Choose a Park with Free Admission
Vacations at national parks represent a great value. Typically, the entrance fees simply pay the staff and the expense of keeping the park operational. But in a few cases, there are no entrance fees. Choosing such a park is one of five money-saving tips for getting the most value from your park visits.
The list of U.S. National Parks that never charge admission will include a few unfamiliar entries. For example, Katmai National Park in Alaska is unfamiliar to many travelers. It's located in a remote area that's inaccessible by car.
But you should also consider this: some of America's most-visited national parks are on the free admission list. Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina is the nation's most popular park, with about 9 million annual visitors. Don't leave your wallet at home. You'll pay for park services such as a camping space and horseback riding, but admission to the park itself is always free.
Remember, all 127 U.S. parks that charge admission will waive those fees about six times a year. These Fee Free Days start in January and continue until November. Dates vary slightly each year. If you schedule your trip to take advantage of the free admission, keep in mind that crowds of travelers might be making similar plans.
Look into Long-Term Passes
U.S. National Park Passes are among the best budget travel buys on the market.
Seniors (ages 62 and older) can buy lifetime admission passes for $10. That pass also entitles senior budget travelers to some free park amenities. If you need to purchase it through the mail rather than in person at a park, you'll pay an extra $10.
Travelers under age 62 can buy an annual pass for $80. It admits the buyer and up to three adults. It expires the last day of the month in which you purchase it. So someone who buys on March 1 has a valid pass through March 31 of the following year.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of confederation, Canada is offering the Discovery Pass free of charge in 2017. It's valid for admission at 27 participating national parks and 77 national historic sites. You will pay for other park services, but admission is waived.
The Discovery Pass is a good value even when it's not offered for free. Learn to take advantage of these value-packed opportunities.
Take Advantage of Free Programs
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah offers a free astronomy program during the warmer months of the year. Also offered is a Night Sky hiking program that requires reservations months in advance. Because the skies here are so free from city light, it's estimated you can see 2.2 million light years away on a clear night. How is that for a nice view?
You'll find rangers and other specialists frequently offer such programs featuring unique aspects of the park. It might be as simple as a nature walk, but these free programs can enhance your travel experience with no impact on your budget.
One final note: don't shy away from programs that require a small fee. The guided tours of Mesa Verde National Park are worth a great deal more than what you'll pay.
Price Extras and Budget for Them
Although entry to many national parks is free, there are charges for other services. If you want to camp in the Cades Cove campground at Great Smoky Mountain National Park, you could pay $20/night.
Notice that the numerals on this sign are removable, which suggests that the prices will change at various points in the year. It's important to know these costs before you leave home.
As you choose a campground site, you'll find wide variations in costs. In the more popular places, plan on reserving months in advance and perhaps paying a reservation fee in addition to the nightly cost.
Some national parks will offer extras such as overnight hiking expeditions or boat rentals. Many times, these costs will come in lower than what would be typical outside the park. Nonetheless, research the costs and budget for them.
Consider the Cost of Staying Outside the Park
Everyone loves the idea of spending the night in a national park campground or lodge. In many places, it makes good sense to establish your personal headquarters just steps from the spectacular sights that drew you to the area.
But there are other times and places where it might pay to stay just outside the park boundaries in budget lodgings that cater to park visitors.
These opportunities vary widely. In some places, such as Kalaloch Lodge at Olympic National Park in Washington, the nearest restaurants and hotels are a long drive from the park entrance. Research the parks you'll visit with budget lodging in mind.
In most national parks, lodge rooms are booked solid during peak travel periods, often months in advance. Expect to find a no vacancy sign if you arrive at these times without a reservation.