Since today is the first day of National Parks Week, and since our family just returned from a 2-week road trip that included stops at four national parks, this seems the perfect time to share my brand new 50 National Parks Bucket List.
Our family has only seen 17 of the 50 parks listed (so far). But we’re committed to marking another 15-20 off our bucket list in the next few years. Hopefully before the last of our children leave home. The national parks in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands may take us a little longer to get to, but we’re going to tackle as many parks in the contiguous states as we can.
Mind you, I limited our bucket list to national parks only. There wasn’t room for all national monuments, memorials, battlefields, and historical sites. That’s a different list for a different day 😊
Nor is this even an exhaustive list of all the parks. There are lots more! I simply chose 50 of the most beautiful and popular.
Download your bucket list below, then keep reading for more great tips on…
- How to save money on National Park admission fees
- What to bring with you when you go
- Why our family loves earning FREE badges through the Junior Ranger Program
- How to take memorable family vacations without breaking the bank
How to save money on National Park admission
There are several ways to enjoy the national parks for free. Some national parks offer free admission all the time, but more than 400 national parks charge an admission fee.
Fee Free Days
Every year, the National Park Service waives entry fees at all parks on the following Free Entrance Days:
- Martin Luther King Day (third Monday in January)
- The first day of National Parks Week (third Saturday in April)
- Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act (August 4)
- National Public Lands Day (fourth Saturday in September)
- Veterans Day (November 11)
The National Park Service offers free annual passes to:
- current members of all branches of the US military, along with their dependents
- US veterans
- Gold Star family members
You can apply for this free pass at any National Park that issues passes. Just bring your military ID with you. Or apply online by following this link (but I think there’s a $10 fee for doing it online).
Every Kid Outdoors Program
Every Kid Outdoors: If you happen to have a fourth-grader at home, they can earn an annual national park pass which grants free entry to them and everyone in their car for a full year. To download yours, log onto the National Parks Website, have your child answer three fun questions, and hit print.
You will need the physical copy to get into the park (a screen shot won’t suffice), but once you have that, you’re good to go! You’ll be able to exchange the paper pass for a more durable annual pass card as soon as you visit a park that charges entry fees.
Other National Park Passes
If you don’t have a fourth grader, a military ID, or a schedule that will allow you to visit, don’t despair. There are several other money-saving passes available.
- Access Pass – If you or a family member are permanently disabled, you may also qualify for a FREE lifetime pass
- Volunteer Pass – You can also earn a free annual pass by donating 250 hours of service with participating federal agencies. That’s a nice perk for volunteering, don’t you think?
- Senior Pass – If you are 62 years or older, you can purchase an annual senior pass for just $20, or a lifetime pass for $80. That’s a great deal for older families that love to travel.
- America the Beautiful Pass – If you don’t qualify for any of the free or discounted passes, you can still purchase a regular National Parks pass for $80/year. Depending upon which parks you see and how many people in your group, this will normally pay for itself in 2-3 visits.
- To peep the details on any of these passport programs, visit the National Parks Website.
What to bring when you go
Your time spent at the park will be much more pleasant if you come prepared. Here are the essentials you’ll want to have on hand:
- water bottles for all – guard against dehydration
- comfortable shoes – especially if you’ll be doing any hiking (experience talking)
- sunglasses – the glare in some regions is enough to give me a headache
- sunscreen – if you use it, or long sleeves and a hat to protect your skin otherwise
- snacks – energy bars, fruit, picnic lunch for when you get hungry
- jacket – even the desert gets cool after the sun sets
- specialty gear – depending on where you go and what you do, you may want swim suits, water shoes, snow shoes, swim masks, snorkels, sleds, etc.
- NPS passport book – if you or your kids collect stamps at all the national parks you visit, be sure to bring along whatever booklet you keep them in
Take advantage of the Junior Ranger program
Speaking of kids, be sure to stop by the visitor center before exploring the park. Most offer free “Junior Ranger” activity booklets your kids can fill out to earn free park badges or patches. They’ll learn a lot filling out the various pages and will have a free, collectible souvenir to show for their efforts.
More Travel Ideas for Families
If your family loves to go as much as mine does, check out my book Pack Up & Leave. It’s chockful of smart tips that will make your next family road trip or vacation more economical, educational, and memorable.
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