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The best way to see our National Parks is for FREE! If you have a fourth grader in your family, you can get a free annual family pass to our nation’s national parks thanks to the Every Kid In A Park program. And that pass will entitle you to free entry into all federal lands and waters.
Yellowstone National Park was the very first park, founded on March 1, 1872 “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” (Source: National Park Service). From those humble beginnings, the National Park Service grew to over 400 parks and monuments in the United States. Obviously, you and your fourth grader won’t be able to see all of them in one year, but you can make the most of your free pass with these tips.
With 400 destinations to choose from, you’ll want to choose wisely. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park by far, with over twice as many visitors as the second most popular park. (Source: National Geographic). Other top parks include Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Zion. However, with so many amazing destinations, it’s hard to choose wrong!
Consider combining National Park experiences with other vacations. So, you can coordinate your annual timeshare week with a visit to Everglades National Park or another of Florida’s 12 national parks and monuments. Or you can take a side adventure to Acadia National Park while exploring Maine.
You can also plan your vacation around a single park. Many of the parks are so big you could spend weeks there and not see everything. It makes sense to stay awhile. For example, Washington’s Olympic National Park boasts ocean beaches, hot springs, and the Hoh Rain Forest. Hike amongst majestic trees one day and then see the tide pools on Rialto Beach the next.
Can’t get enough? Take a road trip and hit several parks in one vacation. Check out these suggestions for park road trips to maximize your experience. Imagine experiencing Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Badlands National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and Custer State Park in one fell swoop. It would definitely make for a vacation to remember.
Many of the parks are quite large. The edge of the park can be miles from key attractions. To avoid making the drive out to your lodgings outside the park, staying inside the park is a wonderful option. Select from lodges, cabins or campsites depending on the park you’re visiting.
National Park Lodges offer proximity and history, often with a hefty price tag. Start your day on the rim of the Grand Canyon at El Tovar. The $250/night cost can be an issue, but there’s no denying the amazing experience.
Cabins can be a more cost-effective destination inside of the national parks. From the famous cabins at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to Lewis Mountain Cabins of Shenandoah National Park, you can enjoy a true park experience with modest accommodations for around $150/night. However, you’ll want to make reservations early for both lodges and cabins because they do fill up.
If you’re ready for rustic, consider camping in the parks. You’ll truly experience the character of the park sleeping under the stars for a fraction of the price of the lodges and cabins. But make sure to plan for the weather. It can snow in July at Yellowstone! Some campsites can be reserved while others are available on a first-come first-served basis, so you’ll want to plan ahead!
National Park Service rangers are highly knowledgeable park resources. Make sure to check in with them and the various ranger stations throughout the parks. They can guide you to the best experiences based on your goals. Looking for moderate hikes? Wondering when is the best time to avoid crowds? Or concerned about bears? They’ve got you covered.
Kids will be interested in the Junior Ranger program, whose motto is “Explore. Learn. Protect.” This program provides parks-based activities centered around this motto. From parks scavenger hunts, activity books, and educational programs, people of all ages can benefit.
Use these guidelines to help you make the most of your park experience, and see here for additional travel tips.