America's National Parks

Kim Moldofsky is the publisher of The Maker Mom and STEM Kids Chicago.

“It’s like Disneyland for adults,” the man next to me said to his friends as we all took in the stunning, surreal views of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. I involuntarily furrowed my brow. “Why,” I wondered, “can’t this be like a theme park for kids, too?” I surveyed small geysers of steamy water bubbling up and trickling over travertine, a mineral-rich natural staircase of limestone steps. Millennia of calcium carbonate deposits have created white mineral trails and a breeding ground for orange microbes, giving the area an otherworldly feel. The pungent stench of sulfur and other gases permeated the air. Admittedly, it looked and smelled like something that clever Imagineers might have dreamed up.

To be clear, I’ve enjoyed my share of theme park vacations and their reality-bending recreations of natural wonders. But America’s national parks are the real deal. My family’s recent trip to Yellowstone National Park was part of a grand vacation that included visits to Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, the National Grasslands Visitors Center and several other properties of the National Park Service. We had an amazing adventure full of stunning vistas, unexpected wildlife encounters, interesting geographic features, twisty mountain roads and way more uphill climbs per day than us Midwesterners are used to.

What’s Great about National Parks?


Wild Animals in the Wild

I’ve written about my discomfort watching anxious caged animals in zoos. At Yellowstone, we observed free range bison, wolves, bears, sheep, elk, hawks, and owls as we criss-crossed the park. Even as we followed park rules, we sometimes unintentionally got a bit closer to the wildlife than expected, like when a small herd of bison made their way through a parking lot onto a paved path right next to us, leaving few opportunities to get out of the way. (The moment quickly turned from awww to argh! as the herd moved from a lazy walk to an agitated trot.) Or the time a black bear passed by our picnic area and pounced on a meal of his own just a few dozen yards away. Happily, the meal was a ground squirrel and not a member of my family.


History Comes to Life

Admittedly, I love learning about biology and other natural sciences. But there are many national parks dedicated to history. Even there, a STEM advocate can always find something to satisfy herself. For example, on our tour of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility at the Minute Man Missile Historic Site, in addition to learning about the Cold War, we saw how technology has evolved as the ranger pointed out the bulky old control systems that had less computing power than we now carry around on our pocket-sized cell phones. (I highly recommend this unique tour. Reservations are required for this popular tour and must be made 90 days ahead of time.)


Great Value

Many parks have no entrance fees. In fact, nearly 70% don’t charge admission. Even when they do, those fees are a lot friendlier to the family budget than theme park passes. Week-long national park passes are typically $20-$35 dollars per car and allow unlimited in-and-out privileges.


Free Days

Even the parks that charge fees occasionally relent by offering free entrance days throughout the year. Remaining free days in 2017 include:

  • National Park Service Birthday, August 25
  • National Public Lands Day, September 30
  • Veterans Day Weekend, November 11-12

Also, through the Every Kid in a Park Program, with help from parents and educators, 4th graders across the country can earn a pass to gain free family entry to all national parks through August 31, 2017.


Park Perks

Admission fees not only get you into the parks but also include extras like visitor centers, interpretive exhibits, guided hikes and maybe even a well-produced feature film. And because parks are often found in out-of-the-way rural areas, it’s worth noting that they also provide clean, (if sparse or primitive) restrooms in most cases. One of my favorite perks is the Junior Ranger program available at many parks. Children under the age of 12 who aspire to the position are given a series of tasks designed to help them learn about the park’s outstanding features. After completing the challenges, they are sworn in with a vow to explore, learn and protect.

Something for Everyone

Whether you’re guided by location, natural features, history or adventure, there’s a national park that’s perfect for you. Find the right one(s) here.

Virtual Visit

Maybe a trip to a national park isn’t in the cards for you this summer, but you can follow along with the fun via webcams. And your kids can earn a limited number of Junior Ranger badges right from your home or classroom