How to Explore National Parks Without Spending a Dime
As fall paints the national parks with vibrant colors, they become ideal places to enjoy the changing foliage. Yet, entering these parks can be pricey, sometimes over $30 per park, especially the well-known ones like Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Yosemite, which charge $35 per vehicle. But there are ways to explore without the hefty cost. Some parks admit elementary school students for free, and there are options like discounted passes and annual passes that offer great savings.
Annually, the National Park Service (NPS) designates a few dates during which it exempts the entrance fees at all its sites that typically require payment for admission. “The fee-free days provide a great opportunity to visit a new place or an old favorite, especially one of the national parks that normally charge an entrance fee,” says NPS.
Make sure to note these dates on your calendar for next year, as they signify the eagerly awaited national park free days. Starting with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 15, the year’s lineup unfolds. On April 22, National Park Week starts, urging everyone to explore. Then, August 4 marks the Great American Outdoors Act anniversary, spotlighting conservation. September 23 celebrates National Public Lands Day, perfect for outdoor appreciation. Lastly, come November 11, Veterans Day offers free access in honor of veterans.
It’s important to note that during free-entrance days, only admission fees are waived. Activities with associated fees, such as camping, boat launch reservations, or guided tours, will still require payment.
More national park freebies and discount opportunities
Fourth-grade students can get a free pass for their fourth-grade year and the following summer (until August 31). To get one, visit the Every Kid Outdoors website and download a printable voucher. This pass is for U.S. fourth-graders (or equivalent in homeschooling).
If the park charges per vehicle, the pass covers people in a private non-commercial vehicle accompanying the pass owner. Now, if the park charges per person, the fourth-grade pass owner can bring up to three adults for free, as well as other kids under 16 in the group.
By volunteering for 250 hours with federal agencies in the Interagency Pass Program, you can request a free pass. This pass will be valid for 12 months from the date it’s issued. The program includes six key federal agencies: the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
If you’re currently part of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Space Force, Reserve, or National Guard, you can receive a free Annual Pass for U.S. Military. Just visit a federal recreation site in person and show your ID to get it. This pass covers both you and your dependents for free entry.
Some people might also be eligible for a Military Lifetime Pass. Veterans and Gold Star Family members who can prove their eligibility can obtain this pass, which lasts a lifetime.
If the free options aren’t right for you, there’s still a great way to save on park entrance fees. The America the Beautiful Annual Pass costs $80 and gives you discounted access to national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and more.