July 2, 2012 at 11:14 AM ET
There's something special about the awe in a 5-year-old's eyes when she sees for the first time the Old Faithful Geyser in full eruption, spitting thousands of gallons of steaming hot water into a robin's egg blue sky, all the while thundering like a rocket engine at liftoff. Too, the sense of accomplishment that a 14-year-old basks in atop a 13,770-foot outcrop of granite called the Grand Teton is something that can't be duplicated in the classroom. And when you're standing beside them when they enjoy these experiences, well, it's something you'll never forget.
Cape Cod National Seashore
Cape Cod National Seashore takes in the eastern beaches and sand dunes of Massachusetts's arm-shaped cape -- the outer side from the elbow to the fist. Though the Cape offers more than 400 years of human history, the dunes and beaches remain wild and inspiring. There are museums, nature education facilities and organizations offering summer day camps. The seashore has no campgrounds, but plenty of attractive campgrounds are nearby, as are good motels, cottages and historic inns.
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park nearly touches Yellowstone on the south side. It has a single great show rather than many sideshows, but it's an unforgettable one. The ferocious daggers of the Teton Range rise straight up from the flat stage of a valley and lake. The overwhelming view meets you almost everywhere, but the best of the park for families is down below, on lakes and hiking trails rich in wildlife. Just south of the park, the fun town of Jackson, Wyo., offers downhill skiing and a pleasant dose of civilization.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina is a place of trails over wooded mountains and through great hardwood forests that are full of historic interest as well as natural beauty. Families go for fun, horseback riding, inner-tubing and backpacking.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is just north of Denver. Rocky takes in one of the highest parts of the nation's greatest mountain range. It's unique in permitting easy access to broad areas of alpine terrain, much of it above 10,000 feet in elevation. The camping and hiking are supreme and include opportunities for walking without trails on the tundra above the tree line. Small towns on either side of the park offer cute and friendly places to stay, eat and shop.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore protects 75 miles of the Outer Banks, a thin strand of sand islands draped along North Carolina's eastern coast 10 to 40 miles off the mainland. The ocean swimming and water sports are supreme, and miles of beach invite exploration and ecological interpretation. Nearby historic sites, including the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the site of England's first American settlement, fascinate most children and adults. The National Park Service has several sandy seaside campgrounds, and there are plenty of hotel rooms and houses for rent.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park lies east of San Francisco roughly in the middle of the Sierra and is best known for Yosemite Valley, an amazing canyon where waterfalls drop thousands of feet from granite walls. The valley is a small part of the park, however, and is overrun with people. You'll want to spend most of your time hiking in the spectacular high-country areas and in the mountainside forests that aren't nearly as crowded.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park contrasts the rugged immensity of the Grand Canyon with smooth, soaring shapes. Ancient sand dunes have been hardened by time into the park's gracefully waving Navajo sandstone. Among the billowing rocks, the river, trees and other plants add to the serenity. Strong hikers also can follow paths up canyon walls that stand 2,000 feet high.
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