WUT. January already? How did this happen? I first dreamed up this post in July (I kid you not!) — but, you guys know how it is, back-to-school, and work, and a news cycle that just will not let up…I know, I know, enough excuses! Here we go!
Have you heard of the National Parks program “Every Kid Outdoors”? It is AMAZING. Basically, every 4th grader in the nation gets a free national parks pass that is good for the whole family from Sept 1 – Aug 31. There is no annoying sign up. You just print out a temporary paper pass from their website and bring it with you. For really realz.
Our Year With National Parks Program ‘Every Kid Outdoors’
Last year, my older kiddo was in 4th grade and our family had a blast using the pass, and she was pretty darn proud of herself for providing the hook up. We did all our vacation planning for the year around national parks we wanted to visit and can’t wait for when our younger one is in 4th grade so we can hit up more parks!
As we recounted our vacay stories with friends and family, I was surprised by how many people had never heard of this program. So, now I’ve made it my mission to share. That, and because I love you guys. You’re welcome.
Read on to hear more about how the pass works, our road trip itineraries, fave travel hacks/items to pack, and some planning resources!
About The Program & Pass
You can find all the deets about the program here.
One non-intuitive part of the site for me was that to get to the screen where you print the pass and can see the instructions, you have to pretend you’re the 4th grader and play a “game”, which is a super short set of questions about what kind of adventures you like. The link for parents/guardians has a lot of information to help you with the trip planning, but no link to the actual pass you print out. Read the fine print on the pass for more info about number of people and types of fees.
At the larger parks or sites, a park ranger may be able to replace your paper pass with a sturdier, plastic pass that you can use with a typical hang tag or stick in your wallet. Our kid happily signed the back of the card, making it very official. In either case, when you’re using the paper pass or plastic pass, your 4th grader needs to be there too — usually we’d say something along the lines of “We have a kid in the 4th grade — here’s her pass!” The park ranger would then look in the back seat of our car to verify. Occasionally, they would ask her her name and age/grade, but mostly, they’re trying to move cars/people through the entrance. We did not need proof of enrollment or student ID or anything like that. It really was easy-peasy. Thank you, NPS!
Road Trip Itineraries
Our spring break trip involved flying in and out of Las Vegas (which was surprisingly a ton of fun with kids — but that’s another post!), where we then linked the following national parks/sights in a big loop:
- Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (a.k.a Hoover Dam Bridge)
- Route 66
- Grand Canyon
- Vermillion Cliffs / Navajo Bridge (condor viewing!) / Antelope Canyon / Page, AZ
- Bryce Canyon
Some people also do a Joshua Tree / Death Valley / Grand Canyon road trip, but we did Joshua Tree on a separate trip and paired it with other Southern California adventures. A Joshua Tree / Death Valley / Palm Springs trip would be super fun to do some time!
For our summer vacation trip, we already knew we wanted to go to Hawai’i, so we let the national parks pass help us choose where to go. 😉 The Big Island of Hawaii has a national park and also 4 incredible national historical parks, all on the same island. We’d also never been to the Big Island before and weren’t planning to island hop on this trip, so our decision was made!
We went to:
Each of these sites was so special and I really appreciated the cultural significance and long history that comes with these places – both in Hawai’i and in all the national parks we visited. The exhibits and ranger talks we checked out were all really well-done — try not to skip out!
One more itinerary to share! A few years ago, we did a Pacific Northwest national park road trip, interspersed with big city stops and visits with friends. It was Summer of 2021, so we were just starting to travel again, but weren’t ready to fly with the kiddos yet. Depending on how long you have and where you want to fly in and out from, I might arrange this differently, but if you’re starting from CA, like we did, here’s our general itinerary:
- Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
- Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
- Mount Rainier National Park
- Olympic National Park
- Crater Lake National Park
- Various stops in: Redding, CA; Corvallis/Albany/Portland, OR Seattle and Sequim, WA
This trip was loooong — about 4 weeks on the road! (We had a lot of saved up vacation at that point in the pandemic). Realistically, I’d probably break this up into a few separate trips. This only scratched the surface and we’re excited to keep exploring our national parks and other national sites. Please share any favorite park or itinerary suggestions below!
Books & Blogs & Other Resources
Get the NPS app and check out their website for up to date information about which entrances and trails are open, weather/wildfire-related information, and also videos and descriptions about the history of the park and landmarks and suggestions for what to see and do.
My geography is kind of terrible and I was such a national park newbie, I honestly had trouble even figuring out which parks/sights you can link together into a multi-day itinerary. To get me started, I relied on these two books to get ideas for road trip itineraries, nearest airports, and which towns to stay in:
- Moon USA National Parks: The Complete Guide to All 63 Parks
- National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States
Once I’ve narrowed down on where I want to go, I usually search for blog posts and travel articles to get more details and suggestions on where to stay, what to see, and what’s good for school-aged kiddos. I’ll google something like “places to stop with kids between Grand Canyon and Bryce” and look for posts that are fairly recent and describe a trip that was in the same season we are planning to go. This is how I discovered that you can take slot canyon tours in Antelope Canyon but you need to book way in advance with a Navajo guide. That ended up being a major highlight of the trip — blogs for the win!
In general I keep the planning to a minimum, once we’ve done things like book flights and hotels and anything else we need reservations for — I generally opt to figure out what we’re going to do one or two nights before. This works better for my own personality, ha ha – helps me keep disappointment at bay! And, more practically, it allows me to adjust plans based on how everyone is feeling, whether the weather is cooperating, and incorporate last minute additions.
Must-Have Road Trip Items & Tips
Caveat: this is not a packing list and I should note that our family is pretty much camping-illiterate, so you won’t find any advice about camping as part of a national park adventure here. This is more like “here’s some stuff that isn’t often mentioned on packing lists but we found to be indispensable”.
So, you’ve probably picked up on this by now, but visits to national parks involve a lot of driving! Makes sense – gotta go out of the way to get to these jaw-dropping, awe-inducing sights. But, let’s try to make those hours of being in a car with your whole family piled in, as pleasant as we can, shall we?
- Car organizer for the kiddos to stash their stuff (we have something similar to this). The kids put it in the seat between them and put water bottles, snacks, MadLibs, a drawing pad, books, and whatever random stuff they’ve snuck in that I haven’t noticed. 🙂
- iPad mount — we are a one tablet household, so the kids have to agree on what to download and watch (or one kid chooses not to watch if she’s not into it). This means we needed a mounting device so the iPad is centered between them.
- Dramamine for Kids (and for whomever else may need it) — my kids get carsick. Nuff said.
- Easy meal items – some of the national park gateway towns we’ve been to haven’t had a lot of food options, especially if we’re there off-season or arrive in the evening. We try to bring some things we can make a quick meal of, like microwaveable rice and roasted seaweed snacks (roll your own sushi!), microwaveable curry packets, instant soup or noodles, etc..
- Sandwich fixings, fruit and raw veggies go a long way too — we all start craving fresh food after a lot of road trip food.
- Oatmeal, popcorn, hot cocoa packets, and tea are nice to have on hand too!
- Racquet ball/tennis ball — this one’s a little weird. I like to tuck one of these into my bag to use as a makeshift massager. I stand or sit along a wall and kind of roll it around my shoulders and back to get to stiff knots and pressure points, and along my shins for shin splints. Essential after switching between hiking and sitting in a car all day!
Some Other Planning Tips I’ve Got For Ya
- Junior ranger program: pretty much every national park and major national site has this – stop by the visitor center and ask a ranger. They’ll give you an activity booklet appropriate for your kid’s age and when they’ve finished the minimum number of activities, a park ranger leads them in the sweetest pledge, signs the book and gives your kids a special pin. Our kids are super into it, and I’m not gonna lie — I like those activity books too!
- Grocery store and laundry stops: we usually try to make sure we have a place to do laundry about mid-way or further along in the trip so we don’t have to pack so much. And a grocery or Target stop almost always kicks off our trip! If there are any potentially hard to find snacks/food items (apparently roasted seaweed snacks are not a thing in Arizona!), you may want to just bring them from home.
- Packing so that you can live out of your suitcase: I like to fold everyone’s clothes “envelope” style (think Marie Kondo), so that it’s super easy to find your things, without having to rifle through piles of clothes. It helps to cut down on the unpacking/repacking, which gets annoying when you are moving locations frequently. By the end of your trip, when you’ve no doubt amassed some souvenirs (our kids got cozy hoodies at Zion and Hawai’i Volcanoes — cozy…but also bulky!), you can go back to a more space-saving packing technique to get all your new loot to fit!
- Download things ahead of time (when you have good Internet service) — a lot of the places we stayed in or in the national parks themselves had spotty cell service, so if you’re relying on a map, turn by turn directions, an audiobook/podcast, etc. download whatever you need for offline use ahead of time!
And, if you are looking for a good packing list, check out Anne’s from earlier this year. It is seriously on point. I want all the things!
One last tip — also be sure to check if your state offers its own 4th grade parks program! We were surprised to find a CA version (called Adventure Pass) that provided access to over 50 parks.
Happy adventuring, folks! What are some of your fave tips and tricks?