Exploring national parks in 2020: Where to stay using points

May 18, 2020

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Editor’s note: At TPG, we paused traveling to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Local and federal governments around the globe are now debating the appropriate levels of isolation and distancing. Before booking that next trip, we recommend you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions. TPG is continuing to publish deals, reviews and general travel news to inform and prepare you for that trip, whether it is next month or next year.


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.

Related: How to get in national parks for less 

Angels Landing Zion National Park
Hiking Angels Landing in Zion National Park. (Image courtesy of the National Park Service)

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.

Related: The joy of booking new, attainable summer trips

In This Post

 

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.

Related: Top national parks to visit before your kids leave the house

White Sands National Monument (photo courtesy of Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images)
White Sands National Monument. (Photo courtesy of Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images)

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

Related: Credit cards that provide hotel award nights

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

Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes, America’s newest national park, created in 2019. (Image courtesy of the National Park Service)

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

Related: 19 national parks every traveler needs to see at least once

Gateway to the West: St. Louis, Missouri

The Gateway Arch Museum in St. Louis. (Photo by traveler1116 / Getty Images)
The Gateway Arch Museum in St. Louis. (Photo by traveler1116/Getty Images)

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

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.

Yosemite (Photo by Artur Debat/ Getty Images)
Yosemite National Park. (Photo by Artur Debat/Getty Images)

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

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.

Everglades National Park (Photo by: Martina Birnbaum / EyeEm / Getty Images)
Everglades National Park. (Photo by: Martina Birnbaum/EyeEm/Getty Images)

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

Springdale, Utah, and Zion National Park

National-Parks-Zion
Zion National Park. (Image by Leslie Harvey)

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

Marriott SpringHill Suites (Photo courtesy of hotel)
Marriott SpringHill Suites. (Photo courtesy of hotel)

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.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
(Image courtesy of the National Park Service)

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

Hilton Grand Naniola Hawaii (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
Hilton Grand Naniola in Hawaii. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

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

Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim (Photo by Getty Images / benedek)
Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim. (Photo by Getty Images/benedek)

Where to stay near the South Rim using 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)

Here are some additional tips for activities and camping in and around the Grand Canyon.

Beauty and History: Charlottesville, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park in western Virginia. (Image courtesy of the National Park Service)

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

Bottom line

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:

Additional reporting by Summer Hull

Featured image by Christian Joudrey on Unsplash.

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