Desert sands, old-growth forests, mountain glaciers, spooky caves, dino bones and pig wars. There, I’ve summed up the National Parks for you — but your kids need to see these sights for themselves. Here are seven don’t-miss National Parks in Washington and Oregon, in honor of National Park Week. Can you visit all the parks by the time your offspring turn 18?
- John Day Fossil Beds (Oregon). Can you imagine dry Eastern Oregon covered with rainforest? It was in prehistoric times. Three separate land areas – or “units” as the NPS calls them – make up the John Day Fossil Beds, a window into the past. Dino bones are still being uncovered in this area, so keep an eye on the red, gold and black soils of the Painted Hills. The Sheep Rock Unit offers the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, where you can touch (not taste!) dinosaur fossils or ask someone on staff to I.D. one of your fossils.
- Mount Rainier National Park (Washington). Located only 50 miles southeast of Seattle, Mt. Rainier sits like a goddess above 235,625 acres of National Park. Look for black bears while hiking. Even if you don’t spot a bear, you’ll probably see one of over 56 mammal species while out and about. Catch gorgeous views of windswept mountains and wildflower meadows at the Paradise location and spend the night at the 1916 Paradise Inn. Or camp — we loved the family-friendly campground at Cougar Rock, which featured sing-a-long and storytelling during our stay.
- North Cascades National Park (Washington). You want drama? This is where you’ll find it. Knife-sharp peaks surround the winding Highway 20, which takes you past emerald-green and sapphire-blue lakes. Animals howl, screech and huff at night in the park’s wilderness area. This park’s six visitor info centers also offers Junior Ranger activity booklets for four different age groups — even preschoolers can get a ranger badge.
- Oregon Caves National Monument (Oregon). These hardcore, 90-minute cave tours are for big kids only – children must be over 42 inches tall (and not afraid of dark caves, of course) to climb stairs, sidle through passageways and avoid steep drops. Learn about bats and geology as you wind past otherworldly stalactites and stalagmites – and enjoy some creepy fun, as well.
- San Juan Island National Historic Park (Washington). Don’t let your preteen think that history’s a bore. Come here to learn how Washington State’s history is also a little weird. The Brits and the Yanks almost went to war over a dead pig. Visit the American Camp and the British Camp – only 13 miles apart – to consider the hair-trigger tempers of 1859. If odd history doesn’t interest you, spotting orcas from the American Camp probably will.
- Olympic National Park (Washington). The whole park’s diversity is fascinating, featuring rocky tidepools, a jumble of mountains and plenty of deer sightings. But it’s the Hoh Rain Forest that your kids will remember forever. Trees dripping with moss and water, giant mushrooms blooming on the (pine) needle-covered ground, and the scent and heaviness of a true Pacific rainforest. Head to the Hoh!
- Crater Lake (Oregon). I first came here at age 8, and I’ve never forgotten the visuals of the United States’ deepest lake, surrounded by cliffs and firs. And look — a small island pops out of Kodachrome-blue water, looking like a giant’s knee in the bathtub. Cool facts for your 8-year-old kid: that island is called Phantom Ship, and look for “Old Man,” a hemlock log that’s been floating upright in the lake for over 100 years.
Photo at right: North Cascades National Park
Do you have a favorite NW National Park?