Your 4th Grader Can Get You Into National Parks for Free

Here's why you should plan a national parks trip with your fourth grader.
child holding fourth grade national parks pass
(Photo: Christine Sarkis)

If you have a fourth grader, you’re lucky because they can get you into U.S. national parks for free. When my kids were just starting elementary school, someone told me about the National Parks’ Service Every Kid Outdoors program, which gives fourth graders (both those in school and homeschooled kids) access to a national parks pass. So when my first child started fourth grade we jumped at the chance and managed to go to three national parks in one year. 

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In typical second kid style, it took us a bit longer to get my daughter’s national parks pass this year. But for spring break, we went big with a trip to Grand Canyon National Park, where she exchanged her paper pass for a national parks card. On our way in, I asked her what animals she hoped to see and she said, “Well, I had hoped to see a moose, but then I learned there aren’t any in Grand Canyon so probably a mule.” The only moose we saw was a historical stuffed head in El Tovar’s (one of our top picks for iconic national park hotels) lobby, but we did see plenty of the canyon’s (alive and famous) mules.

My daughter getting her Every Kid Outdoors parks pass was a big moment—she’s been looking forward to taking the family to national parks during her fourth grade year since her older brother was in fourth. And to be able to have an excuse to focus on national park travel during a year when kids are generally in their golden age of family travel (old enough to be easy to travel with, young enough that they still want to hang out with their parents) makes it feel extra special.

Why fourth graders? The NPS says fourth graders (kids aged nine to 11) are starting to focus on the world around them at this age, and they’re at a great age to connect with nature and history. According to the program: “Over time, every kid can get a free pass to explore our country.” 

The pass is good for entry at national parks and most other nationally-recognized lands, including national monuments, wildlife refuges, and conservation areas. It covers all children under 16 in a family plus up to three adults for free. At parks that charge vehicle entrance fees (like Grand Canyon), everyone in a passenger vehicle gets in with the card. The pass doesn’t cover camping, boats, or special tours. It’s good through the school year and to August 31 of the summer after kids’ fourth grade year. 

looking out over the grand canyon from the South Rim's Bright Angel trail
(Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Realizing we weren’t limited to national parks, on our way back to Phoenix from Grand Canyon we stopped at Montezuma’s Castle National Monument and got in free, courtesy of my daughter and her national parks pass. 

It has become a family hobby to learn about other national parks we hope to visit this coming summer. We’re in discussions about whether Joshua Tree or Yellowstone will be our next stop. Wherever we decide, I love that we’ll be there nurturing our daughter’s connection to our beautiful public lands, and that the entry will be free.

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Christine Sarkis
A traveling parent and longtime travel writer and editor, Christine Sarkis is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of FamilyVacationist. She is the former Executive Editor for TripAdvisor travel magazine, she has spent nearly two decades finding and sharing the best places to go with an audience of enthusiastic travelers. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, Here & Now, Life Kit, and California Now. Her stories have been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008, and she is working on a travel memoir. Christine and her husband first met in Paris, and travel remains a big part of their shared experience. With their two kids in tow, they have piloted a barge down canals in France, befriended llamas in Peru, tended olive trees in Italy, and gone snorkeling with sea turtles in Hawaii. The family lives in California and loves traveling around the state. Their California favorites include Yosemite National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and the West Shore of Lake Tahoe.