Explore National Parks With Your Grandchildren

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Don't Miss Out on National Treasures

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park. Jim Peaco, Yellowstone NP

Go spelunking in Mammoth Cave. Take a relaxing bath in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Walk through a temperate rain forest in Olympia National Park. Tour a cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. Visit an active volcano in Hawaii. See the spectacular scenery in Yosemite.

If you live in the United States and you aren't visiting your national parks regularly, you are missing many of our national treasures. With hundreds of sites to choose from, everyone should find sites of interest and ones that are appropriate for sharing with grandchildren.

Know More About National Parks

Did you know?

  • There are 417 national sites.
  • Besides classic national parks, that number also includes national monuments, battlefield parks, preserves, recreation areas and other designated areas.
  • Yellowstone, established in 1872, was the first national park in the world.
  • Parks range in size from millions of acres to a fraction of an acre.
  • The National Park System (NPS) includes the highest point in North America and the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.
  • It also includes the world's longest cave system and the deepest lake in the U.S.
  • Park system museums house over 167 million items.
  • More than 75,000 archeological sites are protected on park land.
  • More than 247 threatened or endangered species survive on park property.
  • In 2015 about 307 million visits were made to national parks. (All from the NPS Overview)

Ditch the Myths

Many people believe that our national parks are always crowded. Many of our parks do struggle with large numbers of visitors, but even in the most visited parks it is usually possible to find some solitude. First, go during a non-peak time if possible, Second, check out the more remote corners of the park. They may require a little more driving to access, but you'll be driving on more open roads. Third, don't be compelled to see the most popular sites. With thousands of thermal features in Yellowstone, do you really need to see Old Faithful?

Also, because of the enormous popularity of a few parks, some associate national parks with the wide open spaces of the American West. In actuality, although 23 states lack full-blown national parks, every state has areas that are affiliated with the National Park System. These may be national monuments, forests, trails, seashores or other protected areas. Many features of the National Park System are located in urban areas, and others are easily accessible from urban areas. You can find a National Park "home" far away from "where the buffalo roam."

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How the National Park System Works

A living history presentation at Harper's Ferry National Historical Park. NPS

The NPS is a part of the Department of the Interior.

New national parks are created by Congress. The President can designate an area as a National Monument. Some National Historic Sites have been created by the Secretary of the Interior.

Working for the Park System

The NPS administers its holdings with help from its employees, private companies known as concessionaires and volunteers. Many retirees have found enjoyable second careers with the NPS. Of those who keep the national parks running, about one-third are over 55.

In addition, many individuals of all ages have found fulfillment through doing volunteer work in the parks. These Volunteers-in-Parks (VIPs) take part in a wide range of projects, ranging from participating in living history to clearing trails. VIPs are not paid, but in some instances they may be eligible for housing.

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Our Parks: A National Bargain

Fiddle lessons at the Humpback Rocks area of the Blue Ridge Parkway. NPS

Only about a third of our national sites charge admission fees. For those that do, the fees range from $5 to $30. Even those parks that do charge admission offer ways to save.

Buy Passes for Best Savings

The best money-saving strategy is to buy a pass, which will cover admission to national parks and many other areas managed by the federal government, such as national forests and wildlife refuges. Each pass will cover either all individuals in a vehicle or up to four adults. Children under 15 are always admitted free. These passes are available:

  • Senior Pass: Those who are 62 and over have access to a fabulous bargain, a lifetime pass that costs only $10. But this bargain is going away shortly. The cost will increase to $80 on Aug. 28, 2017.  At parks that charge per vehicle, the pass owner and passengers are admitted for no cost. At parks that charge per person, the pass admits the pass owner plus up to three other adults. Children are always admitted free. Besides being good for admission, the senior pass offers a 50% discount on many services, such as campground fees. If you buy your senior pass by mail or online, you will have to pay another $10 for processing. 
  • Access Pass: Those with disabilities are eligible for this pass, which is free. It also offers the 50% discount on services.
  • Volunteer Pass: Those with 250 volunteer hours with a qualifying federal agency are eligible for this pass, which is free.
  • Annual Pass: Those who do not qualify for any of the passes above can purchase an annual pass for $80. Those currently serving in the military and their dependents are eligible for free annual passes.

NPS also offers free park admission days. Besides Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Veterans Day, these include the weekend of Presidents Day, the opening weekend of National Parks Week, National Park Service Birthday and National Public Lands Day.

Free for Fourth-Graders

A White House initiative, the Every Kid in a Park Program, offers free park admission to every fourth grader in the United States.

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National Park Programs for Kids

Kayaking at Assateague Island National Seashore. NPS

Hoping to share the magic of national parks with children or grandchildren? You have an ally in the National Park Service. The NPS takes pains to engage with children, on site and in the virtual world.

When You Visit a Park

Some larger parks in the system offer a program called Junior Rangers. Typically children complete a packet of activities as they tour the park, then go over their work with a Ranger to earn a Junior Ranger patch. Sometimes a ranger-led activity is required to earn the patch, and sometimes participants earn a certificate that entitles them to purchase a patch. In 2015, more than 660,000 children participated in Junior Rangers. 

If the park you are visiting does not have a Junior Ranger program, chances are that it offers some kid-friendly activities, such as guided hikes or campfire programs. And our national parks are great places for many nature activities for children. You should be aware, however, that collecting specimens is not allowed in national parks, so traditional nature scavenger hunts are out.  A digital scavenger hunt or photo safari is a good alternative.

Online Activities

NPS now offers an interactive site for children that can supplement actual park visits. Called WebRangers, the site allows kids to play games and earn rewards, while learning about topics such as wildlife and conservation. Participants can even earn badges like those given to the Junior Rangers.

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Where to Stay, What to Eat

Warming Hut, Yellowstone National Park, USA
Mark Miller Photos / Getty Images

Many national parks can be visited in an afternoon or a day, but many offer rich rewards for those who come prepared to stay a while.

National Park Lodging

Lodging is available inside many national parks, managed by concessionaires who contract with the NPS to provide this service. Unless you are prepared to pitch a tent, which is an option in many parks, do not expect low prices for lodging. At Yellowstone, for example, you'll pay around $74 for a Roughrider cabin with access to bathrooms in a communal facility. At the other end of the spectrum, Ahwahneed Lodge in Yosemite is over $500 a night.

Another drawback is that most reservations must be made far in advance. Still, staying inside the park is the best way to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

If you choose to stay outside the park, you may find lower prices, but you may also find a sprawl of commercial establishments seeking to capitalize on the paucity of such facilities inside the park.

Eating Inside the Parks

Concessionaires also provide the food services within parks. Generally several types of restaurants are available, for a range of prices. The most popular and the most budget-friendly are usually buffets.

Those who want to reduce prices can buy their own groceries. Some food is typically available at camp stores inside the parks, but the most economical route is to bring the bulk of your food into the park. If you have a camping stove, your choices are endless, but you can have many delicious meals without cooking. 

Buying your own food and eating it outdoors is an outstanding way to save money while traveling. The "dining room" ambience is outstanding!

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Grandparents, Grandchildren Require Extra Care

Active senior hiking with granddaughter
Senior with granddaughter hiking in the mountains, climbing up to a terrific view in Shenandoah National Park. SKLA / Getty Images

Grandparents and grandchildren, being on opposite ends of the age spectrum, both require a little extra care when traveling, and that is even truer when visiting a national park. Much of the fun comes from experiencing an environment that is wildly different from the norm, which means that visitors may not be aware of all the hazards. Grandparents will need to use extra care when supervising grandchildren, but they should also be very conscious of their own health and safety. An injured or fatigued grandparent cannot take care of a grandchild.

Hazards to Heed

Many of our national parks are located in wilderness areas where wild animals are a danger. Extreme weather conditions are also a possibility in most parks. The presence of water in a park, whether the ocean, river, stream or lake, adds another hazard. Falls in a rough territory is another frequent occurrence.

Follow these hints to stay safe:

  • Don't rely on your cell phone to summon help if you get in a tight spot. Many remote areas do not have cell service.
  • Before you visit a park, read the literature and know what the hazards are.
  • Keep in touch with park personnel, who will know about any unsettled weather conditions or unusual wildlife sightings.
  • Teach the children not to approach any wild animal. In national parks, animals may appear tame because they are accustomed to humans, but they will still attack, especially to protect their young.
  • Exercise extra care about waterfalls, where rocks are often covered with treacherous slime, and other swift-moving water. If a child falls in, he or she could be swept away in seconds.
  • Make sure your water safety knowledge is up to date.
  • Be cautious when driving in national parks, where roads are typically narrow and drivers enter and leave the roadway frequently.
  • If you are in bear country, follow the park's guidelines about handling food. If you have ever seen a vehicle that has been ripped open by a bear in search of food, you'll never forget it.
  • In the hot months, pack a summer survival kit with plenty of water and sunscreen.
  • In the cold months, be sure your vehicle is fully winterized and never travel without extra blankets, water and food in the car.

Don't let these concerns keep you from visiting national parks. If you want a tamer experience, opt for a historical park or one in a more urban setting, or enlist extra helpers to come along. America's national parks are not to be missed!

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More Adventures to Share

Gary John Norman | Taxi | Getty Images

National parks are grand destinations, but they are far from the only choices for travel with grandchildren. 

Theme Park Trips

Grandparents are nothing if not versatile. Besides visiting national parks, many grandparents consider theme parks outstanding destinations for family fun.

Be safe, and have fun!