The National Park Service is celebrating a hundred years of protecting and preserving wild spaces. Here are the best ways to enjoy the parks.

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service. Up to that point, the United States’ 35 national parks, monuments, and reservations had been managed by the Department of the Interior. The new National Park Service would “promote and regulate” national parks, monuments, and reservations, leaving them “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Fast-forward a hundred years—it’s time for those future generations to enjoy those unimpaired parks!

The 2016 National Park Service centennial is a time for celebration. It’s a busy year packed with events, and a little planning goes a long way. Here are some of the best ways to enjoy the centennial.

Visit a Park Near You

It sounds obvious, but many people think national parks are out there, located in remote areas suspiciously far from home—the kinds of places where only battle-tested road-trippers, wealthy ecotravelers, or unwashed backpackers skilled in the lost art of hitchhiking can go.

Sure, some of our most famous parks are notoriously (and delightfully) remote, but the National Park Service manages more than 400 national parks, monuments, historic sites, and more throughout the country, many close to big cities. Visit Find Your Park, enter your zip code, and prepare to be surprised. There’s a good chance you’ll find a park near you. Who knows? You might just discover a new favorite getaway.

Seek Out Special Events

There are hundreds of centennial events, in hundreds of locations, happening throughout 2016. It’s fantastic—and overwhelming. Fortunately, there are some great planning tools online. Start your search at Find Your Park, which lists centennial events filtered by location and date. Official park websites also list centennial events under the “Get Involved” tab.

But don’t stop there. National parks work closely with nonprofit partners, many of which are planning additional events. Friends of Acadia is a terrific example. Acadia National Park is also celebrating its centennial in 2016, so Friends of Acadia organized more than a hundred public events—concerts, presentations, book readings, native history exhibits—listed on the Acadia Centennial website.

Before visiting a park in 2016, check with their nonprofit partner and see if they have special events planned.

Inspire the Next Generation

In 2016, every fourth grader in the United States gets a free national park pass. Why fourth graders? Because studies show that children ages nine to eleven are particularly receptive to new ideas and hold positive views about nature. What better place to learn about nature than national parks?

“By fourth grade, children understand broader concepts about the environment and conservation,” explains Kathy Kupper, a National Park Service spokesperson for Every Kid in a Park, a new initiative that encourages fourth graders, along with their families, to visit U.S. parks. “Encounters they have with nature and history at that age can be defining moments in their lives.”

Monumental geology, fascinating wildlife, an ocean of stars at night—even in the age of smartphones, national parks have the power to fill children with wonder and curiosity. Free ranger-led programs, many geared toward kids, explain the story behind the scenery, putting the landscape in context and inviting further exploration. The Junior Ranger Program is another great way to get kids excited about parks.

Know a fourth grader? Take them to a national park. You just might inspire the next great artist or astrophysicist.

Enjoy VIP Access

Want to camp on remote Hawaiian beaches? Spend the summer hiking the Cascade Mountains? Go behind the scenes at a national monument?

Join the VIPs (Volunteers-in-Parks) and discover the best open secret in the National Park Service. Each year more than 240,000 Americans volunteer at parks in all 50 states. It’s a wonderful way to give back, and volunteers often enjoy access and experiences that go beyond the typical park visit. (Check out the Hartzog Awards for some incredible VIP stories.)

To become a VIP, visit, which lists hundreds of available opportunities. The newly released, volunteer-themed, kid-friendly Save the Park app, which donates one dollar to the National Park Foundation for every download, is another great resource for kids.

If you have a specific talent you’d like to donate—cooking, woodworking, storytelling, etc.—contact your park’s volunteer coordinator. Their job is to match unique skills with volunteer opportunities.

James Kaiser has written several best-selling guidebooks to national parks. Learn more at or follow him on Instagram @JamesKaiser_.

Source: National Geographic
April 21, 2016
By James Kaiser, photo by A.K Potts / Getty Images