There’s no doubt about it: our national parks are very special places. And they’re worth experiencing, no matter how old or young you may be.
That said, there’s something particularly magical about getting out into nature at an age where you’re young enough to still have a healthy sense of wonder, but also old enough to understand exactly how important it is to be good stewards of the environment. For kids who are about 9-11 years old, being outside is the perfect place to combine education with entertainment, which is exactly why the National Park Service has set up the Every Kid in a Park program, which offers 4th graders a free national parks pass for the entirety of the academic year.
While this pass is only one of the many ways the NPS encourages outdoor engagement amongst kids, it’s an important and often overlooked one! In this post, we’ll go over everything you need to know about the Every Kid in a Park pass in 2019, as well as some of the other important ways you and your family can take advantage of everything our national park system has to offer.
4th Grade National Park Pass
So, how exactly does this special program work?
It’s both simple and awesome, especially if you’re already familiar with the America the Beautiful pass system. If you’re not, here’s the skinny: America the Beautiful passes get the holder a whole year of access to every NPS-managed property in the country, including not only the 61 national parks but also national monuments, battlefields, and historical sites — they’re available at a full price of $80 to the public at large and to certain demographics at a reduced cost.
Because of the importance of educating the next generation about the great outdoors, fourth graders count amongst those special demographics… and the 4th grade park pass is available to any 4th grade student for the entirety of the academic year, including the following summer (August-September). The pass gets the holder into all parks free of charge, though families may still be responsible for additional costs like camping fees or park facilities.
The fourth grade national park pass covers entrance to Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service sites that charge Entrance Fees, and Standard Amenity Fees at Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management. Along with the pass holder, up to three accompanying adults aged 16 or older may enter the park property, along with their standard, non-commercial vehicle.
Every Kid in a Park Pass: Fine Print
As you can see, the 4th grade free national parks pass is pretty darn useful. In fact, you may be wondering if there’s some kind of catch.
Fortunately, there’s not: it really is open to every U.S. fourth grader, and it’s totally free! However, there are a few finer points you’ll probably want to be aware of.
To receive your Every Kid in a Park pass, your voucher must be printed — no digital versions of the voucher displayed on smartphones or tablets will be accepted. You can obtain the paper voucher at the Every Kid in a Park website, which also offers complete information and details.
Homeschooling? No problem! Non-standard students who are home schooled or part of a free-choice learning program are also eligible for the pass at the age of 10, and educators can get involved, as well. However, it’s important to note that the pass is non-transferrable, and covers only the pass-holder and the people in the same vehicle with them. (Thus, if your party is spread across multiple vehicles, an entry fee may apply.)
Unfortunately, stolen or lost passes can’t be replaced — you’ll need to reprint the voucher off the website after completing the required activities over again.
Finally, as noted above, don’t forget that additional fees can apply even with waived park entry. Here’s the official verbiage from the National Park Service itself:
“The Pass does not cover Expanded Amenity fees such as camping, boat launching, parking, special tours, special permits or ferries. Also, some facilities and activities on Federal recreation lands (including those mentioned above) are managed by private concessionaires. The concessionaires charge for their services as any private company does and the Pass is not valid for their services.”
National Parks to Visit in Fourth Grade
If your kid is eligible for this special pass, you may be champing at the bit to figure out where to go first. While any wilderness area can be ripe for adventure and learning, some spots are especially fascinating and filled with fun explorations for school-aged children. Here are a few not to miss.
Bandelier National Monument
Although it doesn’t have national park status (yet?), this northern New Mexico national monument is home to some of the oldest indigenous ruins in the country. What’s more, to access them, you’ll meander along a fun and challenging trail that includes several wooden ladders requiring hand-over-foot climbing. It may be tiresome for mom and dad (or anyone who’s afraid of heights), but kids will absolutely love it!
Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon makes everyone feel small — so it follows that it’s even grander when you yourself are smaller! Give your kid the gift of experiencing this once-in-a-lifetime park multiple times throughout their lives, starting now.
Arches National Park
It’s uber-popular (and uber-crowded) for a reason — and it’s also chock-a-block full of relatively easy, family-friendly hikes your fourth grader won’t complain about. If you want the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
The east coast isn’t known for its multiplicity of national parks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any NPS-managed locations to explore along the eastern seaboard. And this one is tucked into a town that’s already well worth visiting for those looking for an educational youth experience: Saint Augustine is the oldest continually-run European settlement in the country. (It just doesn’t have the fame of Plymouth or Jamestown since it was Spanish rather than British.)
Either way, the Castillo is full of history and mystery… and if your ask the right tour guides, ghosts, too. Enjoy!
More Ways to Get Your Kids Involved with the National Parks
No matter which NPS-managed sites you prioritize, and even if your kid isn’t quite eligible for this special fourth-grade pass opportunity, there are plenty of ways to ensure your family stay active, educated, and engaged with the great outdoors, particularly in the national parks.
For one thing, there’s the Junior Ranger program, which offers a suite of fun and information-filled activities for young explorers to complete at the majority of the NPS-managed locations in the U.S. Junior Rangers who successfully complete a given park’s requirements are sworn in, making an oath to respect and stay educated about their environment, and receiving a special certificate and badge for their efforts.
Another fun way to keep the kids engaged with your national parks vacation is to invest in a national parks passport, which allows you to easily track the places you’ve been by collecting official cancellations, stamps, and stickers. Various regions are color-coded, allowing you to meander through the country at your own pace, and the passport makes a fun, affordable, portable memento that can be passed down to future generations (or simply used to look back on your journeys for a lifetime to come).
For campers across the age and education spectrum, traveling in an RV is the ideal way to combine the freedom of the open road with the comfort and luxury of having your own private space — and when you’re traveling with a preteen, you’ll love the ability to get a little bit more leg room and privacy. Class C motorhomes are especially useful for families traveling with older children, since the over-cockpit “attic” space makes for a great children’s bedroom.
Other options for those traveling with larger families include Class A motorhomes and fifth-wheel travel trailers, both of which offer extended living space and multiple sleeping surfaces to accommodate everyone in the camping party. RV camping also has the added benefit of allowing you to cook meals on the road, which can help you keep your family healthy and happy while also keeping you from spending your entire travel budget on a ton of restaurant meals. (That way, you’ll have plenty of cash left over for those national park bumper stickers you’re collecting!)
It’s never too early to get outside — so enjoy your time in this beautiful country of ours, campers!
This post may contain affiliate links.