National Parks on a Budget

Zion National Park


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. 

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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