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. The kids wouldn't budge. They were having too much fun.
Noreen McClintock has one word for parents 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," observes Ms. McClintock, a ranger who plans education programs at California's Yosemite National Park. She sees too many cranky children and exasperated parents who have tried unsuccessfully to stick to agendas, racing from one end of the park to the other.
"Just choose one or two things to see and then spend the rest of the time swimming or around the campground," suggests Ms. McClintock.
Never mind that it may be 10 years before you get back to see Yosemite's waterfalls, Yellowstone's geysers, Acadia's shoreline or the Everglades' alligators.
What counts at a national park is the quality of the time. The idea is for the kids -- and you -- to leave with a solid appreciation for 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 place has to offer. Take it from me -- and I've visited some 52 national parks and historic sites it's impossible to even begin to see it all, especially with kids along.
So slow down and smell the wildflowers. On their recent trip to Olympic National Park in Washington, Carl and Dana Weinberg opted for short walks their daughter Eva would enjoy, instead of the long hikes they love. They had good time introducing 17-month old Eva to her first waterfall.
"Visiting a national park isn't a high-speed adventure," agrees Neil DeJong, chief of interpretation at Everglades National Park in Florida. "You have to get out and experience it. 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 major parks -- like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Yellowstone in Wyoming. Many of them will have just a few hours 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," sighs Patti Reilly, of the National Parks Foundation. The foundation publishes the "Complete Guide to America's National Parks," which is available for $15.95 from the foundation; a portion of the proceeds helps support the parks. Call (800) 533-6478 to order.
That's why National Park Service educational experts urge families to find out about the park before arriving at the visitors center. Call the park -- or call it up on the World Wide Web at nps.gov.
Rather than simply requesting printed information, talk to someone on the park's interpretive staff to see what activities are available for children. Does the park offer a junior ranger program? Are there specific hikes recommended for families? Evening activities?
Places less traveled
To beat the crowds, consider heading to less-visited spots like Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina or Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. The National Park Service even prints a 50-page booklet listing some of the best lesser-known spots. (You can get it by writing the NPS Office of Public Inquiry, 18th and C streets Northwest Washington, D.C. 20240.)
Meanwhile, ask the kids what they want to do, suggests Jim McHugh, a middle-school teacher from Petaluma, Calif., who always gives his 9-year-old daughter a say in their national-park plans.
That might work especially well with teens, Mr. McHugh believes. "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 says.
Mr. McHugh's other tip for successful national parks visits: Alternate strenuous hiking excursions with other activities the kids might enjoy swimming, biking or horseback riding, for example. "If you can plan one or two days just to relax, everyone will be happier," Mr. McHugh is convinced.
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 -- and it may be for major parks months ahead 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  365-2267; for Yosemite, call  436-7275.) If you're headed to a park that doesn't reserve camp spots, arrive early in the day to get one.
You also want to know if any park roads notorious in many places for their poor condition -- will be closed. "People get so disappointed when they get to a spot and can't get through," says Marsha Karle, a spokesman for Yellowstone. Even worse, she says, are the disgruntled families who don't realize it could take hours to drive just 50 miles on the park's winding roads.
Remember, no matter how much you plan, the best times still will be those you didn't figure on.
Just ask Robin Manly. In the midst of their Arizona vacation, her family decided one day to drive to the Grand Canyon.
"It was totally spur of the minute. And it was perfect."
Pub Date: 3/31/96