Sometimes I wish I had grown up in the continental United States. It was only in my college years, after moving to California, that I first visited Yosemite National Park. The breathtaking view below after emerging from the tunnel was what got me hooked. I felt the need to explore more of these natural wonders and learn more about them. The National Park system has often been called “America’s Best Idea” and I would have to agree to a certain extent.
We’ve integrated National Park visits into our family vacations and long weekend getaways. While to some there may be no comparison in family entertainment value, the parks and monuments offer something unmatched by Disney or Nickelodeon. In honor of National Park Week in the USA next week and Earth Day, here are five reasons to visit national parks and monuments with the kids.
The current state of today’s economy makes a visit to the National Parks an overall great value for a family vacation. Admission prices range from $3 to $25 for 5-10 days per car. Most are definitely cheaper than a parking rate at many amusement parks. An Annual Pass of $80 to visit any of the almost 400 parks or monuments operated by the National Park Service (NPS) is also available. For an even better deal, the NPS designates certain times of the year for free admissions. Next week, April 21-29, is Free Entrance Days in National Parks. Check this National Park Service website for other 2012 dates.
Once you’re in the park, there are no parking fees or usually any other additional fees to view the attractions. Picnics along the available areas will also cut down on food costs. For souvenirs, the kids can get something small or get books about the park. Supporting the stores is also a great way to help sustain the park system as they are usually underfunded. There are various affordable lodging alternatives within the park from camping to cabins to lodges depending on one’s budget.
A National Park or monument can serve as a child’s outdoor classroom. Our kids have associated these park visits to extended field trips. History plays a major role in many national monuments and a visit will ignite a child’s curiosity to learn more about its origins. Geology and biology are prominent in how these natural attractions came to be.
The National Park Service offers a Junior Ranger Program for most parks and monuments with the goals to – Explore Learn Protect. Through completion of age-specific activities, kids can earn a badge from each park or monument they visit. My kids look forward to completing these activities and keep wanting to add another badge to their collection. There is a sense of accomplishment as they complete activities related to each park they visit. The activities are interactive and it makes them more interested to explore. There’s also an emphasis on preservation of the environment and exploring nature. The drives through the parks go a little bit faster too.
A cyber version called WebRangers is also available. Every park visit has also increased our knowledge and we’ve learned interesting facts. My husband and I have also learned a lot while helping the kids with their Junior Ranger activities. So, think of it as a fun educational family activity.
Some of the national parks are home to our country’s wildlife in their natural habitat. From the buffalo herd that roam in the wild at Yellowstone National Park to the majestic whales at Glacier Bay, these are just some of the wonders waiting to be seen. We have been pretty lucky to have spotted a deer, at the very least, at every National Park visit so far. My kids get so excited when spotting any animal.
The car rides also get a little bit more interesting when they’re on a lookout for animals. There’s something special about seeing animals in the parks roaming freely instead of seeing them in cages at an average zoo.
4. Natural Wonders
Many attractions within the national parks are spectacular and magnificient – geysers, waterfalls, deep canyons, hoodus, the desert. They are all so varied yet so fascinating. Even the kids will gasp in awe. Let them experience Mother Nature’s magic and learn to appreciate it. Kids can be amazed at the sand dunes of Death Valley to the erupting geysers of Yellowstone to the breathtaking Grand Canyon.
Most are big, natural playgrounds. My kids keep asking to go back to the big boulders of Joshua Tree. The park had giant rocks with crevices but they could have spent half the day exploring and climbing them. Many statistics have consistently shown that today’s kids spend twice as much time time indoors than outdoors. The parks are awe-inspiring places to simply breathe in the fresh air and not be stuck in front of the TV or computer.
Most of the National Parks and Monuments can be reached from anywhere throughout the country. Some may require day or weekend trip while others a long road trip. Most are open year round. Some parks can even be magical during winter. Winter times allow us to drive to areas only served by shuttle buses in the summer. Sometimes the snow and cold makes it a winter wonderland and having some places all to ourselves.
Our favorite times to visit have been Spring and Fall. There are less crowds and we can fully enjoy the trails and the attractions. Spring is the best time to view the waterfalls and the multi-colored leaves are incredible in many parks during the Fall.
Unfortunately, I still know too many friends and family who haven’t even taken their kids to a nearby National Park. I hope this is the year that some will take the time to visit one near them. We just bought our annual pass so there will be more visits to these national treasures and we can hardly wait.
*Do you have a favorite National Park or National Monument to visit?