Taking the Kids -- And Doing the National Park Circuit

Stand eyeball to eyeball with a moose. Slide down a gigantic sand dune, or hike through a dark rain forest.

No, these aren't the latest theme-park attractions, though the kids will like them just as much. Even better, they're virtually free.

Welcome to the nation's national parks, home of enough ``nature-made'' attractions to please everyone in the family, from the busy-busy toddler to oh-so-bored teen (bringing a friend along always helps). Even Grandma, whose Golden Age passport costs just $10 and entitles her to lifetime free park admission plus significant camping discounts.

No one in the group will complain of boredom -- not too much, anyway.

Here's the bad news: More than 100 million people, according to the National Park Service, will by vying to see the same geysers at Yellowstone, the same giant redwoods at Yosemite or the same spectacular sea vistas at Acadia. They'll clog the narrow park roads, crowd the park restaurants, take the waterside campsites and ruin your best photo opportunities. When your kids aren't whining, theirs will be.

Not to worry. After visiting more than 60 National Parks and monuments with my gang in the last few years, I figure it's time to share my secrets so you won't make the same mistakes I did. Here's how to be ParkSmart:

-- Don't despair when all the park lodges and campsites are filled. Even at the last minute, chances are, you can find a motel room or a campground nearby, especially if you call ahead. The local chamber of commerce or park visitors' center always can help you find a pillow for the night -- or a place to park your sleeping bag.

-- Invest in a few long-distance calls, and you'll be able to breeze through the crowds like a pro at busy parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park (more than 9.2 million visitors last year) or the Grand Canyon (more than 4.5 visitors).

The trick: Call ahead for advice. You want to know: Is it better to visit first thing in the morning or late in the day? Which are the least-crowded trails? Are reservations required for activities or for dinner at the lodge?

-- Bypass the crowds entirely, and opt for lesser known (but just as fun) areas, such as Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado, Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia or the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin. (Order ``The National Parks: Lesser Known Areas'' booklet for $1.75 from The National Park Service at 202-512-1800. The booklet is also available online at: nps.gov/pub-aff/lesser.htn. For reams of other useful park information, visit the National Parks Service web site at: www.nps.gov.

-- No matter how cute, never feed the animals or let the kids approach them. Remember, a national park is not a zoo. These animals shouldn't get up close and personal with people. They become too dependent on human handouts and foods. The best time to see moose or elk: early or late in the day. Move slowly if you spot one; you don't want to scare them off.

Of course, that's exactly what you want to do in bear country. Talk or sing as you hike, or take a walking stick with bells. Bears typically go away if they hear people.

-- Even if you're planning a short day hike, stash a first-aid kit, flashlight and waterproof matches in your day pack, along with water for everyone and plenty of healthy snacks. Hand the kids whistles they can blow if you get too far apart; and instruct them NEVER to wander off the trail. Don't leave the trailhead without jackets for everyone. The weather can change quickly.

-- Slow down and smell the wildflowers. Count the constellations. Look at the place from your 3-year-old's perspective. No matter what their age, the kids will hate rushing from waterfall to scenic vista. They'd much rather spend the morning hiking (preferably to a lake) and the afternoon swimming in it. Don't forget to get the kids' take on how you should spend the day. They'll be much more cooperative if they've had a say in which trail to take or fishing spot to try. Remember, it's their vacation too.

-- Keep the kids' ages -- and abilities -- in mind when making plans. A too-rigorous hike will dim your enthusiasm, as well as theirs. You want to challenge, but not overwhelm them. Ask the park rangers at the visitor center for their favorite kid-friendly spots. They're pros at mapping out the best hikes, mountain lakes or beaches, and spots to view animals. Remind yourself daily that this trip is not an endurance contest, and you'll end the day smiling.

-- Stash a cooler packed with picnic fixings in the trunk when planning a day moseying through the park by car. You don't want to drive 20 miles to the nearest park concession and wait on line for a burger when hunger strikes. Lunch alongside a stream is much more appealing, and cheaper, too. Don't forget the cookies.

-- Be careful. You are not in a theme park. If you fly off a mountain top, you won't come out screeching minutes later. Keep close track of the kids.

-- Buy lots of books about the area you're visiting -- the wildlife, the mountains, the ocean. They provide great fodder for next year's school projects.

By the way, you'll find those moose in Wyoming at Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Park. White Sands National Monument in New Mexico or Great Sands National Monument in Colorado are the spots to slide down the dunes (bring a plastic sled!) A rain forest, the only one in the continental United States, is at Olympic National Park, west of Seattle.

Better get busy breaking in those new hiking boots. See you soon at Rocky Mountain National Park.

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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