When the pandemic broke out last year and ruined my travel plans for Germany and Austria, I planned another adventure instead: Acadia National Park in Maine.
Acadia National Park is just one of the 62 official national parks in the national park system. However, the federal agency also oversees national battlefields, national monuments, national reserves, and more.
One of the best things about traveling to our national parks is how budget friendly this type of trip can be. And in times of COVID-19 and widespread unemployment, traveling to a national park on a shoestring could be one of the safest and most affordable ways for many of us to get out of their own four walls.
Here are our top tips for exploring the national parks on a budget for your next family outing.
What could be nicer than traveling for free? How to visit all national parks without admission:
Visit on days off
Every year the NPS offers free entry days so you can visit any national park without paying an entry fee. For 2021 the data includes:
- January 18 (birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.)
- April 17th (the first day of National Park Week)
- August 4th (anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act)
- August 25 (National Park Service Birthday)
- September 25 (National Public Areas Day)
- November 11th (Veterans Day)
You can check all days off each year on the NPS website.
The parks are overcrowded on days off, especially in summer. If you go to a popular park, a far less secluded experience awaits you on the main hiking trails and with park views.
Find a free park
In many national parks there is currently no entry fee. For example, the most visited American national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is absolutely free.
(Funny fact:: With 12.5 million annual visits in 2019, Great Smoky Mountain National Park received more than twice as many visits as the second most-visited park, Grand Canyon National Park.)
Here is a full list of free national parks:
- Biscayne National Park (Florida)
- 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 Conservation Area (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
- American Samoa National Park (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 (data for 2019), however, nine charge entrance 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)
If you regularly visit amusement parks like Disney World or Cedar Point, it makes sense to buy a pass. National parks work according to the same guidelines. If you visit regularly, save money by choosing the annual pass.
Think of America as the beautiful passports
An America the Beautiful annual pass gets you to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including 62 national parks, for just $ 80 a year.
If you intend to visit a handful of parks that have an entrance fee in a given year (or if you want to return to your favorite park multiple times to see how it changes with the seasons), save money by going Buying one of these parks is over.
Check the discount eligibility
The NPS offers several discounted passes:
- Current U.S. service members and their dependents qualify for a free annual pass.
- Fourth graders Qualify for an Every Kid Outdoors Pass, which offers free entry from September to August of the following year.
- senior citizens You can buy discounted annual passes for $ 20 per year or spend $ 80 on a lifetime pass.
- People with permanent disabilities You are entitled to a free access pass that also includes discounts on some amenities, such as: B. 50% discount on accommodation in the park.
If you’re not eligible for any of the free or discounted passes above, you can roll up your sleeves and do hard work to get free entry – and make the world a better place along the way.
To obtain a one-year pass (valid from the date of issue), you must log 250 service hours with one or more federal agencies participating in the Interagency Pass program. Visit the government’s official website for more information.
Tips for Finding Affordable Accommodation
Aside from transportation, accommodation is likely your biggest expense on a national park trip, as most of the recreation is free. Here are our top tips for accommodation during a National Park road trip:
Stay out of the park
Whether you have an annual pass or a card that gives you access for a week, you can save money by finding accommodation outside the actual boundaries of the national parks. While the lodges available in some parks are stunning and waking up Within The park can save you valuable time (especially when wildlife run-ins can lead to serious traffic jams). Mornings and evenings, they’re way too expensive and difficult to book due to their popularity.
Indulge in a lodge or two on a long trip, but otherwise enjoy the basics of a hotel or Airbnb outside of the park for some serious savings.
Camp in the park
There is an exception to every rule. If you’re familiar with public showers (or No Showers!) And sleeping accommodations with less than five stars. I strongly recommend camping in a national park.
Not only is camping much cheaper (you can camp at popular parks for just $ 25 a night), it’s an incredible way to become one with the park you are exploring. To experience the sounds and stars of the park at night: it is a truly magical experience for outdoor enthusiasts.
Tips for getting around
Walking can save you money on your national park excursions – in several ways.
Enter on foot
Many national parks charge a per-vehicle entry fee if you get on wheels (and that fee usually covers a week of re-entry). However, you may also have the option to pay per person costs upon entry on foot. If you’re traveling alone or with a partner, the cost of walking may be cheaper than traveling by car.
All you have to do is park outside the park and walk through the gate. Most parking systems have an extensive network of interconnected trails so you can start walking immediately.
Speaking of hiking, this is the best way to keep your budget low on your national park road trips. Skip the tourist traps that are sometimes found near national parks and instead spend your days hiking the thousands of miles of trails that the US has reserved for your enjoyment. You will get plenty of exercise and Mother Nature won’t charge you a penny.
Other outdoor adventures include biking, kayaking, and canoeing, but the cost of park rentals can add up. If you own a kayak or bike and can easily transport it to the park, renting these vehicles at a marina, lodge, or shop can save you a significant amount of money.
A little planning is enough when traveling. In addition to reserving discounts in advance and coordinating free entry days, you should also consider the following tips for planning your trip:
Bundle the parks
You could spend weeks in a single national park and still not see it all. However, if you do fly, rent a car, or drive your own vehicle, look for more national parks and state parks nearby. For example, if you live in North Ohio and head to the (free!) Great Smoky Mountains National Park, consider two more stops on the way to Cuyahoga Valley and Mammoth Cave (also free!) – and then knock on the door from three parks on one trip.
Other common combinations are 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.
See national monuments, state parks, and more
While national parks are the gold standard for American road travel, the country has a lot more to offer, from national lakefronts and historic sites to recreational areas and park paths. Many of these are free, and even those that cost you can be covered by your annual pass.
Rather than travel long distances to see multiple national parks, focus on one or two national parks, and fit into nearby coastlines, monuments, and other landmarks in between.
Pack your own meals and snacks
Eating out can be a drain on your budget – and time – on any trip. While every vacation deserves a little culinary delight in a chic restaurant, national park excursions are ideal for fun picnics on longer hikes and inexpensive meals around the campfire.
Pack a big cooler and your food budget will quickly drop from $ 150 for a single dinner for four at a lodge restaurant to $ 150 for ice cream, bread, lunch, fruits and vegetables, fries, and water for an entire week.
And don’t forget to pack garbage bags so you don’t leave any trash behind.
Timothy Moore is an editorial and graphic design researcher and freelance writer. It covers topics such as personal finance, careers, education, animal care, travel, and automotive. He has been in the field since 2012 and has been featured on sites such as The Penny Hoarder, Debt.com, Ladders, Glassdoor, and The News Wheel. He lives in Ohio with his partner and three-legged dog.