HikingThe key to affordable family travel is finding the free things to do when you’re on vacation. April 22-26 is National Park Week 2013, with free admission to all 401 U.S. national parks (which are a great deal when they aren’t free).

While I am not much of a nature girl, my kids have always loved spending time in local, state and national parks. Especially when it rains so they can get extra wet and extra muddy and give me extra work. But it’s tough to get angry about that when I see how happy they are running and splashing and exploring.

Among the activities offered:

Becoming a Junior Ranger


Always fun for kids, the free Junior Ranger programs aimed at children ages 5-12 are available in almost every national park. Just pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the visitor center when you enter the park and the kids can earn a badge by completing the activities in the book. As park of National Parks Week, many parks will host special events on April 20, Junior Ranger Day, including Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic SiteCuyahoga Valley National ParkShenandoah National Park, and Booker T. Washington National Monument.

Hiking with Kids

There are 17,000 miles of trails in America’s national parks. Among the most spectacular: hiking to waterfalls at Haleakala National Park or Great Smoky Mountains National Park, seeking the best spots for bird watching at Padre Island National Seashore or Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, or enjoying the scenery at Congaree National Park or Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Camping at National Parks

Nature roadSleep under the stars in one of the 12,000 campsites, see Castillo de San Marcos National Monument by candlelight, take a guided moonlight stroll at Big Thicket National Preserve, enjoy a star party at Bandelier National Monument, or a sunset stroll through White Sands National Monument.

Learning History the Fun Way

Dress like a conquistador at Coronado National Memorial or visit a prehistoric cave shelter and tool demonstration at Russell Cave National Monument, a colonial encampment at Arkansas Post National Memorial or Morristown National Historical Park or a Civil War encampment at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park or Gettysburg National Military Park.

Exploring on Wheels

Some of the prettiest scenery you’ll ever see is along the 5,450 miles of roads in national parks, including 1,100 miles of parkways designed especially for sightseeing. Leave the car behind and pedal your way through parks such as Acadia National ParkGateway National Recreation AreaCanyonlands National Park, and C&O Canal National Historical Park or join the Prison to Peanut Guided Bike Adventure from Andersonville National Historic Site to Jimmy Carter National Historic Site.