Celebrate National Park Week 2018!

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
April 17, 2018
A view of the mountains at the continental divide at Glacier National Park's Logan Pass.
Michele Firpo-Cappiello
From sea to shining sea, Americans can enjoy free park admission and a host of cool activities.

National Park Week 2018 is April 21 through 29, and we have good news, not-so-good news, and not-so-bad news for national park lovers. The good news is: Free admission on Saturday, April 21! The not-so-good news: Park fees will rise on June 1. The not-so-bad news: Fees will not rise as much as had been proposed and discussed earlier this year; they’ll rise only $5 at 66 National Park Service sites. Here’s what’s happening:


National Park Week 2018’s theme is “Park Stars” - including the night skies overhead, iconic park landmarks, and “superstar volunteers.” The day that will attract the most attention and visitors is a fee-free day on Saturday April 21. National Park Week also overlaps with National Volunteer Week and the 48th annual Earth Day (April 22), making this coming weekend an excellent time to get to know a national park, forest, historical park, or other NPS site better.


Saturday April 21 also happens to be National Junior Ranger Day, allowing kids to participate in hands-on learning and activities and earn a Junior Ranger badge and ranger hat. The Junior Ranger program is actually available just about any day that a park is open, and it's one of the finest examples of the National Park Service mission at its best: Rangers engage with kids to teach them the basics of park ecology, wildlife, geology, and Native American history and culture, often inspiring a lifetime love of the national park experience.


On June 1, entrance fees (7-day entry per vehicle) at 66 parks will rise by $5. While park lovers, including Budget Travel, are relieved that fees will not rise to the $70 that had been proposed earlier this year, we do appreciate that park fees alone, no matter how high, cannot possibly fund the NPS’s backlog of repairs and upgrades and support the growing popularity of our national parks.


We love the Find Your Park program (, a collaboration between the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation. We also unblushingly recommend our own coverage, including national park guides, photo galleries, and news that we hope will inspire and empower you to get out there and discover all the NPS has to offer.

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National Parks

10 Most Visited National Parks in America

The National Park Service has released its Annual Visitation Highlights for 2017, and as always we’re finding travel inspiration in its listing of the most visited places in the system, which includes national parks, recreation areas, monuments, battlefields, and more. Overall, the NPS welcomed more than 331 million visitors in 2017, falling just slightly short of breaking the record set in 2016. The two most visited NPS-designated areas were the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway running through some of the most beautiful countryside in Virginia and North Carolina, with more than 16 million visits, and the 82,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area protecting ecologically and historically important lands around the San Francisco Bay Area, with more than 14 million visits. As for the most-visited national parks in America, the top 10 list remains fairly consistent year-to-year, and we heartily recommend a visit to at least one of these gems in 2018: 1. GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK More than 800 square miles in North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains ( welcomed an estimated 11,338,893 visitors in 2017 to take the top spot. The park’s namesake mist, iconic Roaring Fork Motor Trail, abundant campsites, hiking routes that include a segment of the Appalachian Trail, and incredible wildflowers and fall foliage make this park one of the most beloved travel sites in the U.S. 2. GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK What can we say about the Grand Canyon ( that hasn’t already been said? Encompassing nearly 2,000 square miles in the Arizona desert, with legendary lookouts, rafting in the Colorado River, and the sheer awe the vast canyon inspires, this national park drew an estimated 6,254,238 visitors last year.  3. ZION NATIONAL PARK This jaw-dropping park in the southwest Utah desert is movin’ on up, with Zion ( going from fifth place in 2016 to third place in 2017 with an estimated 4,504,812 visitors. We’re big fans of Zion’s nearly 230 square miles, offering camping, hiking, those iconic red cliffs, and an overall blissful vibe. (And, as a bonus, Utah boasts four other incredible national parks that are just a road trip away from Zion.) 4. ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK Colorado really does have it all. In addition to its towering peaks (and peerless skiing), beautiful rivers, and range of wildlife, it’s also home to one of America’s favorite national parks. Rocky Mountain (, in northern Colorado, straddles the continental divide, delivers gorgeous aspen, bighorn sheep, endless trails, and much more, luring an estimated 4,437,215 visitors in 2017. 5. YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK More than 1,000 square miles in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite ( is iconic even to travelers who haven’t been there yet, with its giant sequoias, incredible waterfalls, and “stars” like Half Dome and El Capitan. Despite the floods and wildfires that plagued the state of California in 2017, Yosemite drew an estimated 4,336,890 visitors. 6. YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK In Yellowstone (, “rush hour” can mean being stuck behind a herd of bison that has chosen just the right moment to cross the highway in the Lamar Valley and stop traffic for miles. Including portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, Yellowstone’s 3,400 square miles were the very first national park in the world, and with its herds of bison, families of grizzlies, geysers like Old Faithful, hot springs, and gigantic waterfalls, the park remains a favorite, drawing an estimated 4,116,524 visitors last year. (Yellowstone is also a road trip away from Montana's Glacier National Park and adjoins Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park; both parks made this year's top 10 list.) 7. ACADIA NATIONAL PARK For travelers who can’t decide between a mountain and a seaside vacation, Acadia (, nearly 50,000 acres on Mountain Desert Island, in Maine, obliges with both the highest peak on the East Coast, the crashing waves of the North Atlantic, forest trails, the charming town of Bar Harbor, and an array of wildlife that includes moose, black bear, and whales. In 2017, the park welcomed an estimated 3,509,271 visitors. 8. OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK Craving a real American rainforest? Surprisingly, Washington State is where you’ll find one, with Olympic ( encompassing more than 1,400 square miles on the Pacific Northwest’s Olympic Peninsula. Last year, an estimated 3,401,996 visitors headed here for climbing, hiking, and exploring the mountains, old-growth forests, and the Pacific coast. 9. GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK Experienced travelers (or, frankly, anyone who takes a quick look at a map) know that you can easily combine a trip to Grand Teton ( with a trip to neighboring Yellowstone. But Grand Teton’s 310,000 acres, in Wyoming, boast enough wonders to keep any visitor busy for days, with the jagged namesake mountain range, beautiful Jackson Hole, and incredible hiking, camping, and fishing. Last year, an estimated 3,317,000 visitors did just that. 10. GLACIER NATIONAL PARK Glacier ( happens to be my favorite and, not coincidentally, most visited park. Covering more than 1,500 square miles in northwestern Montana (and adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park, in Alberta, Canada), Glacier offers the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road, which takes visitors up to the continental divide, at Logan Pass, where you may find snow in July (and sometimes even in August), and the uncanny mountain goats that make this rocky terrain their home. Don’t miss canoeing on Lake McDonald, hiking the old-growth Trail of the Cedars, and stargazing with a ranger on select evenings.  While I was not one of the estimated 3,305,512 visitors in 2017, I’ll be back as soon as I possibly can.

National Parks

Should the U.S. Fund National Parks by Allowing Oil Drilling?

Tucked away in the federal budget for fiscal 2019 is a proposal to fund our national parks’ infrastructure backlog. Three cheers? Hold on. Before you start celebrating at the notion that the backlog of $11+ billion in needed national parks repairs may actually be tackled, note that the necessary revenue would come from allowing oil companies to lease the right to drill on federal land. AMERICA’S PARKLAND IS UNDERFUNDED As Budget Travel reported recently in National Parks in Peril, our national parks are seriously underfunded and facing an array of infrastructure needs, threats from climate change, and the removal of protections for some wildlife, including wolves, grizzlies, and bison. IS DRILLING A SOLUTION? Now, the administration proposes to cut more than 2,000 jobs from the National Park Service at a time when the parks are seeing record attendance each year. Perhaps even more concerning, the 2019 budget proposal would establish the Public Lands Infrastructure Fund, which would make park-infrastructure funding dependent on revenues derived from leases to oil companies allowing them to drill on federal land. WHAT DO YOU THINK? We want to hear from you: Do you support the administration’s proposal to fund the national parks using revenue from oil drilling on federal land?

National Parks

The Budget Traveler’s Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is Utah’s smallest national park, but it packs a mighty punch. Hike the Navajo Loop down into the canyon to feel like you’re in the other-worldly terrain of Dr. Seuss book, and make sure you catch at least one sunrise or sunset over the canyon. Bryce Canyon is also a registered dark sky site, a treat for professional and amateur stargazers. GETTING THERE Because of Bryce’s location, in the center of Utah, you will almost certainly have passed another national park on your way. Bryce is a 90-minute drive east of Zion, two hours south of Capitol Reef, four hours west of Arches and Canyonlands, and five hours north of the Grand Canyon. No matter which direction you’re coming from, you’ll be rewarded with some of the American Southwest’s most beautiful country. ENTERING THE PARK For $30 per car, visitors get access to the park for seven days. If you intend to hit other Utah national parks (there are four more), spend $80 for an “America the Beautiful” pass, which into every U.S. national park. SAVE BIG BY CAMPING Tent camping is by far the most affordable way to experience Bryce Canyon. Plan early to book your campsite in Bryce National Park ($20/night,, as they book months in advance during the high season. The park has two campgrounds – Sunrise and Sunset, named for the nearby vantage points of the canyon. AFFORDABLE HOTELS Reasonably priced hotels can be found in Panguitch, Utah – about a 30-minute drive from the park. Here, you’ll find a collection of small inns run by locals. Rooms run as low as $30/night in the low season and $115/night in the high season. These are not the most luxurious accommodations, but certainly do the trick, especially considering that you’re going to want to spend most of your time outdoors. INSIDER’S EATING TIP There are fewer food options near Bryce Canyon than at most national parks, and all of them are a little gimmicky. If you stay in Panguitch, plan for breakfast at the Flying M restaurant on Main Street – huge portions of breakfast food for the smallest of budgets. But your best bet for food will be to stop at a supermarket and load a cooler before arriving at Bryce. HIKE NAVAJO LOOP From sunset point, you can start on the Navajo Loop trail which winds down into the canyon’s hoodoos and back up. You’ll have plenty of rocks to climb over and some great photo opportunities. This hike is strenuous, as it has steep climbs down and back up – it will be especially difficult if you’re sore from hiking somewhere else, like Zion National Park. But don’t let that deter you – this hike is totally worth the effort. CATCH SUNRISE AND SUNSET OVER THE CANYON Give yourself a treat and watch a sunrise or sunset from its appropriately named vantage point. Get to the vantage point early for the best views, as these times are primetime and draw the biggest crowds. LOOK UP AT THE STARS Bryce Canyon is one of the darkest places in the United States, far from the light pollution of any city. The park puts on 100 ranger-led astronomy programs per year, to teach you about the night sky like you’ve never seen it before. NEXT UP… UTAH’S OTHER NATIONAL PARKS This state is home to five gorgeous national parks, so after Bryce be sure to save time for Zion, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches.

National Parks

The Budget Traveler's Guide to Zion National Park

Zion National Park (, in southwest Utah, is one of the most extraordinary places in the American Southwest (and on earth!). It offers adventure surrounded by towering canyons, immense red-sandstone walls, and amazing hikes, such as the Narrows and Angel’s Landing Lookout, that every American must see. Here, how to do Zion on a budget. GETTING THERE McCarron International Airport, in Las Vegas, is the closest airport to Zion National Park, and you will have to rent a car for the 160-mile drive to the park. If you’ve never experienced Vegas before, stay here for a night or two, but keep in mind it is very difficult to do Las Vegas on the cheap. To avoid the siren’s call of spending money, rent a 4WD SUV at the airport and take off toward the mountains on I-15 for desert panoramas that will start to prepare you for the jaw-dropping Utah landscape you’re headed for. I recommend doing this drive during daylight, not just because you’ll want to take in the desert, but also because it has some winding roads. It’s also advisable to buy several gallons of water in Las Vegas to have on hand. ENTERING AND NAVIGATING THE PARK At the park entrance, you will pay $30 per car, which gives you access to the park for seven days. (For $80, you can upgrade to the “America The Beautiful” pass, which grants you access to all national parks. If you plan to go on from Zion to other nearby parks, such as Bryce or Canyonlands, I recommend this option.) Be aware that Zion, unlike most national parks, does not allow private cars on most of its roads. Instead, the park uses a bus system to shuttle visitors up the canyon to various stops, while providing a narrated tour of the incredible views you’re seeing. There is often a line to get on a shuttle, and on busy days, you may feel as if you’re standing in line for a ride at Walt Disney World. The closer to sunrise you get to the park, the shorter the line will be.    CAMPING: THE ULTIMATE BARGAIN Tent camping is the least expensive way to experience Zion National Park. How does free sound? You can make camp anywhere on the BLM (public land) without a fee (this is something called “dispersed camping”), but I recommend this option only for travelers who are experienced campers. If you want to camp for free, make sure you have a map and give yourself plenty of daylight to find a campsite. If you’d prefer campsites with more amenities ($20/night,, plan early to book your site, as they book months in advance during the high season. Zion’s Watchman campground is right by the visitor’s center and is the busiest campground. For a little more privacy, you can stay at the Lava Point Campground, about an hour’s drive from the visitor’s station into the park. HOTELS ARE A SHORT, BEAUTIFUL DRIVE AWAY Affordable hotels can be found in Hurricane, Utah, about a 20-minute drive from the park. Prices can be as low as $30 in the low season, and $80 in the high season. The drive to and from the park is beautiful, so the it goes by quickly. STOCK UP ON FOOD IN ADVANCE To stay on budget, you’ll want to stock up on food and water at a grocery store before you leave Las Vegas (pick up a cooler and ice if you’re packing perishables, of course). There are also several reliable and affordable restaurants not far from the park, in Springdale. HIKING: ZION’S MAIN ATTRACTION Zion Canyon is world-renowned for its hiking. Whether you spend the day stomping through a river canyon or scaling the side of a mountain, there is no more rewarding way to spend a day. I highly recommend doing Angel’s Landing before the Narrows, as you'll get wet at the Narrows and waterlogged feet are softer and more prone to blister. Here, two of Zion’s must-hikes: Angel’s Landing. This is Zion’s most famous hike, which ends with a crawl across the spine of the canyon to a view meant for angels. If you’re afraid of heights (like me), stop on the trail at Scout’s Landing, which provides views almost as good as those farther on. This trail is incredibly steep and strenuous. It’s also often very crowded – by the end of the effort, you’ll be best friends with the people climbing the trail around you. Bring more water than you think you'll need – ideally everyone in your party should carry their own full water bladder. The Narrows. This is the most fun I’ve ever had on a hike! You can stomp up the Virgin River canyon as far as you want, swimming and climbing on rocks as you stare up at the high walls enclosing you. This hike is great for families and people who are sore from their strenuous Angel's Landing hike the day before. The trail is listed as “strenuous” because it involves climbing over rocks. Note that there is always a risk of flash flooding – keep your eye on the flooding forecast posted around the park, follow all rangers' instructions, and if you start to notice the water slowly rising on your hike, turn back. You can rent the gear you need, like walking sticks and water shoes, at Zion Outfitter (, located just outside the park entrance. This package runs $24/person in the summer, and spending the money on this essential gear will greatly improve your experience. NEXT UP… BRYCE CANYON To continue on your Utah road trip, head east from Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park, where you will see more of some of the most beautiful countryside in America.