For kids (and really, all of us), there’s not a lot about this year that’s normal. One constant? That the great outdoors is just as great as ever. And many federal and state parks and organizations are working on expanding inexpensive access for families.
Yes, we know, it’s cold and dark very early these days. If anything, though, that’s even more of a reason to be purposeful about getting outside, said Kate Siber, author of the recently released “50 Adventures in the 50 States,” a book all about kid-friendly expeditions.
This time of year, “you can almost get this sense that the world is closing in when you spend all this time inside,” Siber said, adding, “once you’re outside, you’re reminded that the world is a much bigger place than your mind would have you believe.”
If the claustrophobia of 10 months of staying home is getting to you, it’s time to bundle up and head out. Here’s how to do it and keep your already overstretched December budget intact.
The Every Kid Outdoors Program
Since 2015, all publicly accessible federal lands have been fee-free to fourth graders and their families, and in 2019, Congress reestablished the initiative as the Every Kid Outdoors Program.
According to Chelsea Sullivan, a National Park Service spokeswoman, the agency chose fourth graders based on research that showing this age was particularly receptive to learning about — and appreciating — nature.
“By focusing on this age group year after year, the program aims to ensure every child in the United States has the opportunity to visit their federal lands and waters by the time he or she is 11 years old, thereby establishing a lifelong connection to enjoy and protect our American outdoor heritage,” she wrote in an email.
To participate, children can log on to everykidoutdoors.gov and complete a short, interactive activity. Parents can download and print the parks pass. Passes are good at more than 2,000 sites managed by the Interior Department, Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In October, the Interior Department temporarily expanded the Every Kid program to fifth graders, since many parks closed during spring lockdowns.
Parks for the Rest of Us
If you don’t have a fourth or fifth grader, there are still plenty of options for getting into national parks or recreational areas mostly free of charge. While Yellowstone National Park and other “crown jewel” areas of the National Park Service have hefty car entrance fees, lesser-known sites, like Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida and the Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma, are free — with the bonus of drawing fewer crowds. Check the Park Service website for fees and operating hours; some parks or facilities may be closed because of the coronavirus.
In 2021, there will also be six days when areas managed by the National Park Service are free for everyone. Find the list on the agency website.
Many state parks also offer children no-cost entry or, like New York, honor the Every Kid pass. Dan Keefe, a New York state parks spokesman, added that in wintertime, many parks stop charging for parking, making this the perfect season for getting out.
Other states have low entry fees: In Maine, kids younger than 5 get in free to state parks, and children 5 to 11 are charged just $1. In Vermont, for children 4 to 13 it's just $2, and free for kids under 4.
Just Look Up
Siber, who lives in Durango, Colorado, makes a point to go outside each night to view the stars.
“Just about every night you can see the stars, but even if you can’t, you can still connect with the vastness of it all,” she said.
In a moment like this, knowing there’s more out there can be a comfort.
If your backyard is too urban for star watching, a short drive may deliver a rich buffet of planets and passing satellites. The International Dark Sky Association certifies dark sky parks and urban night sky places across the globe.
At many parks, like El Morro National Monument in New Mexico, there’s no entrance fee and no fee at night. Some, like Rappahannock County Park in Virginia, team with local astronomy clubs for free nighttime programs — though again, check before you head out.