Young explorers can adventure off-trail on Mammoth Cave National Park’s Trog Tour. // © 2016 NPS
Feature image (above): See Shenandoah National Park from the saddle. // © 2016 Kelly J. Mihalcoe LLC. Virginia Tourism Corporation
We’ve all heard of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks. But what about the world’s longest underground labyrinth, lying deep beneath the bluegrass fields that feed America’s finest racehorses? Or the continent’s most massive desert dunes, in strange juxtaposition with the snowy mountains of Colorado?
These seldom-seen national parklands may be less frequented than their more famous kin, but fewer crowds mean more space for families to form authentic connections — both to nature and to one another. Here are four under-the-radar national parks with plenty for families to bond over.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado
At the base of the snowcapped, 13,000-foot Sangre de Cristo mountains in south-central Colorado is hardly where you’d expect to encounter the tallest sand dunes in North America. And yet, there they are, swelling up to 750 feet tall and sprawling for 30 square miles across the San Luis Valley.
There are no designated trails on the dune field — it’s an enormous natural sandbox where kids and kids-at-heart are free to climb, slide and tumble down the slopes with abandon. Many ride over the ridges on specially designed sandboards or sand sleds, which can be rented or purchased at retailers just outside the park.
Seasonally, kids and their parents can be found splashing in nearby Medano Creek, where cool snowmelt waters meander along the base of the mountains and offer a respite from the hot sand. Park-goers in search of trails will find everything from short nature walks to mountain hiking paths in the adjacent foothills. Off-roaders might venture out onto Medano Pass Primitive Road, a rugged 11-mile route that climbs up into the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Drivers, however, must own or rent a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle to gain access.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Few would imagine that some of the Earth’s rarest wonders lie well beneath its surface. Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, preserves the longest cave system on the planet. Its ancient passageways extend for more than 400 mapped miles, with more being surveyed each year. The soaring heights and seemingly bottomless depths of this subterranean spectacle will inspire awe in visitors of any age.
The park’s visitor center conducts an array of tours that vary in duration and difficulty, so patrons are encouraged to consider their own limitations before heading out.
Some tours take park-goers for casual strolls on structured walkways along well-lit chambers, while others have participants crawling through pitch-dark crevasses with only a paraffin lamp. Every type of tour highlights several of Mammoth Cave’s iconic caverns, each so distinctive that they have earned names such as Frozen Niagara, Star Chamber, Gothic Avenue and River Styx.
On the kids-only Trog Tour, budding spelunkers ages 8 to 12 are outfitted with jumpsuits, hard hats and headlamps, then join their guide to embark on an off-trail adventure climbing over cave walls, scrambling over boulders, army-crawling under tight gaps and squeezing through narrow tunnels.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Blanketing a stretch of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park is set amid the historical countryside of central-west Virginia. Measuring nearly 200,000 acres, it preserves a wilderness of rich forestlands, craggy peaks, majestic rivers and cascading waterfalls. The park offers more than 500 miles of trails, including a portion of the famous Appalachian Trail.
The 105-mile Skyline Drive scenic highway runs the entire length of the park, offering 75 scenic overlooks. Families can hop out of the car and access trailheads, several of which are suitable even for young children, which may lead them to discover hidden waterfalls, secluded woods or majestic granite peaks.
Staff at either of the park’s main on-site accommodations, Skyland and Big Meadows Lodge, can arrange activities and outings to please the whole family. Visitors can book a private guide, who might plan a hiking excursion for the group, take them rock climbing and rappelling or expertly lead them through the backcountry. There are also guided horseback-riding tours available, and Skyland Stables offers pony rides.
Shenandoah’s ranger programs provide youngsters with insight into the surrounding flora and fauna, offer close-up encounters with captivating birds of prey and feature supervised hikes.
Virgin Islands National Park, U.S. Virgin Islands
Virgin Islands National Park is the perfect way to combine a family Caribbean vacation with a national park trip.
Opportunities for recreation abound in the park, which takes up two-thirds of the 12,500-acre island of St. John and is a haven for more than 1,200 species of plants and animals. Families can snorkel in the brilliant blue-green waters and spot tropical fish, colorful sea grasses, giant sponges and about 50 coral species. The park’s protected bays are home to sprawling coral reefs that support delicate underwater ecosystems. Watersports equipment rentals are available for boating, kayaking, windsurfing and scuba diving.
Hike through lush landscapes along any of the park’s more than 20 trails, traverse the tropical terrain on horseback (or even by donkey) or simply relax on unspoiled, white-sand beaches.
Families can opt to camp right on the beach, but if they prefer something more upscale, the beachfront Caneel Bay Resort offers five-star luxury service in an atmosphere that welcomes families with kids, and it also features a fantastic children’s program.