Do you know how many national parks there are in the United States? Including national forests, monuments, and battlefields, there are a whopping 417 and this month during National Park Week, Saturday, April 16th to Sunday, April 24th, weekend entrance to ALL of those parks will be free! Here are five ways to celebrate - even if you can't visit in April.
Make a national park bucket list. Always wanted to go visit the Grand Canyon? See Old Faithful in Yellowstone? Had a goal of climbing Yosemite's Half Dome or hiking through the watery canyons of the Narrows at Zion? Sit down as a family and make a bucket list of must-see national parks, monuments and forests. Get inspired by checking out the gorgeous pics with the hashtag #FindYourPark on Instagram.
Become a Junior Ranger. The Junior Ranger program is great way to get kids excited about and involved in a trip to any national park. More than 120 of the national park sites allow kids ages 5-13 to participate in the Junior Ranger program by completing a series of activities during a park visit, sharing their answers with a park ranger, and receiving an official Junior Ranger patch and Junior Ranger certificate. Pick up the free booklets at the park's visitor center and then watch as your kids eagerly search for answers in the museum, actually listen to the visitor center movie, or beg to go to a ranger talk or on a hike. We've done the Junior Ranger program at more than two dozen parks with my three boys and I'm always impressed with how seriously both my boys and the rangers take it - the "swearing in" and badge presentations are definitely camera-worthy. The park ranger really want the next generation to know the value of our saved open spaces and it's a great way to keep the kids entertained and engaged during a park visit.
Volunteer at a national park. The National Park Service protects over 80 million acres and relies on volunteers to maintain it all. From one-time volunteer opportunities to reoccurring ones for kids, families, and individuals, volunteering at a national park as a family will give you time together in nature, a great bonding experience as a family, and help your kids learn the importance of giving back. From picking up trash on forest trails to cleaning headstones at historic Civil War-era cemeteries, restoring endangered plant and wildlife habitat to cleaning up the beachfront, there are lots of opportunities to choose from around the U.S. Check out all the current and upcoming opportunities here.
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Visit a lesser known national park. Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon. Sure everyone wants to visit the well-known national parks, but there is also lots to explore and experience beyond the big names. When you visit a smaller national park or monument, you'll likely have fewer crowds to deal with, more solitude, and the ranger's full attention. Check out The Places Nobody Knows Guide to spark some off-the-beaten-path travel ideas or other unique guides offered by the National Park Service like which parks you can experience by train, the best hiking trails, parks close to big cities, and the various accommodations offered at national parks from a remote island inn, a secluded campsite, or a luxury mountain resort.
Learn something new. If you visit during National Park Week, you'll have the chance to take advantage of various introductory programs offered throughout the park system. Brush up on astronomy at a Night Sky Party in Saguaro NationalPark, go birding at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, take a photo workshop at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, make pottery at Ocmulgee National Monument, dance to Cajun music at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, or try your hand at surf fishing at Gateway National Recreation Area. Any other time of the year, be sure to check out the various ranger programs the park offers where you can go on a guided nature hike, learn about the history of the area, see examples of native animals or learn about the constellations.
Ready to explore? Find your closest national parks here. If you can't visit during the two free weekends in April, there are also free or reduced rate annual passes available for active duty military families, fourth grade students, senior citizens, volunteers, and people with permanent disabilities.
What national park is on your family's bucket list?
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