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Taking the Kids: Heading to a national park national park week (or any time)

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Content Agency on

Got the backpacks ready? You'll need them -- and comfortable hiking shoes-- during National Park Week, the annual event offering different daily activities and celebrations at parks and monuments around the country. April 20 kicks it off with National Junior Ranger Day & Entrance Fee-Free Day.

If you have a fourth-grader, your family can go free to national parks through the following August. Visit the Every Kid in a Park website. If you are traveling with grandparents, seniors aged 62 and over can get a $20 Annual Senior Pass or an $80 Lifetime Senior Pass that can get the whole family in one car in.

And the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands passes are a bargain too ($80 annually) -- giving you access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. One pass allows entrance to a driver and three adults in the car; kids 15 and under get in free. Passes are free for those with permanent disabilities and for members of the military and their dependents.

You can pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the visitor center -- some parks have different ones for different age groups. Kids can complete the activities while exploring the park and then get their badge before leaving. Encourage the kids to take a virtual tour before you visit to zero in on special ranger-led activities and areas of the park you want to visit. Also check out WebRangers..

Remember, you will find National Parks Rangers and Junior Ranger programs in cities too, like at the presidential monuments in Washington, D.C.

A national park is a great place to get the kids to put down their devices, especially because there likely won't be good Wi-Fi in many areas. How about a game of "I Spy" in the park? Have some fun games at the ready. How many different trees can you name? How many different colors of flowers do you see? (The National Audubon Society has kids' field guides to birds; National Geographic has a pocket guide to wildflowers and another to trees.) If you don't want to carry the guide, simply take pictures with your smartphone and then match them to those in the books when you get back.


An overwhelming 91 percent of families find the idea of an "unplugged" family vacation appealing, according to a new Family Vacation Survey from Alamo Rent A Car. They just have a hard time doing that with pressure to work on vacation and post photos on social media to show they are having fun.

Lonely Planet kids has just come out with America's National Parks to encourage kids to explore our 60 national parks, complete with which animals to spot (an Arizona toad at Zion National Park) and things to do (birdwatch at Big Bend National Park!)

I interviewed a lot of Maine kids who visit Acadia National Park for my latest Kid's Guide -- The Kid’s Guide to Acadia National Park -- and they have lots of suggestions for kids heading here and to other national parks.

-- "I always take some extra clothes when we go hiking, so if we find a place to swim I can put on dry clothes after and not have to keep hiking in wet shorts," suggested Frannie, 13, from Portland.


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