How To Visit National Parks For Free!

How'd you like to visit national parks in the US for FREE for an entire year? If your family includes a student in 4th grade, this post tells you how!

How would your family like to visit national park sites in the United States for FREE, for an entire year? Did you know that some families can qualify for a free annual pass to visit all the parks they want? And whether you qualify has nothing to do with financial status!

Sound too good to be true? That’s what I thought when I first heard about this amazing program, which is now in its fourth year.

With 417 sites to visit, the National Park Service (NPS) is truly one of the gems of the U.S. Department of the Interior. My baby bro Evan is a career employee of the NPS, so I’ve been a big fan of the NPS for decades. I’m happy to spend my money on entrance fees to support his paycheck.

But I had no idea until last month, when we were camping in a national park a few hours from home, that from Sept. 1 of this year through August 31 of next, our family (or rather, one member of our family) is eligible for a free annual pass, allowing us to avoid entrance fees at all national parks that charge them!

Want to know the secret? Then read on!

How Your Family Can Visit National Parks For Free!

The girls making s’mores last summer at a national park.

Why National Parks?

But first: why should you visit national parks with your kids?

  • Getting your kids outdoors – hiking, camping, and all those things you think of when you picture “national park” in your head. Kimmie actually visited her first national park in utero, when dear husband and I camped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (something I should not have been doing if I had known I was pregnant with her, FWIW!). And when so many of us now live in places full of light pollution, believe me: there’s nothing like stargazing at a dark-sky site like Big Bend.
  • Learning about our history and heritage – The NPS includes many different types of parks, including National Historical Parks (NHP). NHPs bring history to life in a way your child will never forget. You can’t beat learning about immigration at Ellis Island or Angel Island, or the history of the fur trade at Grand Portage, or the gold rush at Klondike. Not to mention cliff-dwellers at Mesa Verde, voting rights at Seneca Falls, or civil rights at MLK Historical Park. My own visit to the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, which my father passed through en route to deployment in World War II, moved me to tears. (I’ve been to all but one of these sites, and recommend them highly.)
  • Learning from the experts – If you have the opportunity to attend a ranger program at a park, DO IT! My girls learn and remember so much from these programs, which are designed to be interactive and engaging. They’ve eaten cranberries and wintergreen from bogs on Cape Cod, learned how to tiptoe like a spy at Catoctin, learned how iron was forged at Hopewell, and learned about aerodynamics at Shenandoah.

What’s the Secret to Visiting National Parks for Free?

The trick is having a fourth-grader in your family. Fortunately, that includes us, since Kimmie is now in fourth grade!

This is Kimmie’s pass! (We haven’t exchanged it for a laminated one yet.)

The Every Kid In A Park program was an initiative first created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the NPS in 2016; Congress has so far renewed it every year since. This means every fourth-grader (or homeschool equivalent) is eligible for a FREE annual pass to our national parks. Compared to buying an annual park pass for $80, that’s a huge savings!

All you have to do is have your fourth-grader (or homeschooled fourth-grade-equivalent child) follow this link and complete a simple online activityYou need to be near a printer to do this, because at the end, you’ll get a paper pass to print out. And if you visit a participating park, your child can trade in their paper pass for a more durable laminated version!

A few things to note:

  • You MUST print out the pass at the end. The parks won’t take anything but a printed paper version showing that your child completed the activities (which, seriously, takes about 30 seconds). Or the more durable version you traded that paper pass in for. No e-versions, images, or photocopies.
  • So, free entrance to the Grand Canyon, but no discount on camping at the bottom (which is where I took this pic).

    You have to attend the parks with your fourth-grader. Or rather, your fourth-grader can take along whomever they like, but only the fourth-grader can use the pass. No fourth-grader present, no free admission.

  • If you lose the pass or forget it, your kiddo will need to go online, complete the activities again, and print out another paper pass.
  • The pass is only good for waiving the entrance fee (which, if memory serves, is usually around $30 for a one-week pass at places like the Grand Canyon, Big Bend, and Shenandoah). It doesn’t give you discounts on things like purchases at Visitor Center gift shops, or overnight camping fees.
  • Also, there are a few sites like Mt. Rushmore where entrance is free, but you have to pay to park. The pass won’t work for that, either.
The girls’ Junior Ranger vests plus some of the badges they’ve earned.

Other great NPS activities for kids:

  • How would your kid like to become a Junior Ranger? At many NPS sites, kids can also earn Junior Ranger badges (or sometimes patches) for completing several learning activities about the park. Ask about the Junior Ranger program at each park’s Visitor’s Center. My kids LOVE doing this, and have learned so much from this fabulous program!
  • Do you love fishing? Want to pass that love on to your child? The newest Junior Ranger program is the Junior Ranger Angler programwhich your child can complete at home by downloading the booklet.
  • I used to write tiny notes in the margins of each stamp, with special details about each visit.

    There are NPS sites in all 50 states as well as throughout US territories, But if getting to your nearest NPS site is still too far to go, the NPS also has a Webranger program, where kids can benefit from all the NPS has to teach them even if they can’t visit a park in person! Kids (and grownups!) can poke around the Webranger site as a visitor, or create an account and login. With an account, kids can complete interactive activities (like setting up their own customized ranger office) while learning and having fun.

  • You can also get a National Parks Passport book at any Visitor’s Center, then get your passport stamped at every NPS site you visit. The girls and I each have one, and it’s fun to look back at sites we’ve visited and remember our trips there. There are also optional Passport Stamps (those are the black-bordered pictures you see on the upper-right passport in this picture) that you can buy separately.

And another way kids (and grownups!) can explore national parks:

Did you know Chimani makes a National Parks app that includes info on all NPS sites, from photo galleries to hiking information? The app itself is free with ads, though there’s an in-app upgrade option. Leah Nieman writes about National Parks and other nature and science apps that are great for outdoor adventures. You’ll want to read her recommendations as you plan your next outdoor adventure in our national park system.

Which NPS sites have you visited? What is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!

If you enjoyed learning how families can visit NPS sites for FREE, why not share with others by pinning this image?

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