Our Guide to Visiting National Parks (Without Spending a Small Fortune)
When the pandemic struck earlier this year and dashed my travel plans for Germany and Austria, I instead planned a different adventure: Acadia National Park in Maine.
Acadia National Park is just one of the National Park System’s 62 official national parks, but the federal agency also oversees national battlefields, national monuments, national reserves and more.
One of the best parts of traveling to our national parks is how budget-friendly this kind of trip can be. And in the era of COVID-19 and massive unemployment, traveling on a shoestring budget to a national park might be one of the safest and most affordable ways for many of us to get out of their own homes.
Here are our best tips for exploring the national parks on a budget for your next family road trip.
How to Visit National Parks for Free
What’s better than traveling for free? Here’s how to visit all the national parks with no entrance fee:
Visit on Free Days
Each year the NPS offers free entrance days, meaning you can visit any of the national parks without paying an entrance fee. For 2020, the dates include:
- January 20 (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday)
- April 18 (the first day of National Park Week)
- August 25 (the National Park Service birthday)
- September 26 (National Public Lands Day)
- November 11 (Veterans Day)
You can check all free days on the NPS site each year.
The parks will be crowded on free days, especially during the summer. If you’re going to a popular parks, expect a far less secluded experience at major hiking trails and park overlooks.
Find a Free Park
Many national parks don’t currently carry an admission fee. For example, America’s most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is absolutely free to enjoy.
(Fun fact: At 12.5 million annual visits in 2019, Great Smoky Mountain National Park claimed more than double the amount of visits than the second most visited park, Grand Canyon National Park.)
Here is a complete list of free national parks:
- Biscayne National Park (Florida)
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico)
- Channel Islands National Park (California)
- Congaree National Park (South Carolina)
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio)
- Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (Alaska)
- Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (Alaska)
- Great Basin National Park (Nevada)
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina and Tennessee)
- Hot Springs National Park (Arkansas)
- Katmai National Park and Preserve (Alaska)
- Kenai Fjords National Park (Alaska)
- Kobuk Valley National Park (Alaska)
- Lake Clark National Park (Alaska)
- Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky)
- National Park of the American Samoa (American Samoa)
- North Cascades National Park (Washington)
- Redwood National Park (California)
- Virgin Islands National Park (Virgin Islands)
- Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)
- Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota)
- Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (Alaska)
Of the 10 most visited national parks (2019 data), however, nine charge entry fees:
- Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
- Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
- Zion National Park (Utah)
- Yosemite National Park (California)
- Yellowstone National Park (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming)
- Acadia National Park (Maine)
- Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)
- Olympic National Park (Washington)
- Glacier National Park (Montana)
How to Get Annual Passes for National Parks
If you regularly visit amusement parks like Disney World or Cedar Point, it makes sense to buy a pass. National parks operate under the same guidelines. If you’re a regular visitor, you’ll save money by going the annual pass route.
Consider America the Beautiful Passes
An America the Beautiful annual pass gets you into more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including the 62 national parks, for just $80 a year.
If you intend to visit a handful of parks that charge an entry fee in a given year (or if you plan to return to your favorite park multiple times, perhaps to see how it changes with the seasons), save money by purchasing one of these passes.
Check for Discount Eligibility
The NPS offers several discounted passes:
- Current U.S. military members and their dependents qualify for a free annual pass.
- Fourth-graders qualify for an Every Kid Outdoors pass for free entry from September to August of the following year.
- Senior citizens can purchase discounted annual passes for $20 a year or spend $80 for a lifetime pass.
- People with permanent disabilities are eligible for a free Access pass that also includes discounts on some amenities, like 50% off lodging in the park.
If you aren’t eligible for one of the free or discounted passes mentioned above, you can roll up your sleeves and do some hard work to earn free entry — and make the world a better place along the way.
To get a one-year pass (valid from the date of issue), you’ll need to log 250 service hours with one or more federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program. Learn more by visiting the official government volunteer site.
Tips for Finding Affordable Lodging
Other than transportation, lodging is likely to be your biggest expense for a national parks trip, since most of the recreation is free. Here are our best tips for lodging during a national parks road trip:
Stay Outside the Park
Whether you have an annual pass or a pass that affords you entry for a week, you can save money by finding lodging outside of the actual borders of the national parks. While the lodges available in some of the parks are breathtaking and waking up inside the park can save you valuable time (especially when wildlife run-ins can lead to serious traffic jams) in the mornings and evenings, they are way too expensive and can be challenging to book due to popularity.
On a long trip, treat yourself to one or two nights in a lodge, but otherwise, enjoy the basic amenities of a hotel or Airbnb outside of the park for serious savings.
Camp Inside the Park
There is an exception to every rule. If you are comfortable with public showers (or no showers!) and less-than-five-star sleeping arrangements, I highly recommend camping inside a national park.
Not only is camping significantly more affordable (in popular parks, you can camp for as little as $25 a night), but it’s also an incredible way to become one with the very park you are exploring. To experience the sounds and the stars of the park at night: It’s a truly magical experience for outdoor enthusiasts.
Tips for Getting Around National Parks
Walking can save you money during your national parks trips — and in more ways than one.
Enter on Foot
Many national parks charge an admission fee per vehicle when you enter on wheels (and this fee typically covers a week of reentry), but you may also have the option to pay a per-person cost when entering on foot. If you’re traveling solo or with a partner, the cost to enter on foot may be cheaper than by car.
All you have to do is park outside the park and walk through the gate. Most park systems have an extensive network of connected trails, meaning you can get to hiking as soon as you enter on foot.
Take a Hike
Speaking of hiking, this is the single greatest way to keep your budget low during your national parks road trips. Skip the tourist traps that are sometimes nearby national parks, and instead spend your days hiking the thousands of miles of trails that the U.S. has set aside for your enjoyment. You’ll get plenty of exercise, and Mother Nature won’t charge you a dime.
Other outdoor adventures include biking, kayaking and canoeing, but the cost of rentals inside the park can add up. If you own a kayak or bike and have an easy way of transporting it into the park, you will save significant money over paying to rent these vehicles at a marina, lodge or shop.
Planning Ahead for Your National Parks Trip
A little planning goes a long way when traveling. In addition to making reservations in advance for discounts and coordinating around free entry days, you should also consider these trip-planning tips:
Bundle Up the Parks
You could spend weeks at a single national park and still not see it all. However, if you’re flying, renting a car or driving your own vehicle, research what other national and state parks are nearby. For example, if you live in northern Ohio and are heading down to the (free!) Great Smoky Mountains National Park, consider two more stops along the way at Cuyahoga Valley and Mammoth Cave (also free!) — and then you’ll knock out three parks in one trip.
Other common combos include Yellowstone and Grand Teton; the Olympics, North Cascades and Mount Rainier; Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches; and Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and Rocky Mountain.
Consider National Monuments, State Parks and More
While national parks are the gold standard of American road tripping, the country has so much more to offer, from national lakeshores and historic sites to recreation areas and parkways. Many of these are free, and even those that carry a cost may be covered by your annual pass.
Rather than travel wide distances to see multiple national parks, consider focusing on one or two national parks and fitting in nearby seashores, memorials and other landmarks in between.
Pack Your Own Meals and Snacks
Dining out can eat into your budget — and your time — on any trip. While every vacation merits a little bit of treat-yourself dining at a fancy restaurant, national park trips lend themselves to fun picnics during longer hikes and cheap meals over a campfire.
Pack a large cooler, and your dining budget quickly drops from $150 for a single dinner for four at a lodge restaurant to $150 for ice, bread, lunchmeat, fruits and veggies, chips and waters for a whole week.
Pack trash bags to keep in your car. You should never leave food waste (or any waste) behind in a national park—or anywhere, for that matter!
Traveling Safely Amid COVID-19
During the early days of COVID-19, national parks shut down across the country. Over time, they slowly began to reopen (and some for free, for a limited time).
Different parks may be in various stages of reopening, so before traveling, it is important that you research the specific park you plan to visit to ensure 1) it’s open; 2) the activities that you hope to do are available and 3) you’re permitted to be there.
For example, my visit to Acadia National Park required that I test negative for coronavirus prior to entering Maine or quarantine for 14 days upon arrival into the state. During my trip, the Island Explorer Bus Service was postponed, and all campgrounds were closed.
When traveling to a national park during COVID-19, please remember these tips:
Check Online Guidelines
Always visit the NPS website to determine if the park is open, but also visit the state’s website to ensure that you are allowed to enter the borders and determine if there are certain restrictions upon entering.
Reserve Lodging Ahead of Time
When visiting national parks — whether during a pandemic or not — you should always book your lodging in advance, as hotels, cabins and campgrounds fill up fast, and you may not be able to find any lodging the day of. However, given that lodging may have specific health requirements or may be operating at a reduced capacity, it is especially important that you book your lodging in advance when traveling in the era of COVID.
Whether the state you are visiting requires a negative test before entering, it is the right thing to do. For your health and the health of others, get tested for COVID ahead of your trip, quarantine while awaiting the results and remain in quarantine after receiving the negative results until you leave for your trip.
If you receive a positive test, cancel your travel plans and remain in quarantine. Check in with your doctor for specific instructions on what to do. I recommend getting trip insurance for any travels you will take during COVID in case you have to cancel at the last minute.
Wear a Mask
The second you leave your own property, no matter where you are, you should have a mask on hand. Wear this mask wherever you may interact with humans outside of your quarantine circle: at restaurants, at gas stations, at campsites, at hotels and, yes, even on the busier trails where you constantly cross paths with hikers.
When you find yourself in a secluded spot, feel free to remove your mask and enjoy the fresh air of the mountains, rivers, forests or ocean you are exploring. But if other hikers join you, please be respectful and put your mask back on.
Maintain Your Distance
Social distancing rules apply even when outside. Stay at least six feet away from other park visitors at all times.
Stay Home If You Feel Sick
Even if your test comes back negative, you should not travel if you are feeling ill. The goes for life outside of a pandemic as well: It is safer for other travelers if you do not expose them to your germs. The great outdoors will be waiting for next time — and if you plan on hiking as much as a national park trip warrants, you’ll definitely want to be in top-notch health anyway.
Timothy Moore is a market research editing and graphic design manager and a freelance writer covering topics on personal finance, careers, education, pet care, travel and automotive. He has worked in the field since 2012 and has been featured on sites like The Penny Hoarder, Debt.com, Ladders, Glassdoor and The News Wheel. He lives in Ohio with his partner and their three-legged dog.