In just a few weeks, the National Park Service will celebrate a birthday. Yes, the National Park Service turns 96 on August 25. As part of the celebration, all national parks will waive entrance fees and will offer lots of fun activities for families. As you begin to plan your outdoor adventure, here are 25 fun things you can do in our national parks.
1. Go on a Nature Scavenger Hunt. Give each child a paper bag or a bucket and a list of items to find on a hike in a national park, like a pine cone or a big flower. Add in a few items that relate to their senses, like something that smells good or something that is smooth.
2. Perfect Your Bird Calls. Grab the kids and your binoculars and notebook to prepare for a day of birding. Some national parks offer special birdwatching walks, while others offer resources with photos and descriptions of birds to be found in their parks.
3. Have a Breakfast Picnic. Put a new spin on the traditional picnic by having a breakfast picnic in a national park. Pack bagels and cream cheese, muffins, a fruit salad and a selection of cheeses for a delicious morning spread.
4. Go Horseback Riding. Many national parks offer guided horseback trail rides to help visitors experience the parks in a new way. The minimum age to ride is often six or seven, so make sure to inquire before you book a trail ride.
5. Take Flat Stanley on Your Adventures. Read a Flat Stanley book with your kids and then create your own Flat Stanley to take along with you as you visit a national park. Take pictures and print them out to create a photo album.
6. Collect Leaves. Explore the forest as a family and collect leaves of all different types. When you get back home, have your kids place a piece of paper over their favorites and make leaf rubbings using crayons.
7. Pick Up Trash in Our Parks. Let’s keep our national parks beautiful. If you see an empty bottle or a candy bar wrapper in the parks, pick it up and throw it away or recycle it if you can. Better, grab some family and friends and have a clean the park day. Celebrate with a picnic.
8. Cast a Fishing Line. Grab your fishing gear and head out with your little ones for a day on the lake. Make note that some national parks require a fishing license and most have regulations regarding fish quantity and catch size.
9. Go Stargazing. Many national parks offer stargazing programs to help visitors learn about the constellations that can be seen in the night sky. On-site telescopes are often available to help kids see the moon, the stars and meteor showers.
10. Become a Junior Park Ranger. Most national parks offer a Junior Ranger program, enabling kids to learn about the park while completing a series of educational and observational activities. Upon completion, children receive an official badge or patch from a ranger.
11. Take a Ranger-Led Tour. Ask about ranger-led activities at the visitors center, like day hikes and evening nature walks. Bring water, bug spray and sturdy shoes, and get ready to learn the ins and outs of the park.
12. Splash in a Waterfall. Before you visit a national park, scout out the waterfalls in advance. One of the best rewards after a long hike is to splash in a cold waterfall, so pick a park with a few waterfalls to choose from and wear your swimsuit.
13. Stop at Scenic Overlooks. Many national parks enable you to take a nice drive through the park and stop at scenic overlooks throughout the park for panoramic views of nature around you. Often, you can pick up a map or guide in the visitors center that will point out the not-to-be-missed overlooks.
14. Hunt for Fossils. Some national parks, like Glacier National Park in Montana, are home to amazing fossils and cultural artifacts. Hunting for fossils is a great way to explore Earth’s past as you and your kids think about how life has changed on our planet.
15. Look for EarthCache Sites. Grab a GPS device, a park map and a compass, then look for EarthCache sites, which teach visitors about the geological significance of certain sites within the park. EarthCache sites also teach your kids important skills, like navigation and map reading.
16. Canoe Down a River: Get out on a lake at a national park for an afternoon of canoeing. Teach your kids how to hold a paddle and paddle in tandem with you and you’ll be on your way. As kids grow older, it’s a perfect opportunity to teach them about the different canoe strokes.
17. Go on a Photography Walk. Some national parks offer free walks to take photos of nature within the park. Or, just grab your camera or smartphone and start taking pictures of everything interesting that you and your kids see.
18. Get Your Passport Stamped. Through the Passport to Your National Parks program, your kids can get their passport books stamped at national parks across the country. Each stamp records the date of the visit and the name of the national park. Order a passport book online or buy one at many parks.
19. Take a Nature Hike. Grab your backpacks and hike a park trail with a waterfall or lake. Caves and hollowed out trees are also fun to check out on hikes. Bring water and protein-rich snacks to keep energy levels high.
20. Hunt for Animal Tracks. On a hike through a national park, you’re likely to find animal tracks all around if you look closely. Bring along a take-along guide, like Tracks, Scats and Signs, and become nature detectives as you learn how to spot and identify clues and tracks that animals leave behind.
21. Ride in a Kayak. Many parks offer guided kayak tours or allow you to take a kayak out onto their waters. Ask about best places to kayak at the visitors center. Calm waters with minimal currents are best, and don’t forget your life vest.
22. Go Rock Climbing. Some national parks, like Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, offer climbing schools with world-class guides. It’s easy to do rock climbing inside too, which is a great way to practice before giving it a go outside.
23. Visit a Nature Center. There’s much to learn about animals and ecosystems at nature centers inside national parks. Take time to speak with an interpretive naturalist to find out more about wildlife programs and environmental education.
24. Watch the Sunset. Take a late afternoon hike through a national park with the kids. Head to the top of the nearest mountain and wait for the sun to set. Bring snacks in case you need to wait a while. Be sure to snap some photos to remember the day.
25. Ride a Bike. Some parks have miles and miles of paved bike trails. At some parks, like Yosemite National Park, you can even rent a bike for the day. Don’t forget to wear your helmet.
Need more? Here are 20 really cool Things Your Kids Can Do in National Parks!
Photo Credits: vastateparksstaff (horseback riding), RichardBH (canoeing), GlacierNPS (waterfall), Denise (animal tracks), vastateparksstaff (fishing), Jeff Muceus (sunset), Don Graham (national park)