When we finally arrived at Grand Canyon National Park, I remember just being happy to get out of the car. We had been driving forever. And now we had arrived at a massive collection of cracks in the ground.
That’s what it felt like to my elementary-school-kid self. I was more interested in the squirrels, and flipping over a horizontal bar with my cousin, than the insanely beautiful scenery in front of me. My parents must have been exasperated.
But I remember the trip. And that’s the point, I’m learning, as a parent trying to make sure that our digitally influenced kids are equally influenced by the world around them. That effort includes introducing them to as many national parks as we can, pointing out differences among them, displaying photos around the house of those we visit and talking about the push and pull between public and private lands.
Our hope is that experiencing these protected spaces will encourage our children to advocate for their protection in the future. They’ve only been to a few national parks so far, but the visits already have sparked interest at home in political debates about public access and funding, which is a really cool outflow.
It’s the experience that sticks. Kids won’t understand the magnitude of what they’re seeing, but if adults can help them connect to it on some level, it fosters a positive memory.
When we visited Utah’s Zion National Park during National Parks Week last April, we ate lunch on the cliffs above the Emerald Pools — near a couple of misty waterfalls that provided a perch unlike anything our kids had ever seen. They didn’t dissect the layers of rock. They didn’t take notes on the ancient natives who lived in the area years ago. They just had a fun lunch, in a beautiful place, with a squirrel and a gecko. They still talk about it.
When we visited Arches National Park this past winter, they didn’t marvel at the area’s origin story that began 65 million years ago. They didn’t want to engage in a lesson on erosion. They simply explored, crawled up to lookouts and stood under arched sandstone that from the ground didn’t appear nearly as big as it felt while standing under it.
They just experienced it. And from that experience, they’ll draw tangible context when they learn about it in a classroom.
That’s clearly the goal behind the national parks Every Kid in a Park program offering free annual passes to every fourth grader in the country — a pass that extends to the entire family as long as the student is there, too.
Experience is absolutely a teacher, and national parks act as one heck of an instructor.
National parks FAQs
National Park Week is April 20-28. To celebrate, every national park offers free admission on April 20, which is also Junior Ranger Day. Other Free Entrance Days in the national parks this year are: Aug. 25 (National Park Service Birthday), Sept. 28 (National Public Lands Day) and Nov. 11 (Veterans Day).
Every Kid in a Park. This program offers free admission to national parks for fourth graders and their families. Parents and educators can print passes at everykidinapark.gov. (Passes must be printed rather than digital.) The pass admits all children ages 16 and younger and up to three adults for free. It is good for the duration of the fourth grader’s school year, expiring Aug. 31.
Junior Ranger Program. The National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program is conducted in almost all national parks. Young visitors (typically ages 5-13, although anyone can participate) complete a series of activities during a park visit, share their answers with a park ranger and receive an official Junior Ranger patch or certificate. nps.gov/kids
National parks to explore in the Southwest
Grand Canyon National Park. The park celebrates its 100 birthday this year, and it’s only a four-hour drive from Phoenix. Camp, find a backcountry trail or just go take a look. Grand Canyon National Park celebrates Earth Day on Free Entrance Day, April 20, with free demonstrations, games, information on environmental initiatives and more. Find more events marking the park’s birthday year at nps.gov/grca
Petrified Forest National Park. Discover the park’s otherworldly landscape and learn all about fossils found in the area. This park, in northeastern Arizona, is also no more than four hours from Phoenix. nps.gov/pefo
Joshua Tree National Park. Wander through the cholla, search for the iconic trees and learn about colliding ecosystems between the Mojave and Colorado deserts. If you can camp, this southern California spot is perfect for stargazing. Before traveling inquire about any road closures from snow/rain. nps.gov/jotr
Zion National Park. Hitting a few trails at Zion in southwest Utah is totally doable during a one-day visit, and driving through the tunnel on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway is a must. Some trails have suffered weather-related damage lately, so check with rangers to see what is open. nps.gov/zion
Arches National Park. It’s a longer drive to reach Arches, north of Moab, Utah, but it’s worth it. You can explore quite a bit in one day, but those who decide to camp will benefit from fewer people, the park’s sunsets and its dreamy night skies. It’s also not far from Canyonlands National Park, for those who want to fit two parks into one trip. nps.gov/arch
Tips for families:
- Get a map. Park maps at the ranger stations show where the trails are, how long they are and how difficult they are.
- Hydrate. Make sure everyone has plenty of water, and keep extra water in the car, no matter the season.
- Pack a picnic. National Parks offer some pretty spectacular backdrops for unforgettable lunch dates.
- Be patient. Kids simply won’t absorb it all the same way adults will. Let them get it on their level, and foster whatever curiosity they have. They’ll understand it all in time.
- Plan ahead. Whether you’re trying to score a campsite or just scout a few trails to tackle, research on the front-end pays off. And many of the campsites book up six months in advance.
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