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How To Visit U.S. National Parks For Free

By Kaeli Conforti
August 25, 2015
Capitol Reef National Park in Utah
Courtesy <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/wolfgangstaudt/2282555972/" target="_blank"> Wolfgang Staudt/Flickr</a>

Happy 99th Birthday, National Park Service. You Look Great!

In case you hadn't noticed, the U.S. is home to some of the greatest national parks in the world. The best part: if you do your homework, you can visit them for free. Here's how.

Enroll in the Every Kid In A Park program

Get ready for the ultimate family national parks road trip adventure! Starting in September 2015, 4th grade students around the country can sign up through the Every Kid In A Park website to receive a voucher for free entry until Aug. 31, 2016 to U.S. national parks and public lands for the student and up to a carload of people. Translation: you and your family will get the chance to see wildlife and spectacular natural wonders up close—just remember to stay in your car when the urge to take that perfect bison photo suddenly hits.

Visit during free admission days

The good news in case you didn't get a chance to visit your favorite national park today during the 99th anniversary of the National Park Service, you can still take advantage of free entrance days on Sept. 26th (National Public Lands Day) and Nov. 11th (Veterans Day). Next year, you'll also be able to score complimentary admission on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents' Day weekend, National Park Week's opening weekend, and on Aug. 25th, the 100th birthday of the National Park Service.

Free annual passes are available for certain groups

Current military members and their dependents, families of deployed service men and women in the U.S. Navy, Army, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard, and most members of the U.S. Reserves and National Guard can pick up a free annual pass at any federal recreation site by showing a valid current military ID.

U.S. citizens with permanent disabilities are eligible for the Access Pass, a free annual pass that must be obtained in person at any federal recreation site or you can pay a $10 processing fee to submit your application online.

Have you volunteered with a federal agency (ie. the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, or the Bureau of Reclamation) for more than 250 hours? You can apply for a free Volunteer Pass by applying through the Interagency Pass Program or by visiting Volunteer.gov for more information.

Seniors get in for (almost) free

If you're over the age of 62, you can pay just $10 for a Lifetime Pass if you apply in person at any federal recreation site, or $20 for a processing fee if you choose to apply via mail. The pass also includes a 50 percent discount on certain fees that are normally charged by the parks for camping, boat launches, swimming, and other activities. Please note that Golden Age Passports are no longer being sold, but will be honored if they've already been purchased.

Need more ideas? Find Your Park.

At Budget Travel, we're huge fans of our national parks and try to visit them as much as possible. In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I had the chance to view lava from the visitor center, walk through the dormant Thurston Tunnel, and hike along a path that looked down onto active steam vents. In South Dakota's Badlands National Park, my other favorite, each stop at one of the "scenic overlook" markers becomes a scene you'll never forget, a postcard with every view. Want to visit a handful of amazing national parks and monuments in one road trip? Try Southern Utah's National Park circuit through Capitol Reef, Bryce, Zion, Arches, and Canyonlands—with a stop at Monument Valley in Northern Arizona—for the summer road trip of a lifetime.

We want to know: which national park is your favorite? Is there a certain one you keep going back to? Which ones are still on your travel bucket list? Sound off below!

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National Parks

WATCH! Yellowstone Bison Surprises Motorists

We were sorry to hear that a teen visiting Yellowstone National Park was gored by a bison on Friday after posing for a photo near the animal. Her injuries were deemed serious but not life-threatening. I must admit, though, the animal encounter reminded me of the video above, shot by my wife Michele when she and our daughter Rosalie were visiting Yellowstone last summer. The gigantic bison that huffs and puffs past Michele and Rosie's rental car has become a bit of a video "star" with Budget Travel readers. The bison attack last week is also an opportunity to remind travelers, as the National Park Service does, that you should never get within 25 yards of bison or other park denizens. (The teen who was gored on Friday was reportedly standing wtihin 6 feet of the bison.) Yellowstone National Park is home to up to 5,000 bison by some estimates, and despite their massive size, they can run three times faster than you can. Stay safe.

National ParksBudget Travel Lists

BT Staff Picks: 8 National Parks We Love!

Visiting a U.S. national park is a bargain no matter what day it is, but this weekend, on April 18 and 19, admission to every park is free in celebration of National Park Week. Can't decide which one to visit? Take the National Park Service's quiz on FindYourPark.com to find out which of the U.S.'s 407 parks you should explore first. (The Statue of Liberty is one of them!) The site and social-media hashtag #FindYourPark is part of a public awareness campaign for the service's centennial anniversary in 2016. We want to guide you in the right direction too. Asking the BT staff members to choose a favorite national park is a little like asking us to choose a favorite child, but we sifted through our best travel memories and each picked one that's special to us. We hope our stories help inspire your next adventure. BT staffers weigh in: What's your favorite national park, and why? "Glacier National Park, in Montana, is not just my favorite national park, but also my favorite place on earth. Pristine mountain lakes, easy hikeable trails, mountain goats greeting you at the continental divide at Logan Pass, plus huckleberry ice cream." —Robert Firpo-Cappiello, editor in chief "Badlands National Park, the first place I visited during a road trip through the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. The landscapes were like nothing I'd ever seen before, and I kept pulling over at every sign that said 'scenic overlook' because I knew there was another amazing view behind it. If you go, give yourself plenty of time to sit back, enjoy the scenery, and listen to the sounds of nature around you. Just remember to stick to the walking paths—those are rattlesnake rattles you're hearing!" —Kaeli Conforti, digital editor "Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Enveloping the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the park is unparalleled in the fall. The specks and flecks of warm-colored foliage are painted throughout the layered mountain range as its signature fog hangs between peaks, making any view of this park a remarkable one." —Whitney Tressel, photo editor "Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah, is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. It's what I imagine being on Mars would feel like: The landscape is an incredible, fiery ochre, and delicate rock formations defy gravity. Basically, you'll spend the day here picking your jaw up off the ground." —Sophie-Claire Hoeller, contributor "Haleakala National Park, on Maui, is amazing and one of the most unusual parks in the USA. You can explore lush rain forest and the colorful crater of a volcano all in one park, a trip that will definitely earn you bragging rights." —Darley Newman, contributing editor "If you want to guarantee a wildlife encounter during your national park visit, it's impossible to beat the Florida Everglades. From the second you enter the park, you're bombarded with more than 350 bird species—plus alligators and crocodiles out catching rays. And you can skip the binoculars; you'll practically be tripping over wildlife during your entire trip." —Nicholas DeRenzo, contributor "I've always loved this quote by John Muir: 'The mountains are calling, and I must go.' To me, Yosemite, in California, is the most beautiful national park, from the first moment you see the incredible vistas at Tunnel View to the stunning reflections of the immense mountains in the valley streams. I'll never forget hiking to Vernal Falls with my best friend and how we were both in awe once we got to the top." —Jennifer O'Brien, marketing manager "Putting the unique beauty of Joshua Tree National Park into words is nearly impossible, but I still try to describe the feeling I had when I first saw it for myself. I've told people the towering boulder piles, spiny trees, and arid desert floors are 'otherworldly,' 'alien,' or 'incomparable,' but 'spiritual' is probably the best term for Joshua Tree, as the park will speak directly to your soul." —Jamie Beckman, senior editor

National Parks

Yellowstone in Winter

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK -November 13, 2014 - Even for people who have been to Yellowstone National Park many times in summer, a winter trip is like visiting a whole new park. But unlike a summer trip, a winter visit requires more preparation with roads open only to over-the-snow vehicles and just two of the nine lodges open. That is why Xanterra Parks &amp; Resorts' Yellowstone National Park Lodges, the operator of lodging, restaurants and activities in Yellowstone, offers packages designed to showcase the park's winter offerings while minimizing the planning. "A winter visit to Yellowstone can be like visiting another amazing world," said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra in Yellowstone. "While obviously all the natural features enjoyed during summer can be seen in winter, a blanket of snow and winter temperatures seem to transform the park, especially geyser basins, into other-worldly snowscapes.  And the opportunities to view wildlife, especially wolves, is excellent during the winter season." Xanterra offers a lineup of winter-season multi-day packages that help visitors focus on their interests. These packages include "Lodging &amp; Learning" packages in partnership with the Yellowstone Association Institute (YAI), self-guided winter "Getaway Packages" and a guided snowmobile "Adventure Package" as well as lodging and transportation options for those who want to customize their own experiences. The park's winter season begins Dec. 20, 2014 with the opening of Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel opens Dec. 21. The lodges provide the only wintertime accommodations within the park. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel will close for the season March 2, 2015, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge will close March 1, 2015. The popular Winter in Wonderland Lodging &amp; Learning package features a comprehensive overview of the winter experience while additional packages focus on specific interests with titles like Yellowstone on Skis, Winter Wolf Discovery, Winter Wildlife Expedition, Old Faithful Winter Expedition and YNot Winter, a package developed to teach participants the basics about winter-season experiences in Yellowstone. Each program includes expert guides, accommodations, in-park transportation, some meals and Xanterra's "Snow Card" good for 10 percent off meals, in-park transportation, tours, ski shop services and most retail items. Introduced last winter, an airport shuttle from Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport provides a convenient and cost-saving option for traveling to/from the park. Package participants receive a special rate of $42 (plus applicable taxes/fees) each way, a savings from the regular rate of $53.50 plus tax each way. Except for the road from Gardiner, Mont. to Cooke City, Mont. via Mammoth Hot Springs, transportation within the park is limited to snowmobiles and enclosed heated snowcoaches during the winter. Snowcoach transportation is available daily to a variety of park locations. Xanterra also offers a wide range of half- and full-day snowcoach, ski and snowshoe tours as well as ski and snowshoe rentals and instruction. Winter packages can be booked by calling (1) 307-344-7311 or toll-free 866-GEYSERLAND (866-439-7375) or by submitting the secure online package reservation request form found on the website www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com.

National ParksRoad Trips

A Road Trip Through Big Bend National Park

Seems like there's a lot of talk about the U.S.—Mexico border these days, usually from folks who don't live anywhere near it and who perhaps have never even been there. That's a shame, not just for all the rich cultural and political implications of understanding the region, but also because it is home to one of the most beautiful jewels in our National Park Service: Big Bend National Park. Here, in West Texas, the Rio Grande winds through stunning limestone cliffs, the warm breezes quickly dry you after a paddle downriver, and the vistas are as limitless as the dreams of the people who've traversed this borderland for centuries. In hopes that you'll embrace this unique landscape, Budget Travel shows you how to get here, find reliable lodging and good eats, and get the most out of one of the least-visited—and most majestic—of our parks. DOWNLOAD OUR FREE ULTIMATE ROAD TRIPS APP HERE! MARATHON Texans, getting to the beauty of Big Bend ain’t easy. But that’s one of the charming things that have kept the park a “hidden gem.” The nearest airport is in Midland, more than 160 miles to the northeast. Best known as the city where future vice president and president George H.W. Bush made his name in the oil industry, and where one of his sons, future president George W. Bush, did the same, Midland has been booming in recent years thanks to the hotter-than-ever business of drilling and refining oil. But even Midland’s residents admit that it’s not exactly a tourist magnet, and most of the Big Bend-bound will pile into their rental cars and head southwest on Interstate 20. Spend a comfortable night in Marathon at the Gage Hotel (102 NW 1st St., Highway 90 West, Marathon, Texas, 432/386-4205), which includes a historic original hotel plus a variety of rooms, suites, and houses on the property at a variety of price points, including 16 rooms in the original hotel, 20 adobe brick rooms in the Los Portales property surrounding a courtyard with a fountain, and a number of historic homes. A steak or seafood dinner at the on-site 12 Gage restaurant (102 NW 1st St. Highway 90 West, Marathon, Texas, 432/386-4205) is utterly called for, followed by a drink at the White Buffalo Bar, even if you belly up to the bar just to see the massive head of the distinctive eponymous animal mounted on the wall. Next morning, spend some time getting to know this authentic western town. Don’t leave town without chowing down—you won’t find restaurants on your drive through the park. Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit (109 NE 1st., Marathon, Texas, 432/386-9020, legendary fluffy biscuits with sausage gravy and fried pies including apple, cherry, pecan, nad peach) is a highly recommended spot for breakfast or lunch—their huge biscuits and satisfying sausage gravy are the fuel you’ll need for a day in the park, and, if you have room, their array of fried pies (don’t judge, just enjoy) won’t disappoint either. Because Big Bend National Park has ample spots for picnicking but few places to actually buy food, make sure your car is stocked with snacks or lunch and plenty of water (a gallon per person per day is recommended). Then hit U.S. 385 South toward Big Bend. You’ll soak up about 69 miles of expansive West Texas scenery on your way to Panther Junction. Stop at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center for maps, brochures, and to ask park rangers for advice about the day’s weather and park conditions. At Panther Junction, take some time out to explore the Panther Trail, a self-guided nature tour that is a nice introduction to the desert landscape you’ll be exploring (a trail map is available at the visitor center), before driving the 19 miles to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which will take you through the heart of the park. The trip from Panther Junction to the western side of the park and its stunning Santa Elena Canyon can be done in one day, but if you intend to stop at many of the overlooks (and we suggest that you do!) or take the hiking trails that allow you to explore dry waterfalls, canyon floors, historic ranches, and other one-of-a-kind sights here, you should consider either camping in the park or returning after a night in a hotel to spend at least one more day taking in this amazing place. BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is one of those unforgettable stretches of road that unfolds before you in a series of vistas and experiences. Like better-known drives in better-known parks, such as Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, and Glacier, this is a carefully plotted out route that is literally part of the land, allowing you both convenience and authenticity at the same time. Stop off at the Sam Nall Ranch, the evocative remains of one of the many homestead ranches that once dotted this landscape. Here, you’ll see an original windmill that still pumps out water and is a magnet for some of the park’s thirsty wildlife, including javelinas, painted buntings, green-tailed towhees, and mockingbirds. The Blue Creek Ranch Overlook offers another look at one of the ranches that were active here before it became a park. You'll look down at the Homer Wilson Ranch and, if you like, follow a short trail down to the ranch buildings and to additional hiking opportunities on the Blue Creek Canyon and Dodson trails. Don't miss the Sotol Vista Overlook—one of those awesome spots that our National Park Service does so well. Here, high above the floor of the desert you'll be able to scan the western side of the park and whet your apetite for the majestic Santa Elena Canyon, which you'll see in the distance. (Don't worry, you'll get to the see the canyon up close later in the day and it's worth the wait.) Burro Mesa Pour-Off requires you to pull off on a mile-and-a-half side road to get to the clifffs of the Burro Mesa, where you can take a short half-mile hike into a canyon and savor the desert foliage and a waterfall that does not, in fact, "pour off" at all—it's dry. From the Mule Ears Overlook you'll take in the distant twin peaks and won't have to ask how they got their funny name. If you're up for more hiking and can afford to add some time to your stay, find the two-mile trail from teh overlook's parking area that takes you to a desert spring. Another overlook along the highway lets you view Tuff Canyon (named for the volcanic ash taht formed the rocks—which isn't actually "tough" but rather soft.) Castolon Historic District will seem like a bustling little city compared with the trails and overlooks you’ve been enjoying. It’s a preserved district that was a cavalry camp at the turn of the last century. Spend some time at the visitor center, but the most fascinating place in the district is La Harmonia Store. On the surface it’s an ordinary convenience store, but the shop’s history is extraordinary, dating back more than a century to the days when the border between the United States and Mexico was far more porous than it is today and government resources were stretched thin. The store played an important rold in the coming and going of Americans and Mexicans back and forth across the border, touching on not only commerce but also law enforcement and even international relations. If you're not quite ready to move on to the far western side of Big Bend just yet, you can spend a night at the nearby Cottonwood Campground for $14 per night (no hook-ups, just 24 campsites with pit toilets, grills, and clean running water.) TERLINGUA Big Bend saves the best for last. The Santa Elena Overlook provides a stunning look down Santa Elena Canyon, cut into the limestone over the eons by the Rio Grande. Marvel at the 1,500-foot- high canyon walls and the fact that the left wall of the canyon is in Mexico, the right in the United States. If you’ve got time, or if you come back after a good night’s sleep, follow the trail along the river that takes you down to the canyon floor. Better still, contact Big Bend River Tours (FM 170 West, Terlingua, Texas, 432/371-3033, offers floats, hikes, and other tours of Big Bend National Park) and sign up for a float down the gentle, shallow waters of the Rio Grande with the canyon walls on either side. Tuckered? Of course you are. Drive into Terlingua dusty and damp and check into the El Dorado Hotel (Highway 170, Terlingua, Texas, 800/371-3588), a reliable option near the park in this former ghost town. Yes, you read that right—the mining community of more than 2,000 cleared out after WWII and in the ’70s folks began coming back. These days, the hotel and its High Sierra Bar &amp; Grill (Highway 170, Terlingua, Texas, 432/371-3282) are a great outpost for visitors to the western side of Big Bend.

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