7 Affordable Ways to Experience America's National Parks

These expert tips will have you rethinking how to trim costs as you explore the country's diverse parks.

By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterJuly 11, 2016
By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterJuly 11, 2016, at 3:50 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

7 Affordable Ways to Experience America's National Parks

View all in one page
1 of 8
A father with his children and a dog camping in a tent.
Credit

(iStockPhoto)

Plan a budget-friendly trip with these money-saving tips.

With the National Park Service's centennial rapidly approaching in August, now is a smart time to hit the trails and explore our country's greatest national treasures. To mark the National Park Service's 100th anniversary, visitors can enjoy free admission and special recreational and ranger-led activities in 59 national parks from August 25 to 28. Still, limited campsite availability and peak-season crowds (more than 300 million people visited the parks in 2015) are just a couple of obstacles for a great trip at this time of year. We sought guidance from travel experts to get their tricks for planning a cost-effective and rewarding park trip.
A friendly park ranger stops to talk to two backpackers near their tent in the woods.
Credit

(Getty Images)

Participate in ranger-led programs.

To honor the centennial, the National Park Service will offer a variety of complimentary ranger-led activities. With these programs you can learn many things about the parks, such as how they are affected by climate change, says Ford Cochran, director of programming for National Geographic Expeditions. Prior to your visit, you can look for upcoming events and ranger-led activities on the National Park Service's website. Everett Potter, a columnist for USA Today and author of "Everett Potter's Travel Report," also recommends joining hands-on, ranger-led tours, recalling a memorable ranger-led hike through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where visitors could take in striking views and learn about geology and Hawaiian culture, among other topics.
Next:

Plan a budget-friendly trip with these money-saving tips.

With the National Park Service's centennial rapidly approaching in August, now is a smart time to hit the trails and explore our country's greatest national treasures. To mark the National Park Service's 100th anniversary, visitors can enjoy free admission and special recreational and ranger-led activities in 59 national parks from August 25 to 28. Still, limited campsite availability and peak-season crowds (more than 300 million people visited the parks in 2015) are just a couple of obstacles for a great trip at this time of year. We sought guidance from travel experts to get their tricks for planning a cost-effective and rewarding park trip.

Participate in ranger-led programs.

To honor the centennial, the National Park Service will offer a variety of complimentary ranger-led activities. With these programs you can learn many things about the parks, such as how they are affected by climate change, says Ford Cochran, director of programming for National Geographic Expeditions. Prior to your visit, you can look for upcoming events and ranger-led activities on the National Park Service's website. Everett Potter, a columnist for USA Today and author of "Everett Potter's Travel Report," also recommends joining hands-on, ranger-led tours, recalling a memorable ranger-led hike through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where visitors could take in striking views and learn about geology and Hawaiian culture, among other topics.

Lend a hand.

Volunteer opportunities include everything from assisting with eliminating exotic plant species and monitoring water quality in Isle Royale National Park to serving as a campground host in Tahoe National Forest. In return for your time and energy, the National Park Service in many cases will provide volunteers with free meals and lodging, Cochran says. After completing 250 service hours with a federal agency division that participates in the Interagency Pass Program, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, you can receive a volunteer pass, which grants free admission to all national parks.

Camp outside the parks.

"The thing about the national parks is the campsites book up way in advance," Potter says. While camping at a distance doesn't offer the same experience, "it's a way in," he says. Potter recommends finding the right camping area for your needs with the campground search site TheDyrt.com. "It's like a TripAdvisor for campgrounds," he says, pointing to the site's abundant user reviews and submitted campground photos. When you're ready to book, Cochran recommends using Kampgrounds of America, which offers more than 486 campgrounds across all 50 states. Plus, Cochran notes that it's these places that will create indelible memories, like nighttime strolls around burning campfires.

Pack snacks.

An easy way to slash costs on your park trip is by bringing along plenty of food, says Abigail Wise, engagement editor at Outside. "Not only will you end up saving major cash, you'll also be eating healthy food to better fuel your outdoor adventures," she says. While you can take advantage of 500 National Park Service concession stations across the parks, keep in mind in popular places, like Yellowstone National Park, there are only a few food service options in remote locations, translating to higher costs. With a reusable water bottle and plenty of nutritious food for grilling or picnics, trimming down meal costs for families and larger groups is a breeze.

Hit the road.

To maximize savings when traveling with a group, "pack the car and go for a drive," Cochran says. If you can't find a place to stay within the park, don't despair, Cochran adds, pointing out that you can almost always find a place within an easy drive. He suggests making a loop to see diverse landscapes, such as the Black Hills and Badlands in South Dakota. If you can squeeze in a few extra days off work, he suggests renting an affordable pop-up camper, noting that you can "take it everywhere," and it serves as a "home away from home." Wise also suggests driving, highlighting a route from Utah to Arizona that hits six parks.

Look for accommodations away from the parks.

"There are all kinds of different places to stay," Cochran says. He suggests pitching a tent or booking a stay in communities around Yellowstone, such as Gardiner, Montana, for more availability and lower rates. Staying outside the park is "certainly one way to pay a little less," Potter says. In West Yellowstone, you can find cost-effective choices in the small gateway town to Yellowstone, he says. And at Acadia National Park, though you'll pay a high price to stay in popular Bar Harbor, Maine, there are budget-friendly bed-and-breakfasts in the nearby town of Deer Isle, Potter notes. Even better, you'll pay a fraction of the cost to go out for dinner in these spots, he adds.

Invest in a park pass.

"One of the great things about the parks is that they are for everyone in our country," Cochran says, pointing out that for a nominal fee for the annual pass, costs throughout the year are manageable. Wise also notes that annual passes only cost $80 and typically entrance fees can be around $25, so it's worthwhile to buy a pass if you're visiting more than a few times per year. You can also cut costs by visiting off-the-beaten-track parks with lower admission rates. "The Great Sand Dunes in Colorado are super fun. Mountains meet river meet giant sand dunes, and the entrance fee is only a few bucks," Wise says.
1 of 8

Liz Weiss, Staff Writer

Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of ...  Read more

Recommended

The 16 Best San Diego Tours

Take advantage of the adventures this coastal city has to offer with a guided trip.

Lyn MettlerJune 24, 2019

12 Top Napa Valley Wineries to Visit

Set your sights on these can't-miss wineries during your next visit to California's wine country.

June 24, 2019

The 6 Best Denver Brewery Tours

Discover the buzz about Denver's craft beer scene with these tours.

Holly JohnsonJune 21, 2019

The 10 Best Charleston Walking Tours

Experience true southern hospitality as you explore Charleston on one of these strolls.

Claire LawtonJune 20, 2019

The 15 Best Charleston Tours

See everything this historic South Carolina city has to offer on one of these guided excursions.

John RodwanJune 19, 2019

The 5 Best Kauai Helicopter Tours

See the Garden Island's far-reaching beauty from the air.

Holly JohnsonJune 14, 2019

The 6 Best Las Vegas Helicopter Tours

Get a thrilling look at the lights and sights of Sin City and its surroundings with one of these tours.

Holly JohnsonJune 13, 2019

20 Road Trip Essentials for Your Vacation

These road trip must-haves can help you save money, travel more comfortably and ensure you stay safe on the open road.

Holly JohnsonJune 13, 2019

13 Top Charlottesville Wineries to Visit

Sip a glass of Virginia's signature viognier as the sun sets over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

June 12, 2019

The 16 Best Seattle Tours

Explore the Emerald City's natural beauty and urban offerings with these guided excursions.

Lyn MettlerJune 12, 2019