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 budgettravel.com.
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 http://store.usgs.gov/pass/.
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!