Free National Park Family Programs

Author: Lucy Tingey

Tags : Biking, Camping, Cheap Vacation, Eco-Tourism, Hiking, Kids, Multigen, National Parks, Teens, USA, Watersports

Combining a road trip with a national park visit makes one of the top budget family vacations we know, especially when there are so many free children's activities. Thanks to federal funding, the National Park Service (NPS) has expanded many Junior Ranger programs to incorporate fun physical fitness activities with learning about nature. Now overseeing 400 National Parks in addition to Military Parks, National Monuments, National Parkways and Seashores, and Urban Parks, the NPS welcomed 307,247,252 visitors in 2015. Their resources may be stretched thin, but at their 100 year anniversary, the NPS staff is enabling visitors to stay longer and engage with the parks, not just drive through them. The new Find Your Park campaign urges travelers to share their tales, research the parks, and discover which ones speak to them. What a great idea to plan your road trip.  


Get the Family Moving with Active, Outdoors Adventures

Your kids can learn to be healthy and active while still having fun with Let’s Move Outside, a 2015 program led by the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture. This free program, still active at many parks, makes it easy for parents to encourage their children to enjoy outdoor recreation and exercise while also teaching them about the United States' beautiful lands.  

To make and active recreation and learning program accessible to all ages and all regions, it has been implemented as part of the popular Junior Ranger programs available at almost all of the 52 national parks and monuments. Every aspect of the program, including workbooks and badges, is free of charge. The Every Kid in a Park program makes it possible for any fourth grader to visit any or all of the national parks with their family, free of charge, too.


Enhanced NPS Junior Ranger Programs make Fit Kids

In conjunction with the free learning program and scheduled events that each park uses to teach kids about its unique history, flora and fauna, there are physical activities to complement the learning.

Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is just one example of what the National Parks are doing. Junior Ranger participants can get active almost any day of the week in summer. There are twice weekly hikes up Hot Springs Mountain, and regular trail walks to find animal tracks, special leaves or geological formations. For the park's centennial, they have implemented a weekly Saturday morning hike that builds to a total of 100 miles explored by the end of 2016.  


Recreation and Healthy Activities Featured at US National Parks

Activities offered at other parks range from hiking and biking, to swimming, camping, paddling, and horseback riding, and all are open to all family members accompanying the Junior Ranger candidate.

Parks where action-oriented programs are up and running are listed by state, with more being added all the time. So far they include:

Natchez Trace Parkway

Denali National Park and Preserve

Grand Canyon National Park

Hot Springs National Park

Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Redwood National and State Parks
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Colorado National Monument
Curecanti National Recreation Area
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Hovenweep National Monument

Big Cypress National Preserve
Biscayne National Park
Canaveral National Seashore
Everglades National Park
Gulf Islands National Seashore

Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area

Yellowstone National Park

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Effigy Mounds National Monument

Acadia National Park

Assateague Island National Seashore
Catoctin Mountain Park
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
George Washington Memorial Parkway

Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
Voyageurs National Park

Gulf Islands National Seashore
Natchez Trace Parkway
Vicksburg National Military Park

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Yellowstone National Park

Missouri National Recreational River

New Jersey
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

New York
Fire Island National Seashore

North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Washita Battlefield National Historic Site

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
Eisenhower National Historic Site
Gettysburg National Military Park
Johnstown Flood National Memorial

South Dakota
Missouri National Recreational River

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Natchez Trace Parkway

Padre Island National Seashore

Hovenweep National Monument
Natural Bridges National Monument

Assateague Island National Seashore
George Washington Memorial Parkway
Manassas National Battlefield Park
Prince William Forest Park
Shenandoah National Park

Mount Rainier National Park
Olympic National Park

Washington, D.C.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Fort Dupont Park
George Washington Memorial Parkway
Rock Creek Park

West Virginia
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
New River Gorge National River

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Yellowstone National Park

There has to be a convenient national park stopover on this list for anyone taking a road trip almost anywhere!

Trip Planning Tips from NPS & Junior Rangers

As tax payers, many Americans feel the national parks should be free. In fact, there is an $80 annual fee for a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass that admits a vehicle and its passengers to any NPS property. Some parks may charge a per head visitor fee if there are more than four in a vehicle; at all parks, children under 15 enter free.

Visit the websites of the above-mentioned parks, or the National Park Service website for more information about currently participating parks, and tips on how to best plan and enjoy an active national park visit. The NPS website also has excellent information about local camping facilities and accommodations advice as well.

Are you fired up and ready to go? Don't be discouraged if the many famous national park lodges are already fully booked for this year. Many of our State Parks have incorporated very active learning programs into their schedules, and they offer surprising treasures that are less often explored. Campers can also turn to KOA Kampgrounds for others ideas of where to enjoy a wallet-friendly overnight stay near to your chosen national park or state park.


Note! This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.