Then the pandemic arrived, followed shortly by our daughter. We still wanted to pursue a parks habit, but it seemed like a trickier proposition with a baby, social distancing needs and travel suddenly restricted to places we could reach by car from D.C.
We weren’t isolated in our desire: Last year, when so many other travel options were not available, 237 million people visited national parks. Despite pandemic-related closures that brought the total down compared to 2019, some locations set visitation records.
Over the past several months of research and exploration, we have discovered a few tips to make our aspiration a reality — though we are still in constant learning mode. (Welcome to parenthood.)
Set reasonable expectations
With a small baby, chances were good we would be awake at sunrise. But after a night of patchy sleep, could we get her fed, bundled and up to a summit — or even just a parking lot with a view — in time to see the sun come up like we did in pre-baby days? Not a chance.
“You have to think about it differently than you did before if it was something you did before,” said Jessica Carrillo Alatorre, executive director of Hike it Baby. The nonprofit group provides information on outdoor activities and support for families with small children and babies.
Carrillo Alatorre said hiking in national parks with a baby is “totally doable” — with some modifications.
“Start out gently, don’t set huge expectations, don’t expect to go a lot of miles,” she said. “Be prepared to turn around or look for places that have loops because you can expand the loop or do it again.”
An on-the-fly approach can work
Our first venture was to Shenandoah National Park over Halloween weekend, when the baby was a few months old, to celebrate the day we met. We booked a cabinlike room on park grounds well in advance. But, in our sleep-deprived state, we planned everything else later, scouring hiking blogs and official park sites at the last minute for a trail that would be manageable with two dogs and an infant.
Still, the views were stunning. We felt safe outdoors. The baby slept in a carrier the whole hike along Upper Hawksbill Trail, and she tolerated an emergency diaper change in the back of the car at a scenic overlook. I wished we had planned our day more carefully to fit in extra sightseeing on Skyline Drive, but instead I watched the sun set over the Blue Ridge Mountains from the room with my sleepy daughter — a fine consolation.
Seek out advice from other parents
Six months later, we relocated temporarily to South Florida, where I’m from. For our sixth wedding anniversary, my husband and I decided to put phase two of our parks plan — visiting Everglades National Park with the 9-month-old — into action.
The Everglades is known for alligators, rivers of grass, monster mosquitoes and invasive pythons. Maybe not the baby-friendliest place to visit? The national park encompasses 1.5 million acres, with three entrances spread far apart. This was not a time for improvisation.
I checked TripAdvisor and the National Park Service site, which has information for kid programs but not much baby advice. For that, I turned to Hike it Baby, which has parent-written family trail guides and Facebook groups for hundreds of communities in North America. Families can find categories such as stroller friendliness, bathroom availability, surface type and cellphone reception as well as helpful tips like: “Be ready to pick little ones up in case you cross paths with the wildlife.”
I also checked with someone who had field-tested the parks with her own kids: my friend Sammy Mack, a writer in Miami and mom of two. She too was a big fan of Anhinga.
“Always guaranteed to see loads of animals,” she told me in a text. “Paved nicely for strollers if you bring it. And small enough that it’s not an ordeal to turn back if the kids are not up to it.”
It was the perfect first visit for a tiny explorer.
Know the gear you need
“Be sure to pack sunscreen and bug spray,” the Hike it Baby post said about the Everglades trail we chose. But as a South Florida native who grew up with sunburns and bug bites, that is just part of my DNA.
Before our trip, I spent way too much time researching bug spray for babies. The American Academy of Pediatrics says not to apply insect repellents to babies younger than 2 months. For older babies, the organization says repellents using the active ingredient DEET are considered the best defense against biting bugs — but products should contain no more than 30 percent DEET when used on children. I brought both a DEET option and an organic one, but ultimately didn’t need either — the bugs were miraculously not yet swarming.
Also in our supply bag: a change of clothes, socks, diapers, sunblock for the baby and grown-ups, water in a sippy cup and extra water bottles, pouches of baby food, and so many Cheerios. We brought the trusty Ergobaby carrier we had been using for months already.
Carrillo Alatorre said parents should make sure their carrier fits well and works for parent and baby before trying it on a hike: “If you’re going on vacation or taking your baby to the national park, you’re going to want to make sure that stuff works before you go.”
She said parents should also be prepared to think creatively with their packed items, such as bringing a towel or blanket they can toss on the ground in case of an unexpected diaper change. We have discovered that a bag for storing a dirty diaper is a good idea too; trash cans aren’t always easy to find in the parks.
Turn the trip into a quest
To get the baby started with a record of her adventures before she is old enough to remember them, we bought her a National Parks Passport book at Shenandoah and got the first stamp there — a task that we would include for all future parks trips.
At Everglades National Park, we slathered the baby in sunblock, tied on a hat and covered her feet with socks before strapping her into the carrier. After getting her passport stamped at the visitor center, we walked the Anhinga Trail’s boardwalk under a beating sun, darting into shade where we found it, and peering at the fish, birds, turtles and couple of gators we could find. The Gumbo Limbo Trail was a nice break afterward, dense and tree-covered.
One bonus to choosing Anhinga Trail in the Everglades is that Biscayne National Park is just over a half-hour drive away. While that park, also in Miami-Dade County, is 95 percent water, it has an easily accessible visitor center, a boardwalk and stunning views of Biscayne Bay. In between the two: a perfect pit stop at Robert Is Here, a produce market famed for its milkshakes.
When we arrived at Biscayne National Park, we got another passport stamp and carried the baby across the boardwalk to a spit of land where people fished and lounged and a stream of boats passed by.
Start creating travel habits early
Did the baby have fun? She loves trees and wind and watching critters dart by. I am certain she didn’t notice the wading bird that speared a fish and gobbled it down in the Everglades, but my husband and I gaped at it. She probably couldn’t make out the mellow turtles grazing in the swamp or the gator lurking under the water. The much more visible alligator floating near the visitor center didn’t phase her as she and her dad observed it from a safe distance.
She seemed to enjoy sitting in trees with our help, and she definitely loved her first tiny taste of tropical milkshakes: strawberry key-lime and passion fruit.
More important was that the trip reinforced that we could easily pack her up and spend a day exploring, and that the memories we made with her would be worth the effort. We found experiences we wanted to try on our next visit, and we started looking forward to coming back. There are so many more milkshake flavors to try.
These early trips, we hope, are baby steps to a lifelong habit. We plan to keep filling her passport with stamps — both the national parks version and, eventually, an official one. For now, we are deep into planning the next adventures: Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio this summer and a return to Shenandoah, our first national parks outing with the baby, this fall. This time around, we will be much more prepared.