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National Parks on a Budget

Everyone seems to be going to the National Parks this year! While it may feel impossible for those on a budget, these parks are within reach. Here, we’ll break down how you can see America's nature preserves and parks without spending an arm and a leg.

National parks seem like an obvious choice to get some sun and fun. Whether you’re planning an adventure for yourself or for the whole family, one thing is for certain: trips can get incredibly expensive. Between entry fees, the cost of food, and added costs for other amenities, trips to a national park can get very pricey - fast. Things like canoe rentals, binocular rentals, or guided tours can incur costs that some families simply hadn’t prepared for.


Don’t despair, however! Trips to some of America’s greatest national parks are within reach - even for those following a very strict budget. Listed here are four ways that you and your family can visit the great natural wonders of the United States without breaking the bank.


Consider Purchasing a Pass

Families who want to visit national parks often may want to consider purchasing the America the Beautiful pass. This pass will grant access to more than 2,000 locations across the country. Included in this annual pass is a year’s worth of free admission to national parks and wildlife preservations, day fees at national forests, and free admission for up to four passengers in the car with the passholder. In comparison, a single-day ticket to a national park can cost anywhere between zero and $40. Yosemite National Park, for example, costs $35 to get in for just one day. While an America the Beautiful pass costs $80, it grants access and opportunity for you and your family to enjoy more recreational environments all year for no additional cost. For a family of four, many locations that charge per vehicle can be made back in only three visits.


Use a Fourth Grader Pass, a Veteran Pass, or a Military Pass

If you’re the parent of a fourth grader, you’re in even more luck! Fourth graders are given a free pass for eleven months starting in September of the year they begin their fourth grade year until August of the following year. This includes home-schooled children, children enrolled in private or public school, and those in a free-choice education program. By obtaining this pass for your fourth grade child, the whole family will get free admission into parks that charge by vehicle. A few of these parks include the Everglades National Park in Florida, the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in New York, and Alcatraz Island in California. A list of these parks can be found on NPS.gov - an incredibly useful tool for a family on a budget who wants to plan their next great adventure.


In a similar vein, veterans and members of the United States military get free admission to the National Parks, as well. In 2020, the military pass was expanded to include veterans, as “a way to thank America’s veterans, Gold Star Families, and current military and their dependents for their support of our country and to encourage them to explore recreational opportunities on their public lands and waters.” This means you and your family may want to enjoy a stroll with a veteran in the family. By simply presenting a military or veteran ID card, individuals can gain free access for the whole year and bring their families time and again to enjoy the natural wonders of the country.


Plan Your Trip On a Free Admission Day

There are several days every single year that admission fees are waived. In 2021, six days were announced in which admission for National Parks will be free. Each date has a significant meaning as well, including Martin Luther King Day, the first day of National Park Week, the National Park Service Birthday, National Public Lands Day, and Veterans Day. In 2021, there was also a free admission day on the one year anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act, which was not present in the 2020 admission dates. In 2022, these dates will likely be the ones to look for, although the only confirmed free admission date to be announced as of yet has been Martin Luther King Day on January 17, 2022.

On these dates, you and your family will be able to experience the recreational sites around the country. Some families may even want to plan a road trip to National Parks located further from home on these dates in order to experience them while sticking to a budget that works for the whole family.


Plan Trips to Free Parks


Of the many National Parks in the United States, there are plenty that offer free admission. These parks may not have all the amenities of the parks that require an admission fee to experience, but they are no less exciting and beautiful. Of course, other costs may be present in the parks that include free admission such as canoe and kayak rentals.


America’s free parks have some of the most beautiful sights in the country. North Cascades National Park, for example, is accentuated by the most stunning mountain views and a crystal clear lake filled directly from a glacier nearby.


In Crescent City, California lies the Redwood National Park, which is altogether separate from the many Redwood State Parks in the area. This National Park has free admission and can be used as a campground for free, with a permit.


One more of the most amazing National Parks with free admission is Great Basin National Park. The area of this National Park is highlighted with archaic pines, awe-inspiring glacier mountains, and a colorful forest to admire. Guided tours are available for a small price, but this National Park is entirely free and ideal for families and adventurers who want to make their trip as inexpensive as possible.

Keeping to a budget, whether planning a solo adventure or going as a family, can be incredibly difficult. It can often feel like you’re unexpectedly shelling out tens, hundreds, or even thousands of dollars on vacations. However, going to National Parks can be relatively inexpensive by using as many of these four ways to save just a little extra money on seeing the beautiful locations the United States National Park Service has to offer. Plain and simple, the National Parks can be just as inexpensive as they can be fun.