Exploring national parks in 2020: Where to stay using points
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For many travelers, the summer travel season is all about visiting America’s national parks. This year, of course, is anything but normal, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. For some, national parks may be out of reach because of travel restrictions and closures. However, national parks are starting to reopen across the country, and there’s no question that outdoor, inexpensive activities will be top of mind for those who decide to make a journey of some sort this year.
The national parks have exploded in popularity in recent years, buoyed by the publicity around the National Park Service centennial in 2016, 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.
If national parks are in your 2020 travel plans, TPG wants to help you use your points and miles most effectively to make these traditionally inexpensive destinations even 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 hotel in the major chains 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®.
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But you’ll often find that you can use your Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, Choice and other hotel-chain points to stay near some of the most visited national parks, especially those close to mid-size or major cities. 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 2020 at destinations that will position you to visit some of the top national parks and other sites managed by the National Park Service. Points-friendly hotel recommendations and approximate mid-summer prices (at least during normal times) are included.
The newest national park: White Sands
The newest national park is located in New Mexico. 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 snow hill!
If you’re more into viewing than sledding, there’s also a scenic eight-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 & Suites Alamogordo — from $165 or 15,000–20,000 Marriott points
- Hilton Garden Inn Las Cruces — from $100 or 25,000–30,000 Hilton Honors points
- Hampton Inn Las Cruces — from $79 or 23,000–30,000 Hilton Honors points
Explore near Chicago — Indiana Dunes National Park
Few travelers realize, that 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 daytrip 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. Here are a few options 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 $199 or 12,000 Hyatt points per night (Hyatt Category 3). As a Category 3 hotel, it might be a good value for use of a Category 1–4 certificate that is awarded on the cardholder anniversary with The World of Hyatt Credit Card.
- Hilton Garden Inn Chesterton — from $117 or 30,000 Hilton Honors points per night
- Holiday Inn Express and Suites Portage — from $114 or 20,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night
Gateway to the West: St. Louis, Missouri
The St. Louis Gateway Arch is 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 $200 or 30,000-40,000 Marriott points per night. As a Category 5 Marriott hotel, it can be a good value redemption of an up to 35,000 free-night certificate on many nights, like the one given out on cardholder anniversaries with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card.
- Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch — from $100 or 8,000 Hyatt points per night (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 a traveler’s bucket list.
Even though Yosemite is a popular national park, it can be a 45+ minute drive to destinations within the park. 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 to open up more lodging options.
Related: Review of the Westin Mammoth Resort
Where to stay
- Quality Inn Yosemite Valley Gateway (Mariposa) — from $182 or 20,000 Choice Privileges points per night.
- Best Western Plus Yosemite Gateway Inn (Oakhurst) — from $249 or 36,000 Best Western Rewards points per night.
- Comfort Inn Yosemite Area (Oakhurst) — from $194 or 20,000 Choice Privileges points per night.
Everglades and beyond: Miami and the Florida Keys
South Florida is home to three magnificent national parks that are unlike the offerings anywhere else in the country: the Everglades, the Dry Tortugas and Biscayne National Park.
The Everglades are an easy drive south and west of Miami and are 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 road-trip down to Key West where you can see the Dry Tortugas on a day trip.
Where to stay
- The Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne — from $324 or 50,000–70,000 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 $136 or 12,000 World of Hyatt points per night (World of Hyatt Category 3)
- Courtyard Key Largo — from $171 or 30,000–40,000 Marriott points (Marriott Category 5) per night. As a Category 5 Marriott hotel, it can be a good value redemption of a 35k free-night certificate on many nights
- Hyatt Centric Key West — from $273 or 25,000 World of Hyatt points per night (World of Hyatt Category 6)
Springdale, Utah, and Zion National Park
Interest in Zion National Park has exploded in the past several 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 & Suites Springdale/Zion National Park — from $198 or 50,000 Hilton Honors points per night
- Cliffrose Springdale, Curio Collection by Hilton — from $350 or 80,000 Hilton Honors per night
- SpringHill Suites by Marriott Springdale Zion National Park — from $254 or 40,000 – 60,000 Marriott points (Category 6) per night
- Best Western Plus Zion Canyon Inn & Suites — from $242 or 36,000 Best Western Rewards points per night
- La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham at Zion Park/Springdale — from $177 or 30,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night
Volcanoes on Hawaii’s Big Island
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, began a major eruption. 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.
Another option to cut the commute to the park is to stay in a room at the Volcano House, that 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 $179 or from 40,000 Hilton Honors points per night
The Grand Canyon
Perhaps the grandest national park of all, the Grand Canyon is massive both in size and popularity. As there are multiple rims to the canyon, so there are 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 $250 per night or 24,000 Best Western Rewards points
- Holiday Inn Express & Suites Grand Canyon — from $160 per night or 40,000 IHG Rewards Club points
If you are planning a multi-night visit, keep in mind that the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card will give you the fourth award night free.
Where to stay near the North Rim using points (OK, it’s about two hours away)
- Courtyard Page at Lake Powell — from $185 per night or 30,000–40,000 Marriott points per night
- Holiday Inn Express & Suites Page – Lake Powell — from $110 per night or 30,000 IHG points per night
- Days Inn & Suites by Wyndham Page – Lake Powell — from $70 or 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night
- Best Western Plus at Lake Powell — from $225 per night or 32,000 points in the summer, rates vary
Beauty and History: Charlottesville, Virginia
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 $200 or 30,000–40,000 Marriott points (Marriott Category 5) per night. As a Category 5 Marriott hotel, it can be a good value redemption of a 35k certificate.
- Hyatt Place Charlottesville — from $120 or 8,000 World of Hyatt points per night (World of Hyatt Category 2)
- Hampton Inn & Suites Charlottesville-At the University — from $184 or 40,000 Hilton Honors points
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 begin to reopen this summer, we do know that wide-open outdoor spaces may be popular vacation options.
If you want one of the U.S. National Parks to be on your summer 2020 wish list, now is a good time to get serious about lodging options 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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