In the olden days, visiting National Parks was a traveler's right, which means the pastime was free. Nowadays, after realizing that someone has to foot the bill for paying rangers and maintaining all that open space, at least some of that burden falls on the public, and park fees abound. Despite these realities, there are a number of ways for families to experience our 392 national parks on a budget. Here are some of our favorites.
Starting in 2009, the National Park Service launched several fee-free days at more than 100 national parks, including Grand Canyon and Yosemite. The good news: The program was continued again for 2010. Upcoming fee-free dates this year are August 14-15, Sept. 25 and Nov. 11.
Buy a Pass
If your family plans to visit more than 1 national park this summer, consider purchasing a park pass, which offers yearlong access to multiple parks at a fee of less than $100. Pass-holders are entitled to access for 1 non-commercial vehicle, and 3 adults age 16 and older. While passes can be purchased at parks themselves, perhaps the best place to buy them is REI.
Though lodges ranging from modest to luxurious can be found in the vicinity of most national parks, a cheaper alternative is to seek out national park campgrounds for accommodations. Many parks offer camping onsite, with great amenities and camper hookups, should you travel by RV. Rates are often less than $20 per night; check ParkNet for details.
Thanks to a new promotion with Amtrak, admission to certain parks is now incorporated into packages that feature round-trip train travel from major cities. These packages are best for families looking to experience train travel as part of their vacation; in most cases, they include train tickets, lodging and, of course, park passes for all.
Access to many of the 100 national monuments is totally free. These areas can be managed by one of several federal agencies: the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Our favorite: Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah. Bring lots of water and sunscreen.
Another great way to gain access to national parks without having to pay admission is to volunteer. Most parks run regular programs for visitors who wish to donate time on projects such as trail maintenance and composting (to name a few). In many cases, volunteers also receive free swag, such as hats or buttons.
While many national park admissions can be as high as $25, that fee largely is for non-commercial vehicles; walk-in visitors don't have to pay more than $10 a pop (and children under 16 are free). To circumvent automobile fees, park your vehicle outside the park, and take a shuttle in.
Hit the Water
You don't have to fork over admission to a national park if you're not heading past a pay station. Particularly at parks with extensive amounts of shoreline, then, one easy solution to keep costs down is to arrive by water. Acadia and Olympic parks are both great spots to engineer a water landing. In towns near both parks, kayak rentals start around $20 per day.
Check the Web
A number of national park lodges and nearby private accommodations run regular discounts to try and attract crowds. Many of these properties advertise these deals on the internet--both on their own personal websites, but also on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Start following target spots at least a month before your trip.