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March 18, 2001|EILEEN OGINTZ

Admission and lodging are bargains at some of our national parks. Even better, the adventure is guaranteed to provide plenty of fodder for the family memory book. No matter what happens, at least no one will complain they're bored. Not with rocks to climb, new playmates and water made for splashing. Rain is an opportunity for a different adventure.

Wishful thinking? Not really.

A record 289 million people visited national parks last summer. It's easy to see why the parks remain such a popular family vacation choice.

"They're the cheapest vacations going," says Charles Wohlforth, a father of four from Alaska. Wohlforth and his family have spent six weeks at a stretch touring some of the big national parks, even camping with a baby in tow.

"You get a lot closer as a family during a trip like this," he says.

That's if you're still speaking to one another after you've spent three hours trying to drive 30 miles on a winding national park road (Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming), awakened in a sodden sleeping bag after a rainstorm (Acadia National Park in Maine) or lobbied unsuccessfully for your 10-year-old to put down his Game Boy to watch the heart-stopping scenery (Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado). I've lived those cliches, but I've also shared some marvelous wonders with the kids: spying a bear for the first time (Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska), hiking to the top of a waterfall (Yosemite in California) and touching a glacier (Glacier National Park in Montana).

That, of course, is more important than how many animals or natural wonders we saw. We're also trying to re-create for our kids the memories we have of those childhood car trips when we visited five national parks in seven days. (E-mail me with your recollections of those childhood cross-country trips, the good and the bad, for use in a future column:

We certainly have less time to spend than our parents did on those traditional two-or three-week vacations. Many of us-and even our kids-are more sophisticated travelers.

We also want more adventure for our vacation buck, says Rick Hoeninghausen, who met his wife while working at Yellowstone during college and now oversees the lodges there.

All the more reason to view a national-park trip differently.

It's not too early to start planning a late spring or summer trip.

Instead of spending all of your time trying to see the highlights at several parks, consider staying in one park and focusing your time on just one area. "The kids will feel more secure in one place," Wohlforth says. And you'll feel less stressed.

Be flexible so you can spend a morning chasing frogs or an afternoon swimming in the river if your family feels like it. Linger over picnics.

"Too often it's a quick stop and off they go," says Bruce Brossman, who oversees the lodges in Grand Canyon National Park.

Park rangers and lodge officials are encouraging families to linger longer by tempting them with an array of kid-friendly activities: tide-pool walks at Acadia, storytelling at the Grand Canyon, guided fishing trips at Yellowstone, rock climbing lessons at Yosemite. The parks' field institutes also offer customized family programs, including photo hikes and float trips. Some of these popular programs are free.

The Junior Ranger programs, for example, drew about 377,000 kids to 213 national parks and monuments, reports Corky Mayo, the chief of interpretation for the National Park Service. The programs are detailed on the parks' Web sites (Internet for links to individual parks), enabling parents and kids to take a virtual tour before they visit.

"The Web is a great tool to plan and help get the kids excited about the trip before you go," says Mayo, who notes that more parks now offer family programs.


Taking the Kids appears twice a month.

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