Family Activity Ideas in Northern California National Parks

The National Park Service celebrated its centennial in 2016, amid a political season that was…unusual, to put it mildly. Even as conservationists celebrate one hundred years of preservation, the fate of America’s natural and cultural resources is more uncertain than ever. In the wake of this uncertainty, there remains hope—and thankfully, plenty of opportunity for everyday people to make an impact, explore ethically, and help protect this land we call home.

The American conservation movement began in the mid-19th century, as the economy industrialized and people migrated from rural to urban areas. The transcontinental railroad enabled urbanites to travel faster and farther than ever before. Many took advantage of this new opportunity to see the country’s natural wonders that had been documented by popular artists of the era, like Thomas Moran.

Nowadays, your family might not travel by train, but you may still be one of the millions of people who support the national parks by visiting them this year. And if you’re in California, you have a stunning variety of parks to choose from. So where do you start? And more importantly, how do you enjoy our parks responsibly, ensuring generations to come have the same opportunity?

child hugging a redwood in Yosemite
Enjoy the national parks, but make sure to do so with a mind toward conservation so that they are here for future generations to enjoy. Photo © noblige/iStock.

One of the crown jewels of the National Park system is right here in the Golden State: Yosemite National Park. It’s one of the oldest in the nation, and definitely one of the most popular. Over 4 million visitors per year come through the park gates. Unfortunately, that also means over 4 million annual visitors leave behind over 2,000 tons of trash. That’s enough garbage to fill 4,000 dumpsters! Want to visit Yosemite, but don’t want to be part of the problem? Yosemite’s new Zero Waste Initiative is tackling an issue that many parks face—being loved to death. Check out their page for tips and tricks for making your visit a low-impact one.

Family activity idea: Instead of buying single-use water bottles, let your kids pick out their own reusable one. Then, use it to collect stickers from all the national parks you visit!

condor in flight over Pinnacles National Park
Visit Pinnacles National Park to see the critically endangered California condor in the wild. Photo © Nick Lust Photography/iStock.

The zero waste idea doesn’t just apply to popular parks like Yosemite. Take the philosophy with you wherever you go, including lesser-frequented destinations like Pinnacles National Park. A fraction of the size of Yosemite, this small park is one of the only places in the world where you can see the critically endangered California condor in the wild. This bucket-list bird can be easily spotted in the High Peaks area of the park, accessible only by hiking in from the Chaparral or Bear Gulch day use areas.

Family activity idea: Conservationists used the work of Thomas Moran and other landscape painters to inspire public support for the creation of national parks. Pack along a small, portable easel and colored pencils, and spend an hour or two documenting your explorations the old-fashioned way. National parks need our support now more than ever. Just remember not to leave any of your art supplies behind!

“Leave no trace” is a central principle of outdoor exploration, and especially backcountry camping. This all-in approach is a great way to experience a park, but if you’re used to the amenities of a traditional campground, backcountry camping can be intimidating. While Pinnacles has no backcountry camping, many national parks do, and some make efforts to ease first-timers into it, even with kids.

campground in Redwood National Park
Redwood National Park offers multiple backcountry camping options that feature short, easy hikes. Photo © Vesivus/iStock.

Redwood National Park offers multiple options that feature short, easy hikes in (and are totally free!). First, check out their backcountry trip planner (PDF) to find the campsite that’s best for you. Flint Ridge camp is a great choice. Just a quarter of a mile from the nearest parking area, it provides bear lockers, fire rings, picnic tables and a composting toilet. Campers must bring in their own water, and pack out all garbage. For a first-time family backpacking trip, it doesn’t get any easier than this.

Family activity idea: Leave the ordinary world behind. Instead of bringing along their phones or tablets, introduce your kids to activities like meditation and nature journaling. The solitude of a backcountry camp may be a totally new (and welcome!) experience. Join them as they use all their senses to notice the world around them: sights, sounds, smells, and sensations.

a group of people on the beach with clean up gear
Coastal Clean Up Day at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo © National Park Service.

Many national parks are also designated wilderness, but some are surprisingly located within major metropolitan areas. Point Reyes National Seashore is about 30 miles north of San Francisco, making it a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. Parks in and around cities often bear witness to the impact humans have on our environment—at Point Reyes, one of those issues is invasive species. As with most parks, the staff at Point Reyes rely on an army of volunteers to help keep the park in top shape for wildlife and visitors alike. This type of community activism is especially important in an era of budget cuts and hiring freezes. Even if you’re only in the park for a day or two, volunteering can be a great way to enjoy your visit, while making sure you and your family have a positive impact.

Family activity idea: At Point Reyes, families with kids as young as 9 can participate in habitat restoration on an ongoing basis or just one time. Check out their list of family-friendly volunteer opportunities before your trip!

Sign post at Manzanar National Historic Site
A visit to the Manzanar National Historic Site provides an opportunity to discuss valuable historical lessons. Photo © Ken Lund, CC BY-SA 2.0 (photo cropped for use).

While the national parks are known for preserving America’s natural wonders, they play an important role in preserving history and culture as well—even the parts of our history that some would like to forget. Manzanar National Historic Site has preserved one of the most infamous of the ten internment camps that housed over 100,000 forcibly relocated Japanese Americans during World War II.

Family activity idea: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s bestselling memoir Farewell to Manzanar documents her life at the camp from age 7 to 10. Before visiting Manzanar, read her memoir aloud or listen to the audiobook together. Manzanar is also one of the participating sites for the “Civil War to Civil Rights” trading card program.

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Girl in front of forest and snowy mountains, pointing at sky. Pinterest Graphic, NorCal NPs.