It’s Great to Be a 4th Grader

A perspective on exploring national parks with the Every Kid Outdoors (EKO) pass as a military family.

By Andrew and Hannah Pike

As long-time Northern Virginia (NoVA) residents, our family is fortunate to be located near a myriad of landmarks and sources of natural beauty.  A 30-minute weekend drive gets us to the National Mall in Washington, D.C and within 45-minutes we can visit Great Falls National Park in McLean, VA.

We’ve lived here for 15 years and even with multiple national parks close by, we never visited one until our youngest son entered 4th grade this year. We learned of the Every Kid Outdoors (EKO) program last year during a meeting with the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK). The EKO pass is a great way and a free way for fourth graders and their families to visit national parks, which can be challenging even in the best of times. Unfortunately, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has prevented many families from visiting these iconic spots. We’re lucky we live close to so many easily accessible parks, which allowed us to avoid crowds during our visit this past fall.

The Pike family stops at a scenic viewpoint along Skyline Drive. Photo courtesy of the Pike family.

One of our first journeys beyond the public green spaces within our community was a 90-minute drive to Shenandoah National Park in Luray, VA.  With 516 miles of hiking trails, four campgrounds and 1,046 native plants, there is too much to do and see in a day, so we decided to take in the views from Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that runs the entire length of the park.  With autumn settling in and the leaves changing color, we stopped at a dozen of the scenic overlooks to take in the spectacular views, and with so many stops to absorb the scenery, we only explored a fraction of Skyline Drive. Following Skyline Drive was a great way for us to enjoy a small part of Shenandoah National Park during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Pike family enjoys the scenery at Shenandoah National Park. Photo courtesy of the Pike family.

Andrew grew up as a military kid and lived in six different African countries and five different state-side military bases. National parks and natural wonders were something his family visited regularly. Most military kids move anywhere from six to nine times before they turn 18 and often have to reinvest in a new area and make new friends each time. While moving regularly can have its disruptions, the ability to explore new areas and regions is a great benefit. Every new place has something to offer and beauty waiting to be discovered. The EKO pass is a great way for military families to explore this beauty. 

But it’s not only military families who benefit from spending time outdoors — we all do. The physical and mental health benefits of spending time in nature are undeniable, and that has only become more clear during the pandemic. The EKO pass is a great tool for expanding access to nature and its benefits, and it is so important that those benefits be available to everyone.

The stunning natural beauty of Great Falls National Park in Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Pike family.

This winter, we are already looking ahead to 2021 and the parks we will visit.  It has been almost as much fun watching the kids discover all the natural beauty in our region as it has been to visit the parks. The pride in our 4th grader’s eyes when he presented his pass to the park ranger makes us smile every time we talk about it. He was so excited that he immediately told his best friend about it. His family also downloaded the EKO pass and took the Skyline Drive trip the following week.

With the weather warming, our next destination is still undecided, but we love that the journey has been as much fun as the destination. From my family to yours, thank you to the Outdoors Alliance for Kids for all the hard work and dedication that goes into making this incredible opportunity accessible to families like mine.


Note from OAK: How did your family get outdoors this year, and what outdoor activities are you planning when it’s safe to do so? We’d love to hear from you and feature you on the OAK blog. If you have a story to share, reach out to Jayni Rasmussen at jayni.rasmussen@sierraclub.org.