You Can Visit Every National Park for Free This Weekend — Here’s How to Maximize Your Trip

Aug 21, 2019

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On Sunday, Aug. 25, the National Park Service (NPS) will celebrate it s 103rd birthday by offering free admission to all 112 fee-charging National Parks across the US.

While National Parks are generally affordable and the fee contributes to park upkeep, that expense can add up — especially when you’re visiting multiple parks during a single trip. Either way, the NPS specifically offers these free days to encourage more people to get outside and enjoy the country’s most stunning landscapes. That’s why we put together a guide to maximizing your national park trip when entry fees are waived. (In addition to the National Park Service’s birthday, travelers have two more chances to enjoy every park free of charge this year: National Public Lands Day on Sept. 28, and Veterans Day on Nov. 11.)

While you could easily dedicate an entire day or more to exploring a single National Park, fee-free days are a great time to maximize your trip and visit more than one park that would typically charge admission.

Here are four routes you can take to see at least two parks in just one day. This way, you’ll see the most, for far less.

Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons

I’ve been on plenty of road trips, but this is hands down one of my personal favorites, as the views are striking and there’s no shortage of fun pitstops along the way, including lunch in the mountainside town of Jackson Hole (just south of Grand Teton National Park); watching Old Faithful erupt; and getting lost in the colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring.

(Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Chris Leipelt/Unsplash)
(Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Chris Leipelt/Unsplash)

It’s about a three hours drive from the west entrance of Yellowstone in Montana to Jackson Hole, Wyoming — but that’s without all the stops you’re sure to make along the way. So, plan for a full day.

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Savings: $70 total; $35 per vehicle for Yellowstone and Grant Tetons.

Getting There: Fly into either Bozeman (BZN) in Montana or Jackson Hole (JAC) in Wyoming, then rent a car.

Extra Stop: If you’re making the trip from Jackson Hole to Yellowstone, consider staying a night in beautiful Bozeman, Montana. It’s just two hours from the west entrance to Yellowstone and makes for the perfect addition to your National Park tour, as it’s home to many more free parks such as Hyalite Reservoir — as if Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons weren’t enough.

Zion and the Grand Canyon

Less than two hours away from each other, you can easily see one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and explore Zion National Park all within a single day. While this certainly isn’t enough time to do any sort of serious hiking, it’s enough to give you an introduction to the two parks. And personally, I think National Parks should always be visited more than once — especially if you live in the US — and the first time is great for familiarizing yourself with the park and the surrounding area before planning an extended stay.

Image courtesy of Getty Images.
(Photo by Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images)

Savings: $70 total; $35 per vehicle for both Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon.

Getting There: If you’re coming from farther away and not up for a serious road trip, fly into Flagstaff (FLG) or Las Vegas (LAS), then rent a car. Depending on where you’re coming from, you could also take the Amtrak or Greyhound to Flagstaff.

Extra Stop: If you’re driving from Zion to the Grand Canyon, continue southward and spend the night and next day in Sedona, Arizona, where you can hike the picturesque red rocks or relax at a day spa.

The Rocky Mountains and the Great Sand Dunes

Start your drive through the winding roads of Rocky Mountain National Park and make your way down to Alamosa, Colorado, where you’ll be greeted with the state’s southern sand dunes. This is the longest drive we recommend, taking about four and half hours, but we’re sure the views will keep you entertained. You probably won’t have the time to hike at both parks unless you wake up extra early, but the drive is pretty spectacular on its own.

Alpenglow kisses Hallet Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park (Matt Dirksen/Getty Images)
Alpenglow kisses Hallet Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park (Photo by Matt Dirksen/Getty Images)

Be sure to pack water shoes for your trip to Great Sand Dunes, because you’ll have to cross a river to get to the dunes and the sand is quite rocky. Also, pack for extreme weather. I visited back in May and was welcomed with temperatures below 40 degrees and hail that eventually turned to snow. It’s safe to say we were not expecting this type of weather so close to June, and were not prepared. Additionally, we didn’t know about the river crossing. Thankfully, if you’re visiting this late in the summer, the river should have warmed up a bit.

Savings: $60 total; $25 per vehicle for Great Sand Dunes and $35 per vehicle for Rocky Mountain National Park.

Getting There: If you’re not road tripping, fly into Denver (DEN) or Colorado Springs (COS) then rent a car. Depending on where you’re coming from, you could also take the Amtrak to Denver and then rent a car.

Extra Stop: If you’re making a road trip out of this, continue west to Arches National Park in Utah. This is a park where you will want to spend at least a day, as the only way to see some of the most iconic arches up close is by hiking to them, which takes at least a few hours.

Shenandoah National Park and Great Falls

If you’re unfamiliar with these parks, you might be surprised to hear they are both just outside Washington, DC. If you’re a Washingtonian looking to escape the city, head to Great Falls first and enjoy the relaxing sounds of the rushing falls before continuing to Shenandoah, where you can get your adrenaline pumping with a hike or you can enjoy the scenic drive through the mountains.

Great Falls National Park (drnadig/Getty Images)
Great Falls National Park (Photo by drnadig/Getty Images)

A few of my favorite hikes within Shenandoah are Old Rag (more rigorous), and both Stony Man Trail and White Oak Canyon for an easier afternoon.

Savings: $45 total; $15 per vehicle for Great Falls and $30 per vehicle for Shenandoah.

Getting There: If you’re from the DC area and don’t have a car, the best way to get to both places is by renting one. If you’re coming from out of town, fly into any Washington, DC-area airport, especially DCA or IAD.

Extra Stop: If you’re visiting from outside the region, extend your stay in the nation’s capital and enjoy free entrance to Smithsonian Museums and National Monuments every day.

Bottom Line

If you aren’t able to take advantage of the fee free National Park day, know that there are five throughout the year and also plenty of parks that are free throughout the year. However, if you have plans to visit multiple parks within the year and don’t have flexible dates then consider getting the Annual Pass. It’s only $80 and good for 12 months from the date of purchase. As you can see from our examples, it’s nearly always worth it if you see just two or three parks a year.

I can personally attest to it being a valuable investment as I recently completed a road trip from Missouri to California where we visited three national parks along the way. If we hadn’t purchased the pass, it would have cost us $90 — and while that’s only an initial savings of $10, I plan to use the pass a few more times before next May, which could end up saving me hundreds of dollars.

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(Featured Photo by Steve Burns/Getty Images)

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