National Parks on a Budget
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 400-plus national park areas 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 the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. There are a handful of days and weekends each year; keep track and plan your visit accordingly.
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 4 adults age 16 and older (younger children are admitted free).
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 on-site with great amenities and camper hookups, should you travel by RV. Rates are often less than $20 per night.
Access to many of the 80 national monuments is totally free. These areas can be managed by one of several federal agencies: the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the 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.
Adirondack ParkWith seemingly bottomless lakes and a diverse mountain landscape, the Adirondack Park covers roughly 6 million acres of New York’s lush countryside. Filled with pristine camping grounds, the state-owned Adirondack Forest Preserve within the park is an ideal location to spot wildlife, from large, dangerous animals such as moose and black bears to smaller species including muskrats and foxes. 960 1280
Mount Hood National ForestOne trip to majestic Mount Hood, and it’s easy to see why so many Americans are infatuated with the Pacific Northwest. Known as the crown jewel of the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Hood, the highest point in Oregon, is also considered an active volcano, although it hasn’t erupted in about 150 years. 960 1280
Channel Islands National ParkYou may technically be in Southern California when you travel to Channel Islands National Park, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. Encompassing about 250,000 acres, the park consists of 5 islands, including Anacapa (pictured), and the ocean surrounding them. 960 1280
Coconino National ForestCovering nearly 2 million acres in northern Arizona, Coconino National Forest is divided into 3 different districts, each with its own attractions, including a group of volcanic summits known as the San Francisco Peaks; the largest natural lake in the state, Mormon Lake; the scenic Mogollon Rim; and the expansive red-rock canyons in Sedona (pictured). 960 1280
Crater Lake National ParkCrater Lake in southern Oregon has azure waters that make up the deepest lake in the country. Surrounded by sheer cliffs, the fifth-oldest national park also boasts some of the United States’ cleanest air, allowing hikers to see clearly into the distance along more than 90 miles of trails. 960 1280
Devils Tower National MonumentDeep within the Black Hills of Crook County, WY, lies an impressive geologic laccolith known as Devils Tower National Monument. Protruding from the ground to an astounding 1,200-plus feet above the Belle Fourche River, Devils Tower was formed by igneous rock intruding between the layers of surrounding sedimentary rocks. 960 1280
Yellowstone National ParkFilled with amazing natural features, from Old Faithful to the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park is primarily in Wyoming but spreads into parts of Montana and Idaho as well. Established in 1872, America’s first national park also provides incredible picturesque landscapes, including the Lower Falls (pictured). 960 1280
Hurricane HoleLocated on St. John in the US Virgin Islands, Hurricane Hole consists of 3 separate bays — Otter Creek, Water Creek and Princess Bay — and provides pristine blue waters and once-in-a-lifetime snorkeling adventures. 960 1280
Arches National ParkMoab, UT, is home to some of the most glorious rock formations in the US, and the same can be said for nearby Arches National Park. With more than 2,000 natural stone arches, this red-rock wonderland also includes an unbelievable number of hiking trails, spires and monoliths unlike any others you’ll find in the world. 960 1280
Mosquito BayTruly a sight to see, Mosquito Bay — located on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques — offers one of the most unusual water experiences you can have. Also known as Bioluminescent Bay, it gets its name from microscopic organisms that reside in the water and generate a phosphorus blue glow when agitated. 960 1280
Redwood National and State ParksHome to some of the world’s oldest living organisms and the tallest trees on Earth — including Hyperion, which stands close to 380 feet — Redwood National and State Parks welcome an average of more than 400,000 visitors per year. They’re located in Humboldt County along the coast of California. 960 1280
Tonto National ForestEncompassing nearly 3 million acres of beautiful desert countryside, Tonto National Forest is the fifth-largest forest of its kind in the United States. It’s most impressive feature, the Salt River (pictured), measures almost 200 miles long. It’s the perfect place to go tubing, as it acts as a lazy river for locals trying to escape Arizona’s sweltering summer heat. 960 1280
Yosemite National ParkNestled deep within the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the country, let alone California. With plenty of scenic overlooks, countless breathtaking waterfalls and stunning, ancient sequoias, Yosemite is paradise for even the most novice of outdoorsmen. 960 1280
Garden of Eden, Arches National ParkNear the center of Arches National Park you’ll find the Garden of Eden -- so named because its rocky shapes resemble flowers and trees. 960 1280
Wolfe Ranch CabinIn the late 1800s, a Civil War veteran named John Wesley Wolfe and his son built this 1-room cabin in what is now Arches National Park. For more than 10 years, Wolfe lived on this rugged ranch, where the area’s water and desert grassland were enough to sustain a few cattle. 960 1280
Fisher Towers, Colorado RiverRiver guide Arne Hultquist leads a whitewater rafting trip through the Fishers Tower section of the Colorado River. The area comprises a series of towers made of sandstone; they’re named after a miner who lived in the area in the 1880s. 960 1280
Matrimony SpringFill up at Matrimony Spring, a natural spring along Byway 128. Legend has it that anyone who drinks from the spring will continue to return to Moab. The water that issues forth begins its journey as snowmelt from the La Sal Mountains, 20 miles southeast of Moab. 960 1280
Moab: Red-Rock Wonderland 17 Photos
Yosemite FallsDiscover the highest waterfall in North America -- and the sixth largest in the world: Yosemite Falls. At 2,424 feet, the waterfall is a major attraction in the park, located in the central Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. It’s best viewed in late spring when snowmelt flows most vigorously. 960 1280
Tuolumne MeadowsDiscover this meadowy section of Yosemite along the Tuolumne River. Wild, wonderful plant and tree species to explore include Ross’s sedge, Lodgepole Pine and dwarf bilberry. The area also offers day-hike and camping opportunities (the park service campground is open July through late September). 960 1280
El CapitanRock climbers will find few vertical rock formations as challenging as El Capitan (left, background). At one time “El Cap,” which stretches roughly 3,000 feet from base to top, was considered impossible to climb. Today, the most popular route to tackle is The Nose, which follows the rock’s huge projecting front. 960 1280
Valley ViewThank the 145-mile-long Merced River: It’s responsible for carving out the glacial valley known as Yosemite Valley. The valley is about 8 miles long and a mile deep, with an amazing vantage point offered at Valley View. This turnout is located near the park exit, traveling west on Northside Drive. 960 1280
Cathedral PeakThe Cathedral Range of mountains stretch through Yosemite -- and Cathedral Peak is their star attraction. At a height of 10,911 feet, the granite peak was first scaled in 1869 by naturalist John Muir -- perhaps the first person to undertake a class-4 climb anywhere in the Sierra Nevada range (of which Cathedral is a sub-range). 960 1280
Bridalveil FallLooking to meet someone special? Head to Yosemite’s Bridalveil Fall. The 617-foot waterfall owes its name to a legend from the Ahwahneechee Native American tribe: They believed that inhaling the mist of the waterfall would improve one’s chances of getting married. 960 1280
Nevada FallWithin a small glacial valley (Little Yosemite Valley), you’ll find Nevada Fall. The 594-foot waterfall owes its name to its location – it’s the nearest waterfall to the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Meanwhile, the Native American name for it is Yo-wy-we, meaning “wormy” water, signifying the twists of the falling water. 960 1280
Yosemite's 13 Must-See Attractions 13 Photos
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 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 younger than 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, 1 easy solution to keep costs down is to arrive by water. Acadia and Olympic national 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 to attract crowds. Many of these properties advertise these deals on the internet — on their own personal websites, as well as social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Start following target spots at least a month before your trip.
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