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Taking the kids out for National Park Week

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    Paddling in Yellowstone.Austin-Lehman Adventures

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    Exploring Lake Yellowstone.Austin-Lehman Adventures

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    Scoping out wildlife in Yellowstone.ProviderAustin-Lehman Adventures

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    Ethan and Hannah Sitzman scan Yellowstone for bears.Eileen Ogintz

Meet  Ethan Eagle .

Let's not forget Oscar Osprey,  Brett Bison , Freddy Frog and  Tommy Trout .

My young cousins  Ethan Sitzman , 9, and his sister Hannah, 6, who live in  Denver , named all the wildlife we saw as we explored perhaps America's greatest natural zoo --  Yellowstone National Park  where 67 species of mammals, 322 species of birds, six species of reptiles and four species of amphibians call home.

But a visit to a national park -- even  Yellowstone  -- is more than a chance to see wildlife and spectacular scenery, like the two enormous waterfalls at the  Grand Canyon  of the  Yellowstone , geothermal features like  Old Faithful  (Did you know  Yellowstone  has more geothermal features than anywhere else in the world?) or to learn that  Yellowstone  was originally named for the yellow tint in the rock, derived from sulfur.

A visit to a national park is about stepping out of your comfort zone, overcoming challenges as a family, whether on a long kayak paddle before  7 a.m. (yes, that was us on Yellowstone Lake  last summer leaving our wilderness camp where we'd spent two nights as far away from tourists as we could get) or in Ethan's case, overcoming a long-held fear.

As we celebrate National Park Week from  April 21 to 29  (all 397 national parks are free with many special activities offered.) It's important to remember that the best part of a national park experience can be the chance to reconnect with the outdoors as a family. "Kids forget about iPads, iPhones, TV, etc.," says  Dan Austin , of Austin-Lehman Adventures whose company has been leading trips to Yellowstone , and other national parks, for more than 25 years.

"These experiences open the mind to endless discoveries and, more often than not, a passion for the outdoors that can last a lifetime," he adds.

It's something I've witnessed in my own family. My youngest daughter, Mel, says those national parks trips when she was little (and complained her legs were "broken" from all the hiking) spurred her interest in environmental science -- her college major; her older sister, Reg, went on to lead teens on wilderness trips in national parks and now works for  Vida Verde, a  California  nonprofit organization that enables inner-city kids to have outdoor experiences. (Think hiking past towering redwoods, exploring tide pools or getting up close and personal with goats.)

Head to a national park near your home and celebrate  Junior Ranger Day  on  April 28 . Whet your kids' appetite for a summer visit to a national park through WebRangers the  National Park Service's  site for kids, which offers all kinds of activities and games. To date, some 200,000 kids have taken part in the program! In honor of National Park Week, Lonely Planet has created a free download of the  USA's  Best National Parks' Top 15 Experiences, including great planning information, from their " Discover USA's  Best National Parks" guide. It's available on their  Facebook  page or at LonelyPlanet.com.

Wherever you are outdoors, especially in a big national park, the key is to slow down and get out of the car (many visitors don't) and off the beaten track,  Dan Austin  says.

That's how we were able to watch  Yellowstone's  famous bears safely. Rangers estimate that about 150 grizzly bears and more than 500 black bears live in the park and visitors are cautioned to stay at least the length of a football field away from them. Our Austin-Lehman guide,  Matty Kirkland , spied one from our van, turned around, parked and raced up a hill with his scope so we could watch as the bear (the kids named him Bobby) snacked on greens amid the wildflowers hundreds of yards away, oblivious to our presence.

Certainly watching that bear in his own environment from a safe distance was a wondrous site, but more important was watching Ethan triumph over his fear of the lumbering beasts, once Kirkland convinced him to peer through the scope.

Until that moment, I'd wondered if we really needed guides in  Yellowstone . It's not a far-flung destination, after all, where we don't speak the language. But throughout that trip, we saw a far different  Yellowstone  than we had in the past and it was far more relaxed. Our affable Austin-Lehman guides not only got us away from the crowds to places I wouldn't have found, but also thoroughly entertained the kids (they sat between a giant stuffed bear in the van), had snacks at the ready, told us what to look for and then explained what we were seeing. We didn't have to worry about hard-to-get hotel reservations and the best part: The kids didn't bicker or whine because they were having so much fun. (All-inclusive Austin-Lehman Yellowstone trips start at  $367  per day for adults and  $293  for kids. A new Montana Family Camp itinerary that includes  Yellowstone  is less expensive.)

Other companies, including Adventures by  Disney, Backroads and  Tauck Tours  are among those who also offer special guided  Yellowstone  and national parks trips for families, enabling you to focus on the experience rather than the logistics.

If your kids are 8 or older, you can also sign on for a five-night Total Yellowstone package through the park's concessionaire. Check out more here for pricing.

If you prefer going on your own, take advantage of ranger-led activities. Ask their advice for kid-friendly hikes and experiences inside the parks. Use websites like ParkVisitor.com, which pull together user reviews of U.S. national and state parks and more with insider tips (even where to get a good burger). For iPhone and iPad users, there's even a new Passport to Your National Parks app. Don't despair if you can't get reservations when and where you want to go. Consider some of the less visited but equally wonderful parks like  Theodore Roosevelt  in  North Dakota ,  Sequoia  and  Kings Canyon  in  California , North Cascades in  Washington State and Mesa Verde in  Colorado, among others.

Last summer, after three days and two nights camping in  Yellowstone , Ethan and Hannah had completed the activities required to become Junior Rangers (everything from tracing the route we'd taken through the park to checking off all the animals they'd seen) and they stood proudly at the  Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center  as a ranger swore them in as Junior Rangers.

Watching their excitement at being in one of our country's greatest treasures was worth every mosquito bite we'd gotten.

"As a Yellowstone Junior Ranger ... I will continue to learn about the natural world, even after I leave  Yellowstone ," they pledged.

I hope they will. I know they won't forget the days they've spent here. And that's a good first step.

For more on Eileen's trips visit her blog Taking the Kids, and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where  Eileen Ogintz  welcomes your questions and comments.

(c) 2012 EILEEN OGINTZ DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

Eileen Ogintz is a nationally syndicated columnist and creator of TakingtheKids.com. Her new  Kids Guide to Boston is available online and from major booksellers, along with the Kids Guides to NYC, Washington, DC, Orlando,  LA and Chicago. Coming  later this year: San Diego, San Francisco and Denver.