“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!
Last Updated: December 2023
Why Visit America’s National Parks
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 428 park sites in the United States. Heck, you might even have known there are now 428 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 428 sites, there truly is something for everybody.
Are there really 428 National Parks?
Okay, you got us with the fine print. There are not 428 National Parks, but the National Park Services maintains 428 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. Enjoy hiking? In 2023, the National Park Service added three new scenic trails to the mix! Like relaxing on the shore? We have four National Lakeshores and ten National Seashores! Plus, Olympic and Acadia National parks are seashores, too.
Maybe you 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. And, somewhat surprisingly, only about a quarter of all those sites actually have admission fees in the first place!
When to Visit National Parks 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!)
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! Traditionally, the first day of that week is Park Rx Day, because getting out to the parks is just what the doctor ordered. Only better, because this prescription is free! For 2024, National Park Week starts on Saturday April 20th. Find out all about National Park Week, and find parks near you, from the National Park Service.
- 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 every year on August 4.
- 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.
How to Visit National Parks for 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 428 National Park Service sites; the pass covers entrance, amenity, and day use fees at more than 2,000 federal recreation sites! Find sites where you can get your free America the Beautiful Pass here, or get it online with a $10 service fee here.
- 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.
- Every Kid Outdoors
- Got a fourth grader this year? This National Park Service program has passes for each and every fourth grade student in America, and their families! But it’s not just your fourth grader who gets in: every child under sixteen, and up to three adults are covered by each pass. The program provides fee-free entry for an entire year, from September 1 to August 31. If you’re a teacher, you can get passes for your whole fourth grade class! Details for families and educators 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. If you’re interested, contact your volunteer coordinator for more information. To get started, find volunteer opportunities at Volunteer.org.
Pro Tip: Check with state parks, too. Some do honor passes from the National Park Service, or offer their own pass programs.
Not Quite Free: Reduced Admissions to National Parks
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.
That’s a Lot of Free!
Yes, it is. Five 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 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?