Every Kid Outdoors, Virginia Edition

We’ve always been big fans of National Parks. After all, these are places that our country has determined to be so beautiful, environmentally impactful and/or historically important that they have been frozen in time for all to enjoy. The National Park Service (NPS) maintains properties nationwide that include parks, trails, monuments, memorials, highways, battlefields, and seashores. Amazingly, many of these locations are free, but larger high-traffic sites do often charge an entrance or admission fee. While the fees are nominal, there is one time in each child’s life when they don’t have to pay anything at all: their fourth grade year in school!

The NPS sponsors a program called Every Kid Outdoors, by which fourth graders are qualified to receive a free annual pass that is good from September 1st to August 31st of their fourth grade year. The pass will cover park entrance fees for one passenger vehicle containing a fourth grader, or for one fourth grader and up to three accompanying adults if at parks that charge for individual admission. Since my daughter is currently in fourth grade, we are definitely making the most of this fun perk! Keep reading for information on how to get your pass, and for details about the six National Parks on Virginia land that charge admission.

Getting Started

My first step was to get my daughter good and excited about receiving her park pass. I talked it up all summer so that by September 1st, she was more than ready to sit down at the computer to start the process. First we headed to this site. We read the rules and overview before clicking on the “Get Your Pass” button. This took her to a screen with links organized by individual (Fourth Graders, Parents, and Educators). My kiddo clicked on the Fourth Grader section, which took her through a series of prompts that allowed her to pick a national park to explore virtually. Once she clicked through all of the links, she was taken to a form that we printed up and filled out. We were then ready to take the form to our nearest National Park to be exchanged for an official Fourth Grade Pass, which has the size and feel of a credit card (Note: You may want to call ahead or check the website to make sure that your nearest national park distributes the pass cards. Don’t hesitate to check with a no-fee park, because many of them do carry the cards).

My daughter was so proud of her pass card that she refused to let me put it away. She insisted on holding it out in front of her when we visited our first park so that everyone who passed by could see that she was an important fourth grader.

Park Boss

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that as a result of social distancing, most people were likely not going to be close enough to her to read what she was holding, so we ran with it. I was a little nervous that she would drop or lose the card if this practice went on, so I wound up digging out an old lanyard with a badge sleeve that she could wear around her neck on future park visits. Now she feels like a VIP whenever we visit a National Park, especially since I always make sure to thank her profusely for “getting me in for free”!

As I mentioned, not all parks have fees. In fact, of the roughly 30 Virginia NPS locations listed on the NPS website, only six charge entrance fees. They are as follows:

Great Falls Park

Slide back and forth between a photo from 2016 and a photo taken in September of 2020 to see how rainfall and varying water levels affect the view at Great Falls Park.

Located in McLean, VA, this is the closest park to our home, and where my kiddo received her fourth grade pass on September 2nd (no time wasted!). Since this has always been one of our favorite places to visit in the area, the free pass really comes in handy. The regular admission fee is $20 per vehicle. Great Falls is home to a network of trails, a vast picnic area, and a fun and educational visitor’s center, but of course the major focal point is the falls themselves. By falls, I am referring to Mather Gorge, the stunning series of rapids in this stretch of the Potomac River.

Mather Gorge, Great Falls Park

From three different overlooks (the first one requires some fun rock scrambling, and the second two are handicap accessible ), you can view the falls from various view points and distances. For some bonus fun, try waving to the people observing the gorge from across the river in Maryland, and see if you can get anyone to wave back!

Don’t have a fourth grader and still want to get in for free? No problem. Simply park at Riverbend Park slightly up the river and walk south (to your right) on the riverside trail for two miles. There is no fee if you enter Great Falls Park on foot, and the views from the trail are quite beautiful. Keep in mind that while this trail isn’t particularly strenuous, there are stretches that are definitely not stroller friendly, so you’re kids are either going to need to be good little hikers or able to fit in a hiking backpack.

Prince William Forest Park

Exploring the trails at Prince William Forest Park (Note the fourth grade pass hanging from her neck)

Prince William Forest Park is located in Triangle, Virginia, right by the Quantico Marine Corps Base. The fourth grade pass will save you $20 per vehicle. As its name implies, this is a heavily wooded park with a nicely developed network of trails that vary in length and difficulty. When we were there this fall, most families opted for the 1.4 Mile Laurel Loop Trail, which takes you through the forest along a very pretty creek, and over a cute wooden bridge.

Puddle play on the bank of the Quantico Creek (the creek is visible near the top left corner of the photo)

The next time we go back, we hope to try out the Quantico Cascades Trail, which is less than a mile long and also family friendly – we simply arrived too late and ran out of time. If you’d like to take your time and explore the park over several days, there are several tent and cabin campgrounds available for public use (Note: the fourth grade pass does not cover cabin or campsite rental fees at any of the parks).

Shenandoah National Park

Stony Man Summit in Shenandoah National Park
(We took our masks off for photos, and only when nobody was around)

This huge park is home to the famous gorgeous vistas of Skyline Drive. Your fourth grader will save you the $30 per vehicle entrance fee. There are four entrances to the park, with the Front Royal entrance being the farthest north and not that far off of Route 66. We went to Shenandoah this past weekend and drove to the Thornton Gap entrance, which is only about 20 minutes farther from our home than the Front Royal entrance (we wanted to avoid any potential lines and traffic up in Front Royal).

From Thornton Gap, we headed to the nearest comfort station – which is on Skyline Drive just south of the entrance – before continuing south to the Stony Man Trail (not to be confused with the Stony Man Overlook or the Little Stoney Man Trail, both of which we passed along the way). The Stony Man Trail is a family-friendly out and back trail that runs up in elevation to the jaw-dropping Stony Man Summit. From there, we headed north, stopping for lunch at the Pinnacle Picnic Area and pausing at multiple scenic overlooks once we were back on the road.

Hanging out at one of the overlooks

We did our second hike of the day on the Fox Hollow Trail, right across the street from the Dickey Ridge Visitor’s Center. We spotted several families with young children along this easy hike (from a safe distance and while wearing our masks, of course), and while it didn’t have Stony Man’s stunning views, it is a nice option if you want a short hike and don’t want to stray too far from the Visitor’s Center. Following our second hike, it was a quick jump to the Front Royal entrance and out of the park.

On the Fox Hollow Trail

We had a perfect day in Shenandoah. It really made me want to drive the full 105 miles of Skyline Drive some day, and possibly even stay at one of the lodges in the park. We are so lucky to have this national treasure so close to home!

Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park

A photo from my first visit to Harper’s Ferry when I was in college, way back in 2001

I know what you’re probably thinking. Harper’s Ferry is not in Virginia, it is in West Virginia. I, too, was surprised to see it in the NPS’s list of VA parks. While I knew that the park’s entrance (where your fourth grader will waive the $20 per vehicle fee) and the main points of interest are located in West Virginia, I was also aware that “The Point” offers sweeping views of the meeting place between Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, as well as the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. It turns out that the park itself does include land from all three states, so there you go.

A visit to Harper’s Ferry gives a broad view of local American History, beginning with the town’s pre-Revolutionary founding, through the Civil War and its role in John Brown’s Raid, and into the 20th century when the historically black Storer College closed its doors in 1955 after 90 years of operation. The preserved town of Harper’s Ferry is dotted with historic points of interest, shops, and restaurants, with this candy store being one of our favorites. There is open space to roam, and beautiful views both along the river and from Jefferson Rock. While nature abounds, we will likely not return until social distancing is less of a necessity in order to better take advantage of the tiny indoor nooks and the shuttle from the main parking lot. For now, we’ll have to make do with these photos from a 2017 trip:


As Northern Virginians, we are very fortunate that the four previously mentioned National Parks – plus many others that fall into the free category – are easy day trips from our home. These next two fall more into the weekend or longer visit category for people who live in our region:

Assateague Island National Seashore

Searching for treasure at Assateague National Seashore

Technically Assateague Island falls in Maryland, but the adjacent Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge is in Virginia, and both regions are part of the NPS (with the exception of a stretch of Assateague that is maintained by the state of Maryland). You can enter via Maryland on the Assateague side or via Virginia on the Chincoteague side, and the fee at either entrance is $25 per vehicle. Since Every Kid Outdoors is a national program, your fourth grader can get you in for free at either of the two entrances.

This park is known for its gorgeous stretch of unspoiled and undeveloped beaches on the Atlantic Ocean, and for its majestic wild ponies that can be viewed roaming at their leisure. We haven’t been in several years (the photo above was taken back in 2015), but it is on our list to visit while our fourth grade VIP has free access. A future trip will probably warrant its own dedicated blog post so that I can into more detail about both the park and all of the fun activities you can do in Chincoteague.

Colonial National Historic Park

Colonial National Historic Park is composed of two sub-parks: Historic Jamestowne and Yorktown Battlefield. Historic Jamestowne is home to the archeological site of the original colony – this is not to be confused with Jamestown Settlement, a large museum with indoor and outdoor replica exhibits that is not part of the NPS but still worth a visit. Yorktown Battlefield commemorates the battle by the same name that was fought during the American Revolution. Both parks can be accessed for a total of $20 per person (NOT per vehicle), but if you have a 4th grader in tow, this fee is waved for the VIP and up to three guests.

While we have visited Jamestown Settlement and nearby Colonial Williamsburg, we have not yet made it to Colonial National Historic Park. This is usually the big fourth grade field trip at my daughter’s elementary school, and if by some miracle we are back in school by the end of the school year, she will go with her classmates. If that is not the case, we are going to take her for a weekend in May or June. Stay tuned!


Whether or not you have a fourth grader, there is never a bad time to visit our country’s National Parks. Do you have a favorite park, either here in Virginia or elsewhere? Let me know in the comments!

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