National parks offer an affordable way to experience some otherworldly places without leaving the country and, with thousands of trails to hike, rivers to kayak and lakes to swim, they allow you to enjoy a socially distanced vacation experience that is all outdoors.
Since the start of COVID-19, I’ve pivoted my travel away from international flights and indoor museums to the deep waters of Biscayne in Southern Florida, the snowy peaks of the Tetons of Wyoming and the remote precipices of Acadia in Maine This year, I hope to add 13 more national parks to my list during a road trip out West — and all of them on a tight budget.
These parks make up just some of the National Park System’s 63 official national parks, but the federal agency also oversees national battlefields, national monuments, national reserves and more. The NPS sites number 423.
One of the best parts of traveling to our national parks is how budget-friendly this kind of trip can be (your tax dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen). And in the era of COVID-19 and rising prices, traveling on a shoestring budget to a national park might be one of the safest and most affordable ways for many of us to get out of their own homes.
Because there are so many National Park Service sites, you might be able to plan a trip without getting on a plane, a definite cost savings for a family and likely less stressful.
Here are our best tips for exploring the national parks on a budget for your next family road trip.
How to Visit for Free
What’s better than traveling for free? Here’s how to visit all the national parks with no entrance fee:
Visit on Free Days
Each year the NPS offers free entrance days, meaning you can visit any of the national parks without paying an entrance fee. For 2022, the dates include:
- Jan. 17 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day)
- April 16 (the first day of National Park Week)
- Aug. 4 (anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act)
- Sept. 24 (National Public Lands Day)
- November 11 (Veterans Day)
You can check all free days on the NPS site each year.
Find a Free Park
Many national parks don’t charge admission. For example, America’s most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park which is in both North Carolina and Tennessee, is free to enjoy.
Here is the 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 Preserve (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)
- National Park of the American Samoa (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 (2020 is most recent data), however, eight charge entry fees:
- Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
- Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
- Zion National Park (Utah)
- Yellowstone National Park (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming)
- Acadia National Park (Maine)
- Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)
- Olympic National Park (Washington)
- Joshua Tree National Park (California)
Get a Free Military Pass
The National Park System awards a free annual Military Pass to all U.S military personnel and their dependents. That includes members of the military community from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard (now part of Homeland Security) and Space Force, plus members of the Reserve and National Guard.
The free Military Pass also applies to U.S. military veterans and Gold Star family members. The surviving immediate family members of service personnel who have been killed in conflict are awarded Gold Star status.
n December 2021, free lifetime access to National Park Service sites for military veterans was cemented into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
A free Military Pass to national parks can be obtained in person at any federal recreation site that sells passes or ordered online via the USGS Store. The USGS store also lists the sites where the Military Pass can be obtained. To get the pass, you will need to provide a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID or exchange your Gold Star Voucher.
Military Passes aren’t the only free annual passes offered by the NPS, but they are the most common. In the next section, we’ll discuss the benefits of purchasing an annual pass and how to get one for free.
If you regularly visit amusement parks like Disney World or Cedar Point, it makes sense to buy a pass. National parks operate under the same guidelines. If you’re a regular visitor, you’ll save money by going the annual pass route.
Consider America the Beautiful Passes
An America the Beautiful annual pass gets you into more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including the 63 national parks, for just $80 a year.
If you intend to visit a handful of parks that charge an entry fee in a given year (or if you plan to return to your favorite park multiple times, perhaps to see how it changes with the seasons), save money by purchasing one of these passes.
Check for Discount Eligibility
The NPS offers several discounted passes:
- Current U.S. military members and their dependents qualify for a free annual pass (see Military Pass section).
- Fourth-graders qualify for an Every Kid Outdoors pass for free entry from September to August of the following year.
- Senior citizens can purchase discounted annual passes for $20 a year or spend $80 for a lifetime pass.
- People with permanent disabilities are eligible for a free Access pass that also includes discounts on some amenities, like 50% off lodging in the park.
Volunteer and Part-Time Work
If you aren’t eligible for one of the free or discounted passes mentioned above, you can roll up your sleeves and do some hard work to earn free entry — and make the world a better place along the way.
To get a one-year pass (valid from the date of issue), you’ll need to log 250 service hours with one or more federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program. Learn more by visiting the official government volunteer site.
If you’re looking for a part-time, seasonal side gig, the national parks offer positions in their retail shops, dining and accommodation facilities, maintenance services and recreational and educational programs. In your free time, you can explore whichever facility that you are assigned to — for no cost.
Often, employment includes accommodations. There are special considerations for students and people 55 and over. More details about part-time work through the NPS.
Also, Cool Works: Jobs in Great Places lists part-time, seasonal gigs at the National Parks, among other jobs.
Tips for Finding Affordable Lodging
Other than transportation, lodging is likely to be your biggest expense for a national parks trip, since most of the recreation is free. Here are our best tips for lodging during a national parks road trip:
Stay Outside the Park
On a long trip, treat yourself to one or two nights in a lodge, but otherwise, enjoy the basic amenities of a hotel or Airbnb outside of the park for serious savings.
Camp Inside the Park
Not only is camping significantly more affordable (in popular parks, you can camp for as little as $25 a night), but it’s also an incredible way to become one with the very park you are exploring. To experience the sounds and the stars of the park at night: It’s a truly magical experience for outdoor enthusiasts.
Tips for Getting Around
Walking can save you money during your national parks trips — and in more ways than one.
Enter on Foot
Many national parks charge an admission fee per vehicle when you enter on wheels (and this fee typically covers a week of reentry), but you may also have the option to pay a per-person cost when entering on foot. If you’re traveling solo or with a partner, the cost to enter on foot may be cheaper than by car.
All you have to do is park outside the park and walk through the gate. Most park systems have an extensive network of connected trails, meaning you can get to hiking as soon as you enter on foot.
Take a Hike
Speaking of hiking, this is the single greatest way to keep your budget low during your national parks road trips. Skip the tourist traps that are sometimes nearby national parks, and instead spend your days hiking the thousands of miles of trails that the U.S. has set aside for your enjoyment. You’ll get plenty of exercise, and Mother Nature won’t charge you a dime.
Other outdoor adventures include biking, kayaking and canoeing, but the cost of rentals inside the park can add up. If you own a kayak or bike and have an easy way of transporting it into the park, you will save significant money over paying to rent these vehicles at a marina, lodge or shop.
A little planning goes a long way when traveling. In addition to making reservations in advance for discounts and coordinating around free entry days, you should also consider these trip-planning tips:
Bundle Up the Parks
You could spend weeks at a single national park and still not see it all. However, if you’re flying, renting a car or driving your own vehicle, research what other national and state parks are nearby. For example, if you live in northern Ohio and are heading down to the (free!) Great Smoky Mountains National Park, consider two more stops along the way at Cuyahoga Valley and Mammoth Cave (also free!) — and then you’ll knock out three parks in one trip.
Other common combos include Yellowstone and Grand Teton; the Olympics, North Cascades and Mount Rainier; Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches; and Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Rocky Mountain.
Consider National Monuments, State Parks and More
While national parks are the gold standard of American road tripping, the country has so much more to offer, from national lakeshores and historic sites to recreation areas and parkways. Many of these are free, and even those that carry a cost may be covered by your annual pass.
Rather than travel wide distances to see multiple national parks, consider focusing on one or two national parks and fitting in nearby seashores, memorials and other landmarks in between.
Pack Your Own Meals and Snacks
Dining out can eat into your budget — and your time — on any trip. While every vacation merits a little bit of treat-yourself dining at a fancy restaurant, national park trips lend themselves to fun picnics during longer hikes and cheap meals over a campfire.
Pack a large cooler, and your dining budget quickly drops from $150 for a single dinner for four at a lodge restaurant to $150 for ice, bread, lunchmeat, fruits and veggies, chips and water for a whole week.
And don’t forget to pack trash bags so you don’t leave waste behind.
Do Your Homework First
Increasingly, some parks are turning to timed entry reservations; no “walk-ins” allowed. Before flying out on your trip, make sure you’ll actually be able to enter the park at your destination. As of now, several parks are implementing this system during the busier summer months, including Arches and Rocky Mountain.
While not a timed entry, Zion is now implementing a lottery system for its most famous hike, Angels Landing.
Visit the individual park pages on nps.gov to see if your destination park is requiring a reservation; you will make reservations on recreation.gov. These reservations require (small) nonrefundable fees.