Our national parks are treasure troves of history, recreation opportunities, culture, inspiration and beauty. They are some of the most accessible places to view glaciers, wildlife and towering ancient forests — up close and personal. And from April 17 - 25, you can visit any one of our 392 national parks, like Yellowstone, Olympic and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks for free.
The National Park Service is making it easier to experience America’s Great Outdoors during National Park Week by waiving entrance fees to all of the lands it oversees, including parks, monuments, reserves and recreation areas. Many parks will offer special programs and volunteer projects as an added bonus, including a number of family-friends activities like National Junior Ranger Day on April 24.
On National Junior Ranger Day, kids can learn all about a national park they visit — from history to science — through a number of fun interactive activities that result in the awarding of an official Junior Ranger patch and certificate! Can’t make it to a park with your child? The Park Service’s on-line Junior Ranger program WebRangers is a fun alternative.
“Our national parks are some of our country’s greatest treasures,” said Chip Jenkins, superintendent of North Cascades National Park Complex. “National Park Week is the perfect time to take your family to a park, whether it be a hike or to take part in a volunteer project. What better way to celebrate our national parks, than to connect our children to these amazing wild places so that they can experience the great outdoors.”
A Great Wild History
On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that mandated the National Park Service to preserve land for its natural, historic and wildlife values, and as a means of enjoyment, in such a way as to leave the land in its natural condition for future generations to benefit from as well.
Today, many people assume our National Parks receive the highest protections afforded by the government, but in fact, only about half of our national parklands are designated as wilderness areas. While national park designation conserves the land, development can still occur. Designating wilderness in a national park provides the undeveloped parkland with the highest level of protection so that it leaves the land pristine and unchanged for future generations. The Wilderness Act protects designated wilderness areas by law "for the permanent good of the whole people." With the Wilderness Act, Congress secures "for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."
The Wilderness Society is currently working to expand protections of the unique desert lands of Death Valley National Park in California and the pristine desert landscapes and lush river canyons of southwest Texas’ Big Bend National Park.
To see what wilderness areas are managed by the National Park Service, check out Wilderness.net’s U.S. National Wilderness Preservation System Map.
10 Tips to a Successful National Park Visit
- Don’t forget the camera and spare batteries!
- Pack plenty of snacks and drinks to stave off hunger as you explore.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes — there’s so much to see.
- Prepare for all types of weather — whether it be a desert-based park or a mountainous one, the weather can be unpredictable…might as well make sure you have a rain jacket, gloves and plenty of layers so your trip isn’t cut short due to being unprepared.
- Bring games, books or iPods for the kids — if you’re planning a car trip, keep the kids entertained for your sanity.
- It’s ok to make an itinerary, but be flexible to change — especially if you’re heading out with kids.
- Plan for plenty of pit stops.
- Research your destination(s) before heading out — our national parks are filled to the brim with things to see and do, so you probably won’t be able to do everything. Look up your destination and find out what appeals to you the most — better yet, if traveling with kids, let them select a few places they are interested in visiting as well.
- Always stop at the visitor center where you can find up-to-date information on park conditions and obtain a map of the park you’re visiting. You can also ask the rangers on duty any question you may have regarding your visit.
- Try to miss the crowds — if you plan to visit the park on a weekend or during the peak summer season, you will be greeted by crowds. If possible, plan your trip during the off-season (spring or fall) and during the week-day when visitorship is usually much lower.
So pack up your daytrip bag, grab the family and head to your local national park to experience some of our country’s greatest crown jewels. And don’t forget the camera!
Arches National Park. Photo by Jason K. Bach.
Bison herd running across a flooded meadow in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Photo by Scorpions and Centaurs, Flickr.
Mother and sons with park ranger in the North Cascades National Park. Photo by Damon Parrish, Courtesy REI.