One of the unique icons of America is its national parks – beautiful, historic, and usually expansive swaths of protected land for everyone to explore and enjoy. This summer is the centennial anniversary (the official date is August 26) of the creation of the U.S. National Park Service, thanks to a law enacted by President Woodrow Wilson.

Today, there are more than 400 areas designated as national parks including historic sites, recreation areas, monuments, lakeshores, battlefields, seashores, and scenic rivers, and trails. Each is a family-friendly destination – but without the marketing budget of Disney World. Only the 127 national parks out of the more than 400 national park service areas charge entrance fees, while historic sites, recreation areas, monuments, etc. are always free. The National Park Service schedules free admission days to the national parks throughout the year, and it will celebrate its birthday week by providing free admission August 25 through 28.

Start planning your trip by visiting the National Park Service website (nps.gov), which has webpages for every official area within the national park system. It provides extensive information, including a “Plan Your Visit” page and links to learn about each park’s history, visitor centers, interpretative and junior ranger programs, and camping and recreation opportunities. The National Park Foundation website (nationalparks.org) is also helpful. Consider starting with these national parks, historic sites, and recreation areas located within and around the Northwest.

  • Glacier National Park – West Glacier
  • Yellowstone National Park – Wyoming
  • Mount Rainier National Park – West-Central Washington
  • Olympic National Park – Port Angeles, Washington
  • Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area – Coulee Dam, Washington
  • Whitman Mission National Historic Site – Walla Walla, Washington
  • Nez Perce National Historical Park – Lapwai, Idaho
  • Minidoka National Historic Site and Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument that includes part of the Oregon National Historic Trail – both near Hagerman and Twin Falls, Idaho
  • Lewis and Clark National Historical Park – Astoria, Oregon
  • Fort Vancouver National Historic Site – Vancouver, Washington
  • Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve – Coupeville, Washington
  • San Juan Island National Historical Park – Puget Sound, Washington

Tips for Families

  • Stay overnight inside the park whenever possible, whether it’s a campsite or lodge. In-park campgrounds often have evening presentations at outdoor amphitheaters and everyone is welcome.
  • use the free Junior Ranger programs to engage and educate your kids as you explore the park together.
  • Be prepared for variable weather, and be willing to venture beyond the visitor center. Come equipped with hiking shoes, backpacks, and first aid kit so you can explore trails and nature at a deeper level. If there is a lake, go swimming, boating, or paddling. Rental equipment or fee-based boat rides are often available.
  • Dine at a national park’s historic lodge and enjoy the beautiful architecture.
  • Provide children with an individual National Park Passport to collect one-of-a-kind ink-stamps available at every park they visit throughout their lifetimes. These will become nostalgic keepsakes when they’re older.
  • Be patient and friendly with the crowds and diversity of visitors. National parks attract tourists from around the world. Once you see how much foreign travelers adore America’s national parks, you’ll better appreciate what’s so close to home.

Educational Resources

  • IMAX film: “National Park Adventures” (nationalparksadventure.com) – download the free Educator Guide and printable map with activities. Though not scheduled to be at Spokane’s Riverfront Park IMAX Theater, it is now at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center IMAX.
  • PBS series: “The National Park: America’s Best Idea” (pbs.org/nationalparks)
  • Book: “59 Illustrated National Parks” by Joel Anderson and Nathan Anderson (includes original poster art). //

[Feature photo by Amy McCaffree]