This post is sponsored by Perseus Books. All opinions are my own.
My family was able to take advantage of a pretty amazing travel discount a couple of years ago thanks to my then 4th grade daughter. The National Park Service has a program called Every Kid Outdoors (formerly known as Every Kid in a Park) that allows all 4th graders and their families to access national parks sites for free. In just the first few months of her 4th grade year, we enjoyed free visits to the Everglades, Pinnacles National Park, and Muir Woods National Monument.
Breaking: For 2020-2021, there is a recent change to the program that families with 5th graders need to know about! Keep reading for details.
While my family already travels to national parks regularly, we tried to take even greater advantage during this free year. And we think other families of 4th graders should too. Here are my very best tips for making the most of your 4th grader’s free year visiting America’s national parks.
When & How to Get a Free “Every Kid Outdoors” 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 – 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.
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. While the printed pass is valid immediately, your child can trade it in for a more permanent pass at most parks if you prefer. Just be aware that you need a physical copy as images of the pass on a smartphone or tablet are not accepted.
The pass is valid from the beginning of the school year (officially, September 1) through the summer after 4th grade. 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 62 major national parks, but also national monuments, national historic sites, national forests, national seashores, and many other federal lands.
It’s also not just your 4th grader that gets in free. Most national parks charge entrance by the car, so the pass works to get an entire family 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 (kids under 16 are admitted free). So unless you have an exceptionally large family, it really does cover everyone.
Update for 5th Graders in 2020-2021: Because so many of last year’s 4th graders missed on on a substantial portion of the travel year when national parks closed in the spring and summer of 2020, the National Park Service is making sure those kids get another chance. As of October 28, 2020, current 5th graders can still participate in the Every Kid Outdoors program for another year.
Fifth graders can download their pass on this site, and it will be good until the end of August 2021. Note that the 5th grade pass is a bit more limited than the 4th grade one, and is only valid at locations managed by the Department of the Interior. Those include sites operated by: National Park Service, Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Reclamation. Double check your destination’s eligibility before venturing out.
Participate in Junior Ranger Programs
So now that you have a free pass, how can you really take advantage of the year for your child? 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 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. They are awarded 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 now that she can 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 Trip Research & Planning
Now that my daughter is a tween, it’s rapidly evident that she has an opinion about where we travel as a family. Involving her 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 interest them.
I regularly first scope out a lot of parks using a comprehensive guide to all of the national parks: Moon USA National Parks (view it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble). In our quest to eventually visit them all, the book has been on my nightstand all year and really gives readers a solid introduction to every park.
We recently also gave my daughter the brand new National Parks: A Kids Guide to America’s Parks, Monuments, and Landmarks so she can do some research on her own (view it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble).
The book is aimed at 8-12 year olds (perfectly in the wheelhouse for 4th graders) and covers at least one national park site in every state so you can find an option close to home for your family. Within our home state of California, the book actually includes 5 national parks – Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Lassen Volcanic, and Death Valley – only two of which the kids have visited yet. So we clearly still have some travels to do!
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 2020 with your 4th grader, the time to make lodging reservations is now!
More National Park Information
And 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
- 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