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Taking the Kids

Making a Move on Park Place

April 21, 1996|EILEEN OGINTZ

The kids wanted to play, splashing in the lake and climbing the rocks. I kept looking at my watch, thinking of all that we were missing at the national park--the fields of wildflowers, the scenic mountain vistas, even the historical exhibits in the old lodge. I wanted to hit every one. But my children didn't.

Noreen McClintock has one word for parents like me heading to national parks across the country this spring and summer: relax.

"Families try to see too much, and don't realize the kids are on overload and just block it all out," said McClintock, a ranger who plans education programs at Yosemite National Park. She sees too many cranky children and exasperated parents who have tried unsuccessfully to stick to over-planned agendas.

"Just choose one or two things to see, and then spend the rest of the time swimming or around the campground," McClintock said.

What counts at a national park is the quality of time. The idea is for the kids--and you--to leave with an appreciation of the place and an understanding of why it's important to conserve our natural resources.

That means letting go of the notion that in a few days, or a few hours, you can see all that the park has to offer. Take it from me--and I've visited more than 50 national parks and historic sites in the course of researching this column and my books--it's impossible to even begin to see it all, especially with kids along.

So slow down and smell the wildflowers. For example, rather than taking the long hikes they love, Carl and Dana Weinberg opted for short nature walks their 17-month-old daughter, Eva, would enjoy on a recent trip to Olympic National Park in Washington. They had a great time introducing Eva to her first waterfall.

"Visiting a national park isn't a high-speed adventure," said Neil DeJong, chief of interpretation at Everglades National Park in Florida. "You have to get out and experience it. And that takes time."

Planning takes time too. This year, 360 million visitors will tour the country's 369 national park sites. Most will crowd the nation's major parks, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. Too many will arrive with just a few hours to spare and won't venture far from the visitors center.

"People spend all of that time to get to a place just to say they've been there," said Patti Reilly of the National Parks Foundation, which publishes the "Complete Guide to America's National Parks" (National Parks Foundation, $15.95, [800] 533-6478 to order.) That's why Park Service experts urge families to find out about a park in advance. Call the park or look it up at http://www.nps.gov on the Internet.

Rather than simply requesting printed information, talk to someone on the park's interpretive staff to see what activities are available for children.

To beat the crowds, consider heading to less-visited spots, such as Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina or Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. The National Parks Service prints a 50-page booklet listing some of the best lesser-known spots. (Send requests to: NPS Office of Public Inquiry, 18th and C Streets N.W., Washington, DC 20240.)

Ask the kids what they want to do, said Jim McHugh, a middle school teacher from Petaluma who always gives his 9-year-old daughter a say in their national park plans.

That tactic might work especially well with teens, McHugh said. "Part of it is that they'll be away from their peers, so it's OK to do something like go on a hike with their parents," he said.

McHugh's other tip for successful national parks visits: alternate strenuous hiking excursions with other activities, such as swimming, biking or horseback riding. "If you can plan one or two days just to relax, everyone will be happier," McHugh said.

Wherever you go, don't arrive in the middle of the summer without a place to stay. If lodging inside the park is already booked when you call--as it may be months in advance at major parks--ask for recommendations for nearby accommodations.

Be aware that even park campgrounds may be booked. Thirteen major park campgrounds, including Acadia, Joshua Tree, Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone now take camping reservations. (Call [800] 365-2267 for most parks; [800] 436-7275, for Yosemite; [307] 344-7311, for Yellowstone.) If the park doesn't take campsite reservations, arrive early in the day to get a spot.

Also, check in advance to make sure park roads--notorious in many places for their poor condition--are open. "People are so disappointed when they get to a spot and can't get through," said Yellowstone spokeswoman Marsha Karle. Also a problem, she said, are unhappy families that don't realize it could take hours to drive just 50 miles on the park's winding roads.

And remember, no matter how much you plan, the best times will be those you don't expect.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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