How to Enjoy Our National Parks with Children

Shanti Hodges Bryce Canyon

Did you know August 25, 2016 marks 100 years since the National Parks were established? If you’ve ever thought about getting an Annual Park Pass, there’s no better time than when you have a new little one. With over 2,000 locations across the US, it’s not hard to find family-friendly adventures.


My husband and I bought our first Annual Park Pass right after Mason was born. We vowed we wouldn’t change our active lifestyle post-baby. Yes, people always say this, but we made our first trip to Denali when Mason was just 3 months old. Tourist season was ending and it was a little chilly, so down jackets and a baby bunting were needed to protect us against the wind, but it was beautiful. Pre-child we may have backpacked out into a little of the 6-million acres of tundra for a night or two, but we didn’t think this was the wisest with a newborn. We opted to take the all-day park bus instead and hotel it at night.

Sitting in the bus was a perfect beginning to our National Park Adventures. Looking out at huge grizzly bears from behind glass and taking a few little hikes on the trails around the various stopping points felt just adventurous enough to remind us that we were still getting out there.


Shanti Hodges Denali2

Denali National Park in Alaska



From there we decided we wanted to get the most out of our National Park Pass in that first year, so we plotted out the next year of adventures. Much to our surprise, by the time Mason was two, we had visited Crater Lake (close to home), Yosemite (close to Great Grandma) and Olympic National Forest (Again, not too far from home). By 3, we had hit Arches, Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef National Monument (we made a 10 day trip out of this one), just to name a few of the more famous spots.

Shanti Hodges - Yosemite 2

Mason in his BOB at Yosemite National Park


Along the way, what we discovered through using our pass, was that we didn’t just need to look for the epic famous parks (which are often crowded and a bit Disneyland-esque), but that our annual pass worked on over 2,000 public lands around the country. All we had to do was dig a little deeper and look for other spots as we planned trips.


One great example of this was in our backyard. We live about 6 minutes over a bridge from Portland, OR to Vancouver, WA, which is where we found Ft. Vancouver; this is an incredibly cool historic fort in the middle of town. The park regularly has events and is a great place for toddlers to roam and explore safely. Without our park passes, we would pay $5 a person, but with our pass it’s free.

Shanti Hodges Capitol Reef

The boys at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah

Another great discovery was Capitol Reef National Monument. This is a little known National Monument that we would have probably passed by, but we were in Utah and had a park pass, so we stopped. We loved it. This park had a great old historic farmhouse complete with fresh strawberry rhubarb pie. The visitor center was a nice pit stop where we learned about the farmhouse. The woman working at the desk turned out to be third generation in the area, so she had great stories about the pioneers and she sent us out to the perfect toddler trail, which our son could easily hike. There were petroglyphs, natural stone arches and it was caterpillar hatching season, so as we walked along a boardwalk, it rained furry caterpillars much to our almost 3-year-old’s delight.


The Annual Park pass doesn’t just have to be for big adventures. These days when you hike, many parks require that you have a parking pass. The Annual Park pass serves as a parking pass on many federal lands throughout the US; we have often found this to be the case when we hike around Oregon on federal land, BLM land and U.S. Fish and Wildlife land. Be sure to check online before you go to confirm, or ask a ranger if you are on state or federal property.

Shanti Hodges Crater Lake

Crater Lake National Park in Oregon


The Annual Park Pass is $80, and allows you to enter the park with 4 adults in a car. Children under 16 are free. The proceeds from the passes go toward protecting the many beautiful spaces all across America, so our children will be able bring their little ones back someday.

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