Exploring national parks in 2021: Where to stay using points
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National park visits have exploded in popularity in recent years, buoyed by the publicity around free admission days and programs such as the Every Kid in a Park program that provides free entry to fourth graders and their families.
More than 327 million visitors enjoyed the national parks in 2019. Then, 2020 brought the pandemic and upped the ante even more. While many parks were closed or partially closed at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the situation has normalized and now many wonderful spaces are open and welcoming visitors for socially distanced activities.
If national parks are in your future travel plans, TPG wants to help you use your points and miles most effectively to make these trips more affordable.
The biggest cost involved with visiting a national park is typically lodging. Some national parks are in such remote locations that finding a major chain hotel where you can use points is pretty challenging. In that case, consider using fixed-value points currencies or booking with Chase points (or a similar rewards currency) on a site such as Chase Travel where you can use points earned from the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.
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But you’ll often find that you can use your Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, Choice and other points to stay near some of the most-visited national parks, especially those close to midsize or major cities. And don’t forget, the National Park Service is responsible for many more destinations than just the 62 national parks, including national monuments and national historic sites, among others.
Here are some of some ways to use hotel points in 2021 at destinations that will position you to visit some of the top national parks and other sites managed by the National Park Service.
White Sands National Park
The White Sands National Park joined the national park roster in late 2019, and covers 275 square miles of desert in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. There, the winds of time have created wave-like dunes of gypsum sand that are a marvel to behold — and you can even sled like you would on a snowy hill!
If you’re more into viewing than sledding, there’s also a scenic 8-mile Dunes Drive — and horses are even allowed into the park.
Getting to White Sands is likely going to require a road trip because El Paso International Airport (ELP) is the closest major airport, and it’s 85 miles south. But luckily there are affordable hotels much closer to the park than El Paso.
Where to stay
- Fairfield Inn and Suites Alamogordo (Category 3) — from $107 or 15,000 to 20,000 Marriott points
- Hilton Garden Inn Las Cruces — from $83 or 18,000 to 27,000 Hilton Honors points
- Hampton Inn Las Cruces — from $109 or 27,000 to 30,000 Hilton Honors points
Indiana Dunes National Park
Few travelers realize Chicago is less than an hour’s drive from one of America’s newest national parks: Indiana Dunes National Park. Formerly the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the area got a promotion of sorts in early 2019 to national park status. The park stretches 15 miles along the shore of Lake Michigan and is a popular outdoor escape during the summer for beach-going and hiking.
Related: Best road trips from Chicago
Travelers can easily make a day trip there from Chicago or can find a home base closer to the park in cities like Chesterton or Portage, Indiana, where budget and moderate hotels are available. There are a few properties in both areas (also check out TPG’s recommendations for the best family-friendly Chicago hotels to redeem points and advice on how to plan a family trip to Chicago).
Where to stay
- Hyatt Regency Chicago — from $156 or 12,000 Hyatt points per night (Hyatt Category 3). As a Category 3 hotel, it might be a good way to use a Category 1to 4 certificate that’s awarded on the cardholder anniversary of the World of Hyatt Credit Card.
- Hilton Garden Inn Chesterton — from $79 or 24,000 to 30,000 Hilton Honors points per night
- Holiday Inn Express and Suites Portage — from $107 or 13,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night
The St. Louis Gateway Arch
The St. Louis Gateway Arch in Missouri is also a relatively recent addition to the national park roster. The area around the arch recently underwent a major renovation to make it even more of a destination for visitors.
Where to stay
- Hotel Saint Louis, Autograph Collection — from $99 or 30,000 to 40,000 Marriott points per night. As a Category 5 Marriott hotel, it may be a smart place to redeem a 35,000-point free night certificate, like the one given out on cardholder anniversaries with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card.
- Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch — from $86 or 8,000 Hyatt points per night (World of Hyatt Category 2)
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park in Northern California needs no introduction. Seeing sights like Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls are on many travelers’ bucket lists.
Even though Yosemite is a popular national park, it can be a 45-minute drive (or longer) to destinations within the park, and long lines can form at the park’s entrances during traditional peak summer dates. Consider redeeming flexible points currencies for a more accessible stay, if you have those available to you.
Related: Review of the Westin Mammoth Resort
Where to stay
- Quality Inn Yosemite Valley Gateway (Mariposa) — from $85 or 16,000 Choice Privileges points per night.
- Best Western Plus Yosemite Gateway Inn (Oakhurst) — from $120 or 20,000 Best Western Rewards points per night.
- Comfort Inn Yosemite Area (Oakhurst) — from $194 or 16,000 Choice Privileges points per night.
Everglades, the Dry Tortugas and Biscayne National Park
South Florida is home to three magnificent national parks that are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in the country: the Everglades, the Dry Tortugas and Biscayne National Park.
Everglades National Park is an easy drive southwest of Miami and where alligators and wildlife abound. Dry Tortugas and Biscayne National Parks both require some additional effort to reach, as both protect areas that are largely underwater.
If you want to hit all three in a single trip, Key Largo is your most central spot for lodging. Alternatively, spend a few days in the Miami area in order to visit the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, and then drive down to Key West where you can see the Dry Tortugas on a day trip.
Where to stay
- The Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne — from $330 or 50,000 to 70,000 Marriott points per night (Marriott Category 7). On off-peak nights when the hotel sells for 50,000 points per night, you could use an up to 50,000 free-night certificate like the one given out on cardholder anniversaries by the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card.
- Hyatt Regency Miami — from $152 or 12,000 World of Hyatt points per night (Category 3)
- Courtyard Key Largo — from $127 or 30,000 to 40,000 Marriott points (Marriott Category 5) per night. As a Category 5 Marriott hotel, it can be a good way to redeem a 35,000-point free-night certificate on many nights.
- Hyatt Centric Key West — from $379 or 25,000 World of Hyatt points per night (Category 6)
Zion National Park
Interest in Zion National Park has exploded in recent years, making it one of the nation’s most-visited national parks.
According to park service statistics, close to 4.5 million visitors entered Zion in 2019, up from 2.7 million just 10 years earlier. The area has some epic hiking opportunities, from the easier Angels Landing to the Narrows for the more adventurous. There are also plenty of family-friendly hiking and biking opportunities for travelers with younger kids.
For points travelers, Zion is also one of the easier national parks to visit. The town of Springdale, Utah, is steps from the park’s main entrance and moderately priced chain hotels abound.
Where to stay
- Hampton Inn and Suites Springdale/Zion National Park — from $118 or 31,000 to 60,000 Hilton Honors points per night
- Cliffrose Springdale, Curio Collection by Hilton — from $240 or from 27,000 Hilton Honors points per night
- SpringHill Suites by Marriott Springdale Zion National Park — from $273 or 40,000 to 60,000 Marriott points (Category 6) per night
- Best Western Plus Zion Canyon Inn and Suites — from $149 or 24,000 Best Western Rewards points per night
- La Quinta Inn and Suites by Wyndham at Zion Park/Springdale — from $109 or 30,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
For much of 2018, Hawaii’s Big Island was regularly in the news for all the wrong reasons. In the spring of that year, Kilauea, the volcano protected as part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, erupted. The landscape was permanently altered and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has changed dramatically.
There’s no longer visible lava in the park, but the crater is much more massive as a result of the geological changes. There are no major hotels near the park, so you can either book a very basic cabin in the park, or you can stay in the Volcano House.
Otherwise, Hilo is less than an hour away and can serve as a home base for more hotel options.
You could also cut the commute by booking a room at the Volcano House, which operates in partnership with the National Park Service. During the summer, rooms are often available for $200 to $300 per night (crater views cost a little extra). Or, you can rent your own little cabin for less than $100 per night. In either case, you’d want to use your fixed-value points to cover that cost.
Island-hopping travelers can also potentially visit one more national park while in the state: Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui. Here are some tips for using miles to island-hop around Hawaii.
Where to Stay
- Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – A Doubletree by Hilton — from $215 or from 50,000 Hilton Honors points per night
The Grand Canyon
Perhaps the most iconic national park of all, the Grand Canyon is massive both in size and popularity. There are multiple rims to the canyon, so there are also different lodging recommendations based on where you plan to visit. And although you can camp in the Grand Canyon or reserve other types of lodging within the park, the competition for much of that is often pretty fierce.
Related: Best times to visit the Grand Canyon
Where to stay near the South Rim using points:
- Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Squire Inn — from $199 per night or 32,000 Best Western Rewards points
- Holiday Inn Express and Suites Grand Canyon — from $280 per night or 22,500 IHG Rewards Club points
If you’re planning a multinight visit, keep in mind that the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card will give you a fourth-night reward.
Where to stay near the North Rim using points (OK, it’s about two hours away)
- Courtyard Page at Lake Powell (Category 5) — from $111 per night or 30,000 to 40,000 Marriott points per night or a 35,000 free night certificate on off-peak or standard dates
- Holiday Inn Express and Suites Page – Lake Powell — from $99 per night or 19,000 IHG points per night
- Days Inn and Suites by Wyndham Page – Lake Powell — from $67 or 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night
- Best Western Plus at Lake Powell — from $83 per night or 16,000 points
Shenandoah National Park
Charlottesville, Virginia, is an ideal jumping-off point for a number of national park adventures, including Shenandoah National Park, as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway, both of which are full of outdoor pursuits. Although the area is popular in summer, I also recommend visiting in the fall when the colors are some of the prettiest anywhere in the country.
For the traveler interested in the Civil War, you can also visit sites within an easy 90-minute drive of Charlottesville: Appomattox Courthouse, a national historic park commemorating the site where the Civil War ended. Another 90-minute road trip to the north takes you to Manassas, where two pivotal Civil War battles were fought.
Where to stay
- Residence Inn Charlottesville Downtown — from $156 or 30,000 to 40,000 Marriott points (Marriott Category 5) per night. As a Category 5 Marriott hotel, it can be a good place to use a 35,000-point certificate on off-peak or standard dates.
- Hyatt Place Charlottesville — from $127 or 8,000 World of Hyatt points per night (Category 2)
Our country is blessed with many fantastic national parks, monuments and outdoor spaces. Although no one knows for sure what travel will look like as things continue to reopen this summer, we do know that wide-open outdoor spaces will remain popular.
If you want one of the U.S. national parks to be on your summer 2021 wish list, now is a good time to get serious about lodging and perhaps make a refundable reservation in or near a park — just in case you can make the trip.
Considering a national park trip this year? Other articles of interest:
- How to visit America’s national parks for less
- You need the $80 national park pass – here’s why
- Top tips for visiting national parks with kids
- These are the 10 most popular national parks in the US
- Visiting the Grand Canyon with a family: where to camp, stay and play
- Family camping adventures in Yellowstone National Park
- The best times to visit Yellowstone
Additional reporting by Summer Hull
Featured image by Christian Joudrey on Unsplash.
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