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Jul 052013
 July 5, 2013  Posted by  Recreation, Travel

National parks – “America’s Best Idea” – offer a wealth of free entertainment options. Admission is modest for what they have to offer (or you can wait for one of the National Park FREE days – the next one is Aug. 25). Even if you pay to get in ($25 or less for a carload for seven days), there are a multitude of activities that don’t cost a penny. Here are a few ideas for free things to do in U.S. national parks:

  1. Bird-watching. Most parks have abundant birds, flying free and unmolested, as well as perfect bird-watching sanctuaries. Bring a good pair of binoculars and a bird identification book. It’s a great way to get kids into the hobby. And some places, like the Grand Canyon, have birds so big (condors, eagles), even little kids can spot them.
  2. Wildflower hikes. Most parks are also sanctuaries for the indigenous wildflowers of the region. Check at the park visitor center for a list of local wildflowers (ditto for the birds) and see how many you can find. It will depend on the season and current weather conditions, of course, but this is a great way to explore the landscape. Bring a camera to record your finds – picking them is not allowed.
  3. Become a geologist. What kid doesn’t like rocks? Again, free information may be available at the visitor center, and some parks don’t mind if you take a few small souvenirs. Others? Places like Petrified Forest National Monument will levy a hefty fine for taking pieces of stone. (And, rumor has it, it will bring you bad luck.)
  4. Be a stargazer. Where better? Without the interference of the urban glow, the skies are darker here than just about anywhere, which means you can see the stars that much clearer. If you have a telescope, all the better. But if not, even binoculars might illuminate a new view or two. Bring a blanket, lie back, and watch for shooting stars.
  5. Wildlife watching. Most parks boast some indigenous wildlife – from ground squirrels to grizzly bears. Rangers are good at telling you when, when and how to do this. Just use common sense. Don’t feed ANY wild animal, even a chipmunk (they can carry bubonic plague) and especially not larger mammals. Most are more afraid of you than you are of them – but don’t count on it. There should be brochures on safety at the park.
  6. Take a hike. Walking is free and trails are well marked, rated for difficulty and carefully maintained. You can combine it with bird-watching, wildflower hunting and looking for animals. Take a camera or sketchbook, if you’re an artist.
  7. Hone your art/photography skills. There’s something beautiful or interesting almost anywhere you look. See if you can come up with a shot worth framing and putting on the wall at home to remind you of the trip. Or at least something you’d post on your Facebook page. Or try your hand at drawing or painting.
  8. Watch a free film at the visitor center. In recent years, these have become works of art, professionally filmed and narrated. They’re delightful introductions to the park.
  9. Take in the museum. Just about every park now has a museum that provides a great guide to things you’ll see in the park, adding the perspective of history.
  10. Participate in a ranger program. These programs are usually free and can provide and evening’s entertainment. Sometimes they may have live performers (such as Indian dancers) or special experts to speak (maybe about snakes or insects).
  11. Relax. Really, how often do you get to sit on a spectacular overlook and just enjoy the scenery? And the silence. Here’s your chance.

Linda DuVal

Linda DuVal has lived in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region since 1969. She has been writing about the area for most of that time and is the co-author of the new “Insider’s Guide to Colorado Springs,” from Globe Pequot Press. She was a working journalist with The Gazette – the city’s daily newspaper – for 32 years, covering everything from city council to fashion trends, books and authors to travel and food. She has been a freelance writer since 2004, contributing regularly to newspapers, magazines and online sites. Linda owns and operates Pikes Peak On The Cheap.

  One Response to “11 free things to do in national parks”

  1. One big thing missing from your list, for families, is the Junior Ranger Program. Every park has them and they are usually free or cost just a few dollars. The kids do different activities in the park (the number is based on age), interact with a park ranger, etc., then they are presented with a a completion certificate and a patch or pin (looks like a park ranger’s pin for that park).

    My son has a binder full of his Jr. Ranger booklets and certficates; he’s earned 23 of them. By doing the programs, not only did he learn a lot, but we did as his parents, too. Since he is educated at home, this program fell right in step with our educational goals. We were “mean” and made him do all the activities he could do, not just those required for his age.

    The program is appropriate for those ~5-12 years old. There is also a Web Ranger program available online, and they frequently change it.

    There are also educational packets you can download from the NPS site, or ask for at the parks. Even if you’re not a home educator, you will learn a lot. My son read through the materials and did the activities in the car on the way to visit each park – a “two-for-one” – learning and keeping entertained in the car! ;-)

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