Everything You Need to Know About National Parks, Passes, and Programs!

Traveling to National Parks has become very special to us, even though we only visited our first National Park just a few years ago. To be honest, I was a little intimidated when I started my research and didn’t really know how my boys would enjoy it. After our first visit to one though, we were hooked! Now, it seems like ninety percent of our travels are centered around a National Park or a National Historic Site. In this post, I am including general National Park information, Jr. Ranger Program information, National Park pass information, Parks that require reservations, and our favorite National Park trips! I hope you find all of this information helpful in your travel planning!

National Parks – General Information

So, what exactly is a National Park? Simply put, a National Park is an area that has been set aside by the government for the preservation of the natural environment. Most National Parks have been deemed such for public recreation and enjoyment or because of its historical interest. I haven’t even come close to visiting every single National Park, but I can say that the ones we’ve explored have all been pretty extraordinary!

Yellowstone National Park became the first National Park in the United States in 1872. Today, there are 63 National Parks in 30 states. Yep that’s right, there are 20 states that don’t have a National Park, at least not yet. But there are so many sites across the US that are managed by the National Park Service, including National Monuments, Historic Sites, Memorials, and more.

Some National Parks do not require a fee to enter, but others charge up to $35 per vehicle. Usually, this fee allows you to enter the Park for up to seven consecutive days. National Monuments and Historic Sites typically cost less and may charge $10 per person or $20 per vehicle.

Entrance Fee-Free Days for 2023

  • Monday, January 16: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
  • Saturday, April 22: First day of National Park Week.
  • Friday, August 4: Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act.
  • Saturday, September 23: National Public Lands Day.
  • Saturday, November 11: Veterans Day.

There are also 16 National Parks that do not charge an entrance fee! I will definitely be adding some of these to our list soon. These are the National Parks that do not charge an entrance fee!

We have had the best time exploring National Parks and Historic Sites across the US! Like I mentioned before, I didn’t really know where to start when planning our first visit. But, I can tell you that the National Park website, National Park social media groups, National Park Visitor Centers, and Park Rangers offer a wealth of information and guidance! So, please don’t be intimidated to plan a visit. I am also happy to help, don’t hesitate to reach out directly to me if you have any questions or need recommendations.

Have You Heard About the Jr. Ranger Program?

These boys are Jr. Rangers!

This is one thing that I wish I would’ve known about before our first National Park visit. You probably don’t know this about me, but I have a big goal of one day becoming a Park Ranger! It will probably be after I retire, and it may even be more of a volunteer role, but it is a huge dream of mine. When I visit National Parks, you can often find me chatting it up with a Park Ranger, they fascinate me. So, when I learned that kids can participate in the Jr. Ranger Program, I hoped my boys would want to do this. To my delight, they did and they both received their first Jr. Ranger badge last summer in Grand Teton National Park!

Here they are being sworn in as Jr Rangers!

The Jr. Ranger Program allows kids to complete activities and tasks in a workbook, specific to the Park, during their visit. My boys are now 8 and 12, and so far they’ve been given the same book but might have a different number of tasks to complete based on their ages. At the Grand Tetons, different age ranges were labeled by a different animal and based on their age, the animal indicated the page in the booklet they needed to complete. At Carlsbad Caverns National Park, my 8 year old had to complete seven pages of his choice to receive his badge. The activities may include a Park scavenger hunt, writing a sentence about taking care of Parks, word searches or crossword puzzles, listening to a Ranger Led Discussion, etc. Once the required activities are complete, they turn in the workbook, review it with a Park Ranger, and then they are sworn in as Jr. Park Rangers! Not going to lie, I cried the first time my boys were sworn in! And lucky for me, they really enjoy doing this and love collecting new badges. So, the next time you visit a National Park, be sure to stop by the Visitor’s Center and request more information on the Jr. Ranger Program!

Reviewing his work at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Have You Heard About the Every Kid Outdoors National Park Pass?

The teacher in me is so excited to share about this amazing opportunity for elementary students in fourth grade! Did you know that with an Every Kid Outdoors Pass, fourth grade students can get into any National Park in the United State for FREE? And really, every person in the whole entire passenger vehicle gets in free, too!

He was so proud of his 4th grade pass!

My fourth grader was so eager to get his pass! We completed the information online and printed the confirmation page. Once we visited our first National Park with the printout, my fourth grader was given his very own National Park Pass! These passes are good from September 1st – August 31st! So, be sure to share this information with anyone that has an elementary student! Using my son’s pass we were able to visit Arches National Park, Cayonlands National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park for free!

Favorite National Park Trips

I won’t share too much information about every single National Park on my list, I don’t want to make this post too long. But I do want to share a couple photos and our Park highlights to spark your interest! I will include links to read my full blog post about each trip, which also includes information about where we stayed, where we ate, and what all we did!

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

  • Address: 1000 US Hwy 36 Estes Park, CO 80517                
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm
  • Phone: 970-586-1206
  • Entrance Fee: $35 per vehicle (pass good for 7 days)
  • Annual Visitors: 4.5 million
  • Best Time to Visit: November – April
Dream Lake in RMNP
Just some of the views along the hike to Emerald Lake in RMNP!

Our Rocky Mountain National Park favorites

  • Emerald Lake Hike (3.6 miles)
  • Alberta Falls Hike (1.6 miles)
  • Sprague Lake (0.5 mile loop)
  • Trail Ridge Road

Click here to read more about our family trip to RMNP.

Click here to read about my girls trip to RMNP!

Redwoods National & State Park, California

  • Address: 1111 Second St., Crescent City, CA 95531
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/redw/index.htm
  • Phone: 707-464-6101
  • Entrance Fee: Free Entrance
  • Annual Visitors: 700,000
  • Best Time to Visit: May – September
Stout Memorial Grove Trail in the Redwoods
My boys especially loved this Park!

Our Redwood Favorites

  • Humboldt State Park – Avenue of the Giants
  • Humboldt State Park – Tall Tree Grove
  • Jedidiah Smith State Park – Stout Memorial Grove
  • Nearby Crescent City Beach

Click here to read more about our trip to the Redwoods and beyond!

Arches National Park, Utah

  • Address: Hwy 191 (5 miles north of Moab)
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/arch/index.htm
  • Phone: 435 719-2299
  • Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle (pass good for 7 days)
  • Annual Visitors: 1.5 million
  • Best Time to Visit: April – May, September – October
Double Arch in Arches National Park
An example of the views on the trails and drive through the Park!

Arches National Park Favorites

  • Delicate Arch Hike (3 miles)
  • The Arches Scenic Drive (22 miles)
  • Double Arch (0.3 miles)
  • Windows Loop Trail (1 mile)

Click here to read more about our trip to Arches National Park!

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

It felt like we had this Park to ourselves!
The views are amazing!

Our Canyonlands National Park Favorites

  • Island in the Sky District
  • Mesa Arch Hike (0.5 miles)
  • Needles District
  • Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument
  • The nearby Dead Horse Point State Park

Click here to read more about our trip to Canyonlands National Park!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

  • Address: 727 Carlsbad Caverns Highway Carlsbad, NM 88220
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/cave/index.htm
  • Phone: 575 785-2232
  • Entrance Fee: Ages 16+ is $15.00
  • Annual Visitors: 300,000
  • Best Time to Visit: May – July and August – October
The Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The self guided tour through the caverns is out of this world!

Our Carlsbad Caverns National Park Favorites

  • Self-Guided Tour of the Big Room (2.5 Miles)
  • Natural Entrance into caverns, take the elevator back up
  • 7 mile drive to the caverns from the entrance area

Click here to read more about our trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park!

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

  • Address: 103 Headquarters Loop Moose, WY 83012
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/grte/index.htm
  • Phone: 307-739-3399
  • Entrance Fee: $35.00 per vehicle (pass good for 7 days)
  • Annual Visitors: 3.8 million
  • Best Time to Visit: June – July  
Every single place in this Park is stunning!
We had our first bear encounter on the trail in GTNP!

Our Grand Teton National Park Favorites

  • Jenny Lake area
  • Hidden Falls Tail (4.9 miles)
  • Phelps Lake Overlook Trail – bears in the area (2.0 miles)
  • Moose Ponds Trail (3.2 miles)

Click here to read more about our trip to Grand Teton National Park!

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

  • Address: 25216 Ben Reifel Road, Interior, SD 57750
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm
  • Phone: 605-433-5361
  • Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle (pass good for 7 days)
  • Annual Visitors: 1 million
  • Best Time to Visit: April – June, September – November
Just look at this view from my passenger window!
Notch Trail in Badlands National Park!

Our Badlands National Park Favorites:

  • Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) – 40 mile scenic drive
  • Window Trail Hike (quarter mile)
  • Notch Trail (1.3 miles)

Click here to read more about our trip to the Badlands and beyond!

Which Pass is Right For You?

I love this image directly from the National Park Service website. Hopefully this graphic will help you in deciding if a National Park pass is right for you!

I purchased the America the Beautiful Pass last January and we were able to use it to visit Grand Teton National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Helpful Websites

Timed-Entry Reservations for 2023

Some National Parks have implemented timed-entry reservations, especially during the busy summer months. These timed-entry reservations cannot be purchased onsite and must be purchased online before your visit. The reservations cost $2.00 per vehicle and then you must also pay the National Park fee when you arrive.

These are some of the National Parks that require timed-entry reservations:

Always check with the NPS website to see more information about the specific Park you plan to visit and if there are any reservations required or Alerts!

I hope you found this information helpful! If you’ve never visited a National Park, let this be your sign to plan that trip. And always remember, these Parks are for the benefit and enjoyment of the people! Happy Travels, my friends!