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National Park Vacation
Getting into nature, exploring America’s rich history, and making family memories that will last a lifetime. There’s no better way to have it all than by visiting one of our nation’s awe-inspiring national parks. And with over 400 National Park Service (NPS) managed sites currently open to the public, there’s bound to be more than a few options available in your neck of the woods.

As with any vacation, a trip to a national park is going to cost money – for transportation, food, lodging, and equipment. Then there are the park entrance fees and amenities. It all adds up, and that can be a real problem for budget-conscious travelers – which is pretty much everyone these days.

The whole point to your national park visit is to get outdoors and have fun. But how can you enjoy yourself if you’re constantly worrying about how to pay for it all?

National Park Service

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to cut the costs of any national park vacation. All that’s required is a little research and planning, which is where this guide comes in. Below you’ll find a wealth of useful information and advice designed to make your national park adventure more practical and affordable, so that you can concentrate on what’s really important: fun.

Getting There On a Budget

Hill

Traveling anywhere these days isn’t cheap. And traveling to and from a national park is often particularly expensive. Why? As any good real estate agent will tell you: location, location, location. The fact is that most national parks are not exactly what you would call “centrally located.”

The added costs associated with remote travel shouldn’t scare you off, though. There are plenty of ways to save on travel. You just have to think ahead.

Travel Cost

There’s Savings in Numbers When Going by Car

Travel Savings

If you’ve got the time, hitting the road is probably your best bet for budget travel, especially if you’re travelling in a group. Pack your car with all the family, friends, and equipment you can. And if there’s not enough room for everyone and everything, try renting a van.

Renting a Van

The more the merrier. There’s no doubt about it, splitting the cost of gas among lots of fellow travelers in one vehicle will save tons of cash, especially when compared to buying a bunch of airline, train, or bus tickets.

Combine Flying with Other Modes of Transportation

Commercial air travel

Let’s face it. Commercial air travel and remote locations are never a good mix. There are always bargains to be found when flying between big cities, even at the last minute. The problem is when you have to add a segment between a major hub and small regional airport.

That’s when tickets prices skyrocket. So, if you don’t have the time for an extended road trip, definitely consider combining a flight between major airports with a local car rental. You’ll save big, and those savings will multiply with every additional traveling companion.

Watch Your Gas Gauge

Gas Stations

Some parks – particularly the bigger ones – have gas stations on the premises, but many do not. And the one’s that do often charge an outrageous amount for their gas. You can also expect to pay a pretty penny at stations immediately surrounding the park.

Therefore, take our advice and fill your tank well before you arrive at your park’s front gate. And be sure to have enough gas to spare when leaving. Any money saved by filling up before entering the park will be lost if you have to fill up again before you can get back to a reasonably-priced station.

Visit Parks Close to Home

Parks Close to Home

Sometimes the best advice is the most obvious. Visiting a park, monument, or site nearby means saving time and money – both of which can be better spent at your destination.

And you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised at the number of natural and historical wonders to be found so close to home.

Where to Stay and How to Save

Hotel

There are two basic types of visitors to national parks: those who like to rough it and those who don’t. Most parks are ready, willing and able to accommodate both types, with lots of options for campers and lodgers alike.

Some options are pricier than others, however. So, if saving money is a priority, you’ll have to do some strategizing.

Plan Well Ahead, but Don’t Forget to Check for Last Minute Deals

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It’s no secret that room rates go up the longer you wait to book a reservation. This is no less true for hotels and motels near national parks, which, by the way, are commonly fully booked months in advance. The takeaway? Book your rooms as early as possible.

Here’s another good tip: It’s not uncommon for there to be last minute reservation cancellations at lodging facilities near national parks. It’s the inevitable result of bookings that are made months in advance. So, be sure to check. You may score an exceptionally cheap room.

Skip the Park Lodge

$500
Park Lodge

This one’s for those visitors less inclined to roughing it. Lots of national parks offer beautiful, even luxurious, lodging options inside the park itself. But such accommodations will cost you. Take Yosemite National Park, for example.

A stay in a relatively standard room with two double beds at the park’s Majestic Yosemite Hotel will run you in the neighborhood of just under $500 a night. That’s right, $500 big ones. Now, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel may not be your typical national park lodging option, but you get the point. For more affordable accommodations, be sure to check out hotel and motel options within a reasonable distance of your park.

$26
campsite

And if you really want to save money, maybe it’s time to give camping a try. Why? The current price for a campsite at a typical Yosemite campground: $26.

Visit during the Off-peak or Shoulder Season

Visit during the Off-peak
330,000,000
Visits in 2017

There were over 330 million recreation visits to NPS parks and other sites in 2017. Pretty impressive for a country with a current total population of about 263 million. All those visitors, however, can make for a pretty crowded park, especially if you’re there during peak season (meaning summer).

National Park

If you can manage it, and you don’t mind a little (or a lot) cooler weather, visiting during the winter (off-peak), or spring or fall (shoulder seasons) will not only mean less crowding, but you’ll likely save some money.

This is particularly true when staying outside the park at a nearby lodge or hotel.

And for You Campers… Consider Boondocking

Boondocking

Campsites at national parks are normally pretty reasonably priced. In most cases, in fact, they’re real bargains. Nevertheless, if you’re on a really tight budget, take a look into dispersed camping – aka boondocking. Boondocking basically refers to camping in a completely undeveloped area, or at least away from established campgrounds.

Boondocking is prohibited at most NPS parks, but is available at a few locations – for tent campers, RVs, or both. In most cases, expect a nominal charge. Just be sure to check with the park you’re heading to before you go to see if boondocking is allowed.

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By the way, if boondocking is prohibited where you’re going, don’t do it. It’s a surefire way of quickly finding yourself with an escort out of the park.

Saving at the Park: Entrance Fees, Amenities, and More

National Park Tickets

There are currently 117 parks, monuments, and cultural and historical sites under NPS management that charge some form of fee for access. Entrance fees vary depending on a number of factors, such as how the fees are charged (per vehicle, per person, annual vs. day pass, etc.) and the specific park itself.

You can expect to pay anywhere from $5 to $12 or so per day/per person, or $10 to $30 or so per day/per vehicle. Park-specific annual passes are also available, ranging from around $20 to $60. You can check this website to find the current entrance costs for at all NPS fee-charging sites.

While most Americans see them as a necessary and reasonable price to pay for accessing the natural wonders to be found in their nation’s national parks, entrance fees are nevertheless an expense visitors should be prepared for before arriving at the front gate of their park of choice. Here are a few suggestions for saving on entrance fees and park amenities:

Purchase an America the Beautiful Pass

America the Beautiful Pass

A great way to save on entrance fees is by purchasing one of six types of America the Beautiful Passes offered by the NPS. These passes can be used at more than 2,000 federal recreational sites, including any and all of the 117 fee-charging national parks.

Detailed information on America the Beautiful passes can be found on this U.S. Geological Survey website.

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Annual pass

Valid for one full year from the month of purchase (through the last day of the month). Available for purchase by anyone 16 years of age or older. Each pass can have up to two designated owners. The two owners do not have to be married or related. One owner must be present when using the pass.

Click here for more information on the Annual Pass.
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Annual Pass for U.S. Military
  • Cost: Free
  • How to obtain: Military Annual Passes can be obtained in person at specified federal recreation sites. A currently valid US military ID (active duty or dependent) or Common Access Card (CAC) must be presented to receive the pass.

Provides free admission for one full year from the month obtained (through the last day of the month) to locations that normally charge an entrance fee or standard amenity fees. Military Annual Passes are available to current active U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and their dependents. Most U.S. Reserves and National Guard are also eligible, as well as the dependents of deployed Reserve and Guard members.

The Military Annual Pass can have up to two signatories, either active duty or dependent. Dependents of non-deployed Guard and Reserve members may be the second signers on their sponsor’s pass. One signatory must be present when using the pass.

Click here for more information on the Military Annual pass.
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Annual 4th Grade Pass

This Annual 4th Grade Pass is available to all U.S. 4th graders including home-schooled and free-choice learners 10 years of age, and is valid from September through August of the student’s 4th grade year. The pass admits the owner (4th grader) and all accompanying passengers in a single personal vehicle at per-vehicle locations, or up to three adults at sites that charge a per-person fee. Annual 4th Grade Passes are not transferable, and the 4th grader must be present to use the pass.

Click here for more information on the Annual 4th Grade Pass.
senior
Senior Pass
  • Cost: $80 for Lifetime Senior Pass; $20 for Annual Senior Pass
  • How to purchase: The Senior Pass can be purchased in person at federal recreational sites that issue passes, online at the USGS Store (Lifetime Pass here, Annual Pass here), or by mail using this form. There is an additional $10 processing fee for passes purchased online or by mail.

You must be 62 years of age or older, and a U.S. citizen or permanent resident to be eligible. The Senior Pass will admit the pass owner and any passengers in a non-commercial vehicle at per-vehicle locations, and up to three additional adults at per-person at locations where per-person fees are charges. Standard amenities are also normally covered.

Many sites also offer discounts on expanded amenities, such as campsites, special use permits, guided tours, etc. However, these discounts typically extend to the pass owner only.

Click here for more information on both the Lifetime and Annual Senior Passes.
wheelchair
Access Pass
  • Cost: Free
  • How to obtain: Access Passes can be obtained either in person at specified federal recreation sites or through the mail by filling out and mailing this form. A $10 processing fee is charged for passes obtained by mail.

The Access Pass is a free, lifetime pass available to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, regardless of age, with a permanent disability. The disability need not be 100%, but must be one that “severely limits one or more major life activities.” Verification of the disability is required. Disability documentation requirements and a detailed definition of “permanent disability” can be found here. Possession of a handicap placard and/or SSDI Notice of Benefit Increase is not sufficient to verify disability.

The Access Pass provides admission of the holder, plus any passengers in a non-commercial vehicle at per-vehicle locations, and up to three additional adults at per-person locations, where entrance fees are charged. Standard day use park amenities are also covered. Discounts for extended amenities may also be available, depending of the specific park or site visited.

Click here for more information on the Access Pass.
volunteer
Volunteer Pass
  • Cost: Free
  • How to obtain: Meet the pass requirements (see below). Passes are issued by the volunteer’s site supervisor or Volunteer/Coordinator/Manager.

The Volunteer Pass is a free pass awarded to individuals who have completed 250 hours of volunteer work at one or more recreation sites managed by the NPS or any of five other Federal agencies (Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, and U.S. Corps of Army Engineers.) Volunteers work with a local Federal recreation site supervisor or Volunteer Coordinator/Manager who pre-approves all work, and authorizes the accrual of hours.

There is no specific timeframe within which the hours must be earned. The Volunteer pass is valid for 12 months from the month of issuance and good through the last day of the last month.

Contact your local federal recreation site or visit Volunteer.org to find out about available volunteer opportunities. Click here for more information on the Volunteer Pass.

Consider Applying for an Academic Fee Waiver

certificate

Here’s a program that rarely gets mentioned, mainly because most folks won’t qualify. NPS regulations provide for entrance fee waivers to, “outings conducted for non-commercial educational purposes by schools and other bona fide academic institutions…”

These waivers are not automatic, however, and require submission of an application (well ahead of time) with proof that the group meets all of the several eligibility requirements. Contact the park you plan to visit directly for more information.

Visit a Fee-Free Park

400 NPS
Fee-Free Park

It’s simple math. As mentioned above, there are over 400 NPS-managed sites in the U.S., but only 117 currently charge to get in. That means that nearly three-quarters NPS locations never charge an entrance fee. Now, it’s true that the vast majority of the most popular parks are fee-charging – but most isn’t all.

For example, with over 11 million visitors in 2017 alone, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee is by far the most popular national park in the country. And entrance to the park is always free, as are most standard park amenities.

Fee-Free Park
11,000,000
Visits in 2017

Take Advantage of Fee-Free Days

calendar

Dying to get out to a fee-charging park but on a particularly strict budget? The government’s got you covered. Every year, the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and several other federal agencies, designate a number of days on which visitors can experience their sites without having to pay and entrance fee.

The number of days and specific dates vary each year, and may also vary slightly by agency. The fee-free days for visiting a national park in 2018 are:

  • January 15: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • April 21: First day of National Park Week
  • September 22: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

Visiting a park or other site on a fee-free day doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be spending at least a little cash, however. Entrance fee waivers often include standard park amenities, but do not extend to amenity and user fees for things like transportation, camping, boat launches, and special tours.

Also, while most parks participate in the fee-free days program, a few do not. Check this NPS list to see if your park is included.

Stock Up on Food and Supplies Outside the Park

fruits

As with gasoline, food and supplies are commonly available on park grounds at stores operated by private concessionaires. And, as with gasoline, prices for such food and supplies are offered at a very steep markup.

Hence, budget-conscious travelers are strongly advised to skip park stores and restaurants, and stock up on all food equipment well before arriving at their park destination.

Interview with Expert Jeffrey Ryan

Outdoor enthusiast and avid hiker Jeffrey Ryan is a speaker, photographer, and the author of the books Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-Year Hike on America’s Trail, Blazing Ahead: Benton MacKaye, Myron Avery and the Rivalry that Built the Appalachian Trail and Blast: My Return to Mount Saint Helens. Check out Jeff’s website for more information on Jeff and his books, speaking engagements and free newsletter.

Jeffrey Ryan Jeffrey Ryan
Jeffrey Ryan Books

Can you share some tips for making the most of a national park visit?

Learn a few things about the park before you go. For example, where is the Visitor’s Center? Is it on the way to the park or inside the park itself? Why is this important? See below. Also, check online to find out about the most popular attractions/campgrounds/trails. It’s better to know beforehand than being disappointed when you get to the park. It also gives you a chance to adjust your itinerary once you get there.

For example, if you want a quiet day, you can choose a destination that is less frequented, or perhaps take a short hike in the morning and spend the bulk of the day reading a book or having a picnic.

Are there any common mistakes people make when planning a national park visit?

Not stopping at the Visitor Center. Even if you have your itinerary well planned in advance, it’s always worth stopping to see if there are any updates about the park shared by the rangers on duty, or posted outside if it’s after hours. I have benefitted from being advised about water shortages, extreme fire danger (campfires temporarily banned) and other things that could have been worse to hear about if I was several miles into the park.

Not being familiar with new gear. It’s wonderful to buy a new tent or pair of hiking boots for your big trip. What’s not so great is trying to figure out how to set up a tent in the dark or getting blisters on your first day of hiking. These two things can be avoided by practicing how to set up and take down the tent and breaking in your footwear before your trip.

Not planning simple meals. It’s fun to eat well at the campsite, but meals that involve complicated preparation can be frustrating to make when everyone’s hungry after a day of exploring and just want to eat. I plan my menu with this in mind. I always have some snacks on hand and 20-minute meals planned in case I arrive at the campsite late. If you feel like eating something special, you can save that for a less jam-packed day when you can really enjoy cooking.

Forgetting a flashlight. A working flashlight is one of those things that always seems to be left off the gear list. I always bring a headlamp with me (keeps my hands free for setting up the tent or other duties) as well as a small keychain flashlight that I carry in my pocket.

Is there a particular time of year that’s best to visit a national park?

I love visiting national parks in the “shoulder seasons” (before Memorial Day and after Labor Day). It’s easier to choose campsites you want and the greatest attractions are less crowded. As always, check to ensure which campgrounds are open. Sometimes parks close down sections of campgrounds or complete campgrounds to reduce overhead during slower periods.

Are there any parks that are a particularly good value?

All of them — if you are visiting on one of the four “fee-free days” offered by the NPS each year. The last two entrance-free dates in 2018 are National Public Lands Day (September 22) and Veterans Day (November 11). Another way to maximize value is getting an America the Beautiful Pass. [See above for more information on Fee-Free Days and America the Beautiful Passes.]

Do you have any tips geared toward families?

Yes. The same advice I give to everyone visiting a national park or any recreation area — expect your plans to change. Sometimes we over plan our itinerary and feel we need to see everything in the park. The reality is that weather and other factors make us need to reconsider our plans. It’s part of the adventure. No one says you can’t take a day off from exploring. In fact, you may have tons of fun just staying in the campground.

Any lodging tips?

The best way to save on lodging fees is to camp. Staying in a campground is far less expensive than staying in a hotel.

About tents. If you know someone who camps who is not using their tent, consider asking them to borrow it. You could save hundreds of dollars over buying a new one. But here’s the caveat: only borrow a tent from an experienced camper, one that owns a well-designed tent and has sat through a few rain storms. The market is full of really lousy family tents. Don’t buy or borrow one of these. It could ruin your vacation. Look for a tent with a full-coverage rain fly — one that goes all the way to the ground. Cheap tents have a rain fly that sits on the top of a tent like a mushroom cap. When it rains, they are practically useless. The water pours off the rain fly and onto the sides of the tent, where it leaks in. The result? Your gear and family get soaked.

Get Your Site in Advance. Absolutely book your site early — as soon as you’re vacation time is established. Most parks have an online reservation system that allows you to choose (and pay for) your site well in advance.

About hotels. Consider working a night or two at a hotel into your plans. If you fly into a city and rent a car, you can probably get a great deal on a hotel room the night you arrive or the night before you depart.

Any advice on traveling to the park?

If I’m renting a car, I always pack a soft-sided (collapsible) cooler in my luggage. After I pick up my car, my first stop is a supermarket, where I stock up on travel and camping food. I find that I eat healthier and less expensively this way vs. eating at fast food joints or restaurants. I pack perishable foods in my cooler with some ice. One little trick I learned on one trip was buying a (cheap) foil roasting pan and sticking it under my cooler to collect any water that leaks out.

Another option is to buy a plastic family-sized cooler to use for the duration of your trip. On my last trip, the $29 I spent on the cooler was a small price to pay vs. eating at restaurants, and there was enough space to hold enough food and ice for me to stay in the park for several days. When the vacation ended, I met a fellow camper that needed a new cooler, so I gave it to him before I headed back toward the airport.