National Park Pass for Fourth Graders

The United States is a huge country with many well known national parks, the majority of which my husband and I have not visited. We have always wanted to take our kids to see more of their home country and for years have talked about some distant day when we would do some kind of epic road trip to explore US national parks.

When we found out about the Every Kid Outdoors Program that provides a free National Park Pass for fourth graders, we started to get serious about making our dreams a reality to align with our oldest child entering fourth grade. I felt a bit intimidated about planning this, so I started with learning more about the parks and how to get the national parks pass for fourth graders, and then moved on to figuring out some plans to use the pass.

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Woman and man carrying a baby in a hiking carrier in the foreground and the Grand Canyon in the background
Our first National Park family trip in 2016 to Grand Canyon National Park

Background

The United States has a vast National Park System, and visiting national park sites allows people to learn about and experience a variety of types of natural spaces and wildlife, while learning about the historical background as well. The National Park Service oversees the management of these sites and also provides information and resources to help visitors maximize enjoyment of their visits. The Every Kid Outdoors Program is a US government program that provides children free access to national park sites during their fourth grade school year.

About US National Parks

The United States has 429 national park sites, including 63 National Parks, managed by the National Park Service. Other sites are designated National Battlefields, National Historical Sites, National Monuments, National Lakeshores, National Recreation areas, and more. National park sites are present in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and even in US territories.

Woman leans against a trail head sign for El Yunque National Forest with tropical foliage in the background
El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico, visit in 2011

Yellowstone National Park was the first to receive national park designation in 1872, followed by Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890. President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service in 1916 to maintain national parks and monuments. Over one hundred years later, the number of parks and other sites has grown from 37 to over four hundred, and the National Park Service employs over 200,000 people.

The sites managed by the National Park Service are important because they encompass a wide cross section of the natural spaces that are present in the US and provide unique opportunities to experience the outdoors and see wildlife while learning about the country’s history. Outdoorsy families will find an endless amount of adventures within national park sites.

Every Kid Outdoors Program

The Every Kid Outdoors Program is a US government program started as the Every Kid in a Park program in 2015 by President Barack Obama that provides a national park pass for fourth graders and their families. The goal of the program is to help kids form early connections to nature, as well as experience and learn more about the history of the US. According to the National Park Foundation’s report, most participants in the program would not have otherwise visited a national park.

All students enrolled in fourth grade in the US are eligible for this program, including home-schooled and free choice learners. The pass covers fees for entrance or day use at national parks and federal recreation sites from September 1 to the following August 31 of the child’s fourth grade school year for the student and accompanying family members.

To obtain a pass, visit the Every Kid Outdoors website to complete an activity and print the pass. Once printed, just bring the pass with you to use at any national park or federal recreation area. Some locations will exchange your paper voucher for a plastic pass, although this is not required for use, and you can find those locations by searching in the database on the Every Kid Outdoors site.

Reasons to Sign Up for Every Kid Outdoors

The Every Kid Outdoors program is a great opportunity to explore the United States and see the beauty of nature. At national park sites, you can see a wide variety of land forms and habitats for diverse plant and animal life. Getting a free national parks pass for your fourth grader will give you access to amazing places for quality family time doing outdoor activities.

The program is also a good way for your child to gain knowledge and skills. The National Parks Service has a series of activity guides on the Every Kid Outdoors website that can be useful for helping your fourth grader learn about the national parks and environmental stewardship, and many park sites have educational activities from the NPS Junior Ranger program to complete during your visit. By learning about and visiting national parks, your child will gain confidence and real world skills.

How to Get Excited and Involved

Once you have obtained your free national park pass for fourth graders, you will want to start planning to use it. I have found that my family outings and trips go smoother and are more enjoyable when everyone is excited about and involved with planning our adventures. Books, media, and educational materials can help get your family excited about the US National Parks.

Books About National Parks

Reading books about the national parks can help your family get excited. Books about the national parks range from informational texts to graphic novels and pretty much everything in between, so you will be able to find something that appeals to everyone. Public libraries are a great place to find books to spark your family’s interest.

My kids enjoyed learning about the history of the parks in a graphic novel format in The National Parks: Preserving America’s Wild Places. We also found a series of non-fiction digital books called the National Parks Kids Edition featuring park specific books like this one about Glacier National Park that we really enjoyed. We also like reading fictional books, so we are working our way through the National Park Mystery Series which features a boy who solves mysteries while exploring different parks.

girl sitting on a bedroom floor reading a chapter book with books, pillows and stuffed animals around her
Reading the National Park Mystery Series

Media About National Parks

Media about national parks is another great source of information that can help your family prepare for your park visits and get excited about your plans. The National Park Service official website is a treasure trove of information, and the NPS official app is a good resource, too. YouTube and social media have information about national parks, often presented in a way that is visually appealing to kids, that can increase and enhance your family’s interest in national park visits.

The Find Your Park website created by the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation is an amazing resource for learning more about the parks and selecting which places to visit. The park finder feature allows you to search by activity and location, and the search engine suggests park sites based on your interests. The search results give a brief description of the park site, a list of activities available there, and a link to the park site’s web page to help you plan your trip.

Many of the park sites have webcams that you can access on the information page about the location on the NPS website. You can watch a livestream of Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park, check out the view from Longs Peak in Rocky National Park, and see numerous other cool and exciting things.

Instagram, YouTube, and other similar media sites have a wealth of information to offer. We recommend previewing all content before sharing with your kids, but you can find some really cool content to get your family excited about visiting the parks. This type of media is very visually appealing and interesting.

If you are a social media user, you can find many useful groups to find crowd sourced information about best times to visit, best trails, best places to stay, things to watch for and more. Facebook groups like Outdoor Family Chat and others about specific parks and programs like the Junior Ranger Club are very useful places to go for advice and a sense of community with like minded people.

Education about National Parks

Learning more about national park sites can help increase interest in visiting them. The National Park Service has provided a wealth of educational materials that are available free of charge. These resources can help you get your fourth grader excited about visiting national park sites and also enhance the experience while you are there.

The Every Kid Outdoors website includes four official activity guides that can be used in fourth grade classrooms or at home to provide background information about national parks and general information about conservation. Each activity guide includes a teacher or parent information page about getting set up, and activity pages follow for the fourth grader to use to complete some fun and interesting activities.

The National Park Service’s junior ranger program is a very popular opportunity to enhance your experience when visiting park sites, and previewing these activities can help get your family excited to visit. Aimed at ages 5-13, this program can also be completed by younger or older children and even adults. Junior rangers complete activities at the park sites and then receive a badge or certificate when they show their finished product to park rangers.

Research and Planning

Once your family is excited about visiting national park sites, the next step is to start researching and planning the best ways to use your free national park pass for fourth graders. The sites are located all over the US, and some of the places you want to visit may require a fair amount of advance planning. I like to involve the whole family as much as possible and start with making a wish list before moving to figuring out what is realistic based on funds and time available.

Make a Wish List

Making a wish list of national park sites is a fun way to get started with your planning. Learning about where your fourth grader wants to go and why can help them get excited about the park visits and helps them feel ownership about the adventures in addition to assisting with focusing on where to go. The National Park Services oversees so many sites that it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to visit them all within the duration of the free national park pass for fourth graders, so a wish list can give you a starting place for planning.

In addition to seeking input from your fourth grader, it is a good idea to ask other family members who will go too about where they would like to visit. Then, you can make a final family wish list to use for further planning. Make sure to remind everyone that the wish list is not a final plan, and some destinations may be out of reach at this time for various reasons.

Man carrying hiking poles and a hiking backpack with a sleeping toddler in it in the foreground and a rocky, mountainous trail in the background
Hiking in Haleakalā National Park in 2017

Research Preferred Destinations

Once you have a wish list of national park sites that your family would like to visit, you can start to research your preferred destinations. Consulting a map can be helpful to see which locations may be in close enough proximity to visit together or which places are close enough to your home base to make a day trip or weekend getaway.

The National Park Service has an informational page about each national park site which can be really helpful for planning. These pages have relevant alerts about current conditions, brief overviews of the park sites, frequently asked questions, and photos and videos of the sites. The pages also have helpful information about how to plan your visit and things to do.

The NPS also has a list of trip ideas that can help you figure out how to combine visits to multiple sites like this plan for a Circle of Discovery which covers seven National Parks in northern California and southern Oregon. Other trip ideas can help with planning what to do in specific parks like this trip idea for Craters of the Moon for Kids that provides ideas for activities and family friendly hiking trails.

Choose Where to Go and When

After you have done your research about your preferred destinations, it will be time to start making some specific plans. When making plans, I find it is always helpful to be honest and upfront about the time and money you have available. If some of your wish list destinations seem like they will be outside your time and money budget, you can think about which other locations that are within your reach may have similar activities or experiences.

According to the National Park Service, nowhere in the US is more than two hours from a federal recreation site, so you may want to start with somewhere close to home. You may even have friends who want to join you for a day trip!

When you are making your final plans, make sure to consider seasonal conditions. Some locations close during different parts of the year, and some roads or trails may be difficult to navigate during certain months. In addition, some national park sites require advance reservations during popular times, so planning ahead is key.

Preparations

Once you have your plans made, it will be time for preparations for using your national park pass for fourth graders. You will need to get the pass, prepare any relevant gear, and plan out travel.

Get Your Pass

The Every Kid Outdoors website provides a free national park pass for fourth graders. To get the pass, the student will complete an online activity and then receive a pass to print. The pass is valid from September 1 to August 31 during the fourth grade year or home-school equivalent.

Once you have the printed pass, just bring it with you to national park sites and show it to the ranger at the entrance. If no one is at the entrance, you leave the printed pass on your vehicle dashboard. Some locations will exchange your paper pass for a plastic card, although that is not necessary, and the NPS has a list of those locations if you want to get a plastic card.

Get Your Gear Ready

Part of the preparations will be getting your gear ready. Start by thinking about what you need and what you already have. Some destinations and activities may be fine with your normal clothing and footwear, while others may require more advance preparation and supplies.

Your gear needs could vary greatly depending on your trip, but some items are always useful. If you find that you need to purchase some new gear, the TMM team has lots of helpful recommendations for basics like the best sun hats for kids, the best hiking shoes for women, and the best daypacks for women.

gear items lying on a wood floor including 2 hiking backpacks, 2 pairs of hiking shoes, 1 pair of hiking sandals, 1 pair of sunglasses and 2 sun hats
Some of our commonly used gear items

Book Travel and Accommodations

Part of the preparation process is to book travel and accommodations. If you are traveling to one or more destinations that are far from home, you will want to consider whether it is better to drive or fly. If you are flying, you might be able to save money by being flexible about your travel dates and your departure and arrival locations.

Booking accommodations as far as possible in advance is recommended, especially if you are planning to travel during peak season or to a very popular destination. If you want to stay within a national park site, you will definitely need to book ahead, as those accommodations are limited and book up quickly.

Make Specific Plans for Activities Within the Park

Especially if you are planning to visit a popular park during a busy time, you will want to make some specific plans for activities within the park. Some locations require advance reservations that are limited in number, and you will not want to take the time and money to visit a park and then miss out on your preferred trail because you forgot to make a reservation.

Get a Tour Guide!

TMM Team Member Jami has used GyPSy Guides on a few destinations and she loves how it provides information, history, “must see” and “can skip” places along the route. You download the guide over wi-fi for the area you are going to before you leave home and the guide remains on your phone and uses your GPS to give you an audio tour as you drive.

Hook it up through your car’s audio and everyone can hear your tour guide. Its a great way to learn more about the area you are traveling through without someone having to read a book out loud in the car.

Using the National Parks Pass for Fourth Graders

The free national park pass for fourth graders is a great way for students and their families to visit park sites across the country. With over 400 sites to choose from, your family will find something for everyone, while learning more about the United States and enjoying the outdoors together.

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  • Elaine Mantinan is a Michigan native who loves to adventure outdoors all over the globe and tries to inspire others to do the same. She is currently based in Seoul, South Korea, with her husband and two kids, Aurelia (7) and Nico (5). Elaine has been having lots of fun discovering new places and ways to do her favorite outdoor activities while living in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world. She loves hiking, biking and camping but is always up for trying any kind of outdoor activity, especially if there is a picnic involved. You can follow her adventures on Instagram: @adventurousmantinans

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