Our National Parks with Kids: Learning in More Ways than One

By Jason Kolaczkowski

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAConnor and Kade (left to right) taking a break at Colter Bay.

Not too long after we introduced our boys to the baby carrying packs and the joys of hiking, my wife and I also celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. We knew that we wanted to take a trip (we usually do) and also knew that it had to be relatively close and offer a variety of options for our boys. We’d been out a few times with them, and we’d traveled with them, but we’d never put the two together. We needed some hikes that were long enough to test our collective endurance (my wife’s and my legs, the boys’ attention spans), but we also needed some short hikes in case anyone couldn’t keep going for long.

So it was that we took our boys to their first two National Parks: Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Besides their inherent beauty, our National Parks also typically offer the opportunity to learn about nature in a way that other self-guided trips usually don’t allow. It seemed a great way to expose the boys to somethings they wouldn’t usually see. As it turned out, we learned about more than just the natural wonders.

Lesson one: you don’t actually need as much as you think you do.

There really were four different sets of packing: 1) my wife and I for the drive and in town; 2) same for the boys; 3) hiking gear and clothes for us parents; 4) again, the same for the boys.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAConnor is wondering why I need all that space in my suitcase.

When I’m instructing in the High Altitude Mountaineering School, I talk about not packing out of fear. You want to be rational about having gear to mitigate against risk, and that means having the stuff that you need for events that are somewhat likely to occur. I also talk about making sure that you don’t get overly redundant in your systems. Do you really need a water filter and enough fuel to boil water at every meal? Probably just one or the other, depending upon conditions.

With the kids, we departed from this line of thinking. ‘We need multiple outfits for every day because, you know, they spit up and get dirty and…’

First, they didn’t get that dirty. Mostly they were in kid-carrying packs. Second, we were staying in a hotel. Uh… they have laundry. Third, are they really going to spit up EVERY day, or is just a single back-up outfit good enough?

Lesson two: You are going to have to “service” the kids “in the field.”

Our first day was split into two different hikes. This allowed us to have a break – and a drive (the kids pass out in the car) – to split up what would be a total of seven miles of hiking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Kristina and Connor at Colter Bay, looking out to Mount Moran.

For the most part, that plan worked out really well. But we also knew that seven miles would probably be a long enough duration of hiking that various bodily functions, hunger, and fatigue would all set for our kids at some point. That was indeed the case.

We had to get comfortable with not having a super clean environment for changing our kids’ diapers. We had to be okay with picking up and washing off a dropped baby bottle. It is the outdoors, after all.

Lesson 3: You are going to have to be flexible.

When we were first planning the trip, we planned on only going to Grand Teton National Park, not Yellowstone. We figured why drive the extra hour to hour-and-a-half?

By the morning of day three, we purposefully wanted the extra drive time (again, the kids sleep in the car) because Mom and Dad needed some sanity time. So, to Yellowstone we went.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJason and Kade at Old Faithful.

We knew we wouldn’t see much of the park; we just didn’t have the time. So, we made only one stop: visiting the geysers and springs at Old Faithful Visitor Center. And you know what, that was fine, because…

Lesson four: Remember to be as in awe of the natural world as you were when you saw it through younger eyes.

Despite the overdeveloped feel of Old Faithful (as compared to the rest of the Park) some pretty amazing stuff happened: Of course, we saw Old Faithful erupt; we snuck up on a resting Bison (completely by accident), took a photo, and then quickly retreated; we saw a whole heard of Bison cross the boardwalk; and we saw colors in the hot springs that you really just don’t see anywhere else.

Imagine what that looked like through eyes that had never seen anything like that before!? One of the great things about hiking with our kids is that we see the world anew as we watch them see a more magical world than they’ve ever before seen.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJason and the resting Bison.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Boardwalk invasion.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“The Grand” on the way back to Jackson from Yellowstone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.