The National Park Service has once again announced its Fee Free dates for the year. In the spirit of celebrating its centennial year, there are 16 free days this year, including a spring stretch perfect for family getaways. Although you can head into the National Parks anytime, having set dates to visit is always helpful when you are trying to wrangle kids, but which parks should you visit and when? How’s the weather? Which are the best for babies and toddlers? Where can you challenge your teenager to push just a little bit more, take the ear buds out, and communicate with you? We’ve got a few ideas to get you started, the weather being the biggest factor.
2016 Fee Free Dates
- January 18: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
- April 16 through 24: National Park Week
- August 25 through 28: National Park Service Birthday
- September 24: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
According to NPS.gov, the national park system "includes 409 areas covering more than 84 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. These areas include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House." That is a lot to take in, but keep in mind not all require an entry fee. Stick to the fee-based National Parks on the fee free days; maximize your time and your money at each of them.
January 18 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Death Valley may sound like a silly idea in the dead of winter, but it would be even worse in the summer. The summer months can throw sweltering 120 degrees in your face, while winter temperatures tend to average in the 60's at Furnace Creek, but will be in the 40's and 50's up in the mountains during the day, dropping below freezing at night. Winter temperatures are ideal for low-elevation hikes and access to the salt flats, an area that is more dangerous due to the excessive heat the park can get in the spring, summer, and autumn.
April 16 through 24: National Park Week
A trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the perfect excuse to escape the chilly spring temperatures many people see on the mainland. Head down to the islands to warm up and see one of our nation’s most spectacular sights in action. Views of the Crater are easy for families with babies and toddlers to see. Short hikes through the Thurston Lava Tubes are just the right size for tired parents and toddlers. Check with the park rangers to see if there are any easily accessible lava flows at the time of your visit, although be prepared for disappointment or opt for a boat or helicopter ride that can more easily show you the latest lava action.
August 25 through 28: National Park Service Birthday
Mount Rainier is never the same from year to year. One year you may see a field of wild flowers at Glacier Point on Mount Rainier, while the next year you will see a meadow in all its almost-autumn color glory. Throwing a few snowballs while you are wearing shorts can be a highlight for kids as well, and it doesn’t require a lot of hiking. The end of August is when the Lodge is beginning to wind down its season, so it’s a popular place to visit but well worth the drive.
September 24: National Public Lands Day
Yosemite National Park has been pretty dry in the autumn thanks to the drought that has held on to California for the past few years. Yosemite Falls might be nothing more than a trickle, if that, but you are guaranteed some wildlife sightings at this time of year. Rutting season for the local deer brings out the bucks, and if you are lucky, you might just see a bear, hopefully from very far away. Rent bikes to peddle around the valley, which will not only allow you to see more than you could by car, but will save your kid’s legs from whining at you too much. Park your bikes to take hikes to various waterfalls and viewpoints, instead of trekking to each one on foot.
November 11 – Veterans Day
Autumn colors burst through Zion National Park, complimenting the saturated tones of the sandstone in this area even more. The hike to the mouth of the Narrows is easy enough for toddlers, and beautiful enough to keep your sulky teenager moving forward. November keeps the temperatures cooler than usual, so you can make the climb up to the Emerald pools, or tackle a longer climb even with a baby on your back. Pack plenty of water though; this is the desert and it will remind you often to drink. The bus system through the park makes it easy to see a lot in one day, but do yourself a favor and spend the whole weekend. There is always more to see and do in Zion.
What are some of your favorite National Parks?
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