Exploring National Parks with Kids


I’m making this our year to explore national parks thanks to the 4th grade Every Kid in a Park program. I always enjoy going to state or national parks when we travel, but the annual pass is spurring me to squeeze in a few extra trips this year. Right off the bat, I’m going to tell you this is written from the perspective of a mom who is a planner and prefers an Airbnb to a campsite on most days! In honor of National Park Week, April 20-28, 2019, I’m sharing my tips for planning a great trip with kids to our national parks. 

National Parks

Know Before You Go

  • Every Kid in a Park Pass
    Do you have a 4th grader? Then this is your lucky year! Fourth graders can get a FREE Every Kid in a Park Pass to explore national parks with their families for an entire year. The pass starts in September of your child’s 4th-grade year (or homeschool equivalent), and is good through the following summer. Don’t have a 4th grader? Here are a few days where national parks waive fees for everyone.
  • Do Your Researchnational parks
    Make sure you visit the specific national park website for each park  you want to visit. They do a great job of posting alerts and closures to help avoid planning pitfalls. They also have helpful information on special things happening in the park like the dessert Super Bloom or lava flows.
  • Learn About Terrain and Animals
    I’ve learned a great way to get my kids excited about our trips to national parks is to research and talk with them before we go about the terrain and animals that live there. It has also helped me think through what we will need like bug spray, sunscreen, extra water, and appropriate footwear.
  • Special Ticket Programs
    There are programs in some national parks which require advance reservations and ticket purchase. I called a few weeks ahead of our trip and we were lucky enough to get into the Keys Ranch Tour at Joshua Tree over spring break. It was fantastic!
  • Food
    I love a backpack lunch, but by dinnertime my inner foodie usually takes over. I like to check out the area around the national parks or along our return route and plan dinner to avoid bad road food. Some parks, like Yellowstone, have an iconic lodge with dining. Sometimes I’ll get a reservation nearby that I know can be canceled if our plans change. After navigating hiking trails and Jr. Ranger programs, I don’t want to navigate long waits or last-minute planning where to find a good meal.

While You’re There

  • The Welcome Center
    All Welcome Centers I’ve encountered are like little museums with displays about the flora and fauna in the area and a history of the people and animals who lived on the land in the past. While I’m usually hot to get on whatever hike I have planned, my family loves these spaces. This is also where you usually sign up for programs like the Jr. Ranger Program, Ranger Talks, and where the national parks gifts shops are.
    national parks
  • Jr. Ranger Program
    The Jr. Ranger Program is quite possibly my favorite part of visiting national parks with my kids. It keeps them engaged and helps us all learn about the park we’re exploring. The best part is getting sworn in by a ranger at the end of the trip. Make sure to leave the park in time to get back to the Welcome Center before they close so the kids can have their books reviewed, get sworn in, and receive their badge. The badge is different at every park so they make a great collection. Some are really special, like the wooden ones we received at Olympic National Park.
  • Ranger Talks
    These are a great way to kick off your day at the park and ask questions of an expert. Times and topics are usually listed on a board in or near the Welcome Center. Some national parks do a great job of updating their online calendar with ranger talks if you want to plan ahead.
  • Gift Shops
    National parks do a great job stocking the visitor center shops with a wide range of souvenirs including apparel, postcards, collectible tokens, maps, and books.