How to Visit the National Parks for Free: an 8-step guide
Our country just celebrated the National Park Service’s 101st birthday with a free admission day at the national parks.
And that got us thinking, when else are the parks free?
The answer: often!
During our year-long trip through all 59 national parks, we learned a lot about how to navigate them in a budget-friendly way. How can you access the wonders of the national parks for free? Keep reading:
Skip the entrance fee
Actually, our first tip for visiting the national parks for free is not always free.
But an $80 America the Beautiful pass will allow you access to all 415 national park units in the United States for the year. Individual parks also sell annual passes to that specific park, if you are a repeat visitor. (A yearly pass to Yosemite is $60, while a one-day pass is $30).
However, many national parks are already completely free! Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most frequently visited national park, has no entrance fee. Other free parks include Virgin Islands, Kenai Fjords, and the National Park of American Samoa.
In addition to these always-free parks, you can also aim to visit a national park during one of the free days each year. In 2017, there have been 10 free national parks days: January 16, February 20, April 15-16, April 22-23, August 25, September 30, and November 11-12. Just keep in mind that the popular parks will be even more popular during these days.
But wait, there’s more! Every 4th grader receives a free pass for his or her family through the Every Kid in a Park program. And active military and citizens with a permanent disability can receive free annual passes as well.
Find free camping
Yes, it’s very possible to find free camping in the national parks. More than possible. After we spent time in campground after campground in the parks, we were ready to find something a little more off the beaten path (and cheaper :)). There are several ways to get free camping.
First, most National Forest Service (NFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land is usually free to camp inside. Most national parks are surrounded by national forest land. When we visited Joshua Tree during a busy season, we were able to camp just south of the park along a dirt road inside BLM land. At Capitol Reef, the rangers even pointed us in the direction of established free camping areas just outside the actual park.
Another way to access free camping is by checking out the drive-up backcountry options at the park. In Death Valley, rangers advised us that camping along dirt roads, at least one mile from a paved road, was considered backcountry and therefore free. Big Bend also offered many drive-up backcountry sites, but a cheap permit (lasting 14 days) was required.
Finally, if you’re not above it, many parks have gateway cities that are big enough to house a WalMart. We were not opposed to curling up in the back of our car a few nights — as long as it meant donuts in the morning!
Get a free backpacking permit
If drive-up camping is not your style, many parks offer free backcountry hike-in camping. In Great Sand Dunes, we camped in the dunefield two nights and it cost us nothing but a short chat with a ranger and trying to remember our license plate number.
Free permits are also available in Petrified Forest, Redwood, and North Cascades National Parks, just to name a few. Many parks offer per-permit prices, so extending your stay to multiple days can save money, even if the permit costs a few dollars.
Learn about the park before setting out
National parks offer some of the best free museums in the country, in our (extremely biased) opinion. Best part? There is no fee to access the beautiful displays, park movies, and exhibits inside the park visitor centers and museums.
To start your national parks trip off on the right foot, you can’t beat stopping at a park visitor center.
Go on a hike
Maybe we are just easily entertained, but hiking in the national parks is one of our favorite activities on the planet, and all parks offer a little something for every age and skill level. Even at some of the most extreme and wild national parks, there is usually a short trail to get you acquainted with the stunning park scenery. Hiking will always be our favorite way to make the national parks free.
During our year in the parks, we hiked almost every day, so we quickly racked up the miles on our boots. Our top 10 dayhikes can be found here, and our top 10 short hikes can be found here.
My personal favorite hike of the entire trip was the 9.5-mile roundtrip hike to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. But almost just as much, I enjoyed the easy, wheelchair accessible Rim Trail in Bryce Canyon. Like we said, there is something for everyone.
Attend a ranger program
We didn’t know just how valuable ranger programs would be to us before we began our year in the national parks. We attended as many as we could, and learned so much more than we would have going about the park on our own. People pay for private tours all the time without realizing they could receive the same information for free on a ranger program.
Some restricted park areas — like inside Wind Cave or areas of the historic Kennicott Mine at Wrangell-St Elias — can be accessed only by a paid ranger tour. These are usually cheap, but they sometimes fill up so do your research ahead of arriving to the park.
But most ranger programs are completely free. Short talks, evening presentations, guided hikes, snowshoe hikes, canoe trips, night sky programs, and an astronomy festival are all activities we got to participate in for FREE during our year in the parks. It pays to hang with the rangers.
Make your own camp food
If you’ve ever been on Pinterest, you know there are hundreds of easy-to-make campground meals that you can whip up while spending time in the parks. Yes, you have to buy the groceries, but no, you won’t have to pay for grossly overpriced meals at small gateway cities surrounding the parks.
Our “famous” Switchback chili can be made in about 15 minutes on a small backpacking stove, all with simple groceries:
- 1 can diced tomatoes, fire roasted optional
- 1 can black beans
- 1 can chili beans
- full-cooked sausage, any variety
- 1-2 fresh jalepenos, optional
- 1 avocado, optional
- Parmasean cheese, optional
Simply heat up the tomatoes, beans, diced sausage, and jalepeno in a pot. Garnish with avocado and parm, and voila! Easy, hardy dinner for 2-3 hungry hikers.
Use the park shuttle systems
Available in popular parks like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, and Rocky Mountain, some parks offer a free shuttle service that will transport visitors to popular trailheads, campgrounds, visitor centers, and picnic areas around the park.
In Zion, a shuttle is the only way to access areas inside Zion Canyon. In any park that offers it, using the shuttle is a great way to get around without having to worry about finding a parking spot or fight traffic. Shuttles also cut down on pollution in the park, which can harm the environment you are there to admire.
Regardless of which budgeting tip you use, remember that national parks are already very affordable. Spending time in the beautiful outdoors usually requires very little monetary investment.
Getting out and hiking, camping, or just admiring the views in the national parks is important, because the more people that fall in love with the parks, the more people that will be around to preserve and protect them for generations to come.
Want more tips on visiting the national parks? Click here!