by Karen D. Koch

An amazing and unexpected benefit of having my 4th child when I was 41 is that my little guy is now in 4th grade when I’m 50 and we get to participate in the Every Kid in a Park initiative of the National Parks Service! The Service offers a year-long free pass to 4th graders, and their family by extension. This provides free entrance to hundreds of national lands, parks, and historic sites.

I grew up in Oregon, and some of my most memorable family vacations were trips we took to Arches National Park (Utah), National Dinosaur Monument (Colorado), Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming), Fort Laramie (Wyoming), Crater Lake (Oregon), the Oregon Caves (Oregon), Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming), and more. So I’d like my family to have more of these kinds of memories as well.

To participate, first, check out the National Parks Service website at Scroll down to find the Every Kid in Park image. Answer a few quick questions (of the “what do you want to go see?”) variety, and print out your voucher/pass. No personal information is collected by the site. Check out participating sites and start visiting and traveling.

The paper voucher can be replaced with a plastic card at designated locations. Passes are for September 1 each year to the following August 31. The passes are for 4th graders or “homeschool equivalent” according to the National Park Service website.

There are 28 California locations you can visit for free, ranging from Alcatraz Island, Manzanar National Historical Site, Point Reyes National Seashore, Redwood National Park, Santa Monica National Recreation Area, and Yosemite. A complete California list is here. What’s great about your Every Kid in a Park pass is that it’s good for the whole United States, not just your state. The site allows filtering by state, zip code, or activity sought.  I have some wish list items for Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho for this coming year. If you’re planning a trip to other parts of the United States, check out your park possibilities first, including Civil War and Revolutionary War sites back East.

The National Park Service has a Junior Ranger program your child may want to participate in. My son earned three of these this summer (Mount Rainier, WA, Fort Vancouver, WA, and Yellowstone National Park, WY), although we didn’t have his 4th grade pass yet. Where available, kids can request or purchase ($3 full-color activity booklet at Yellowstone, free booklet at Mount Rainier and Fort Vancouver), complete a certain number of pages and activities, and earn a badge.

As a homeschool mom, I love this extra layer of educational background instead of just sightseeing. Ask my son what a “fumarole” is or what temperature water boils at at Yellowstone National Park altitudes–he knows. Two of the pages allowed him to mark the animals he saw, so he was excited to mark bison (4!), elk (2), ravens (many–they are HUGE at Yellowstone), and a chipmunk or two. The Junior Ranger program is available to all ages of kids, not just 4th graders. Our Yellowstone Junior Ranger booklet was for ages 4+. More information on the Junior Ranger program.

Last Thursday my son completed his Yellowstone Junior Ranger pass, but it was two days too early for him to get his free park pass, so, alas, we had to pay entry to Yellowstone ($30) and Grand Teton ($20). You can see how the savings will quickly add up if you plan strategically.

Another possibility to consider is a National Parks passport for kids or adults. We purchased one of these at Yellowstone last week, and many of the visitor centers and gift shops have “passport stamps,” showing the date and location the stamp was collected. I would have loved having one of those as a kid to record my journeys with my family.

On our wish list for this coming year:

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park (Oregon)
Crater Lake (Oregon)
Manzanar National Historical Site (California)
Yosemite National Park (California)
Glacier National Park (Montana)

I’d love to hear of your travels and discoveries in the coming year. [email protected]

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