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How to Visit America’s National Parks for Free

“National parks are the best idea we ever had.
Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best
rather than our worst.”

Those are the words of Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and “Dean of Western Writers” Wallace Stegner, and he was right! Not only are they loved by Americans, they are treasured by visitors from around the world. And, if you know when to go, you can see them all for free!

Why Visit a National Park

We figure there are two sorts of people out there. Some read that line and thought, “What do you mean why? Of course we should visit a national park.” We would be willing to bet these people have been to at least one of the 423 park sites in the United States. Heck, you might even have known there are 423 sites in the National Park System! (Honestly, we didn’t!) More on that in a minute.

Then there are those who thought, “Yeah, why would I visit a national park?” Which, for many, is a fair question. There are many reasons someone would be in this camp, and we understand. Maybe you don’t like to camp. Not everyone feels comfortable in nature. Museums, for all of their history and knowledge, are not for everyone. And, let’s face it, there are people who live far, far away from a National Park. In fact, forty percent of these United States do not have a National Park within their borders! (So, a “not fun” fact?)

So, why visit a National Park? Because, among those 423 sites, there truly is something for everybody.

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Are there really 423 National Parks?

Okay, you got us with the fine print. There are not 423 National Parks, but the National Park Services maintains 423 unique sites! That includes monuments and memorials, sites of historical, archeological, or natural importance, and one very important house in Washington, DC!

Enjoy road trips? Hop on one of our National Parkways, such as the world-renowned Blue Ridge Parkway. Like relaxing on the shore? We have four National Lakeshores and ten National Seashores! Plus, Olympic and Acadia National parks are seashores, too.

Love architecture and city planning? Believe it or not, there’s a site just for you! The Pullman National Monument was a city planned for workers at the Palace Car Company near Chicago. Think of it as a living example of Wright’s Usonian city, or Disney’s EPCOT.

What we’re getting at is this: There are national parks that reflect every aspect of America.

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The Pullman National Monument near Chicago, Illinois
Photo: National Park Service

Getting In for Free

Perhaps the first question is, should you get in for free? The truth is, our National Park Service could always benefit from your admission fees. After all, it is expensive maintaining all of those park sites, and at least 80% of your park fee stays right there in the park. Paying your park entry fee is more than admission to some amusement park. It is an investment in our own sacred lands. (And it is literally a lot less than admission to an amusement park!)

See also  Free Museum Day (and other ways to get in for free)

On the other hand, what better way to celebrate the grandness of our national parks than by letting everyone in for free? And that’s just what the National Park Service does several times a year:

Martin Luther King Day
Among the National Historic Parks is the former home of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Georgia. To commemorate his birthday, the National Park Service opens all sites to visitors, fee-free, on the third Monday of January. It is often set aside as a Day of Service in many communities, and the NPS encourages visitors to discover opportunities to volunteer in the parks.
Park Rx Day
Every April, America’s treasures get the spotlight when the President declares National Park Week! (In 2021, that’s April 17 to 25.) The first day of that week is Park Rx Week, because getting out to the parks is just what the doctor ordered. Only better, because this prescription is free!
Great American Outdoors Act Anniversary
On August 4, 2020, the Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law, setting aside up to $1.9-billion in energy revenues to help fund national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, and American Indian schools. The National Park Service marks that anniversary with a fee-free day on August 4, 2021
National Park Service Birthday
Everybody loves a birthday party, especially when you get the presents! This celebration marks the day President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill that established the National Park Service, on August 25th, 1916.
National Public Lands Day
In 1994, National Public Lands Day was established on the fourth Saturday in September to celebrate the connection between Americans and the green spaces in their communities.
Veterans Day
Did you know many National Parks have a direct connection to America’s men and women in uniform? There are dozens of recognized battlefields, military parks, and historic sites that commemorate the service of American veterans. And they – along with every other National Park Service site – are open to everyone, free-fee, on Veterans Day.

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Free Every Day!

Having a few fee-free days every year is nice, but that’s not enough for our men and women in forest green! The National Park Service has a pair of special offers for men and women in other uniforms.

Active Military Annual Passes
Active duty military, and their dependents, are eligible for free America the Beautiful Passes to our national parks and federal recreation areas. That is a much broader list than just the 423 National Park Service sites; the pass covers entrance, amenity, and day use fees at more than 2,000 federal recreation sites!
Passes for Veterans and Gold Star Families
The Interagency Annual Military Pass was expanded on Veterans Day 2020 to include both veterans and Gold Star Families. If that’s you, find out more about the pass from the NPS. It does not cover amenity fees (such as camping permits) but does included entrance fees at many of the same sites as the America the Beautiful pass.
4th Grade Pass / 5th Grade Pass
No uniforms are involved here. As part of the Every Kid Outdoors program, the National Park Services has passes for each and every fourth grade student in America! And, because 2020 unfairly kept that year’s fourth graders at home, fifth grade students can participate through August 2021. Details are at Every Kid Outdoors.
VIP – Volunteers in Parks
Love our national parks, and want to help preserve the legacy? Volunteers who log at least 250 hours in a year qualify for a Volunteer Pass which covers entrance fees at national parks and other public lands. That’s in addition to the days you volunteer at a national park.
See also  This Week in Travel News: 19 May 2017

Reduced Admissions

To be fair, we are not talking about cut-rate entrance fees to Yellowstone. However, at just $80 per year, the America the Beautiful Pass can add up to serious savings when you plan to visit two or more parks in a year, and is available to anyone. The pass covers entrance, day use, and standard amenity fees for the driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at areas that charge a per-vehicle fee. Elsewhere, it is valid for up to four adults. (Everyone 15 and under gets in for free.)

Note for Seniors: For the same $80, anyone age 62 or over can get a lifetime American the Beautiful Pass! Or, if you don’t plan on visiting parks every year for the rest of your life, the senior price for an annual pass is just $20.

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That’s a Lot of Free!

Yes, it is. Six free days every year for everyone, a whole school year plus a summer for fourth graders, and free entry for active military, veterans, and Gold Star Families. Plus a super-affordable annual pass for real National Park enthusiasts.

Add this to Free Museum Days, and you have a year full of affordable options for you and your family! The question is, where will you go first?

6 comments on “How to Visit America’s National Parks for Free

  1. I didn’t realize there were so many days you could get into the National Parks for free! Do they cap the number of visitors that can come in on those days? I love the America the Beautiful Pass – I’ve gotten it a few times over the years since the Shenandoah National Park was so close to DC.

    • Hi Becky – Great question about capping the number of visitors. Our understanding is that some of the reservation systems used at various parks over the past couple of years will be in use again in 2021, and probably beyond. The parks are seeing record numbers of visitors (yay!), so reservations are required at some parks and at some times. That may include the free park days. Our advice is to check the National Park Service website for the park(s) you’re interested in. For example, on our trip to Acadia National Park last fall, we did not need reservations for most of the park, but a couple of popular areas were restricted to those with reservations for specific times.

    • That is a great plan! Something I hope more people do, even after this pandemic-inspired search for the great outdoors passes. 🙂 Thanks for dropping in, Cosette!

  2. I still have my National Parks passport tucked away somewhere. Will have to find it to put all the stamped bits of paper I have collected in the last several years. I think my prized stamp is from American Samoa (not an easy one to get.

    • Wow! I heard recently American Samoa is considered the most remote National Park. That does take some work to visit, but I understand it’s well worth the effort. Thanks for the visit, Jeff & Rhonda!

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