My family and I love exploring national parks each summer. We pick a state and then visit as many of them as possible. These amazing parks are truly our nation's treasure and can be enjoyed by families of all ages. I can think of no better way to be out in nature and learn about our country at the same time.
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One great time to visit one of the country's more than 400 national parks? On one of their entrance fee-free days. There are five in 2023. On each of these days, the approximately 100 national parks that typically charge for entry waive their fees. Entry fee costs range from $5 to $35.
The dates for fee-free days at National Parks in 2023 are:
Martin Luther King Jr. Day
First Day of National Park Week
Great American Outdoors Day
National Public Lands Day
The fee waiver for the fee-free days applies only to National Park Service entrance fees and does not cover amenity or user fees for camping, boat launches, transportation, special tours, or other activities.
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3 tips for traveling to national parks with kids
As a frequent visitor to national parks throughout the country, here are my top three tips for visiting with kids:
1. Plan ahead
- Look at the weather. Many national parks take you way above (or below!) sea level. This makes for drastic weather changes. Make sure you know what the typical weather is for when you are going. You can find weather updates on www.nps.gov.
- Take a look at the National Park System website. You will find general information, directions, maps, and facility information (restrooms, parking, visitor centers, etc) for the locations you plan to visit.
- Find out when the visitor center opens and start there. Many national parks have a visitor center with a movie and/or an exhibit about the park. My elementary-aged kids enjoy the landscape more when they understand the history behind it.
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2. Gather information on-site before heading out
- Talk to a ranger. Every visitor center has a ranger on staff to answer any questions you may have. With maps and papers in hand, they can point you in the direction of the best hikes and views for your family's needs.
- Get a paper map. Do not depend on GPS navigation or cell service to guide you through a park.
- Ask for a Junior Ranger packet. Every national park has a Junior Ranger program. This is a booklet of assignments kids of all ages can do while visiting a park. It's a great way to keep them engaged and learning while in the park. When completed, kids can turn them in to a ranger and get sworn in as an official Junior Ranger.
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3. Take a hike!
There is no better way to get to know a national park than to hike in it. Most parks will have trails ranging from a short overlook to an entire day’s hike. They are rated on difficulty by terrain and elevation gain/loss. As our kids have gotten older, we’ve been able to add in two- or three-mile hikes, on top of the many half-mile loops they loved as youngsters. Here's what we bring for a day in the park:
- Water: No matter what the season, make sure you have water. There are often refill stations throughout a park, but make a note of where they are on a map, especially in the hotter months. We are big fans of hydration packs you can wear on your back.
- Snacks and/or a meal: If you're going to be moving, you're going to get hungry! Many parks offer picnic areas with tables, restrooms, trash receptacles, and food storage from animals. You never know what perfect spot you'll find to picnic.
- Garbage bag: Whatever you take into the park, plan to take it home with you. While many parks have waste receptacles for garbage, they aren’t all over the place. We often take a small bag with us for trash, just in case we don’t find an appropriate place to dispose of it in the park. Remember, national parks are set up to protect the landscape and wildlife, not for our entertainment. Be prepared to leave nothing behind.
- Layers: Whether you are in the mountains, the desert, the forest, or the midwest, national parks often have drastically different temperatures in the morning than midday and even the evening.
- Sun protection: You can still get sunburned in the winter on a snow-covered mountain. Sunscreen, sun shirts, sunglasses, and hats will help protect your skin and eyes.
- Good shoes: Even level hiking paths can have uneven rocks and fallen trees. Make sure you have shoes with good support for all of your walking needs!
- Bug spray: You will know when you need it!
- Gas: If you’re planning on spending all day in a larger, more remote park, make sure you have a full tank of gas. You do not want to get stranded in the middle of a park. Depending on where you are, there may be no cell service.
Visiting national parks is a great way to see our nation's natural wonders. With a little planning, and by taking your kids' abilities and interests into account, you can make a trip to a national park a vacation your kids will always remember.