7 ways to visit America’s national parks for less

Aug 22, 2020

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There are few travel experiences more distinctly American than a visit to a national park. Generations of families have piled into the station wagon (and now its modern cousin, the SUV) to road trip through iconic destinations such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains.

National parks in the United States can be some of the most rewarding destinations for travelers to visit. Whether you have a toddler or a teen, or are looking for a rewarding solo trip, national parks offer a wide variety of travel experiences — from the educational to the more adventurous. It’s no wonder the parks are often called “America’s best idea.”

National-Parks-Zion
One of the nation’s most popular parks, Zion National Park in Utah. Image by Leslie Harvey.

This country’s national parks can also be fairly inexpensive destinations. Of course, their growing popularity has raised prices, along with increasing crowds, especially during peak season. In fact, national and state parks have never been in higher demand than now, with travelers everywhere escaping to the great outdoors and wide-open spaces.

Fortunately, there are many ways to make a national park vacation more budget-friendly. Don’t worry, I’m not going to say you need to sleep in a tent to save money — although camping can surely save some cash, too.

Whether you’re a beginner to national parks travel, or a veteran looking to cross even more parks off your bucket list, here are the easiest ways to save money when visiting America’s national parks.

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Visit on fee-free days

Saguaro National Park in Tucson Arizona
Hiking among the iconic cacti of Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona. Image by Leslie Harvey.

The National Park Service has several days a year when all national parks are entirely free to enter. And your next opportunity to take advantage is right around the corner, on Tuesday, Aug. 25 — the birthday of the National Park Service.

Other fee-free days in 2020 included Jan. 20 (for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday) and April 18 (the first day of National Park Week) and Aug. 5 (to commemorate the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act).

If you aren’t free on Aug. 25, there are two more opportunities to visit a national park for free this year: National Public Lands Day on Sept. 26 and Veterans Day, on Nov. 11.

Of course, the fee-free days can also be some of the most crowded times to visit many national park sites. The earlier you can arrive on a fee-free day, the easier it is to park and dodge the crowds. You may also want to seek out some of our nation’s less popular and more remote national parks instead, especially since avoiding other people is an important precaution to minimize your risk of exposure this summer.

Related: TPG’s safe travel guide: How to minimize risk on your summer vacation

Get your fourth-grader for a free pass

If you have a fourth-grader in your family, you should apply right now for the “Every Kid in a Park” pass. Valid from the beginning of the school year through the summer following fourth grade, this pass allows fourth-graders and their families free access to all the National Park Service sites and many other federal lands.

Every Kids in a Park National Park Pass Sample

The Every Kid in a Park program is fairly new, started in 2015 in anticipation of the National Park Service’s centennial year. As a result, many families simply haven’t heard of it yet.

The application process is incredibly simple. Go to the official website and have your child complete a few questions. A digital copy of the pass is then available for printing and can be traded in for a more permanent pass at many parks, if you prefer.

Buy an annual pass

Yosemite National Park El Capitan
Yosemite, one of the most majestic parks, is now also one of the most expensive. Image by Leslie Harvey.

Even if you don’t have a fourth-grader, annual passes at national parks are still a great deal for travelers who plan to visit multiple park sites. The standard America the Beautiful annual pass is just $80. With per-vehicle fees to enter some of the most popular national parks, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, as high as $35 per visit, you’ll more than break even if you plan to visit even just a few sites in a single year.

The annual pass is valid to enter more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, from national parks to forests and a variety of public lands. My family was pleasantly surprised to find that our pass was even valid at a site like Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas, which is a National Conservation Area managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.

One quirk of the pass is that it’s good for the month in which you purchase it and then 12 months after that. So, it’s possible to squeeze nearly 13 months of value out of a pass when timed properly.

If you don’t plan to visit enough different parks to justify an America the Beautiful Pass, consider park-specific annual passes that are available in many locations. A few of these passes even cover more than a single location. The Crater Lake National Park Pass, for example, also includes admission to nearby Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California.

Related: Why you need this $80 National Park Pass

Make it a multigenerational vacation

A multigenerational national park adventure at Bryce Canyon National Park.Image by Leslie Harvey.
A multigenerational national park adventure at Bryce Canyon National Park. Image by Leslie Harvey.

If you vacation with Grandma and Grandpa, they can also help you get into national parks for less. The America the Beautiful Lifetime Senior Pass comes with a one-time fee of $80 and is good for, well, life. It’s an amazing bargain. Seniors are eligible to apply at age 62, so many active seniors will get decades of value out of the pass.

Having visited several national parks with my children and my parents together, I also can highly recommend the multigenerational national park experience. Getting outdoors in the natural beauty of the parks is a great way for children to bond with grandparents and learn something along the way. There can be practical benefits as well. My husband and I, for example, have been the lucky recipients of grandparent babysitting for our younger child when we wanted to take our older child on a few more challenging hikes.

Just remember that most national parks charge entrance on a per-vehicle basis. If your multigenerational group plans to drive two cars into a park, you’ll need two passes.

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

Visit Fee-Free Sites

Sunset from Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Image courtesy of Wray Sinclair via Getty Images.
Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a national park that’s free to visit. Image by Wray Sinclair / Getty Images.

While many parks charge entrance fees, a majority of sites managed by the National Park Service and related agencies don’t charge a dime. Many travelers don’t realize the extent of the free offerings. I highly recommend spending a few minutes on the National Park Service website and looking for free parks near your home or where your next vacation will take you.

For example, the nation’s most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, is still completely free to enter. Two other national parks within easy driving distance of millions of Americans — Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio and Congaree in South Carolina — are both free as well. Additionally, most National Monuments don’t charge entrance fees.

Vacation during Shoulder Season

National-Parks-Bryce-Canyon-Snow
Bryce Canyon still has a bit of snow in early April but is very hikeable. Image by Leslie Harvey.

The national parks have become increasingly popular in recent years. Demand for lodging far exceeds supply in some places, inflating prices during the high season for everything from hotels to activities. For example, expect to pay well over $200 a night for very basic hotels 30 to 45 minutes outside the Yosemite National Park gates if you visit in July.

Budget-conscious families should strongly consider shoulder season visits to find more reasonable prices. As a bonus, you’ll also dodge crowds while saving some cash.

Because the shoulder season is different in every park depending on its location, geography and weather, chances are good you can find a national park destination that works any time of year. Try Yosemite during the early fall once the Labor Day crowds have cleared, Death Valley in the late fall before the winter rush starts or Bryce Canyon for spring break while the last snows are melting.

Related: 11 of the best national parks to visit during winter

Use hotel points to stay near  national parks

Zion Lodge in Zion National Park
Zion Park Lodge is a historic property and the only lodging located within the park. Image by Leslie Harvey.

Last but certainly not least, hotel points can be an important part of a budget national park experience. After all, if I’m promising you don’t have to camp, lodging is often the largest percentage of the cost of a national park trip.

National park vacations may not be an obvious choice for hotel points compared to a major city or tropical resort getaway, but there’s value to be found around many popular national parks for the careful planner.

Most of the accommodations within the boundaries of national parks are managed by concessionaires such as Xanterra Resorts and Delaware North. Ordinary chain hotels are nowhere to be found.

These accommodations can, however, be an excellent use of flexible points currencies like those available with credit cards like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard or Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. In addition to having superior locations, many of the in-park hotels are historic lodges — and I always recommend cashing in for an authentic national park experience whenever possible. The information for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.          

Sometimes, these historic lodges are too pricy or, more often, just sold out. In those situations, there’s value to be found near many national parks with the major hotel points programs too.

At Zion National Park, for example, the town of Springdale is just steps outside the park. Springdale has several chain hotels where points travelers can redeem points without sacrificing location. The Holiday Inn Express Springdale – Zion National Park Area, for example, can be booked from 27,500 points per night and is one of the best-rated hotels in the area. It could be a great use of the free-night certificate awarded every anniversary from the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card.

And when rates soar to more than $250 a night (which they often do in high season), redeeming IHG points can be a good value as well.

Related: Ways to use points to stay near to national parks

Staying in Jackson Hole near the Grand Tetons affords a few options on points such as the Springhill Suites Jackson Hole bookable for between 40,000 and 60,000 Marriott points per night on off-peak dates. This means that, on certain dates, you could use the up to 50,000-point certificate you get at each renewal with the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card. You could also book the Springhill Suites very close to the entrance of Zion National Park on standard or off-peak nights.

Bottom line

National parks may continue to be one of the hottest vacation destinations for long after the pandemic is behind us. And though fee-free days are a great way to see these stunning natural spaces without opening your wallet, there are ways to save throughout the year.

But if you haven’t been to a national park yet, Aug. 25 could be a great opportunity to experience a piece of this country’s natural beauty for less.

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