12 Kid-Friendly National Parks


By Hallie Smith

Our national parks can be fun for the whole family. Here are a few parks that are especially kid-friendly and great destinations for National Park Week.

This year marks the centennial year of the National Park Service, so there is no better time to teach our children how precious our national parks are and that they belong to all of us as Americans. We would be hard-pressed to find any park that doesn't offer unforgettable experiences and engaging activities for children, but these 12 parks are a good place to start if you're looking for parks to visit with kids.

Children in fourth grade can get in for free as part of the “Every Kid in a Park" program—and that includes free entrance for everyone in the same car.

Many national parks offer Junior Ranger Programs for children to learn about what it takes to be a park ranger and the responsibilities of taking care of our parks.

1. Badlands National Park—South Dakota

Photo credit: Peterrieke / Flickr

At Badlands, kids can also go on a geological scavenger hunt and take the Geology Challenge at one of the world's richest fossil beds, brimming with artifacts and history. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is a quarter of a mile long with plenty of signage so kids know what they are looking at. If they want to feel like they've traveled to another planet, take them to see The Wall, which stretches for 80 miles with its other-worldly rock face and colorful stripes of erosion. Children can also visit the Paleontology Lab to see what fossils have been recently found in the park and earn a Junior Paleontologist Badge. Badland National Park's 244,000 acres are also home to bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets, so children should be on the lookout.

2. Carlsbad Caverns National Park—New Mexico

Photo credit: Aric Brown / Flickr

Children will be enchanted by the ancient sea ledges, deep rocky canyons, flowering cactus and wildlife above ground in the Chihuahuan Desert. Imagine how amazed they will be at the more than 119 caves hidden below ground, full of stalactites and stalagmites! Take the kids you know on a self-guided tour of the cavernous Big Room or crawl through the narrow passageways during a tour of the Hall of the White Giant at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, world-famous for cave tours and spelunking. Watch from afar as Brazilian free-tailed bats perform their daily mass exodus from the caverns during the summer—a free air show for viewers.

3. Mesa Verde National Park—Colorado

Photo credit: Ali Eminov / Flickr

With all the different cliff dwellings to choose from, kids will be endlessly entertained. They can tour Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America or perhaps Balcony House, which is like a fun yet historic obstacle course with all of its ladders. Or take a self-guided tour to Stephouse and explore its petroglyphs, cliff dwelling and pithouse. After kids get tuckered out exploring the dwellings, challenge them to quietly spot a mule deer or turkey. Mesa Verde National Park is also a great spot for stargazing as there is little artificial light. Children can spot constellations in the sky after a fun day exploring the park.

4. Yellowstone National Park—Idaho, Montana, Wyoming

Photo credit: David Welch / Flickr

With more than 500 gushing geysers and mudpots and nearly four dozen elegant waterfalls, Yellowstone National Park comes alive and breathes excitement for children. With more than 400 different animal species here, including bears and elk, you can spot animals nearly anywhere in the park. You may even get lucky enough to have a herd of bison pass by your car for a close-up view. Kids can also participate in “Wildlife Olympics" and compare their skills to those of the animals at the park. Check out a Young Scientist Toolkit to investigate the area around Old Faithful so kids can earn a Young Scientist patch or key chain.

5. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park—Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia

Photo credit: Virginia State Parks / Flickr

Kids can don a tri-corner hat, hunting frock or linen dress and experience the life of an early settler at the pioneer playhouse at the visitor center at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Children can also see actual artifacts and touch animal skins or can go sightseeing and wildlife watching for deer, beaver, fox, bobcat, bear and 150 species of birds. Beyond that, kids can discover rich history, spectacular overlooks, unique rock formations, cascading waterfalls and an extensive trail system in the park's 24,000 acres.

6. Everglades National Park—Florida

Photo credit: Texx Smith / Flickr

Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, protects numerous rare and endangered species, like the gentle manatee, fearsome American crocodile and the stealthy Florida panther. Children can get involved with a real-life treasure hunt and search for geocached items or go canoeing down the Wilderness Waterway, a canopied river framed with ethereal greenery. Rangers lead hikes, slough slogs, bike trips and tram tours, all get-up-and-go activities that introduce kids to nature.

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7. Grand Canyon National Park—Arizona

Photo credit: Bob the Lomond / Flickr

By itself, the 18-mile-wide, 277-mile-long Grand Canyon is itself the view of a lifetime at any age. Make it even more fun from the back of a mule. Families can also explore an exposed fossil bed during a one mile, one hour tour along the South Rim. Impressions of sponges, brachiopods and other marine creatures from more than 270 million years ago allow kids to travel back in time.

8. Lava Beds National Monument—California

Photo credit: Jeff Moser / Flickr

Over the last half-million years, volcanic eruptions have created a landscape with diverse volcanic features for kids to explore. One of the most exciting features the lava left behind were the Lava Tube Caves. The caves have varying levels of difficulty, so inexperienced cavers or children can enjoy the caves, too. They may even spot cave crickets, bats or rubber boas—all of which are neither dangerous not poisonous. This summer, Lava Beds is offering special events for children and those who want to become junior rangers.

9. Minuteman National Historic Park—Massachusetts

Photo credit: Tami A. Heilemann (Interior) / Flickr

Kids can learn about how America came to be its own nation at this national historic park. Through multimedia programs about the road to revolution, British Redcoats and American rebels, children can hear about the first battles of the American Revolution. Beyond that, kids can participate in a ranger-led demonstration and be a part of a militia muster with costumed Minutemen, complete with drilling with wooden muskets. Don't just learn about the Revolution—become a part of it.

10. Olympic National Park—Washington

Photo credit: Stephanie Sicore / Flickr

Olympic National Park encompasses several distinct ecosystems and protects a rich mosaic of natural and cultural history. Rivers flow, untamed, from glacier-capped peaks through sturdy forests while waves crash against the shoreline. Only trails traverse the vast interior of this internationally recognized wilderness. Kids can explore the tide pools that provide small windows into the lives of ocean dwellers and rivers, and visitors can end the day away from the city lights, stargazing and tracing constellations in the night sky. Among the thick trees, babbling rivers and foamy seashore, children can try to spot birds, deer, elk, bears and whales.

11. Petrified Forest National Park—Arizona

Photo credit: Susan McElhinney (NPS) / Flickr

Hike through the rugged and majestic backcountry to give children an up-close look at the colorful petrified wood that is the namesake of the park. Explore around the hoodoos in Black Forest and marvel at the rocks' height and balance. Try your hand at family geocaching or go horseback riding along trails in Petrified Forest National Park. Visit the Painted Desert Visitor Center and watch the park film, then visit the outlooks or the Painted Desert Rim Trail to view the vibrant stripes that decorate the rock formations of Painted Desert. The Rainbow Forest Museum features paleontological exhibits with displays of prehistoric skeletons. Kids can try their hand at being a paleontologist in the museum's Blue Mesa Room.

12. Acadia National Park—Maine

Photo credit: Woodleywonderworks / Flickr

In Acadia, kids can feel like they're on top of the world as they explore Cadillac Mountain, which reaches for the sky as the tallest mountain on the Atlantic Coast. Acadia National Park also offers the chance to hike granite peaks or horseback-ride along historic carriage trails. Children can chase the clear blue waves at Sand Beach and Echo Lake Beach, which are also perfect for constructing sand castles or lounging in swimming suits. Tide pools teem with aquatic animals and offer an up-close view of marine life. Kids can search for frogs in a pond or cast a line at one of the many fishing spots. Rangers lead tours and activities and kids can take part in the Junior Ranger Program to earn a certificate and patch.


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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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