3 free summer weekends at national parks

By Kate Appleton
October 3, 2012
Courtesy <a href="">Buqo/myBudgetTravel</a>

Mark your calendars: 147 national parks are waiving admission fees (typically $3 to $25) over Father's Day, June 20–21, as well as July 18–19 and August 15–16.

The National Park Service hopes that these Fee-Free Weekends will inspire families to get outdoors—and give an economic boost to local communities in the process.

Concessioners, who provide services like lodging and food, have pitched in with their own Welcome to Your Parks promotions. We regularly update our listings of National Parks Real Deals and just published a month-by-month guide, Beat the Crowds at National Parks, along with gorgeous photos from across the U.S.

Last summer, I stopped for a hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park during a road trip through western North Carolina. Now Olympic National Park, Acadia National Park, and Badlands National Park are high on my list.

Which parks are you hoping to visit next?

Keep reading
National Parks

This weekend: Consider a stay at your national parks

It's time you made yourself a "nature resolution." You know, set yourself a goal like "this is the summer I'm going to take a hike" and "this is the year I'm going to get outdoors more." The National Park Service knows this and wants to help. The annual National Park Week continues through this Sunday in the 391 areas that comprise the National Park System. Activities include junior ranger days, educational hiking trips (which teach you how to identify wildflowers and animals, to name a few subjects), volunteer opportunities, and trivia contests. Aramark, which runs many of the hotels in the national parks, is offering adventure and getaway packages, including hotel accommodations and perks like included tours, guided hikes or walks, and festival tickets. Budget Travel is a huge fan of the national parks&#151;just check out our month-by-month guide of the best times to visit the more popular ones. Remember: It's not all about Yellowstone. Don't forget the national parks much closer to your home. Need more inspiration to make your own nature resolution? Check out our Readers' Best U.S. Landscape Photos slide show.

National Parks

National Parks: Money-saving tips

Kurt Repanshek, author of Frommer's National Parks With Kids and webmaster of National Parks Traveler answered reader questions about the national parks (and the new America the Beautiful Pass) in a live chat yesterday at Here are some highlights: When does it pay off to buy a year-round pass? These days, if you plan to visit three or more parks in a year's time, the $80 investment in an America The Beautiful Pass (ATB Pass) generally is worth it, as more and more parks are charging either $20 or $25 for entry. Now, I was pretty disappointed when they went from the National Parks Pass to the ATB Pass. With the National Parks Pass, you knew your $50 was going right to the National Park Service and the national park system. With the $80 ATB Pass, it all depends on where you buy your pass. Since the ATB Pass covers entry to "fee lands" on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, AND the National Park Service, fees currently are distributed to the agency that sells the pass. In my case, the nearest Forest Service office is about a 25-minute drive away, while the nearest NPS unit is about an hour. So if I didn't care which agency my money went to, I'd buy the ATB Pass at the Forest Service office. Since I want my dollars to go the parks, I make a point to buy the pass at a Park Service site. Now, if you're planning to visit the same park over and over again over the course of a year, you can save money by buying that specific park's "annual pass" instead of shelling out for the ATB. For instance, at Acadia National Park the annual pass costs just $40, or half the ATB. There is talk in Congress of bringing back the National Parks Pass, but I'm not holding my breath. Are park passes available at a discount anywhere? I'm afraid that, to the best of my knowledge, there are no discounted America The Beautiful passes to be purchased. Of course, that's kind of a trick answer. If you're 62 or older you qualify for a senior ATB pass, for the princely one-time fee of $10. If you're disabled you can get a life-time pass for free. Both passes can only be obtained in person from a Park Service, Forest Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, or Bureau of Reclamation office. For details on what proof you'll need to provide, surf over to Do you have any tips for combating mosquitoes? I feel your itch. Seriously. I've tried just about everything for persuading mosquitoes to bite someone else, with little luck. I've tried DEET (Cutter, Off, you name it), I've tried Burt's Bees, I've tried skin lotions, I've tried that supposedly bug-repellent clothing, I've tried patches. I'm afraid I haven't found a reliable solution. I usually start with the least-repugnant remedy and move on from there towards the heavy duty DEET concoctions. I like the Burt's Bees bug repellents, as they're natural (built around Rosemary, Lemongrass, and Citronella oils with 5 other oils that bugs supposedly hate) and, frankly, smell OK. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. The only sure-fire solution I've discovered is restricting my campouts to before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. What's your favorite, must-bring, most indispensable tool for backpackers in the parks? I'm gonna guess that you're exempting tents, sleeping bags, water bottles, matches, and that sort of thing. I guess something along the line of a Leatherman multi-tool would be one of the best things to pack, ounce-for-ounce. After all, a good one has a can opener, a knife or two, scissors, awl, file, screwdriver, pliers, bottle opener, and on and on. Seems like a no-brainer. What lodging would you recommend, please, inside or just outside Yellowstone for two couples in their 60's who enjoy mid-level activities? I'm afraid your question prompts more questions. What part of Yellowstone do you want to see? How far is too far to drive? What sort of activities are you interested in? If geyser basins are a priority, West Yellowstone might be perfect for you. There's a wide range of lodging (price-wise and accommodation-wise), there's a variety of restaurants, and it's well-located in terms of the Upper, Lower, Midway and Norris geyser basins, there are some excellent hiking trails in this area of Yellowstone, and, if you like to fish, the Madison River is renowned for its trout fishery. You can either rent a motel room or two or rent a house for a reasonable amount of money. We did the later last summer with three couples, and had a blast. If this sounds good, check with the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce for possibilities. If you'd rather tackle more of the park, I love Lake Yellowstone Hotel. It's pricey, but you can save some money by looking into one of the Western Cabins at the adjoining Lake Lodge and then heading over to the hotel for meals. The location is great, as you're close (relatively speaking) to West Thumb, Old Faithful, the Hayden Valley, and Canyon, there's plenty of hiking, boating, angling, and wildlife viewing nearby as well. And there's nothing like relaxing in the hotel's Sun Room with a drink before dinner while the string quartet is playing! EARLIER Are fees to enter our national parks getting too high?

National Parks

Guns in the National Parks (125 comments)

Our recent blog post, "Should guns be openly used in the National Parks?" drew more than 125 comments from readers. Thanks to everyone. (Comments are now closed.) As a reminder: Under current Interior Department regulations, you can bring many types of firearms into most national parks, but the weapons cannot be loaded and "ready-to-fire." Below, you'll find some of the comments that generated light, not just heat. (Find all of the comments on the original post, of course.) I believe regulations should be on a park-by-park basis -- i.e., where in the park they're permitted, under what circumstances -- e.g., sidearms, for protection only, always visible (not concealed), and registered upon entry. No need for long guns since hunting isn't allowed.&mdash;Tony Having a unloaded firearm for protection is worthless, the very thing that one would need to protect themselves from is not going to "timeout" for me to locate my bullets and load a firearm. &mdash;Butch Yes, [guns should be allowed]. However, the individual should have to register the gun he will be carrying as he enters the park and upon exiting.&mdash;Jon A 9mm handgun will not stop even a small bear! Naturally, the best way to avoid trouble is to be alert and know what to do before the situation escalates. Attend the Ranger classes to know what to do about Wild Animals in the National Parks. Human predators are another matter. Certainly, the armed citizen is a major deterrent to criminals, if the weapon is carried concealed. Allow those individuals with a Concealed Carry Permit to do so in the Parks. Others would have to openly carry firearms in National Parks.&mdash;Tom I think only registered hand guns could be allowed into parks. The guns must be declared at the park entrance and the serial number recorded.&mdash;Philip The incidences of someone being attacked by a "psycho" stranger in a National Park are so insignificant as a ratio to the # of park visits every year to render them statistically meaningless. You are far more likely to die in traffic.&mdash;The Pixinator. I would prefer only to allow unaltered shotguns to be carried in parks by the general public and not rifles or handguns for safety reasons, yet at the same time, I do think that citizens who have been issued a concealed-carry permit should be allowed to carry their handguns anywhere in park boundaries. Concealed-carry permit holders are well trained in the handling of the weapon and they have a complete understanding of the laws concerning weapon usage. They have been granted concealed-carry permits by their home state and that privilege should not end at a park boundry gate.&mdash;Gayle If concealed weapons on licensed people were permitted the Park Service would have to begin searches of everyone to be sure that these people were showing their weapons,etc. This would mean 24 hour Rangers at all entrances. It would mean spending more money than any park has available to hire more personnel to do all the searches of people and their vehicles.&mdash;M.K.Wolf A few articles and Facts might provide a reality check for those who indicate that there's no threat in national parks: Park Rangers hold the most dangerous law enforcement job in the federal government, they are 12 times more likely to be subject to violent assault than an FBI agent. Another new and rapidly growing problem: "Hideaway methamphetamine labs and marijuana fields in rural park areas (some of them run by drug cartels) and illegal aliens crossing through parks near the US- Mexico border are part of a growing crime scene." Source: Christian Science Monitor. The New York Times, in an article called Rangers Take on Urban Woes in Wide Open Spaces has this to say: "The larger problem, rangers say, is not that national forests have become crime-infested jungles. But that as cities like Reno; Denver; Phoenix; Tucson; Albuquerque; and Boise, Idaho; and smaller communities like Bend, Ore., and Moab, Utah, grow at rates far beyond the national average, they bump against the public land that surround them, carrying urban crimes to open space." In fast-growing Snohomish County, Wash., a woman and her daughter were killed earlier this month on a popular hiking trail. The crime remains unsolved. The average law-enforcement to visitor ratio is 1 to 100,000, far lower than in any urban setting anywhere in the country. PHOTO of gun-shaped egg-fryers via Urban Trend. COMMENTS ARE NOW CLOSED.

National Parks

Should guns be easier to carry in our national parks?

Forty-seven senators want the government to allow citizens to carry loaded handguns and other firearms in our national parks. These senators don't need to pass legislation to change a current ban on citizens carrying "ready-to-fire" weapons. Instead, the senators can petition the Interior Department to change the regulation. What do you think? Is the ban on "ready-to fire weapons" a violation of your constitutional rights under the Second Amendment? Are lonely wilderness trails one of the places you would most want to have your handgun at the ready for self-defense? Or are gun prohibitions justified because they reduce accidents and poaching? [Please note, our gun regulations are not to be confused with our hunting laws. Nobody is asking to reverse federal laws that make it illegal to take, shoot, or transport wildlife.] Or is there another option not being considered that you would like to propose, such as setting aside a few national parklands as "gun-friendly"? [PHOTO BY 16-year old Drew Wilson, via Flickr] Under today's rules, you can "pack heat" as long as it's not "ready to fire." For example, you can bring an unloaded, but assembled, gun as long as it is packed in a case or in the trunk of your car. But the senators want to allow citizens to carry "ready-to-use firearms," meaning weapons loaded and on your person. Since 1983, the Interior Department has prevented citizens from carrying firearms onto Park Service lands and Fish and Wildlife Service property. You can download the letter here. What do you think? Feel free to sound off below. According to the Associated Press, Thirty-nine Republicans and eight Democrats signed the letter, including both senators from these states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.