And instead of stacking our trip with expensive outings, we made two national parks the centerpiece of our travels. At Arches National Park in Utah, it was a relief to feel small and insignificant, my troubles dwarfed by nature. And the memory of a crowd bursting into applause after a particularly spectacular sunset over the Grand Canyon still raises a lump in my throat.
Writer and historian Wallace Stegner famously called national parks America’s “best idea.” Turns out they’re also among the best ideas for a penny-pinching vacation, thanks to hundreds of drivable destinations throughout the country, free or inexpensive admission, and tons of cheap activities.
Here are five reasons national parks make a great low-budget getaway:
There's probably one within driving distance
Road trip! When people think of America’s national parks, they tend to imagine sweeping expanses of Western wilderness, like the Grand Canyon. But there are hundreds of national parks, historic sites, preserves, scenic and historic trails, national monuments and memorials, and other places across the country that fall under the National Park Service’s care. That means there’s likely a site within easy driving distance of where you live. From my house in Southern New Hampshire, I can reach Acadia National Park in Maine in just over four hours or Boston National Historic Park in less than an hour.
The National Park Service manages 419 individual units covering more than 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, including sites in 40 of the 50 most populous cities in the United States, according to the service’s website.
Visitors can use the National Park Service’s online “Find a Park” tool at NPS.gov/findapark to search for parks by state, activity or topic of interest, or browse a full list.
They are inexpensive (or even free) to visit
More than two-thirds of national park sites, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, don’t charge an entrance fee. Those that do often charge by the carload instead of the individual. For instance, at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, visitors can buy a seven-day pass for a carload of people for $35.
Also look for special passes and programs that offer free or discounted admission, such as the annual fee-free entrance days (there are five in 2020) and the Every Kid Outdoors program, which provides free admission for fourth-graders and their families. There’s also the free, lifetime Access Pass, which is available to people with a permanent disability; the annual free Military Pass for people currently serving; and the lifetime Senior Pass, which costs just $80 for people age 62 and older.
And if multiple parks are on your vacation agenda, the annual America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is a great bargain. It costs $80 and allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including all national parks.
“If visiting several parks with entrance fees within a year, this pass pays for itself very quickly,” said National Park Service spokeswoman Stephanie Loeb.
There's a lot of free stuff to do once you're there
At many vacation spots, admission fees are only the tip of the cost iceberg. But that’s not the case at national parks, where the talks, walks, films, museums and other programs are typically either free or included in the admission fee.
At Badlands National Park in South Dakota, our family, including two kids under the age of 4, did a short sunrise hike; spotted jack rabbits, bison and prairie dogs along the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway; walked the scenic Door, Window and Fossil Exhibit trails; and played with hands-on exhibits at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
Visitors might join a free, wheelchair-accessible guided tour along the Anhinga Trail to see alligators and other wildlife in the Florida Everglades, hear free ranger talks at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and bundle up for ranger-led snowshoe walks at Glacier National Park in Montana. There are also interactive Junior Ranger activities for kids at more than 200 National Park Service areas.
Visitors can forgo hotels and restaurants in favor of camping and picnicking
To fully experience the majesty of national parks — starry skies, splendid sunrises — skip the hotel and camp instead. There are campsites in more than 130 park units, so you can wake up on the beach at Assateague Island in Maryland, in the woods of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim in Arizona, or with a view of otherworldly spires in Bryce Canyon in Utah.
The parks offer two types of camping experiences. With “frontcountry camping,” or car camping, visitors drive directly to established campgrounds to set up a tent, trailer or RV. These campgrounds sometimes have amenities such as water, electricity hookups, bathrooms and showers, fire rings, dump stations, camp stores, and food storage boxes to protect food from wildlife.
To go off grid, pack a backpack and head out into the wilderness on foot or in a canoe, kayak or raft to try backcountry camping with only your gear and a sense of adventure. Check NPS.gov for safety tips, what to bring and guidelines for national park camping, including whether you need a permit.
You can make it a volunteer vacation
Another way for budget travelers to visit national parks is to volunteer there. Last year, 300,000-plus volunteers contributed more than 7.2 million hours of service.
Find park-specific volunteer gigs — such as collecting seeds from Homestead National Monument of America’s tallgrass prairie in Nebraska or cleaning up the beach at Six Mile Cove on Lake Mohave in Nevada — or take part in mass volunteering on special days, such as National Public Lands Day and Earth Day.
Plus, people who rack up 250 volunteer hours can get a free Volunteer Pass, good for a year’s worth of unlimited entrance fees.
However you choose to experience the national parks, be sure to get the latest information before you go.
“Always look at NPS.gov and do research before heading out to a park. Doing this could save time and money,” Loeb said. Check out the “plan your visit” page to find special events, programs and other information to help you make the most of your vacation — and get the most for your money.