How To Visit U.S. National Parks For Free
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!
3 free summer weekends at national parks
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?
Readers' best national park photos
We asked, and you came through with spectacular photos from U.S. national parks, including this shot of Glacier National Park from myBT member Ketchie. See the slide show. Inspired? We've also got practical advice to help you get outdoors: National Parks (Minus the Crowds) maps out itineraries for four popular parks. Try planning your visit around one of this summer's free admission weekends, and browse our national park deals.
National parks: Deals inspired by Ken Burns' new doc
The nation's 58 national parks, those stalwart symbols of American ingenuity, will get the true celebrity treatment this weekend, when Ken Burns' latest documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea debuts on PBS this Sunday. The 12-hour, six-part series took almost 10 years to make, features celebrity involvement from the likes of Tom Hanks and Andy Garcia, and according to the PBS website, is "a visual feast, featuring some of the most extensive, breathtaking images of the national parks system every captured on film." 'Nuff said—consider it appointment television. We've spotted several vacation packages and special deals to coincide with the premiere. Aramark, a company that runs many of the hotels and resorts in the parks, has several "America's Best Idea" packages available, with validity into 2010. For instance, stay one night at one of the three lodges in Washington State's Olympic National Park for $119, and you get the second night at another lodge for just $99 (a savings of up to 30 percent). Live on the East Coast? At Shenandoah National Park in Virgina, there's a two-night package starting at $272 that includes accommodations, a bag lunch for two, and a hiking adventure book. If you're planning a trip, also consider Expedia's new site on National Parks, a partnership with the the National Park Foundation. Get downloadable park maps and info about lodging options near each park—a helpful tool. PREVIOUSLY Expert Advice: Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan on National Parks Road Trip: National Parks, Minus the Crowds See all our National Parks coverage JOIN THE DEBATE We picked Yellowstone as one of the 8 Places Every American Should See. Do you agree?
Step Into Our National Parks
We’re counting the days till the February 12 release of National Parks Adventure, an IMAX 3-D film shot in some of America’s most beautiful and inspiring places to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, in August. Nearly a century ago, the National Park Service was founded on the firm belief that America’s wildest places should be preserved. Forever. Not subject to political or commercial whims or trends but protected in perpetuity for future generations. As we approach the NPS centennial, Budget Travel feels proud to have played a role in celebrating places like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia, and Everglades and unlocking their secrets, making them accessible to every traveler. National Parks Adventure, presented by Expedia and narrated by actor/environmental activist Robert Redford, was shot in 30 national parks over nine months by director Greg MacGillivray, who hopes the massive effort (involving four separate film crews) will bring what documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has called “America’s best idea” to a new audience and encourage travelers to discover the 400-plus parks across the U.S. The film is told from the point of view of mountaineer Conrad Anker, a national parks ambassador with a deep, off-the-beaten-path knowledge of iconic sights and lesser-known backcountry. FIND YOUR PARK While we’re awaiting the film’s release, we’ve been having fun researching (and getting inspired by) America’s national parks at FindYourPark.com, an interactive initiative launched in anticipation of the NPS centennial that includes every park in the system.