5 Ways to Celebrate the National Park Service

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One of my favorite photos of my boys. Grand Canyon view from the Bright Angel Trail, July 2014. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.
One of my favorite photos of my boys. The Grand Canyon view from the Bright Angel Trail, July 2014. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.

My name is Patricia, and I am a U.S. national park addict.

“Hi Patricia!”

I thoroughly enjoy visiting national parks, and I’ve slowly been working my way through as many as my feet or wheels will allow. I’ve been to over a dozen in my life, and my bucket list has many many more, including several in the western United States. I’d visited several as a kid, and several more before I had children of my own. But now with my sons entering their teen years, I’m approaching visiting the national parks with a fresh perspective.

This August 25th marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service. It was established by the “Organic Act” of 1916, signed by then-President Woodrow Wilson. At the time the United States had 35 national parks. Today there are 59 national parks in the U.S., but over 400 additional areas that fall under the purview of the National Park Service. Such areas include the national monuments, such as the Washington Monument, national recreation areas, such as the Curecanti National Recreation Area near where I live in central Colorado, and national historic sites, such as the Golden Spike National Historic Site in northern Utah. The Park Service is responsible for maintaining all of this area and constantly is fighting for funding to maintain all of this land.

To celebrate the centennial, the National Park Service launched numerous events throughout their parks, historic sites, and recreation areas. Here are ways you can be part of the celebrations.

1. Visit a National Park Service location

This should go without saying, right? If you want to celebrate the parks, then visit a park. While some might be thinking, “But I don’t live near a national park,” don’t forget about the other locations that fall in NPS’s umbrella. Use this interactive map on the National Park Foundation’s website to help find a site near you for you and your friends and family to enjoy.

If you’re the parent of a 4th grader this academic year, you have almost no excuse to not check out several NPS sites. The Obama administration launched the Every Kid in a Park initiative for the 2015-2016 academic year: Students enrolled in 4th grade (or a homeschool equivalent) can register at the program website, answer questions—in the form of a game—about what things they’d like to see if they were given the chance to visit a national park. After answering the questions, they get to download a pass that allows admission for themselves and their families, into all National Park Service sites. Why do 4th graders get this program? According to the Every Kid in a Park website, studies have shown that children ages 9-11 are at ages where they show interest in the world around them. Fourth grade teachers also have a program where they can download passes for their students. It’s a downloadable paper pass; only hard copies of the passes are accepted, and this year’s passes are good through August 31, 2016. This summer, rising 4th graders will have the chance to download their own passes.

In addition to the Every Kid in a Park initiative, there are other populations who receive free or reduced admission to National Park Service sites. Click the included links for more information. The America the Beautiful Access Pass is a lifetime pass for free admission for permanently disabled Americans and up to three adult guests (children under 16 are always free with adults). There is also a Military Pass that allows free admission for one year to the passholder and three adult guests. Finally, the Senior Pass is a $10 lifetime pass that includes discounts for other NPS amenities, such as camping and guided tours.

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From our family’s summer 2014 national park extravaganza. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer

One of our awesome GeekDads, Kishore Hari, did a lot of the work last year of coming up with ways to geek out a national park visit. Our family has done many of these things (junior rangers, LARPing, to name a couple) and I can attest that they’re a lot of fun and you can sneak in a ton of education at the same time.

2. Can’t Visit a National Park Site? Check Out the Virtual National Park Tours

Maybe you can’t get away to visit a national park. That’s okay. The NPS has a fantastic YouTube channel that offers behind-the-scenes looks at the parks, as well as some insights into the park operations. I’ve personally gone down many-a-rabbit-hole watching interviews with historians, park rangers, and park guests, as well as admiring the scenery. Are you planning a big trip soon? This is a way to get you and your family excited for the trip.

Do you have preschoolers? Then be sure to find the NPS YouTube series featuring our favorites from Sesame Street!

GeekDad Kishore recommended the 58NationalParks YouTube channel, which offers 5-10 minute videos about each of the major national parks, complete in 1080p high definition quality. Here’s one of the videos about one of the parks I recently visited, Arches National Park.

3. Get More Involved With the National Parks…at the Local Level

No, I don’t mean that you need to drop everything and become a park ranger, although I think that would be one of the coolest jobs ever! But perhaps you can find ways to get involved in improving and preserving natural and historical land in your local community. You can start by becoming aware of legislation at the federal, state, and local levels and determine whether it needs your support. The National Park Service Centennial Act of 2016 is a bill currently in Congress that requests funding and tax incentives in celebration of the Centennial celebration. This bill is at the committee level as of this writing, but you can keep up the status of the bill here. Contact your elected representatives if you want to show your support (or non-support, as the case may be.)

Locally, you can get involved with one of the NPS’s partner organizations. In our family, we have spent time working with national parks and national historic sites through our involvement with the Boy Scouts of America, one of the youth partner organizations. Other partner organizations include the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (APCWS), and Americorps.

What does this involvement entail? Frankly, the spectrum is pretty wide. While you could actively be in the parks themselves making improvements, there are other things that need to be done to help these organizations. Being a mentor for youth programs is always welcome, and help might be needed in areas that can take advantage of your talents, such as with computer support, bookkeeping, or project management.

4. Donate to the National Parks Foundation…or Any Other Charity That Supports the National Parks

Ideally, we want to rely on tax-revenue to keep the National Park Service operating. The grim reality is that there are many things that the NPS simply has to forgo in order to keep mission-critical parts of the parks and sites surviving. The National Parks Foundation is the National Park Service’s official charity. If you feel passionately about the NPS’s mission, this is a great place to donate.

But don’t feel constrained to the National Parks Foundation. By donating to partner organizations, the parts of the mission that have direct impact on the NPS’s entities could see benefits.

5. Inspire America’s Youth to Love National Park Service Sites

This one is near and dear to my heart. I want my sons to enjoy America’s rich natural resources and historical preservations. I personally feel that visiting parks and historical sites offers a better science and history lesson than what can be offered in the classroom. Even without visiting a national park, it’s easy to incorporate videos and images from the parks into descriptions of everyday life.

Do you want to discuss waterfalls? Show scenes from Olympic National Park. Do you want to talk about glaciers, how about scenes from Denali National Park? Wildlife? Rocky Mountain National Park has a complete website about animal life in the park.

My then-9-year-old son showing off his newest National Park Service Junior Ranger badge. He has several. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
My then-9-year-old son showing off his newest National Park Service Junior Ranger badge. He has several. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Programs such as the Junior Ranger program and the Passports program help inspire people to visit as many of the parks as possible. And who doesn’t love the bragging rights that comes with collecting as many Junior Ranger pins and passport stamps as possible?

Do you have plans to visit any National Park Service sites soon? Tell us all about it!