National Parks on a Budget

national parks medicine lake jasper canada

Esther Lee via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0, cropped and edited

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.

Free Days 

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).  

Go Camping 

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. 

Consider Monuments 

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. 

Beautiful National Park Photos

dawn, lake, trees with colored leaves, mountains in distance
Adirondack Park

Adirondack Park

With 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

Chris Murray / Aurora / Getty Images  

Mount Hood National Forest

Mount Hood National Forest

One 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

deebrowning / iStock / Getty Images  

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park

You 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 Forest

Coconino National Forest

Covering 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

Coconino National Forest (AlbertHerring) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons  

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park

Crater 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 Monument

Devils Tower National Monument

Deep 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 Park

Yellowstone National Park

Filled 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

By Brocken Inaglory [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons  

Hurricane Hole

Hurricane Hole

Located 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

TravelingOtter via Flickr Creative Commons SA 2.0, color corrected and cropped  

Arches National Park

Arches National Park

Moab, 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 Bay

Mosquito Bay

Truly 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

Puerto Rico Tourism Company  

Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks

Home 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 Forest

Tonto National Forest

Encompassing 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

Sean Foster / Moment / Getty Images  

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Nestled 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

AngMoKio (Original text: selfmade photo)) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons  

Garden of Eden, Arches National Park
Garden of Eden, Arches National Park

Garden of Eden, Arches National Park

Near 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

Lisa Singh  

North Window, Arches National Park

North Window, Arches National Park

This 90-foot-wide portal known as the North Window is one of many natural sandstone arches you’ll find at Arches National Park. 960 1280

Lisa Singh  

Delicate Arch

Delicate Arch

Arches National Park is home to more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches. The 65-foot Delicate Arch is its most famous. 960 1280

Lisa Singh  

Arches National Park

Arches National Park

In addition to its famed arches, Arches National Park’s colorful geography includes maze-like narrow passages and tall rock columns. You can find this view directly opposite the Delicate Arch. 960 1280

Lisa Singh  

Hiking at Arches

Hiking at Arches

Two hikers journey back from the Delicate Arch. The 3-mile trail (round-trip) is moderately strenuous, and takes roughly 30 to 45 minutes each way. Bring plenty of water! 960 1280

Lisa Singh  

Sand Dune Arch

Sand Dune Arch

Enjoy a shaded rest from the Moab desert sun. This trail at Arches National Park leads through deep sand; a secluded arch, Sand Dune Arch, awaits up ahead. 960 1280

Lisa Singh  

Wolfe Ranch Cabin

Wolfe Ranch Cabin

In 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

Lisa Singh  

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park

The Moab area is also home to Canyonlands National Park. Erosion over millions of years produced the many canyons, buttes and mesas here -- including Mesa Arch. 960 1280

Alex Proimos, flickr  

Hell’s Revenge

Hell’s Revenge

Ready to take on Hell’s Revenge? This steep slick rock trail may make your pulse race as you tackle its hair-raising descents on a Razor ride. It’s located in the Sand Flats Recreation Area, a sandstone plateau of slick rock domes, bowls and fins. 960 1280

Lisa Singh  

Porcupine Rim Trail

Porcupine Rim Trail

A mountain biker tackles Porcupine Rim Trail, one of 2 trails within the Sand Flats Recreation Area. The steep, rocky terrain, which stretches nearly 15 miles, challenges even the most experienced mountain bikers. 960 1280

Lisa Singh  

Moab Cowboy

Moab Cowboy

Meet the Moab Cowboy -- that's what locals call Kent Green. For more than 20 years, Green served as a deputy sheriff and search-and-rescue commander in the Moab area. Today, he leads off-road adventures. His no. 1 rule: Never travel alone. 960 1280

Lisa Singh   

Moab Dinosaur Footprints

Moab Dinosaur Footprints

Check out these fossilized dinosaur footprints during a Razor ride through the Sand Flats Recreation Area with the Moab Cowboy. 960 1280

Lisa Singh  

Big Bend Recreation Area

Big Bend Recreation Area

Moab is a rock climber’s dream. Enjoy bouldering at the Big Bend Recreation Area along the Colorado River, northeast of Moab. 960 1280

Lisa Singh  

Colorado River

Colorado River

Take in the view of the Colorado River from Scenic Byway 128, with awe-inspiring views of red standstone cliffs just beyond. 960 1280

Lisa Singh  

Fisher Towers, Colorado River

Fisher Towers, Colorado River

River 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

Lisa Singh  

Matrimony Spring

Matrimony Spring

Fill 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

Lisa Singh  

Dead Horse Point

Dead Horse Point

Get ready to say “wow” at Dead Horse Point. The park features a stunning overlook of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. The area also served as the final film scene for the 1991 classic Thelma & Louise. 960 1280

Mike Nielsen, flickr  

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls

Discover 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

Thinkstock  

Half Dome

Half Dome

The granite dome in the background is Yosemite’s most popular rock formation: Half Dome. The granite crest rises more than 4,737 feet above the valley floor -- hikers can ascend it with the use of cables. 960 1280

Thinkstock  

Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows

Discover 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

Steve Dunleavy, Wikimedia Commons  

El Capitan

El Capitan

Rock 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

Thinkstock  

Valley View

Valley View

Thank 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

Thinkstock  

Lembert Dome

Lembert Dome

Got 3 hours to spare? Take a short hike (2.8 miles roundtrip) up the granite rock formation of Lembert Dome, which rises 800 feet above Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. Then bask in the satisfaction of knowing you hiked up a real mountain. 960 1280

Ava Weintraub, flickr  

Tunnel View

Tunnel View

Journey along State Route 41 and you’re in for a treat: The viewpoint known as Tunnel View offers a breathtaking snapshot of Yosemite Valley and several of its attractions -- El Capitan, Half Dome and the waterfall Bridalveil Fall (pictured, right). 960 1280

Bala Sivakumar, flickr  

Cathedral Peak

Cathedral Peak

The 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

Steve Dunleavy, flickr  

Bridalveil Fall

Bridalveil Fall

Looking 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

Matt Haughey, flickr  

Glacier Point

Glacier Point

One of Yosemite’s best viewpoints is Glacier Point. Located on the south wall of Yosemite Valley, the overlook rises to an elevation of 7, 214 feet -- with great views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall (a 317-foot waterfall) and Nevada Fall (594 feet). 960 1280

Getty Images  

Vernal Fall

Vernal Fall

After an afternoon hike, cool off with the gentle mist sprays from a nearby waterfall. That’s what you’ll experience when you take a 2- to 5-hour hike near Vernal Fall. The hike starts at the Happy Isles trailhead and reaches the base of the waterfall. 960 1280

Getty Images  

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

Visitors look up at one of the largest living things on Earth: a giant sequoia. It’s also one of the oldest. Within Yosemite’s mariposa grove of 500 giant sequoias, visitors will find trees more than 3,000 years old. 960 1280

Getty Images  

Nevada Fall

Nevada Fall

Within 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

Getty Images  

Volunteer 

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. 

Get Walking 

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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