The National Parks can be a great travel destination for families. This year we tackled Yellowstone, Badlands, Mt Rushmore and the Grand Tetons which had been on our list since having kids. It reminded me of some great reasons to travel the National Parks with kids.
1) Free parks pass for 4th graders. If you’re wondering when to put the parks on your travel list, this can be good motivation. Every 4th grader in the US can get a free one year parks pass, starting September 1 of the school year. The pass will get your whole family into any of the National Parks, Lands and Waters during that year. This can save significant money when you consider each National Park can be around $25-50 to enter. Seniors, veterans and those with disabilities (including chronic illness) can get a free or reduced lifetime pass as well.
2) Wildlife. This was the most exciting part of our trip for the kids. We saw bears, moose, elk, bison, a fox mom and her babies, antelope and more. Driving along and spotting a bear next to the road kept the kids pretty engaged during the trip. In recounting the trip to friends and family, the bear sighting is always at the top.
3) Trying new things. Going to the National Parks allowed our kids to try some things they hadn’t done before – horseback riding, mountain hiking, photography, driving in a blizzard in June. It was fun to get them out of their element and see what they enjoyed.
4) No technology! Most of the parks we visited had no cell service. While this posed a few challenges in using GPS, it was great to have the kids’ full attention. They actually talked to each other, sang songs, interacted and looked at the scenery. There was some whining but I was surprised how well they adapted, and boy did they appreciate that wifi in our next hotel!
5) Junior Ranger Program. The parks offer a fun program to engage kids by completing activities, and then getting patches. The rangers are great interacting with the kids and this can be a wonderful way for all ages to learn about paleontology, archaeology, fishing, caves, the night sky and more.
6) Checking things off the list. My kids LOVE to make bucket lists and check things off (wonder where they got this from). There are 58 National Parks in the US. This trip took our list up to 15. Now that they’ve seen progress, they want to check off a few more next year! The roadtrip also helped us check off 6 more states (10 more to go!). There has to be some reason to go through South Dakota! Whatever their motivation, wanting to see more of the country is a great thing in our book.
7) Saving money. The parks can be a low cost family vacation. While lodging in the parks can be expensive, if you plan ahead there are lots of options. While we aren’t a camping family, there are plenty of places to camp, and there are also lower cost cabins and tent cabins. Much of the in-park lodging fills up a year in advance, but we found some low cost alternatives by driving a short distance outside the park to stay. Our biggest cost savings was bringing our own food into the parks. Eating at the park lodges can be expensive, but you won’t find better scenery for family picnics along the road. That also allowed us to eat on our schedule, and avoid the crowds and long lines at the park lodges and cafeterias. QC Moms Blog had a great post recently with other budget friendly travel suggestions.
My husband and I were lucky enough to have done this trip in a previous lifetime pre-kids. Despite the added effort in travelling the parks with the kids, it was way better this time around to see their reactions to the geysers, mountains and wildlife. I won’t soon forget when we first hit the Badlands with its dramatic rock cliffs and winding roads how they all literally screamed in unison with pleasure (and a little fear) as we went into the first hairpin turns or how the 8 year old tried to jump across the car to see the prairie dogs popping their heads out of their little homes. To see it through our kids’ eyes truly was a gift, and worth every minute of driving that 4000 miles to experience the parks together. Next time we will pick a park where it isn’t snowing in June.