hours to complete this one, but it’s well worth it for the best view of Mt. Rainier.
  • Pinnacle Peak: Another great day hike that is less popular because the trailhead is at Reflection Lakes and not at Paradise. 3 miles roundtrip with 1100 feet of elevation gain, this hike will take about 3 hours to complete and is a fabulous day hike to push yourself a bit more.
teenage girls standing on a gray boulder above the river water's edge
teenager boy walking away from the camera across a low swinging bridge

Backpacking Mt. Rainier

Teenagers are often looking to prove themselves and are looking for an adventure that pushes the limits and offers some healthy risk. The Wonderland Trail is a multi-day, 93 mile backpacking trail that encircles Mount Rainier. Demand in the summer months is high, so it’s recommended to make a reservation for a wilderness permit, which is required. Plan accordingly as camping along the trail is only allowed in designated camps. There are 21 campsites to choose from, but not all can accommodate a group. Do your research for teen backpacking. This could be an incredible opportunity for a hiking in Mount Rainier as a small group of teenagers. How incredible it would be to accomplish together or as a fantastic family bonding experience with your teens?

Teen Hiking Tips

I’ll be the first to admit that we do not have hiking with teenagers completely figured out. It’s taken some trial and error to figure out a few things that keep teens happy on the trail. First, it’s really important to let your teen feel heard. This doesn’t mean caving into their complaining, but it does mean encouraging them to be positive about what they DO want. Ask them for suggestions on places they want to see. Take really high quality snacks of their choice with you. Teach them basic life skills for teenagers like map reading skills while you are out on the trail to demonstrate your confidence in them. Have a list of conversation starters to keep minds off of the physical work.

teenage boy reading a map with Mount Rainier in the background

Let them complain and agree with the difficulty…and then remind them of the hard things they’ve already done. The best vacation for teenagers is the one they can go back home and brag about what they DID. They may roll their eyes, but take photos to document the memories. In time they will appreciate it.

Teen Hiking “Tricks”

This is the time to allow your teen to take some risk. Most teenagers are looking to blow through boundaries. The outdoors allows them to push the limits in a healthy way. Yes, the rocks are slippery and there’s a good chance they will fall, but they need to know it’s okay to fall and then try again. Teenagers will find any way they can to apply risk. As parents we have to become comfortable with them applying risk in outdoor adventure. In fact, I truly believe we must provide those opportunities. The best vacations for families with teenagers give ample freedom and space to be active and wild.

One last tip for keeping teens engaged while hiking is to do it with another family. Multi-family vacations and adventures are good for everyone. When teens have peers to pass the time and to bond with, the experience is all the more rich. We have traveled several times with another family when visiting National Parks and it has been a win for the teens and the parents alike.

5 teenagers standing on a wooden bridge with mount rainier in the background
three teenagers and a dad crossing a low swinging bridge

Hiking Gear for Teenagers

As I’m sure you’ve witnessed, teens grow at irregular intervals and at lightening speed pace. Gear can become expensive quickly. Our best advice is to purchase high quality essentials such as hiking boots and base layers that you can resell or pass down to a sibling. Check out my in-depth guide for more gift giving ideas. If you want your teens to enjoy being outdoors it is important to make sure they are as comfortable as possible. Don’t hesitate to borrow or rent equipment as you and your teen are trying new things.

Hiking is one of the best activities for teenagers. All teens need to spend outside for fresh air and time away from screens. It feels good for everyone to get time away from the daily grind and to embrace nature. The opportunity to physically push the limits is also pretty great. We can’t recommend hiking in Mount Rainier National Park enough. We snuck in several trails during our 10 day long PNW road trip and I think it’s safe to say that we will make it back again some day.

Best Gifts for Outdoorsy Teens

Finding unique gifts for teens can seem impossible. I know this to be true because I have three teenagers of my own! This guide will give you ideas on the best gifts for the outdoorsy and adventurous teens in your life. The great news is that people who love the outdoors also love gadgets and adventure gear. You will be the gift giving hero with just the right thing, big or small gifts, for teens who love outdoor adventure.

photo of tent in forest

*This post contains affiliate links, and we sometimes earn commission. We like to be completely up front that our blog can earn money if you click thru our guides.*

Best Outdoor Gifts by Gender

Outdoor Gifts for Boys

It takes a little digging to find the cool gifts for outdoorsy guys, but it’s worth it. Below are a few ideas that will win you some points. Our guys love their Bench Made knives and they make a very special gift. Guys seem to always remember when they got their first knife and who gave it to them.

Survival Guide $11

BenchMade Pocket Knife $136

Rumpl Blanket $99

Gifts for Outdoorsy Girls

Believe it or not, girls love to be outdoors as much as boys and they want the skills and the gear to adventure outdoors just as much. Here are a few ideas on gifts for the outdoor girl in your life. Remember, just because they love the outdoors doesn’t mean they aren’t feminine.

Stories of life changing adventures by women $14

Chaco Water Sandals $90

Tesalate Surf Poncho $26

Best Gifts for the Outdoorsy Teens in Your Life (by activity)

Top Camping Gifts

It’s pretty cut and dry to find gifts for people who like camping because there are SO many items you need to make camping a great experience. Camping gear gifts make teens so happy because quality items can be pricey.

red camp stove

Coleman Camp Stove $76

blue sleeping bag for camping

Kelty Cosmic 20 degree sleeping bag $140

teal colored camping pillow

Wise Owl Camping Pillow $25

lantern

MPOWERED lantern & mobile charger $31

lime green camping tent

Marmot Crane Creek 2 person tent $216

green sleeping pad for camping

Sleepingo camping pad $40

Gifts for People Who Like to Hike

These gifts aren’t all specific to hiking, but all can be used for teens who like to get out on the trails. To be honest, the best hiking boots are ones that fit well. We are just offering our favorites, but it’s a very personal decision and an investment in your body as well. Hiking accessories gifts go a long way for not too much money.

black backpack for a day hike

Osprey Daylite Daypack $60

water filter for backcountry hiking

LifeStraw Water Filter $18

brown hiking boots for adult

Vasque Men’s Hiking Boots $209

brown and black women's hiking boot

La Sportiva Women’s Hiking Boots $230

travel size first aid kit

First Aid Kit $14

Maps for the next adventure $25

Cool Gifts for Teens Who Love the Water

Teenagers love to spend outdoors time on and in the water. No matter if it’s a river, lake, or ocean teens are always up for water activities. Check out the following items for great Christmas gifts for teens or the perfect teen birthday gift for those who love the water.

Waterproof Dry Bag $20

Snorkel Gear $43

Inflatable Stand Up Paddleboard $307

Wise Owl Microfiber Beach Towel $30

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Partial Wetsuit $95

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Life Jacket $95

Best Gifts for Teens Who Love to Mountain Bike

There are so many technical and necessary items that mountain bikers need to have with them in order to have a safe and fun ride. Most of the time mountain bikers are in remote areas and on trails without access to immediate help. Set your teens up for success and safety while they enjoy the great outdoors.

Rotor Truing Tool $22

Bike Repair Toolkit $35

Garmin 530 Cycling Computer $250

Top Gifts for Teens who Love Fishing

Just like other avid outdoorsmen, fishermen love their gear. As with any hobby, they need the basics and the fun stuff. Many of these items are an investment, but a one time purchase could last them a LONG time.

Yeti Tundra Cooler $400

Digital Hanging Scale $30

Waterproof Waders $50

Tacky Fly Box $30

7″ Fishing Pliers $24

Best Apparel Gifts for Outdoorsy Teens

Top Outerwear Gifts

Every adventurous teen needs the right outerwear for their outdoor fun. Depending on the type of environment you live in you may or may not want to invest in expensive gear, but here are a few ideas to get you started. When our teens are dressed appropriately we rarely get complaints about being too cold or too well. Go with the saying “there’s no bad weather, only bad gear”.

Women’s Lightweight Puffer Jacket $59

Women’s Marmot Rainjacket $100

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Women’s Kuhl Fleece Pullover $99

Oatmeal

Men’s Kuhl Fleece $129

Men’s The North Face Rainjacket $99

Men’s Columbia Puffer Jacket $107

Top Clothing Gifts

It’s safe to say that we’ve tried every kind of apparel and it can be tough to break away from the super popular brands that everyone recognizes. But after some trial and error these are some of the tried and trues. The best thing about quality apparel is that it lasts. The best thing about less expensive trendy apparel is that if your teens outgrow it quickly, there’s no harm done to your wallet.

KÜHL Renegade™ Pant in category Pants (secondary image)

Men’s Kuhl Renegade Tech Pants $89

Men’s Columbia PFG Sun Protection Shirt $25

Men’s ExOfficio Hiking Shirt $90

Women’s Hiking Joggers $33

Women’s O’Neill SunShirt $36

Active tank $16

The Best Under Layers and Base Layers

Comfort is a BIG deal when your teens spend time outside. It really matters how well they are protected from the elements so they can stay outdoors longer and enjoy their time. Excellent merino wool base layers will pull away sweat and allow their bodies to breathe and not get clammy. I’ve included links for some women’s and some men’s products, but Smartwool and Exofficio offer both. You can’t go wrong with those brands. I know they are pricey, but they are worth every penny!

Men’s ExOfficio Boxer Briefs $40

Smartwool Merino Wool Baselayer $100

Smartwool Merino Baselayer Shirt $85

Smartwool Liner Gloves $10

Girls XL Thermal Underlayers $27

Women’s Kari Traa Thermal Pants $100

Top Tech Gifts for Outdoor Enthusiasts

It’s not too difficult to find the top trending gifts for teens because they are almost always tech gifts. Even the most outdoorsy teenagers will have their eyes on the tech that supports their favorite outdoor activities. Keep in mind that most active teenagers want to keep their gear as lightweight and as portable as possible.

Black Diamond Headlamp $50

Anker Power Bank $50

Garmin Mini Satellite Communicator $349

GoPro Hero9 $400

Garmin Outdoor Rugged Watch with GPS $196

Waterproof floating Speaker $36

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones $379

Nikon Prostaff Binoculars $206

Unusual Gifts for Teens

There are always a few random things active teens have their eyes on. We are always trying to find a balance between meeting their needs and finding something fun to gift them. These three items have found their way into our home for birthdays or Christmas morning so I figured my teens can’t be the only ones who want something that doesn’t quite fit into a specific category.

Ratchet Tie Down Straps $23

Wise Owl Hammock $30

Been There Done That CityLogue Scratch Off Poster $45

Small Gifts for Teens/Stocking Stuffers

These are some add ons that are both fun and necessary for teens who love the outdoors. We never have an adventure without these socks-they last forever! And our collection of Nalgenes is growing yearly. Have some fun with these smaller gifts!

Nalgene Wide Mouth Water Bottle $12

Darn Tough Wool Hiking Socks $24

Portable Wash Bag $13

Rain Cover for Packs $8-$13

Trucker Hat $25

Unique Gifts for Teens

The truth is we are way more in to giving the gift of experiences more than things. So, we knew we had to include a few unique gifts for the outdoorsy teens. Consider an annual National Parks pass. Don’t purchase it too soon before birthday or Christmas because the year starts upon purchase, not upon first use. Another great idea is an annual membership at a local climbing gym or an outdoor recreation center like the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte (about $200 for the year). We also love the idea of gifting a class to hone skills like photography or an outdoor cooking class.

National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC

For a quick and easy option, give an always appreciated gift card. If you choose this route, please do some research on a local outdoors shop or outfitter. Many of them sell all kinds of gear AND offer classes, excursions, or rentals. Giving a teenager options to purchase what he/she wants is typically a win.

Our favorite local Outfitter in the Southeast

Gear Round Up

One further thing to keep in mind is storage. Outdoor gear can really take up a lot of space. Have your teens clear out old gear and try to re-sell it or pass it along to someone else just getting started. It can be a lot to swallow when your teen outgrows expensive gear quickly, so our best advice is to buy high quality gear that you can resell quickly and for a solid price and that means investing up front. We have had great success selling rain jackets, fleeces, and even hiking boots that have little wear and tear because of the quality.

One Day in Portland Oregon with Teenagers

One Day in Portland

One day is not a lot of time to fit in the best Portland Oregon attractions, but you can do it and enjoy it! You will need to start your one day in Portland Oregon early and put on your walking shoes to get the most out of your 24 hours. You will be able to check off all the must do things in Portland, so it will be worth it.

Two teenagers enjoying one day in Portland Oregon

Getting Started in Portland

A few basic things before you get started on your tourist day in Portland. Portland is Oregon’s largest city and sits on the Willamette and Columbia rivers in the shadow of Mt. Hood. This eco-friendly city offers a multitude of bike paths and green spaces. The foodie scene has something for everyone and food “pods” can be found all throughout the city in the various neighborhoods.

Typically the weather follows as a warm, dry summer (only a few months) and a wet, overcast, cool winter. Portland actually averages more rainfall per year than Seattle does, so pack accordingly. Public transportation through TriMet is available from the PDX airport and runs buses, light rail, and commuter rail throughout the city and the surrounding neighborhoods.

This PNW spot is a city of rivers and bridges, so simply driving around gives you impeccable sights to see in Portland. You will have no problem combining city adventures with outdoor adventures here.

Playing on the riverfront at Cathedral Park in Portland Oregon

Where to stay in Portland, OR

All of the major hotel chains offer a variety of stay levels within the downtown area. You can choose a budget option like Eastside Lodge just a mile from downtown with updated rooms and free parking. The Hampton Inn & Suites in the Pearl District is in a spectacular location and perfect for families at a mid level price point. If you are looking for an upscale boutique hotel, check out The Mark Spencer, which has several rooms with a full kitchenette! Our best suggestion is to book your lodging within walking distance of a few places you want to visit, but also close to public transport. If you have a car, know that you will likely pay upwards of $30 per night to park.

Top 7 Portland Oregon Attractions

It should come as no surprise that many of the fun things to do in Portland are focused on outside sights. That will come in handy after you visit all the food pods and donut shops! Remember to keep a rain jacket or umbrella with you so you stay dry. Feel free to drive and park on site or use the lite rail system to avoid fees and troubles.

1. Washington Park

One park, many destinations. This park has it all! Consider using the free shuttle offered from 9:30 am- 7:00 pm. due to limited parking. The Oregon Zoo and the Japanese Garden are the best places to take your kids and start your day. Both of these require a fee to enter and currently require advanced timed entry tickets. If you have a deep love of trees and flowers, take an hour or so to walk through the Hoyt Arboretum or the International Rose Test Garden as well. They are free! You could spend all day here and everyone would be happy and engaged. Or if you have teenagers you could spend part of your day and then head on to something else like we did.

Close up of a peach rose at the International Rose Test Garden in Portland Oregon

2. Cathedral Park

Yes, another park, but this one gives you a totally different perspective of Portland. Here you find yourself across the Willamette River in a quiet residential area of Portland. If you want a place to picnic or exercise your dog, this is the spot. The park beneath the bridge and the little beach area along the river are sweet and a welcome respite after a full day in the city.

Upward photo shot of the bridge over the Willamette River at Cathedral Park

3. Doughnuts

Teenagers have a good time doing any kind of food crawl and the Portland doughnut scene will not disappoint. The two tourist stand outs are Voodoo and Blue Star, but the locals enjoy others. NOLA makes their doughnuts with croissant dough making them just different enough to want to test out. Annie’s has a strong cult following with a throwback vibe. It seems as though each neighborhood has their favorite, so don’t hesitate to explore.

Voodoo Doughnuts Portland Oregon
Blue Star Donuts in Portland Oregon

4. Powell’s Books

This is no ordinary bookstore; it’s an experience. Coined as the world’s largest independent bookstore and simplistic in its approach, yet everyone loves it. We have teens who love to read and this library feeling bookstore was a great downtown spot to peruse. This is a must do for your one day in Portland Oregon. Buy the next best seller or catch up on a classic you never read. This place has it all. Below is the book I picked up!

5. Live Sporting Events

Whenever you take teenagers to a major metro area take them to a live sporting event. It’s more than just about the sport. These are great places to try local foods, learn a a bit more about the people and see another part of the city. Portland has the NBA Trailblazers, men’s and women’s pro soccer teams. Check out https://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/click?id=Ov4Rx/l2h6s&offerid=747870.29&type=3&subid=0" rel="nofollow">No Fee Sports Ticketstickets for when you visit! We saw posted signs that the city is pushing for an MLB team, which we think would be an incredible addition to Portland.

Portland Trailblazers stadium

6. The Grotto

The quiet retreat of this spiritual refuge is located in a neighborhood outside of downtown. It’s a place of peace, prayer, and natural beauty. Our teens didn’t love this stop, but we’ve got some great tips for traveling with teenagers. It requires some restraint to enjoy it and be respectful to the others who are visiting. So, if you plan to visit this spot with teens or younger kids, consider bringing a book for them to read while you follow the walking path through the upper gardens. The serenity and beauty is astounding even if your teens endure it with brooding now, they will remember it.

The upper gardens at the Grotto in Portland

7. Food Trucks (actually they’re called Pods)

Portland is extremely foodie friendly. Similar to what other cities have done, they have created a way to enjoy tasty food without having to sit down at a reservation. Instead of food trucks, Portland uses what they call pods. A grouping of small carts/shacks that offer a variety of foods semi-permanently located in parking lots or neighborhood areas give visitors a taste of local fare.

Do you research. There are pods located all over the city and they are not all the same. Check out Prost Marketplace or Portland Mercado. Stand alones that stand out are Jojo’s and Stretch the Noodle. Our recommendation would be to try one that has several different types of carts so you can try a bit from all of them. This works really well with families. Some have picnic tables, but some may require you to find a park or place to sit on your own.

The Perfect One Day in Portland Oregon Itinerary

  • 7:45 am- Start your day downtown at Voodoo Doughnut, which opens at 8:00 am. Trust me, you want to be there right before it opens so you don’t have to wait in line for an hour.
  • 9:00 am-12:00- From there head up to Washington Park (make sure you already have your advance timed entry tickets) to the Oregon Zoo and the Japanese Garden.
  • 12:00 pm- Head back downtown for lunch at Deschutes Brewery to grab some grub and possibly a tasting flight of local beers.
  • 1:00-2:00 pm- Walk off your lunch over to Powell’s Bookstore and peruse while you digest.
  • 2:00-3:00 pm- Lite rail back up to the International Rose Test Garden and/or Hoyt Aboretum.
  • 3:00 pm- Time for another donut stop…or Salt & Straw ice cream
  • 4:00-5:30 pm- Make your way to The Grotto for a late afternoon quiet stroll
  • 5:30 pm- If you are planning to attend an evening sporting event, find a food pod close to the stadium or on the way and enjoy your time there! If you aren’t doing that, head over to Cathedral Park with some take-out food from your food pod of choice and enjoy a picnic along the riverfront.
  • 7:30 pm- Finish your night with a final stop at the last donut shop and wrap it up. Your feet are tired and your bellies are full. Sleep well!

A Super Day Trip From Portland

If you have more than one day in the Portland Oregon you should visit the waterfalls along the Columbia River East of the city. If you don’t have a rental car, then book a day tour from downtown. Multnomah Falls is the closest and does not require too much hiking at all. Others that are further east will require you to do some exploring in the outdoors. Many people use Portland as a jumping off point for all the natural wonder nearby. We highly recommend seeking adventure amongst the waterfalls.

Some of you may have teenagers that prefer the exciting city life, but it’s never too late to engage them in the outdoors. We have a few ideas on how to get your teens outdoors more. Check it out!

5 Awesome Southeast Fall Break Destinations

Fall break is not a long break, but it’s a great time to get outside and take a break (see what I did there) from the day to day. When you only have a long weekend to travel and want to make the most out of your time, hit the road for a quick road trip. Most traditional schools have a fall break sometime around the middle of October, making it the perfect time for a long weekend away. As the temperatures cool off, October is a great time for camping or staying in a cabin. It’s also a fabulous time to head to the beach with still warm days and the water hasn’t gotten too chilly yet. We are highlighting 5 awesome destinations in the Southeast for Fall Break. So, if you’re looking for fall vacation ideas we are here for you!

unrecognizable woman sitting in hammock above mountains

Fall Weather in the Southeast

The Southeast region covers a lot of ground with all kinds of terrain. Temperatures in October will vary widely, but as a whole will be optimal for outdoors time. You may have noticed we will almost always have a bent toward time and adventures outside on this blog with some city highlights along the way. The best fall vacations in the southeast are on the coast and in the mountains, which provide very different climates. Included at the end of this blog is a list of packing items for your fall break adventures.

Wilmington North Carolina

If you are drawn to the calming waves of the ocean and love to sink your toes into the sand you will love this southern North Carolina coastal town. There are many options for places to stay in Wilmington NC including vacation rentals near the beach as well as hotels near the downtown Wilmington shops. Definitely check out the Battleship North Carolina and the Cape Fear Museum of History & Science for fun activities.

silhouette of beach grass
Cape Fear River view in Wilmington NC
photo courtesy of Julie from More Than Mainstreet

The really fun things to do in Wilmington NC are found along the Cape River. There are several outfitters that can arrange kayak or SUP tours. And with three local Atlantic beaches to choose from you will get all the Vitamin D you could ask for as well as all kinds of boating and water sport opportunities. Check out my friend Julie’s post all about the best of Wilmington. The weather in Wilmington NC in October typically has highs in the low 70’s making for the perfect day of activities on the beach. Take your beach games! Alfresco dining along the water is incredibly popular with lots of choices for seafood restaurants and other fare.

Golden Isles of Georgia

Another coastal option for a fall break destination is the Golden Isles with their pristine beaches, fantastic golf courses and luxury resorts. Georgia’s Golden Isles are comprised of 4 islands and one coastal town. Sure you may spend a little more money here due to the high end resorts, but they are gorgeous and offer a lot of activities for the whole family. After all, you will only be there for a long weekend so it’s a great way to experience such a place for a quick fall getaway. If you would rather use a vacation rental there are loads to choose from on St. Simon’s Island as well as Jekyll Island.

St. Simon's Island GA lighthouse and museum
Fort Frederica on St. Simon's Island GA

There is plenty of history to find around the islands and most of it can be walked and enjoyed outdoors. Make your way to the Light House Museum, Fort Frederica or Epworth by the Sea on St. Simon’s Island or Horton House on Jekyll Island. Do not miss sunrise at Driftwood Beach on Jekyll. Check the tide schedules to ensure you have a low tide sunrise so you can get all the views you want. I promise getting up early is totally worth it!

And like any beach getaway, you can spend hours sitting and reading a book or playing games as a family. The weather in the Golden Isles should be very mild during fall with daytime temperatures in the high 70’s and nighttime temperatures in the 60’s.

Sunrise on Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island GA
family on the beach playing Spikeball

Asheville North Carolina

Do you crave cooler temperatures and do you hear the mountains calling? Visit Asheville, NC in the fall for spectacular outdoor fun in the surrounding wilderness areas including hiking, mountain biking and camping. Although if you’re not interested in camping, you can easily find an Airbnb in Asheville or a trendy hotel for your long weekend.

There is never a lack of things to do in downtown Asheville with the many restaurants, live music options, breweries and more. We use AllTrails to find hikes closest to where we are staying with lengths/difficulty for what we desire. There are over 50 trails highlighted just in the Asheville area for you to explore. Take a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway and go searching for waterfalls. The North Carolina Arboretum is beautiful in fall and offers biking and hiking trails for the whole family. Fall weather in Asheville can be a bit unpredictable, but temperatures typically range from mid 40’s lows to highs in the 60’s. I don’t know about you, but that sounds perfect for a fall break destination.

wood light dawn landscape of Blue Ridge mountains
young man overlooking Blue Ridge Parkway in NC

Chattanooga Tennessee

There are so many things to do in Chattanooga TN over a long weekend for fall break. Fall weather for Chattanooga should stay between lows around 55 to 72 degrees high, perfect for walking along the Chattanooga riverwalk or a visit to Rock City Gardens near Lookout Mountain. Hiking in Chattanooga can be found all around, both easy and difficult trails. The outdoor activities are endless in this area, including camping opportunities and finding waterfalls near Chattanooga! Definitely spend some time in downtown Chattanooga at the aquarium and eating at some of the many restaurants. Most Chattanooga hotels are located either along the riverfront or near Lookout Mountain to accommodate your family activities. You could easily spend 3 nights and 4 full days here without exhausting your options.

aerial photography of chattanoonga buildings
bird s eye view of chattanooga river and bridges

New River Gorge West Virginia

If you are looking for family adventure, look no further than our nation’s new National Park. New River Gorge is a stunning backdrop to loads of outdoor adventure including some of the best white water rafting on the east coast. Climbing in New River Gorge is also a very popular activity, so if your family is looking to try something new this may be the perfect spot. New River Gorge cabins or camping is what most prefer in this area of West Virginia as you won’t be able to find too many hotels available. Check out Fayetteville, WV for small town vibes.

The weather in New River Gorge in the fall will be quite cool between 40 degree lows and 60 degree highs. Crisp, bright fall vibes are what you will find in this part of West Virginia during fall break. The New River Gorge Bridge is an incredible sight in and of itself. They don’t call this “almost heaven” for no reason!

new river gorge bridge in west virginia
group white water rafting

Fall Break is All About a Break

No matter which of these 5 southeast fall break destinations you choose for your long weekend getaway, you will be sure to get a break from the day to day. Making memories with your family is what it’s all about. Each of these destinations offers plenty of outdoor recreation and as usual we genuinely hope you choose to recreate responsibly. These destinations are good for younger children, but we feel they will be best enjoyed by families with teenagers for the mix of adventure and relaxation. We believe wholeheartedly that getting your teenagers to spend time outdoors happens more naturally when you take them out of their everyday environment. Fall break is a great time to do it in the southeast with mild and enjoyable temperatures and a few days off school.

Fall Break Packing List

  • Rain Jacket – the ladies in our house love Marmot, but the guys like Patagonia
  • Fleece Jacket – choose a high quality brand that will last a LONG time. I still have a fleece that I purchased in 1998 that I wear all the time.
  • Wool Socks – Darn Tough are our favorites and they last forever!
  • Hiking Pants – Kuhl makes the best breatheable and maneuverable pant for https://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/click?id=Ov4Rx/l2h6s&offerid=823778.14&type=3&subid=0">Shop KUHL Men's Pantsmen
  • Chairs for the beach or campsite
  • Games for the beach or campsite – our teens love Spikeball and Bocce
  • Microfiber Towels – WiseOwl Outfitters make a large beach blanket size and regular size
  • Boogie Boards or surf boards – body boards and surf boards for the beach fun
  • Sunscreen & Insect Repellent – we use reef safe sunscreen & Ben’s repellent wipes
  • Packable Cooler – we tend to like a soft sided cooler that can be packed down when it’s not being used.

24 Hours In Shenandoah National Park

Sometimes all you have to give a destination is 24 hours, so how do you make the most of it? The following is a guide on how to create the most fulfilling 24 hours inside Shenandoah National Park. Each season will provide different highlights and we cover them all. Get ready for one of the great all-American drives chock full of beautiful overlooks and surrounded by small town charm.

How to get to Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is located in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia approximately 80 miles west of Washington D.C. The park runs north to south for 105 miles with 4 entrances for access. If you are arriving from afar via airplane you will likely fly into Washington Dulles airport and rent a car. If you do that, a 24 hour time slot inside the park will be the perfect addition to a Washington D.C. vacation.

From the South you will traverse through Charlottesville, VA. From the North you will arrive through Front Royal, VA. Both are charming towns worth exploring outside of your time in the park or as a place to start/end your journey. The entire Shenandoah Valley region is lovely, known for Civil War history, wineries, and natural beauty.

When to Go to Shenandoah National Park

There is something for everyone in each season inside this east coast national park located in Virginia. Consider the activities you want to pursue while there and then choose the season best for you. Fall foliage brings the most visitors, winter will give you uninhibited views, spring brings wildflowers, and summer provides full reign of the park and hiking trails.

Shenandoah in Winter

Although Skyline Drive is open all year long, it does close down due to snowy or icy conditions from time to time. Enter with a full tank of gas and extra blankets and warm clothes should your vehicle become disabled. The two biggest perks of Shenandoah in winter are the minimal crowds and the even more wide open views. If you plan to hike, consider bringing along cramp-on spikes to keep you upright. Cell service is spotty inside the park during the best of conditions. Make a list of mile marker locations that offer restrooms, phones, gas, food and more.

Shenandoah in Spring

Spring is the best time to see wildflowers and active wildlife. You can find over 800 species of wildflowers inside Shenandoah. Birdwatching is most rewarding before the leaves cover the trees, so spring is your season if you are a bird lover. More services become available as the temperatures warm up, including ranger programs and lodging options. The weather will be incredibly unpredictable, so go prepared for anything.

Shenandoah in Summer

Summer will be busy inside the park, but you will get the most full days to experience the hiking, the overlooks, the camping and the lodging. From sunrise to sunset you will see the glory of the Shenandoah valley. Get to your trailheads and parking lots early to ensure you get to do all you want to do.

Shenandoah in Fall

The park’s busiest season due to the unbelievable fall foliage colors that sweep the park of its feet. And you, too. Be prepared for slow traffic and slow crowds. The temperatures will keep you lingering and for good reason.

Shenandoah National Park Lodging & Camping

There are a variety of places to stay inside Shenandoah National Park. There are two lodges available with traditional rooms as well as detached cabins. Skyland Lodge is located at mile marker 41.7 and Big Meadows Lodge is located at mile marker 51. If you are looking for a more rustic experience, check out Lewis Mountain Cabins at mile marker 57.7. Other Shenandoah National Park cabins are maintained and operated by The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. There are multiple campgrounds inside the park with seasonal potable water and some with coin operated showers. Thousands of acres are available for backcountry camping, but a backcountry permit is required. In order to acquire a backcountry permit you will need to provide a full itinerary prior to registration.

hiker resting near fire and tent during travelling
Photo by Baihaki Hine on Pexels.com

Visitor Centers in Shenandoah

It’s always a good idea to stop off at one or two visitors centers even if it’s just to use the facilities, but you also have an opportunity to talk to rangers and get real time information about wildlife sightings and trail conditions as well. Educational programs and gift shops can add to your 24 hours inside the park.

Dickey Ridge Visitor Center

Located in the Northern most area of the park at mile marker 4.6 this visitor center is a great first stop if you are entering from Front Royal, VA. The orientation video gives you a great overview of the park and helps you get your bearings. Pick up a map, talk to a ranger and make a plan for your 24 hours inside the park. Although closed on several holidays, the visitor center is open daily from 9am-6pm. This location is closed from November 30-March 18 due to winter weather.

Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center

In the middle of the park just off Skyline Drive near the Big Meadows area is the Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Again, if you need a stop off to use the bathroom, this is a good mid-way point to do so. Another excellent aspect of this spot are the ranger programs offered. You will want to stop here for a bit of time, especially if you are looking to gain some education about the park. Operating hours are from 8:30am-6:00pm daily, with just a few holiday closings. This location is closed from January 1-March 18 due to winter weather.

Skyline Drive

The structure of Shenandoah National Park is served incredibly well by driving North to South or South to North via Skyline Drive. Nearly everything you want to experience inside the park can be easily accessed off of Skyline. Utilize the mile posts to keep your bearings as you drive along. Mile 0 begins at Front Royal on the northern end of the park and ends at mile 105 at the south. There are 70 overlooks along Skyline Drive with incredible views, picnic spots, trailheads and more. *note that Marys Rock Tunnel has a maximum clearance of 12’8″ located at mile marker 32.2 along Skyline Drive. The full drive is totally doable in 24 hours, even with stops and activities.

Hiking in Shenandoah National Park

With over 500 miles of trails to choose from, you’ll have your pick of a simple walk in the woods to a multi-day backpacking adventure. Either way, you will be blessed with peaceful nature and wilderness joy. If you have 24 hours inside the park you can choose an all day hike like Old Rag or you could choose two shorter hikes to see two different areas of the park.

Rose River Falls 4 mile circuit, moderate

Doyles River Falls 3.3 round trip, moderate

Hawksbill Loop 3 mile circuit, moderate

Bearfence Viewpoint, 1+ mile roundtrip, easy

Cedar Run-Whiteoak Circuit, 7+ miles, strenuous (all day)

Old Rag Circuit, 9 miles, strenuous (all day)

Sample Itinerary 1

The Northern District

Begin your day at the North entrance at Front Royal, VA. Make sure you start your day with breakfast at L’Dees Pancake House before you enter the park. First, take about 15-30 minutes at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center at mile market 4.6. Look at the exhibits, talk to a ranger about what to expect that day. Grab a map or two for specific hikes you may want to try. Stamp that NP passport book if that’s important to you and don’t forget to use the bathrooms here. To get your Skyline Drive day started off with a bang, pull off at mile marker 5.5 Signal Knob Overlook to get your first west facing views. Thornton Hollow is located at mile marker 27.5 and it’s east facing. If you didn’t stop for breakfast and you got an early start, consider this spot for a sunrise picnic.

One of the best hikes on this northern end of the park are Compton Peak, which traverses part of the Appalachian Trail. The trailhead is located at mile market 10. Expect a 2.5 mile moderate hike that should take less than 2 hours. Get your morning exercise in and enjoy the wilderness.

The Central District

The central district has the most to offer and is a great area to spend the bulk of the middle of your day. The central district starts at mile post 31.5 at the Thornton Gap entrance station and goes to the Swift Run Gap entrance at mile marker 65.7. This area has incredible overlooks, Skyland Resort lodging, Big Meadows lodging, and the Byrd visitor center. Most of the popular hikes are located in this area.

First, stop off at Hazel Mountain Overlook to stretch your legs again and breath in the beautiful fresh air. Next, check out Skyland around mile marker 42 (it’s very well marked with signage) and swing by the Grab ‘n Go for takeaway sandwiches for your next overlook stop. Share a picnic while taking in the views at mile marker 48 Spitler Knoll. Although this is one of the best overlooks for sunset, the views midday will not disappoint.

Hopefully some of the parking lots will have some rotation after lunch, but you may need to pack some patience. There are a bunch of hikes to choose from so be flexible. Try the Hawksbill Loop, trailhead found at mile marker 45.5 for a 3 mile circuit that should take about 2 hours. Rose River Falls is a 4 mile circuit that will take at least 4 hours with a moderate rating. Park at the Fishers Gap parking lot, mile market 49.4 where the trailhead starts on a fire road. Another popular hike is Dark Hollow Falls at mile marker 50.7 is a short 1.5 miles down and back up. The climb back up will challenge you, but it’s almost all shade and is beautiful. We love to combine Rose River Falls and Dark Hollow Falls for about a 5.5 mile circuit that will take about 5 -6 hours.

The Point Overlook at mile marker 55.5 may not seem like much, but there is a secret narrow path you can check out. Although steep and a bit rocky, after 5 minutes you will be rewarded with amazing west facing views that make it all worth it.

The Southern District

South of the Swift Run Gap entrance station you will be on the longest and last leg of your Skyline Drive. You will want to make stops at Bacon Hollow overlook at mile marker 69, Rockytop overlook at mile marker 78, and Turk Mountain overlook at mile marker 93.5.

A quick one hour hike that is a lot of fun is Bearfence Rock Scramble. The parking area is at mile marker 56.4 and is a moderate 1.4 mile round trip hike. Doyles River Falls is a beautiful 3.3 mile moderate hike located at mile marker 81.1 that will keep you cool for the just over two hours it will take to complete. Take in the sunset at Crimora Lake overlook at mile marker 92.5 and finish your day with dinner in Charlottesville, VA outside of the park.

Sample Itinerary 2

Another way to experience all that Shenandoah National Park has to offer is to use two half days with an in park stay overnight. After spending the night in Charlottesville, VA and getting a nice and easy start to your day and packing a picnic lunch, make your way to the Southern most entrance at Rockfish Gap Entrance Station. Drive North on Skyline Drive, taking your time to stop off at several of the overlooks. Choose one for a lunch with a view.

After lunch pick a hike like Doyles River Falls or Rose River Falls. Both provide shade and incredible rambling river paths to cool you off for the afternoon. They are moderate hikes that will take several hours to complete, but will leave you feeling accomplished…and hungry. I suggest staying in the Central District at either Big Meadows or Skyland if you are looking for lodging. If you want to camp, check out Big Meadows or Lewis Mountain campgrounds.

Get to your resting spot early and relax a bit before you have dinner. After your belly is full, take off for a sunset chase. There are a bunch of west facing overlooks right off Skyline Drive just north of the main lodging areas. Move from overlook to overlook as golden hour turns to blue hour and the sun sets. Take a million pictures so you can tell all your friends the pictures don’t do it justice. And soak it all in. One fabulous spot to see the last bits of the sunset is at an overlook found just pass the cabins at Big Meadows Lodge; a short hike up to an amazing spot to sit and absorb. If the skies are clear, find the huge grassy meadow on the east side of Skyland Drive across from the Big Meadows Wayside and set up for your night sky viewing.

The next morning, rise early and bring your breakfast along. Start making your way further North for a morning hike. Many of the parking lots will fill up by 9:00 am so you want to arrive in time for a good spot. Consider the Hawksbill Loop or the Stony Man, which is an easy 1.6 miles located at mile marker 41.7 in the central district. Overall Run Falls is a great spring option, which shows off the highest waterfall inside the park. Located at Matthews Arm Campground registration parking area, the hike is a moderately strenuous 5.1 miles.

Finish up your 24 hours inside the park as you complete the remainder of Skyline Drive and exit from the Northern entrance station at Front Royal. From there you can head East to Washington D.C. or Annapolis for more fun.

Gear to Take to Shenandoah

As with any mountain trip you will want to pack layers, no matter the season. One of our all-time favorite brands is Kuhl, a reliable and innovative brand that is great for the outdoors. We keep bug spray, sunscreen, and a simple first aid kit with us at all times. Hydration is essential as you explore the outdoors and we each have our favorite brands. Holland lives by her Hydroflask and I have been a loyal Nalgene user for over 2 decades. Sturdy shoes or hiking boots are recommended so you can avoid injury and sore feet and joints the next day. Find a daypack that fits well and can hold your extraneous gear as you adventure.

The Ultimate Guide to Buying the Best Life Jacket

Finding a safe life vest is a priority for any family seeking adventure on or in the water. But there are so many choices from sizing, styling and type of activity. How do you know which is the best life jacket to buy? A simple search on the internet will give you everything from cheap life vests to custom life jackets and everything in between. Not all life jackets are equal and you will need to find the right fit and right type for your activities.

5 Categories for Who Will Wear the Life Jacket

  • Infant Life Jacket: 9-30 pounds
  • Toddler Life Jacket: 18-30 pounds
  • Kids Life Jacket: 30-50 pounds
  • Youth Life Jacket: 50-90 pounds
  • Life Jackets for Adults: above 90 pounds
  • Life Jackets for Dogs: varies by weights

Sizing is of crucial importance. A life vest that is too small will cause chafing and discomfort, while a life vest that is too large may not keep you upright correctly while floating. The best description for how a PFD (personal flotation device) should fit is “comfortably snug”. Adjust the straps so that the vest fits comfortably against your body without gaps. If you pull the straps as tight as possible and there are still gaps, the vest is too big. If you are unable to fasten the straps when let out completely, the vest is too small. Coast guard approved life jackets have manufacturing standards that are met during production, but it is up to the user to ensure the proper fit. Every brand has a different sizing system, so read the sizing guides carefully prior to purchasing.

Life Jacket Types

Type 1 PFD: Off shore life jackets made for open waters, rough waters or remote water where rescues may be slow to arrive. They can also be known as abandon ship life jackets for commercial vessels. The best off shore life jacket….

Type 2 PFD: Near shore buoyant vests for general boating activities and calm inland waters were rescues will be much quicker.

Type 3 PFD: Flotation aids meant for general boating and other water sport activities such as water skiing, canoeing or kayaking.

Type 4 PFD: Throwable devices designed to be thrown to a person in distress. This type is not to be worn, but should be readily available in an emergency water situation.

Type 5 PFD: Special use devices for special conditions and common for kayaks, man overboard situations and board sailing for example. Also included in this class are hybrid inflatables that are deflated, but become an inflatable life vest.

With the different classes of life vest types, it is important to know how you will use the life jacket. Your adventure activity will determine what type of PFD life jacket you will need to purchase. This article will focus on the wearable type 1 life jacket, type 2 life jacket and type 3 life jacket. If you want further information on other best flotation devices, look here….

**Note that pet flotation devices do not have classes. However, a dog life jacket will cover more of your dog, provide more buoyancy and give more visibility to the pet owner. A dog life vest provides less coverage and is more appropriate for pool swimming as opposed to boating or deeper water swimming.**

Type 1 Life Jacket

Type i life vests can be bulky because they have the most buoyancy. These are specifically designed to turn an unconscious person to a vertical or slightly backward position. You will mostly see these in off shore circumstances and on commercial vessels. If you are on a cruise ship for vacation, these type i life jackets will be on board. Wear a type 1 pfd if you need an off shore fishing life vest or a boat racing life vest.

Type 2 Life Jacket

Often called the universal boating life jacket because this type is meant for inland cruising, fishing and sailing. You will see these life vests on ferry boats as well as extras on board personal boats to stay uscg compliant. This type is not meant for prolonged individual use in an activity situation because they just aren’t that comfortable or easy to wear while moving your body. Although they look similar to type Type 1, the classification has everything to do with buoyancy capacity.

Type 3 Life Jacket

The most common life vests you will see for water based activities is the type iii pfd. You will find a wide variety of styles from an auto inflate life jacket to a standard life vest. Materials will vary as well for a type iii life jacket. Neoprene life jackets and nylon life vests are available in all shapes and sizes. Wake boarders, sailors, and kayakers will find styling important for their specific activity both for look and comfort. For example, a stand up paddle boarder may prefer a waist life jacket for full freedom of movement.

The Best Life Jackets for Water Sports

The Best Life Jacket for Kayaking

Kayakers are looking for excellent upper body and arm mobility. More movement and less restriction are the keys to a great kayak life jacket. Our kids wanted to start kayaking at a fairly young age, so again it’s important to find the right kayak life vest for kids that fits properly but also gives them range of motion.

*This post contains affiliate links, and we sometimes earn commission by our audience clicks. We like to be completely up front that our blog can earn money if you click thru our guides. By doing so, you give us opportunities to share more of our experiences so that we can help you to connect with your teens through travel*

Adult Buying Comparison

Onyx MoveVent Curve $100

Yukon Sport $52

NRS Ninja $130

Kids Buying Comparison

Onyx Youth Paddle Jacket $38

Stohlquist Kids Escape $58

Astral Otter 2.0 $130

The Best Jet Ski Life Jackets

First, always look for a uscg life jacket. Next, find a jet ski vest that is very secure. High speeds of jet skis sometimes mean that when you hit the water the vest can move around too much on your body. You want it nice and snug. We have found that a neoprene jet ski life vest hugs the body best.

Adult Buying Comparison

Stearns Watersport classic $30

O’Neill Slasher Comp $130

XGear $65

Kids Buying Comparison

O’Neill Child Superlite $27

Airhead GNAR Kwik-Dry Neo Lite $55

O’Neill Reactor $75

The Best Life Jacket for Kayak Fishing

Similar to kayak paddling, you want freedom of arm movement and enough clearance between torso and hips for comfort. It stands to reason that this type of kayak life vest will include pockets and features for fishing gear. Some kayak fishermen prefer a high back for comfort in the kayak seat while others like less coverage. One thing these fishermen agree on, though, is durability.

Adult Buying Comparison

NRS Chinook $140

Lixada Fishing Vest $46

Stohlquist Fisherman Jacket $109

Kids Buying Comparison

Airhead Youth Sportsman $34

Stohlquist Spinner $65

The Best Life Jackets for Boating

Boaters typically look for a lightweight life vest and a comfortable swimming life vest for versatility. A life jacket for kids is a must. All children under the age of 12 will need to wear a life vest while underway on any vessel. In some states, that age is older or younger depending on the laws. The bottom line is that if you are boating with your family you may need an infant life vest, a toddler life vest, a youth life vest, and an adult life vest.

Adult Buying Comparison

Airhead Quik Dry Neolite $65

O’Neill SuperLite USCG $40

Onyx General Purpose $27

Kids Buying Comparison

O’Neill Child SuperLite $30

Onyx General Purpose Child $20

Airhead SWOOSH $50

The Best Water Ski Life Jackets

If you or your family plans to do other water sport activities from the boat, you will need to consider that as well. A water ski vest and a wakeboard life vest are truly one in the same. Most often a neoprene material works best for high intensity water sports because they fit more snugly. An excellent wake board life jacket will pop you up after a fall quickly. Look for bright colors so you can spot your skiier quickly!

Adult Buying Comparison

O’Brien Impulse $75

Airhead NeoLite Flex $66

O’Neill Assault $105

Kids Buying Comparison

O’Brien Youth $90

Connelly V-Back $50

Hardcore Youth $22

The Best Life Jackets for Sailing

Sailing life jackets still fit into the type 3 category, but are designed similar to a kayak life vest. The aim is to give range of body motion while still providing adequate buoyancy. Sailors move around in their vessels quite a bit to manipulate ropes and sails accordingly. If sailing, you will want a sail life vest that doesn’t ride up, which can dangerously catch on a swinging boom. Also, a smooth exterior that won’t catch and a slimmer cut to avoid extra contact with the sailboat will be desirable. One feature you may want to consider is a life jacket that has a pocket large enough to carry a radio.

Adult Buying Comparison

Zhik USCG $120

Stohlquist Edge $96

Mustang Khimera Hybrid $200

Kids Buying Comparison

Stohlquist Kids Escape $58

Zhik Junior $119

Gogo Kids Youth $50

The Best Snorkeling Life Jacket

For those who are not strong swimmers or who want to snorkel with children who are not completely comfortable in the water you may want to wear a life jacket while snorkeling. Many people prefer a self inflating life jacket for this activity. Most have a horse collar design which is ideal for floating horizontally while snorkeling.

Adult Buying Comparison

Rrtizan Snorkel Vest $19

Rrtizan Zip Snorkel Vest $28

Omouboi Inflatable $35

Kids Buying Comparison

Wacool Inflatable $20

Appmoo Snorkel Vest $25

Rrtizan Snorkel Child Vest $19

The Best Stand Up Paddle Life Vest

Similar to other water sports, you will be looking for full range of body motion while on your SUP. The most common style for this activity are waist belts that have an auto inflate life jacket stored inside the pouch. However, I will warn you that every time you pull the release pin you will need to replace the indicator pin. Ultimately you will want. to find a comfortable life jacket that will keep you afloat if you run into a problem.

Adult Buying Guide

Onyx Absolute Outdoors $140

Stearns Belt Pack Life Jacket $69

Onyx MoveVent $50

The Best Infant Life Jacket

According to the U.S. Coast Guard an infant should not travel on a boat until their weigh 18 pounds and can wear a PFD. Look for the correct fit that offers a strap between the legs to keep the life vest from riding up above the head. Search for a super soft life vest so the material doesn’t rub baby’s tender skin.

Airhead General Purpose $22

Level Six Baby Flotation $98

Stearns Infant Life Vest $37

The Best Life Vest for Dogs

Adventuring with a pup is always a treat! Knowing your pup is safe on the water makes enjoying your time on the water even sweeter. A dog flotation vest will put your mind at ease and give him/her the adventure he/she was made for. Sizing will change according to how much your pup weighs, but you will want a close fitting vest that doesn’t flop around.

Buying Comparison

Vivaglory Life Jacket $28

Ruffwear $90

HAOCOO $19

Finding and Buying the Right Life jacket

With thousands of options, it can be difficult to narrow down the choices. Ultimately as a family we look for comfort and durability that provides the most movement for our outdoor on the water activity. For kids, it’s important to have a life vest they can get on and off with ease and is something they want to wear so there is no fighting or arguing. As a mom I like my kids in a bright life jacket for visibility, but that’s just preference.

Family Vacation in Washington, D.C.

Why Every Family With Teens Should Have Washington, D.C. on their Vacation List

Our nation’s capital just might be one of the best vacations your family will take. Here’s a little secret: it will still be cool to take your teens, too. A family vacation in Washington D.C. will give you all the city vibes, combining history with modern day democracy and a food and sports scene that will not disappoint. You will be creating lifetime memories in one of the most iconic destinations in the U.S. Read on to find out why every family with teens should have Washington D.C. on their vacation list.

Washington D.C. National Capital

When to Travel to Washington D.C. with Your Teens

The great news about traveling to our nation’s capital is that there is not a bad time to visit. January and February may not give you the best weather, but there everything you would want is still offered. Crowds swell in the spring months around the cherry blossoms and school groups the descend upon the city. But, it’s a lovely time to be in the city anyway. Summer months can get sweltering hot, but there is enough inside respite to make it bearable. Fall is our favorite time to visit when the weather is wonderful and the city vibe is in full swing. Each season brings its own charm. We have even stayed over Christmas and enjoyed the holiday activities.

How to Travel to Washington D.C.

There are three airports available to the D.C. area, Reagan, Dulles, and Baltimore. For many an East coast road trip is always an option, too. If you plan to stay within the district you won’t need a car as walking and public transportation will get you everywhere. It should come as no surprise that traffic can be a bear in the greater D.C. area, so sometimes having a car becomes irritating. However, if you plan to do a few activities outside the district you may want to have one available.

Where to Stay in Washington D.C. During Your Family Vacation

First you need to decide if you will stay within walking distance of the top tourist sites OR if you will save some money and stay further away with excellent access to public transportation. This is just a matter of personal preference. I will break up this section into those two contexts with a few suggestions in each.

Centrally Located & Convenient to Downtown Activities

  • AKA White House: Excellent for families and just 1.2 miles from the National Mall and the White House. A modern aesthetic with spacious rooms and extra amenities like laundry service and extra help with restaurant deliveries. Located near Orange, Silver, and Red Metro stops.
  • Embassy Suites/Convention Center: An all-suites, family friendly hotel with free breakfast located near Green, Red, and Yellow Metro stops.
  • Hampton Inn & Suites/Naval Yard: Steps away from the baseball stadium and a Green line metro stop, and just a mile from the National Mall. Free breakfast included.
  • Willard Intercontinental: Luxury hotel in the heart of the district and close to everything a first time tourist would want to see.
  • Mandarin Oriental: Located within walking distance of the monuments, a luxury spa available and rooms with water views. This would be an excellent choice during cherry blossom season.

Hotels Located Beyond the District

  • Hyatt Regency or DoubleTree in Tyson’s Corner: both located near a Silver line Metro stop, shopping and airport access.
  • Hyatt Centric Arlington: located within walking distance of an Orange and Silver line Metro stop.
  • Hilton Alexandria Old Town: if you are looking for shopping and a less touristy vibe Old Town may be a great base. Located near a Yellow Metro stop and a Starbucks in the lobby!
  • Omni Shoreham: a family friendly hotel located very close to the National Zoo and steps away from a Red line Metro stop. Fun fact-we have stayed here and while we were there President and First Lady Obama stopped in causing quite a stir!

Washington D.C. Museums/Monuments

Jefferson Memorial lit up at night with reflection in the tidal pool

We have been to Washington D.C. so many times that I have lost track, but one thing we always do is visit one or two tourist highlights. One incredible thing about a Washington D.C. family vacation is that much of what you will do is FREE. The Smithsonian hosts museums of art, history, culture, and science that have no entry fees. They are great for families who have teenagers with a variety of interests and limited attention spans. On the other hand, you could do a deep dive and spend an entire day inside one museum.

There are a few museums that work well for teenagers that may not translate for younger kids. Consider the International Spy Museum and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, although obviously different in scope. All monuments are free to the public and bring an incredible history lesson to anyone who visits. We love the nighttime monuments tour for a fun perspective, perfect for teens!

Sporting Events Great For a Family Vacation in D.C.

No matter the season you are visiting, the vibrant sports community in the D.C. metro area is always ready to entertain. In the fall you can visit FedEx Field to watch football or to RFK Stadium to catch a professional soccer match with DC United. In the winter months head over to the Capital One Arena to watch the Washington Wizards play basketball or the Washington Capitals play ice hockey. For spring and summer months you won’t want to miss the Washington Nationals play baseball at Nationals Park. Watching live sporting events adds another element to a family vacation.

Washington D.C. Family Foodie Scene

Teenage girl under Chinatown arch in Washington D.C. at night

Because the city is the very definition of a melting pot you can find ANY flavor or cuisine you could possibly imagine. There are hundreds of excellent restaurants ranging from a hole in the wall to luxury dining experiences. We have love taking our teens to Washington D.C. on a vacation because they can explore so many types of foods. Check out this list of restaurants to get you started. If your teens are foodies, we would highly encourage a food tour. Stop by Eastern Market for a local market experience, beyond the buzzy tourism.

Other Notable Experiences for Teens in D.C.

Kennedy Center of Performing Arts is not only an amazing place to witness a capital sunset, but it’s one of the top arts centers for booking amazing features. The African American History Tour is highly regarded and a perfect way to engage your kids in connecting history with current day social issues. Creatives will love the Maggie O’Neill Art studio, which highlights pop impressionist pieces. Go in search of murals located across the city and explore many neighborhoods of the city.

Outdoor Activities for Your Family Vacation in Washington D.C.

Stone bridge in Rock Creek Park, Washington D.C.

For another city perspective try a D.C. Duck tour or a City Cruise and get out on the waterways. There are a wide variety of walking, segway, and biking tours to see the monuments and historical sites around the city. Another popular tour is the photography safari, which is great for teens who love the creative space. If you want to experience nature close to the city, make your way to Rock Creek Park. Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Vernon are a must for every family, rich in history but also rich in beauty. The Yards Park is a great spot in summer to cool off a bit.

Shopping with Teens in Washington D.C.

If you are traveling with a gaggle of teenage girls who love to shop til they drop, there will be no shortage of locations to do so. Georgetown and Dupont Circle are two areas that appeal to younger crowds. Both of these areas area filled with boutique clothing, funky bookstores, and gift shops. Within Georgetown is a design district called Cady’s Alley with shops for lighting, furniture, household goods and more. Old Town Alexandria has a host of unique shops perfect for a special gift or piece of artwork. Pentagon City offers a typical large mall experience with over 150 stores.

Best National Parks to Visit in Summer

If your family loves to explore the outdoors, then you will love this guide to National Parks to visit in summer. The U.S. boasts 63 protected areas known as National Parks and over 400 sites in the U.S. that are regulated and protected by the National Park system. We see the photos of the popular ones and sometimes even experience the crowds at the most visited sites. They are all worth a visit, and some are the best national parks in America.

No need to wonder if the National Parks are open. Although there are limited resources and capacities will be monitored, summer travel to National Parks is open for business. Many families are only afforded time off during the summer months and must take advantage of the same weeks as other families. If you are looking for ideas to get outdoors and responsibly enjoy the protected lands without the heavy crowds we have got a great list of top National Parks to visit for summer travel. Many of these listed are the best national parks to camp and hike as well.


The Best National Parks on the West Coast for Summer

North Cascades National Park, WA

Lake with boats and mountainous backdrop inside North Cascades National Park

If you are looking for a remote destination full of glacial lakes and untampered natural beauty, look no further than North Cascades. Just three hours from Seattle, this park boasts craggy peaks excellent for experienced rock climbers, hiking trails, and horseback riding. The lakes offer opportunities for fishing and boating, and the pristine nature is just waiting for you! Camping is available and it’s likely your best lodging option as there are only tiny communities dotted nearby. This National Park is free.

San Juan Island National Historic Park, WA

Coastal prairie view at San Juan Island National Historic Park

Located north of Seattle and accessibly by ferry, you will want to make this stop while visiting the other San Juan Islands. Although, the summer months are busy you will need to make lodging reservations early, the park itself remains mostly crowd free. There is no lodging or food inside the park, so plan accordingly. The park is in two sections: the American camp and the English camp. If you want to kayak, you will need to bring your own equipment. Although the beaches are lovely, swimming is not recommended due to strong currents and very cold water. You can access the beach areas on foot via the prairie walk paths or other hiking trails. You will need to use the ferry system to get to the park, but entrance to the park is free.

Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, WA

Lake Roosevelt National Recreation area during summer

The recreation area is accessible 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. From June-Labor Day the lake levels are kept as high as possible for maximum recreation while boating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing and swimming in designated area. There are all kinds of campsites including boat-in campsites. Make sure to plan ahead as some are reservation only and make sure to check all rules and regulations for shoreline camping. Boat launch fees can be purchased for the week at $8 or as an annual pass for $45. This has got to be one of the best places to visit this summer!

Oregon Caves Preserve & National Monument, OR

Located in the Southwestern corner of Oregon, near the border of California are the “marble halls of Oregon”. Cave tours cost between $5-$10 per person and give you a guided look at these marvelous geological wonders. Children must meet a height requirement to do the tour, and babies are not allowed to be carried. These tours can be physically demanding with stooping through the twisting structures and ascending and descending steep stairs. There are also 6 hiking trails inside the preserve if you need some sunlight. There are two dining options inside the preserve, but be sure to check availability before you go. As of this publication in 2021 the historic lodge is closed for a multi-year repair and renovation project.

Crater Lake National Park, OR

Visiting the deepest lake in the U.S. must be on your list of sites! The pristine waters are a wonder to behold. Know that in May and June the weather will likely still be frustrating to see and do all the park has to offer. The most popular months to visit are July-September, making it one of the best National Parks for summer travel. The lake the is the main attraction and most people enjoy the scenic rim drive, a boat tour or a cycling tour on the rim. You can fish on the lake shore during appropriate seasons and there are a few steep hiking trails down to the lake. If you are looking for adventure check out the jumping rock! Lodging and camping are both available and food/restaurants are available starting around mid-May. Entrance fees = $30 per car and lasts for 7 days.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, Northern CA

There are two entrance stations located at the southwest and northwest corners. Entrance fees = $30 per car and last for 7 days. Inside the park are camping, cabin camping and Drakesbad Guest Ranch options for lodging. Lassen has several communities nearby with other lodging and restaurant options. The park offers all kinds of outdoor activities to keep everyone active and happy including hiking, camping, boating, fishing, swimming, and star gazing. The Dark Sky Festival is a special annual event that has an ongoing partnership with NASA Ames Research Center, Astronomical Society of Nevada, Schreder Planetarium and others. Don’t miss the hydrothermal features!

Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area, MT

aerial view of big horn canyon showing waterway between the canyons

Another vast and wild landscape with startling views is Big Horn Canyon. There are two visitors centers open in the summer months, one in Wyoming and the other 3 hours away in Montana. Boating is very popular in both districts. The National Park Service offers free guided kayak tours from both districts. You can bring your own boat or rent from the marinas. Horseshoe Bend Marina offers a daily boat tour that is said to be unforgettable. Due to the incredible water sources, fishing is very popular as well. There are 15 hiking trails, 12 are located in the South district. Most of the trails are easy to moderate and all are less than 4 miles roundtrip. There are no entrance fees, but there are camping and boating fees. This destination is remote so you will need to consider your lodging and meal option

National Parks Summer Travel in the West

Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Parks

Tall sequoia trees during summer

These are two technically different parks, but can easily be explored together. Both parks are open year round, but the summer months provide a respite from the heat due to the high elevation. These parks will be more crowded than others, so it is likely you will need to reserve lodging and camping well ahead of time. Be prepared to make the most of your exploration day by getting out early and/or getting started late when crowds subside because this ranks as one of the best for national parks hiking. The sequoia groves are best seen during golden hours of morning and evening anyway!

Moro Rock and other balds may be steeper climbs, but those sunrise and sunset views will not disappoint. If you want to visit Crystal Cave you will need to purchase tickets online in advance. If you are highly skilled in kayaking or rock climbing these parks are probably very enticing. Entrance fees for this combo national park = $35 per vehicle for 7 days.

Valles Caldera National Preserve, NM

Valles Caldera is located just an hour from Sante Fe and provides activity year round. During the summer months one of the best ways to enjoy this park is mountain biking or e-biking. Keep in mind that if you want to bike the in the backcountry, you will need a permit to drive a vehicle into those remote areas. Double check to make sure you are in compliance. There are also a wide variety of hikes ranging from less than a mile to a difficult 19 miles. If you have horses the preserve welcome you to bring them in and ride them after acquiring the appropriate equestrian special permit. If you fish or hunt, this preserve also has licences for you to enjoy the wild. Astronomy and wildlife viewing are always an option! Before you go, know that you will need a 7 day pass entrance fee = $25 per vehicle.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO

lookout view of canyons from the Grand Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

This park is often referred to as a “vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky”. All entrances are open during summer season and a 7 day vehicle pass = $30. Camping is your only lodging option inside the park and reservations are needed for summer months. Take a hike, enjoy the wildlife, do a scenic drive, bring your horse to the North Rim for an incredible ride, or visit during the Astronomy Festival. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is considered one of the best National Parks in Colorado. If you are looking for a rugged adventure experience you will want to explore the inner canyon wilderness. You MUST have a permit to enter these areas, but the permit is free. It’s about safety and someone knowing you are there. These wilderness areas are great for kayaking, climbing and rank high as one of the best National Parks for hiking.

Mesa Verde National Park, CO

historic cliff dwellings inside Mesa Verde National Park in the summer

Entrance fees are $30 per vehicle during summer months, but if you would like a guided tour of the cliff dwellings you will incur an additional $8 per person. Those tickets must be purchased in advance and your receipt is your ticket. This is one of the best national parks to visit in June. There is lodging and camping available inside the park along with a few options for eating. There are a number of hiking trails to choose from as well. The cultural experience in this park is well worth the visit.

National Parks in the Midwest

Isle Royale National Park, MI

sunset view of cliff shoreline at Isle Royale National Park

This island park is a wilderness wonder and only allows people, so no vehicles are permitted to cross over on the ferry. In fact, the only way for you to get there is via ferry, private boat or seaplane. Transportation services are offered from both Michigan and Minnesota and will arrive at one of two drop off points. Although the season here is short, it is the perfect spot for a summer national park adventure.

The island is open from April 16-October 15, but visitors centers and ferries begin operation later. User fees are $7 per day, but children under 15 years old are exempt. You may choose to camp or backpack to get the full wilderness experience, but there are two other lodging options. While there are a few restaurant choices, many bring in their own food while they backpack or boat around. Different permits are required for camping and boating, so be sure to check the details. If you are an outdoors lover and are looking for one of the best national parks for camping, this is the park for you.

Apostle Islands National Lake Shore, WI

Sailboat on Lake Superior at Apostle Islands National Park in Wisconsin

With the word “island” in the name, then the main attraction with this area will be out on the water. Mainland visitors centers are situated to give information and recommendations to all the national park has to offer. You may choose to explore the islands on your own via private boat or kayak paddling, but there are also guided cruises and tours available. Hiking along the mainland shoreline is a great way to get incredible views of Lake Superior and offers impressive cliffs. There are no entrance fees, but there are user based fees for campers, boaters, and guided programs.

Voyageurs National Park, MN

Northern lights night sky at Voyageurs National Park

Interconnected waterways and miles of shoreline offer unparalleled opportunities at this northern park. There are three visitor centers that are open during various season and operate at a variety of hours. The summer season runs from late May to September. Entrance into the park is free, but camping and houseboat permits and fees apply. The visitor centers are accessible by car, but the bulk of the park should be enjoyed by boat. Guided boat tours of three distinct areas give an incredible perspective to the park. If you would like to hike, you will find a variety of trails to choose from. The night skies in this pristine wilderness area a sight to see.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore, MI

Sand dunes overlooking Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michican

This park offers 35 miles of pristine Lake Michigan beaches, two large islands, stunning sand dunes & bluffs, as well as interior rivers and lakes. The park entrance pass fee = $25 and lasts for 7 days per vehicle. Camping fees, permits and reservations need to be taken into consideration. Float the Platte River or ride bikes along the Heritage Trail, visit the South Manitou Lighthouse, and enjoy fishing or hunting. If you’re in good shape and want incredible views you will want to climb the dunes. If you are looking for an incredible national park for kids, this is it!

Gateway Arch National Park, MO

Gateway Arch in St. Louis
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Learn about the gateway to the west and the expansion and exploration that began under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson. This is a great park if you are doing a cross country road trip or if you want to add a city destination to your itinerary. Advanced reservations to ride the tram inside the arch are highly recommended for the summer months. Summer hours are from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm CST. Park visitors age 16 and up pay a $3 entrance fee. Other than the history and visiting the top of the arch there is not much else to this park. However, you can experience the arch from a distance on a riverboat cruise (not associated with the National Park Service).

Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore, MI

Crystal clear blue waters along the cliffs at Pictured Rocks National Seashore in summer

One of the most popular reasons to visit Pictured Rocks is for the abundance of waterfalls. Pristine beaches accessible by car or by hike offer solitude and beauty while you take a dip in the chilly waters of Lake Superior. The waters are so clear that this area is a hot spot for snorkeling and scuba diving. Many people like to get up close to the cliffs with a kayak, but know that the only type of kayak for this area is a sea kayak. If you would rather ride along, there is a narrated boat tour offered as well. There are two visitor centers open during the summer season from mid-May to October, but closed for various holidays. Although there are no entrance fees, you will pay for camping permits and a guided tour if that applies. Lodging and restaurant options can be found in nearby gateway communities.

Indiana Dunes National Park, IN

The obvious draw to Indiana Dunes is the beach along Lake Michigan. The beaches span 15 miles with various parking lots, which fill up quickly on weekends and holidays. Climb the dunes, but stay on the marked paths and wear shoes to keep from burning your soles. There are 50 miles of hiking trails throughout the park ranging from short and easy to moderate in length. This park does not have an entrance fee, but beware not to confuse this park with the state park, which does have a daily fee of $7 for in-state plates and $12 for out of state plates. Campgrounds can be found at both the National Park and State Park and have fees associated with the permits, which you can obtain reservations 6 months in advance. Other lodging options and eating options can be found in nearby communities.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH

Filtered light through rock formations inside Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio

This park is situated not far from the urban life of Cleveland, yet feels worlds away. Hiking, backpacking, fishing, and paddling on the river are a great refuge for outdoor activity. You will find biking trails ideal for family rides and mountain biking trails are available for the more adventurous. Although there are no lodging or eating options inside the park, you can find several choices in nearby locations. If you choose to paddle, check the website for access and safety information. Brandywine Falls is the most popular park attraction, but the parking lot fills quickly in the summer months. Don’t miss the geological wonders of “the ledges”, perfect for exploring.

Mammoth Cave National Park, KY

Cave entrance at Mammoth Cave National Park in summer

The world’s longest cave system ought to be on your summer list. Mammoth Cave is more than just a cave, though. While the park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the visitor center has operating hours. You will not pay an entrance fee, but will need to pay for a guided tour of the caves. There are 3 developed camping locations with usage fees and reservations are encouraged. Aside from the caves there are three rivers to enjoy by bringing your own boat or renting one for the day. The Mammoth Cave Railroad hike and bike trail is ideal for a family National Parks summer travel activity.

New River Gorge National Park, WV

Cascades of waterfalls with autumn foliage at New River Gorge National Park

This park covers 70,000 acres along the New River through deep canyons in West Virginia. Most visitors seek adventure through whitewater rafting on the two different sections of the river. One section offers a family thrill, the other is much more technical and advanced. Access to the park is year-round and has no entrance fees for you to enjoy. There is a three hour scenic drive that will give you every perspective of the park you are looking for. The cliffs of the gorge made of hard sandstone have become a popular destination for rock climbers on the East Coast, too. Other than primitive camping there are no lodging options inside the park, but the surrounding towns have motels, resorts and restaurants. If you choose to hike, the Sandstone Falls area is not to be missed.

Best National Parks East Coast

Blue Ridge Parkway, NC and VA

Appalachian mountain overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway with layers of mountains and clouds

Coined as America’s Favorite Drive, this 469 mile parkway meanders through the Appalachian Highlands with incredible scenic vistas with overlooks and easy access to hiking trails, camping, and picnic areas. Operating hours will vary greatly depending on weather conditions as section of the parkway will close due to high snowfall or icy roads. There are 17 visitor centers dotted throughout the parkway in both NC and VA. There are two lodging options on the parkway, but you can plan your route accordingly to stop in at various towns for abundant lodging and restaurants along the way.

Take care to watch out for cyclists along the parkway as they frequent certain sections. There are over 369 miles of hiking trails along the parkway. We like the AllTrails app for directions, parking information, and trail conditions. You can even find parts of the Appalachian Trail along the parkway for day hikes. The popular spots will be busy in the summer months, especially mid-day. As with any planning, try to get there early before the crowds or aim for later when the bulk are on their way out. Parking lots fill quickly starting about 10 am. and then clear out again around 4:00 pm. One of the best things about the parkway is the relaxing nature of the drive with no need to be in a hurry.

Little River Canyon National Preserve, AL

Waterfalls in the Little River Canyon National Preserve

This preserve is located about 1.5 from Huntsville, AL close to the Georgia border and open daily from sunrise to sunset with no entrance fees makes this preserve a great day trip or the perfect passing through destination. Canyon Mouth Park does have a daily pass fee of $15 per vehicle, cash only. There is literally something for everyone at this preserve from hiking, kayaking, hunting, fishing, cycling, rock climbing, and scenic drives with excellent overlook picnic spots. Blue Hole is a popular swimming hole for families, but know the parking lot often fills by 11 am. especially on summer weekends. There are three waterfalls within the preserve, each with parking lots that fill quickly. Enjoy the beauty and have fun wading in the waters. Currently there are no campgrounds within the preserve and no choices for eating. Fort Payne is the nearest location for food and lodging.

Wright Brothers National Memorial, NC

Wright Brothers monument National Park service site
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The memorial is located in the Outer Banks of NC, a popular summer beach destination for east coasters. The park is open 7 days a week year-round from 9 am- 5 pm, but closed on Christmas day. An individual pass for ages 16 and up is $10, but everyone else is free! We highly recommend this for younger children who have a budding interest in airplanes and history. During your time at the park you will learn all about why the Wright brothers chose Kitty Hawk to run their experiments and all about their lives. You will even see where they first took flight!

Cape Hatteras & Cape Lookout National Seashores, NC

Cape Hatteras seashore is comprised of beaches, sand dunes, marshes and woodlands in the southern region of the Outer Banks of NC. Three barrier islands are protected as part of the National Seashore. Beach and sound access ramps, campgrounds, nature trails, and lighthouses can be found and explored on all three islands. Although there is no entrance fee per se, there are various fees for camping and visiting lighthouses. Reaching the seashore is not difficult, but you will need to use the ferry to get to Ocracoke Island, which has camping and hiking nature trails or can be done as a day trip. Although camping is available at the seashore, there are a wide variety of accommodations available in the Outer Banks. You will definitely want to indulge in the fresh seafood at local restaurants.

Cape Lookout is located further south than Cape Hatteras, near Beaufort, NC or Morehead City, NC. The full experience requires a boat ride three miles off shore to the barrier islands where you can experience shelling, fishing, horse watching, lighthouse climbing, birding or camping. If you plan to stay the night you will need to bring all of your own supplies including water and food. This is a carry in carry out location! ALL trash must be taken with you and the Leave No Trace practices are strongly in place. The seashore is open all year round with reduced hours at visitor centers during the winter months. Ferries are available all year, weather permitting. There are a host of commercial guide options including dolphin cruises, shelling tours, and crabbing excursions for you to choose from.

Shenandoah National Park, VA

Located just 75 miles from the bustling metropolis of Washington D.C. this 200,000 acre nature wonder is a wonderful place to explore in the summer months. All facilities should be open in the summer months and Skyline Drive should be fully accessible after March into November. A single vehicle entrance pass is required and $30 will give you access for 7 full days after purchase. Camping fees are separate from entrance fees and will depend upon where you plan to camp. Aside from camping there are other lodging options both inside the park and in the gateway communities surrounding the park. There are a handful of eating options inside the park during your visit as well. A host of outdoor recreation activities are at your fingertips inside Shenandoah including hiking, cycling, rock climbing, horseback riding, fishing and more. You will find cascades and falls along with epic overlooks, meadows, and forests to fill your wilderness lust.

Assateague Island National Seashore, MD

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Explore sandy beaches, salt marshes, maritime forests and coastal bays on the edge of the continent at the Assateague Island National Seashore. There is a Virginia district and a Maryland district, both with a visitors center operating at various hours. There are entrance fees to both districts ranging from $10-$25 and allow for visitation up to 7 days. Both entrances are accessible by car, but you are not able to travel between the two districts via car. You will need to return to the mainland and enter through the other district if you want to see both. Camping is available (reservations are required) in the Maryland district, but you must be prepared to bring your own firewood, food, and other supplies. While biking and hiking are available, two coastal activities that are popular are surf fishing, crabbing, and see the wild horses. Be sure to read and follow all regulations as they can change.

Chesapeake Bay Watershed, MD and others

The nation’s largest estuary and one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in the world is recognized as a national treasure. Here, you can visit major league cities, colonial towns, American Indian landscapes, farms and fishing villages. You can learn to kayak, pick crabs, go fishing, tour a lighthouse, slurp oysters, and slow down to enjoy the natural beauty of the Chesapeake. The Chesapeake covers 7 states and a diverse natural space. The headquarters can be found in Annapolis, MD. There are over 170 sites and trails that cover the entire watershed area. Birdwatching, paddling, boating, fossil hunting, even Geotrails give you opportunities to explore the outdoors.

National Parks are always great for summer travel, and these are among the best national parks in the U.S.A.! You and your family can find incredible opportunities to explore the outdoors while recreating responsibly on our protected lands. Plan to visit a few of these beautiful National Parks in the U.S. this summer and have the best national parks vacation imaginable! I even love the idea of gaining new experiences and new perspectives in new places. If you plan to visit several in the span of one year, I strongly suggest an all National Parks pass, known as the America the Beautiful pass. Summer travel in the National Parks will give your family a lifetime of memories.

Southwest National Parks Road Trip

4 Day Road Trip Itinerary Through 4 National Parks: Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Saguaro


Plan a Trip to National Parks

A national parks road trip success with three friends standing next to a king saguaro cactus on the East side of Saguaro National Park.

Find Your National Parks Road Trip People

Visiting 4 National Parks in 4 days is no easy thing so you will want to find the best people to road trip with. There will be a LOT of hours in the car and a lot of together time. You know your family and your friends best and who can handle miles upon miles on a road trip. This national parks itinerary took 2000 miles to cover our destinations, including a last minute change of plans due to bad weather. The good news is you can always find National Park enthusiasts to travel and check off their bucket lists. Better yet, turn it into a National Parks trip family challenge.

Southwest National Parks Road Trip Itinerary

You have two choices for your route. Choose a large loop to start and end in Los Angeles for an incredible road trip experience. If you have more than 4 days and want to maximize your time inside the national parks and you can swing it, consider flying in and out of different airports. If it had been possible, we would have flown back home from Phoenix and cut down our drive time considerably. Keep in mind that if you rent a car you could have a significant “drop fee” if you return the car to a different location.

Know Your Why for a 4 Day National Parks Road Trip

For a road trip to be a success, you need to consider your why before you hit the gas pedal. Every trip looks a little different and this one was no exception. Our focus was to visit 4 parks in 4 days. It did not go as planned, but we still met our goal. If your goal is to dig deep into one or two parks, plan accordingly. The southwest is massive and covers a lot of area, so you will either need time or be willing to just scratch the surface of the southwest national parks.

Day 1: Joshua Tree National Park

Woman standing beneath a Joshua Tree in Joshua Tree National Park, the first stop of a 4 day National Parks Road Trip