One of the best deals in family travel is the Every Kids Outdoors program. This program provides free national park passes to all fourth graders for a full year, giving kids and their families access to hundreds of national park sites and other federal lands. The program was formerly known as Every Kid in a Park and was developed for the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary several years ago. But thankfully the program has continued ever since!
While my family already travels to national parks regularly, we try to take even greater advantage during this free access year. And we think other families of 4th graders should too! In just the first few months of my daughter’s 4th grade year, we enjoyed free visits to the Everglades, Pinnacles National Park, and Muir Woods National Monument. We are gearing up to use the pass again when my son enters 4th grade in the fall.
If you are looking to obtain and maximize the value of your child’s 4th grade national park pass, here are my very best tips for the Every Kid Outdoors pass as well as tips for visiting national parks with 4th graders generally.
When & How to Get a Free 4th Grade National Park Pass
Let’s start with how to get free entry into the parks. If you haven’t heard of the Every Kid Outdoors program, you aren’t alone. It is still fairly new. It started in 2015 in for the National Park Service’s centennial year when it was then called Every Kid in a Park. Word is still not fully out among many families with eligible kids.
Why did the National Park service select fourth grade students? Here’s the official word from the National Park Service on why this age was chosen to receive the pass:
The program focuses on children 10 years of age—the age of most fourth graders—based on research that indicates children ages 9–11 are at a unique developmental stage in their learning where they begin to understand how the world around them works in more concrete ways and they are more receptive to engaging with nature and the environment. By focusing on this age group year after year, the program aims to ensure every child in the United States has the opportunity to visit their Federal lands and waters by the time he or she is 11 years old, thereby establishing a lifelong connection to enjoy and protect our American outdoor heritage.
Here’s how the program works. All 4th graders can apply for a free annual pass online at the program’s official website. There is a brief questionnaire to complete and kids then receive a digital copy of a pass to print. Print the pass to take with you on your national parks travels. The entire process takes just a minute or two.
The pass issued is valid from the beginning of the school year (officially, September 1) through the end of the summer after 4th grade (August 31). All kids of 4th grade age are eligible – whether in public or private school or homeschooled.
The pass is good anywhere the regular America the Beautiful annual national park passes are valid. This means not only the 63 major national parks, but also national monuments, national historic sites, national recreation areas, national forests, national seashores, and many other federal lands. Officially the program is in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (in addition to the National Park Service), so it covers a lot of destinations and sites. It doesn’t include state parks, but some states have comparable programs for access to state parks as well (see my home state’s California State Park Adventure Pass).
How to Use the 4th Grade National Parks Pass
How do you use the 4th grade national parks pass when traveling to national parks and other included federal lands? The printed pass is valid immediately and is all that is required. Just be aware that you need a physical printout. Images of the pass on a smartphone or tablet are not accepted. Your child can also choose to trade the paper pass in for a more permanent pass at most parks if you prefer. If you lose your pass, you can go to the website and print another one.
When you arrive to a park, you simply show the pass anywhere you would normally purchase admission. Sometimes that will be at a gated ranger entrance. Sometimes that is at a visitor center where you’d obtain a pass to display on your car’s dash while within the park’s boundaries. Simply display the free pass there instead.
It’s also not just your 4th grader who gets in free. Most national parks charge entrance by the car, so the pass works to get an entire family or group in nearly all parks for free as long as you arrive in a single car.
At parks that charge per person, the pass covers up to 3 adults. All kids under 16 in the same group are admitted free. So unless you have an exceptionally large family or are traveling with a big group, it really does cover everyone.
How much money does a national parks pass save you? Entrance fees in 2023 at some of the largest national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone are now as high as $35 per car or $20 per person. A total of 109 parks charge entrance fees of some sort. So if you visit multiple included sites in a single year, you can easily save hundreds of dollars. Check out current entry fee prices on the NPS site here.
Note that a few park sites charge parking fees in addition to entrance fees. Parking fees, along with other extras like tours or entrance into a few attractions run by private operators, are not included. So always do some research specifically about the park you are planning to visit to make sure you understand what the pass covers and what it doesn’t.
Tips for Visiting National Parks with 4th Graders
So how can you make the most of your fee-free entry year with your 4th grader? Here are tips for planning and touring national park sites with kids of elementary school age.
Participate in Junior Ranger Programs
One must-do activity perfect for 4th graders is the Junior Ranger program available at nearly every National Park Service managed site. My children have really enjoyed participating in it at the many parks we have visited over the years.
Haven’t heard of the Junior Ranger program? Almost all national park sites have it. It’s an entirely free service where children can complete tasks to learn about and explore the park during their visit. Usually, you pick up an educational activity booklet at a welcome center or ranger station when you enter a park. Some parks have different booklets based on age, but others have a single booklet with customizable requirements for different age groups. Fourth graders are always within the age ranges covered by the program.
When your kids have completed the requirements, they take their completed booklets back to a ranger station and participate in a swearing in ceremony. Rangers will then award them a certificate and a pin and occasionally a few extra goodies.
You can also mail booklets back into a number of parks to get your child’s certificate and pin. We do this on occasion when we don’t have time to complete the booklet while in the park or if our travels don’t take us close by a visitor center later as we are exiting the park with a completed booklet.
Completing Junior Ranger booklets has been a highlight of our national parks travel, but especially for our older child the last few years once she could independently complete all the reading and activities. Always be sure to schedule in a little down time for your child to work on the booklet. It’s a great activity during meal times or during a break on a hike.
Involve Your 4th Grader in Your National Park Trip Research & Planning
We have learned during the last many years of family travel that involving our kids in the trip selection and planning process makes for happier travels for everyone in the long run.
How can you involve your 4th grader in your family’s national park travel planning? Do some research with your kids to find out what kinds of national parks or features within them interest them. Watch park videos on YouTube or read blogs and travel guidebooks. Whatever tools you use, 4th graders can and should be involved in the trip planning process. They’ll get so much more out of their visit to the parks if they feel they have a role in selecting where to go and what to do and see when they get there.
Finally, for those of you with a rising fourth grader, the summer before the 4th grade year is an excellent time to start national parks trip planning. Some of the most popular national park sites book up many months in advance – an occasionally up to a full year early. If you hope to visit very popular parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, or Zion in the summer of 2024 with your 4th grader, the time to make lodging reservations is coming soon!
Spread the Word (Especially to Your 4th Grader’s School!)
A lot of parents and educators don’t know about the free 4th grade national park pass, so I encourage families in the know to spread the word to friends and family. You may be able to plan a trip with friends or extended family to allow others to take advantage too!
It’s especially important to let your child’s school know about it. Why? The Every Kid Outdoors program allows teachers and other educators of 4th graders to apply for passes on their behalf. Your child’s school can use the passes for field trips the entire school year.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and there are approaching a dozen national park sites within a short distance of San Francisco doable as a school field trip. Chances are good you may have options nearby too.
Schools can also pass the passes along to families who might not otherwise know to apply on their own.
Ways to Save Money on National Park Visits
Looking to travel on a budget to National Parks and other federal lands during your child’s 4th grade year? Here are a few other tips that have saved us money over the years.
- Pack a picnic: A lot of National Parks sites have limited food service, so a great way to save (as well as make sure you have food at the ready when your kids get hungry) is to BYO. Just be careful with leaving food in your vehicle at certain national parks. In Yosemite, the bears smell it and know how to break in!
- Book lodging outside the park: While there are some beautiful and iconic national park lodges inside of many national parks, a lot of them are quite pricey places to spend the night. You can usually find cheaper accommodations outside of national park borders.
- Camp: I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not much of a camper. But it’s a great option to save money when visiting national parks. And you don’t have to go to the full end of the roughing it spectrum. Some national parks may have tent cabins or other hybrid accommodations that are cheaper than a full service lodge.
- Find other free and inexpensive entrance options: Once your 4th grader’s year is up, you may be hooked on national parks travel. Keep doing it on the cheap by taking advantage of other freebies and discounted admission. There are a number of fee free days at all parks each year. And there are a number of parks and federal lands that don’t charge fees at all. Great Smoky National Park is one such example.
More National Park Information
If you are a family new to national parks travel or veteran visitors looking to do even more, check out these related posts:
- Beginner’s Guide to National Parks: Getting Started with National Parks Travel
- 20 Best National Parks for Kids in the USA
- The Ultimate Guide to Northern California National Parks
- Visiting Joshua Tree National Park with Kids
- Planning a Trip to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks
- Best National Parks to Visit with Kids
- Tips for Visiting the Grand Canyon with Toddlers
- Best National Parks to Visit in Fall
Disclosure: This post was originally created in partnership with Perseus Books. This post has been revised and updated since that time. As always, all opinions are my own. Check out some of their titles to help in your family’s national park trip planning: Moon USA National Parks & National Parks: A Kids Guide to America’s Parks, Monuments, and Landmarks.