How to Get Exploring with a FREE National Park Pass

One of my resolutions for 2018 is to take advantage of more opportunities available to us as military families. I’m so grateful for discounted travel resources which help us stretch our budget and open doors to explore places we might not have otherwise. First up: the America the Beautiful Annual National Park Pass – military edition. This is an $80 value (and is renewable!) offered for free to military members and dependents. This includes active duty as well as the Reserve and National Guard members.

The National Park Service (NPS) manages 58 national parks in the United States in addition to preserves, historical landmarks, trails, and more. The annual pass will grant you access to over 2,000 parks across the nation!

How do you get it? Most parks that have an entrance fee can offer this pass at the gate. It only takes a minute and you will need your military issued ID. You’ll receive a card with two signature spots (one for the military member, one for spouse). Present the card with your ID and anyone in your vehicle will be granted admission for free.

According to the NPS website, the Act of March 1, 1872, established Yellowstone National Park, “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.

The National Park System of the United States now comprises more than 400 areas covering more than 84 million acres in 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands.” (Read more NPS History here!)

If you’re anything like me, you get this idea that visiting a national park or two would make great family vacation…and then hop online and get overwhelmed as you begin your search.

Planning any vacation can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.

I created a free download for you, to help walk you through the initial vacation planning stages. Knowing your budget, time line, and what you enjoy doing (and what you don’t) will help focus your planning.

Once you have a time line and budget, it’s time to explore locations. Start at the park finder map. Click on the advanced search setting to explore by state, activity, and/or topic.

This spring, when my son has a long weekend from school, we want to go exploring. To start my planning, I combine Google maps with the park finder to search within half of a day’s drive (5-6 hours) of our home. Once I have a list of a handful of places within our driving limit, I start narrowing the locations by personal preference (weather, activities, and topics we enjoy exploring, etc.).

Maybe you have a longer time available or can fly. If so, you can increase your radius considerably. This might be where your budget for flying is your limiting factor. In this case, consider choosing a few broad locations or parks based on activities or topics such as military, animals, geology (and a host of other interests), and then narrow by flight prices.

To narrow by flight prices, try using Google flights. Pop in dates and locations and you will quickly start to see which locations might be in or out of your budget.

Once you determine which park to visit, that’s when the real fun begins. Maybe you’re not much of a camper and prefer running water (ahem, that’s me. I’d also like to pack my Instant Pot.).

To choose lodging, I use TripAdvisor, Armed Forces Vacation Club, AirBNB, VRBO (or other sites that allow you to read reviews). Don’t forget to check for nearby military facilities for lodging (call for availability, their website is challenging)!

Maybe you’re not quite convinced that the National Park Service is something you want to tackle. Hear me out for one more example.

We love visiting Hawaii (and it’s a fantastic trip to do on a military budget!). My husband and I have both been there multiple times but always to Oahu because, honestly, we love it.

This year, we purposely booked our flight home from the island of Hawaii (Big Island) so we would have no choice but to visit, plus it was the least expensive option (see – my limiting factor at work!).

This was the best vacation planning decision we made.

I knew nothing about the Big Island. But it only took a minute of research for me to realize that Volcanoes National Park was there.

We don’t plan a hard and fast itinerary, but we always have a few key anchoring points. For us, volcanoes were it. Oh what a dream!

Once we anchored on volcanoes, we booked a cabin at Kilauea Military Camp which was like stepping back in time; it was charming and located right on the national park grounds.

Kilauea Military Camp

I was concerned that we wouldn’t get to see much because our son is young and many of the hikes were very long and strenuous. It was so worth it. We checked in at dusk, and as we unloaded we noticed an orange glow. As it turned out, we were just a mile from the crater.

Among the highlights, we saw lava splash at the top of the Kilauea crater. We hiked and explored a lava tube. We saw lava fields. And more. That’s for another post.

Exploring one of the island’s active volcanoes was an incredible privilege that we could afford because of my husband’s military service. That blows my mind.

These national treasures are worth making time for. You don’t have to be a backpacker who doesn’t need a real toilet to enjoy these wonders! You also don’t need a huge budget. From backpackers to city dwellers, national parks are for the enjoyment of everyone.

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About Jolene McNutt

Jolene McNutt is a writer, editor, and graphic designer. She co-owns a business with her retired teacher dad creating hands-on resources for elementary and middle school teachers. Jolene has been married to her extroverted husband, Phil, for nine years. Phil is serving as part of the Active Duty Guard Reserve (AGR) in the Wisconsin Army National Guard - possibly the best kept secret in the Army! They have a six-year-old son, Finn, and a 90-pound lap dog, Odin. Jolene enjoys traveling, reading, and making allergy friendly recipes for Finn. Despite her introverted nature, Jolene loves hosting friends and family. Find her on Instagram @jolenemichelle1.

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