Q&A With Outdoor Travel Writer Amy Whitley
Outdoor travel writer Amy Whitley has great ideas for getting kids excited about parks as she and her husband have been taking their family on road trips for years. From admiring wildflowers at Death Valley, to hiking on snow at Glacier, to photo scavenger hunts, and flora and fauna bingo, she has so many stories and tips to share.
We talked to Amy about why parks are important to her and all the fun she has exploring them with her family.
What does a park mean to you?
The park system means preservation to me. It means that a corner of the world that I care about will hopefully be around for my kids and grandkids to see. I consider it a legacy I'm proud to be a part of as an American citizen.
Why is the Find Your Park movement important?
I believe this movement is important because it plants the idea in kids' heads that they can take “ownership” of a park, and when people feel ownership for a destination, they take care of it. I've seen this firsthand in my own kids, as they take greater interest in the national parks they've visited. Why? Because they have memories there, their stories are there, and their future may be there, as they revisit or bring their own families one day.
How many national parks have you visited in total?
20+ (have lost count!)
What is your best national park memory?
We have so many great national park memories, it's hard to decide on one favorite, but the first one to come to mind is of arriving to Glacier National Park in Montana after a long car ride. We turned up on the Going to the Sun Road a bit weary, but were immediately revitalized by the sight of a black bear loping across the road in front of us, trailed by three cubs. My preschool-aged son was beside himself at his first bear sighting.
What is your favorite national park(s) you’ve visited so far?
Another very hard question to answer! We have two top favorites, and they are vastly different from one another. We love Olympic National Park in Washington for its otherworldly, almost prehistoric rain forest beauty. The quiet and peace of this park, aided by its relative isolation and few roads makes hiking here a dream. Just bring rain gear! Our second favorite is Death Valley National Park in California. If you visit during spring as the wildflowers are blooming, this desert environment comes alive (and is a balmy 75 degrees). We love hiking through Death Valley's canyons and on its sand dunes, and the feel of the sun isn't so bad, either!
What is the most unique experience you have had in a national park?
In the summer of 2012, we secured backcountry permits for Yosemite National Park, and backpacked along the John Muir Trail from Tuolumne Meadows to the valley floor (via the Mist Trail). In four days, we probably saw a total of four people until we arrived at the Mist Trail...and this is in one of the most crowded national parks in the country in July! The experience taught us that solitude can be found in even the most popular national parks if you know where to look and make an extra effort. We've had similar experiences exploring backcountry in Yellowstone National Park.
What tips do you have for engaging kids in the park experience?
Definitely take part in the Junior Ranger program when visiting with kids. Start at a park's visitor center and ask lots of questions of the park rangers there. We always ask the rangers for lesser known hikes and where they've most recently seen wildlife. If you plan to camp or stay in a lodge within a park, book as soon as you're allowed (usually six months out). Otherwise, look for lesser known campgrounds just outside park boundaries. One of our more recent finds: a yurt stay at a bird sanctuary in small Harriman State Park just outside Yellowstone...only two guests per night!
Encourage kids to take photos while hiking by allowing them use of your camera or buying them their own. We like to create photo scavenger hunts to make hikes more appealing, or play a bingo-type game for spotting various flora and fauna. Participate in campfire presentations by rangers in the evenings, and opt for hikes instead of drives when possible in the parks. Most importantly, let kids play! Perhaps wading through a river pretending you're a bear isn't your idea of time well spent in a national park, but it's likely what your kids will remember best, and they're getting in touch with nature as they do so!
Buy your kids national park passports. No, they're not just another gift shop gimmick! These books are very fun for kids, as they encourage collecting of national park stamps and stickers. At every park we visit, the kids stamp their passports and add notes about the park. It's become quite the collectiondsfsdf.
How did you first introduce your children to the national parks?
Road trips to national parks were some of the first types of trips we enjoyed with our kids, because these vacations are affordable and adaptable. We first took our son Nate backpacking in Olympic National Park before he was one, and have been exploring parks ever since. Two summers in a row, we planned road trips that included four national parks each, so my kids have seen eight parks before they were 5.
Do your kids have a favorite national park?
Their favorite is Glacier National Park, because they really enjoyed hiking on snow in summer, getting up close and personal with mountain goats (a new animal to them). A close second: Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska, which they viewed from the bow of a small-sized cruise ship.
Is there anything else you’d like share with our national park community?
We believe national parks are truly one of America's greatest treasures and resources. I cannot emphasize enough how much any trip, but especially one to a popular national park, is improved by advanced planning, a willingness to go off the beaten path, and a natural curiosity (ask questions!). Backpack to get away from the crowds if you can, but if not, don't let any intimidation of nature stop you: national parks are very accessible and make for a great introduction to the outdoors for less experienced families.
Amy Whitley is a freelance outdoor travel writer and NWKids columnist for OutdoorsNW magazine. She is the founder of Pit Stops for Kids, a family travel review site for any parent who's heard “Are we there yet?” one too many times, and editorial and content manager for Trekaroo, the largest independent family travel site in the US (now expanded to Canada!). Amy writes about national parks whenever possible, visiting at least 2-5 per year with her husband and three kids, ranging in age from 8-14...all in the name of “research.”