How to Visit America’s National Parks for Less

Oct 8, 2018

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

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

National parks in the United States can be some of the most rewarding destinations for family travelers to visit. Whether you have a toddler or a teen, 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.”

America’s national parks can be fairly inexpensive travel destinations. Of course, their growing popularity has raised prices, along with increasing crowds, especially during peak seasons. For family travelers looking to keep travel costs down, there are many ways to make a national parks 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.

Sliding Sands trail in Haleakala National Park in Maui Hawaii
The Sliding Sands Trail in Haleakala National Park. Image by Leslie Harvey.

Whether you are 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.

1. Take Advantage of Your Fourth-Grader for a Free Pass

If you have a fourth-grader in your traveling 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. My fourth-grade daughter just applied and received hers in the mail last week so we are prepared for a year of even more park adventuring.

2. Buy an Annual Pass

Even if you don’t have a fourth-grader, annual passes at national parks are still a great deal for family 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.

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

The annual pass is valid to enter more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, from national parks to national 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 US 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.

3. 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 is just a one-time fee of $80 and is good for life. While the price did recently increase last year, it’s still an amazing bargain. Seniors are eligible to apply at age 62, so many active seniors will often get decades of value out of a pass.

Having visited several national parks with my children and my parents together, I also can highly recommend the multigenerational national parks 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 baby-sitting for our younger child when we wanted to take our older child on a few more challenging hikes.

National-Parks-Zion-Waterfall Hike
Hiking a waterfall trail too challenging for her little brother in Zion National Park. Image by Leslie Harvey.

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.

4. Visit on Fee-Free Days

The National Park Service has several days a year where all national parks are entirely free to enter. Take advantage, especially if you are new to national parks but looking to dip your toe in the water.

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

The fee-free days in 2018 included January 15 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) and April 21 (First Day of National Park Week) and also will include September 22 (National Public Lands Day) and November 11 (Veterans Day). The number of fee-free days has contracted in recent years, down to only four in 2018 compared to 10 offered in 2017, and 16 offered in 2016. As a result, you’ll need to plan a bit more in advance to take advantage of these freebies.

Of course, the fee-free days can also be some of the most crowded at many national park sites. The earlier you can arrive on a fee-free day, the easier it is to park and dodge the crowds.

5. Visit Fee-Free Sites

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.

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

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.

6. Vacation in Shoulder Season

The national parks have become increasingly popular in recent years. Demand for lodging greatly outstrips 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 of 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 an added 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 that 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 there are melting.

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

7. Cash in Hotel Points to Stay Near National Parks

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

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

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

Most of the lodging within the boundaries of national parks are managed by national parks concessionaires such as Xanterra Resorts and Delaware North. Ordinary chain hotels are nowhere to be found. These accommodations can, however, be excellent uses for some 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 teeming with unique offerings. I always recommend cashing in for authentic national parks experience whenever possible.

Sometimes these historic lodges are too pricy, or more often, just sold out. In those situations, there are values 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 of the park. Springdale has a number of chain hotels where points travelers can redeem points without sacrificing location. The Holiday Inn Express Springdale – Zion National Park Area, for example, charges 40,000 points a 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 new IHG Rewards 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.

Staying in Jackson Hole near the Grand Tetons affords a few options on points such as the newer SpringHill Suites Jackson Hole bookable for 35,000 Marriott Rewards points per night. This means you could use an annual 35,000-point Marriott Rewards certificate awarded with various co-branded SPG and Marriott Rewards credit cards. If you have the Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card, that awards an annual 50,000 point Marriott Rewards certificate, you can book the SpringHill Suites very close to the entrance of Zion National Park.

Springhill Suites Zion National park entrance (photo courtesy of the hotel)
Springhill Suites Zion National Park entrance. Photo courtesy of the hotel.

Leslie Harvey is a mom of two children, ages 9 and 4, from the San Francisco Bay Area. She blogs at Trips With Tykes, is the co-host of the podcast Disney Deciphered and co-owns the Disneyland planning Facebook group, Disneyland with Kids.

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