National Parks Plus Kids: The Difference a National Park Makes

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The final two destinations of our summer adventure in the national parks, though neighbors, are a study in contrast. One, Mount Rainier, is a national park. The other, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, is not part of the National Park System, but easily could be. Today, it is operated by the U.S. Forest Service. Both places captivated our kids, but Rainier’s accessibility made for a much richer experience. Unlike Rainier, Mount St. Helens has no overnight accommodations–no lodge or campgrounds–making it a challenge to explore deeply with young kids, unless you want to backpack in a location remote from the park’s center–the gaping crater created by the volcano’s 1980 eruption. We were fortunate to stay at the nearby, family-run Eco Park Resort, a lodge with delightful cabins, yurts, campsites, and great food.

The premier destination at Mount St. Helens is Johnston Ridge Observatory, with its birds-eye view of the crater, its fancy theater and film, and several exhibits the kids enjoyed–particularly one that enabled them to create their own earthquake and see its intensity on a seismometer. The shortcoming is the lack of interpretive options beyond the observatory. A Forest Service ranger delivered an engaging Junior Ranger talk to the kids, which was held outdoors overlooking the mountain. But, when we all got hungry, there was no place to eat. No restaurant. No picnic tables. So, we pulled out our cooler from the car and ate sandwiches on a concrete median strip in the parking lot. It wasn’t until we visited Coldwater Lake at the end of our day that we saw there were actually picnic tables; they were simply 10 miles away from where all the visitors were!

Once you venture away from the observatory building, the hiking options for kids in this part of Mount St. Helens are limited. The hike to the valley floor is a fascinating journey, but too much for young kids–long, strenuous, and exposed. So, we hiked a ways down the trail and turned around. There are nice trails in other parts of the monument, but getting there is an hours-long, challenging journey.

Fortunately, Mount Rainier, our final park, offers a bounty of hiking options that the kids truly enjoyed. At Paradise on the south side of the mountain, we hiked the Skyline trail through glorious fields of lupine until we reached a delightful snowfield that provided us with a slippery playground, much to the viewing pleasure of two nearby marmots. We couldn’t tell what the Marmots thought of Isabelle’s wolf puppet, Logan Lightning Bolt, who accompanied us.

The ranger-led Junior Ranger talk in the Paradise visitor center was probably the best we encountered in any national park we visited. The seasonal ranger, a retired school science teacher, “made” a glacier with the kids—a concoction similar to Dr. Seuss’s “oobleck,” with a consistency equivalent to Jello mixed with Silly Putty—to demonstrate how a glacier moves and show some other interesting properties of these ice forms. The session was fun and engaging, and as a bonus, each budding Junior Ranger who shared something they had learned received their own piece of the concoction. In truth, we all learned something!

Since Rainier was our last park on a journey of many weeks, we treated ourselves to a stay at the Paradise Inn. The great room in the historic inn proved ideal for card-playing, completing Junior Ranger packets, and relaxing together to music emanating from a unique, one-of-a-kind piano. The inn is a fantastic location for exploring the popular Paradise area of the park.

The Sunrise area on the northeast side of the mountain also has fantastic hiking, and is where we elected to enjoy our last national park hike of the season. Of course, first our kids became Junior Rangers for the tenth time. Our loop began with a short ascent to Sourdough Ridge, and wound its way past Frozen and Shadow Lakes, before returning to the snack bar near the visitor center for a well-earned ice cream.

At Shadow Lake, Lucas finally hit the pumice jackpot. He had been determined to find a sample of the one rock that can actually float, and in an exciting turn of luck, he finally found one. Monty Python was right; very small rocks DO float on water … provided they’re pumice and have plenty of air pockets.

The big tip this week is that both of these famous mountains are world-class treasures. Both are worth visiting, but Mount Rainier is the clear winner when it comes to variety, interpretive programs, and available accommodations. Mount St. Helens is full of untapped potential. When it comes to engaging visitors, Rainier is in a different league.

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About the Author

Craig Obey is senior vice president of government affairs at NPCA.