Don't Go Broke at the National Parks This Summer: 12 Smart Ways to Save

The U.S. has hundreds of breathtaking national parks, and there are many ways to see them on the cheap.
Updated May 8, 2024
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Girl hiking at a national park

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With long summer days just over the horizon, it’s time to begin thinking about family vacations, getaways with friends, and solo trips to national parks.

If you plan to hit up a national park in the U.S. this summer, there are several steps you can take to keep more money in your wallet as you explore these natural wonders.

Visit on a free day

Maridav/Adobe travel hiking selfie by happy couple on hike

Most national parks are always free to visit, but dozens of others usually charge you a fee to enter.

However, on five days during 2023, all national parks offer free admission. The only “free day” during the summer months is Aug. 4, the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act.

Other upcoming free days to note are Sept. 23 (National Park Lands Day) and Nov. 11 (Veterans Day).

Save money if you are traveling with a fourth-grader

AS Photo Family/Adobe family with four kids in Triglav National Park, Slovenia

A federal program called “Every Kid Outdoors” offers fourth-graders the opportunity to travel to national parks for free.

If you happen to be traveling with a fourth-grader, simply apply on the program’s website, print out a pass, and bring it with you to begin exploring.

The free pass is good for a full year.

Get an America the Beautiful annual pass

Grandbrothers/Adobe woman is holding an 'America the beautiful' annual pass card

If you plan to visit more than one park this summer, consider getting an annual pass. 

The America the Beautiful pass covers the cost of entrance at any land managed by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It costs $80 and is available to anyone who wants it. There is a discount for seniors, military members, and some others.

Choose camping over hotels

潔 丹野/Adobe Zion National Park in Utah United States

Many national parks allow visitors to camp on the grounds. If you already have a tent and a vehicle to get you to the park, this can save you big bucks.

Visitors who opt to stay in the hotels at national parks will likely spend far more for their lodging.

Depending on which park you’re heading to, you might be able to skip the nightly fee and find free campgrounds that are outside the park, but in the same general area.

Cook your own food

tahkani/Adobe cooking in the woods

Frequent visitors to national parks will tell you that the food available there is not the greatest. Like the dining options at a theme park or hotel, it might be subpar and will likely be marked up.

To keep your national park vacation on the cheaper side, it’s best to pack your own food.

This could mean bringing sandwiches and snacks for a day trip or packing a cooler with some food and drinks (and maybe marshmallows) if you’re planning to camp overnight.

Purchase a senior pass

BIB-Bilder/Adobe elderly man sits on a bench in the Luneburg Heath

If you are 62 or older and visiting multiple parks is in your retirement plans, you might want to consider the "lifetime Senior Pass," which is $80.

If you’d prefer an annual pass, you can nab those for just $20 each year.

Pro tip: Purchasing a senior pass and exploring our national parks at your leisure is just another great reason to work hard and save today so you can retire early and travel tomorrow.

Avoid peak season

Craig Zerbe/Adobe sunrise at the North Window Arch at Arches National Park

While park entrance fees won’t be cheaper during the off-season, hotels and other rentals near the parks may charge lower fees when there is less demand.

To take advantage of off-season pricing, find out the most popular months at the parks you would like to see, and plan your visit for another time.

As a bonus, the parks will be less crowded, giving you more space to explore.

Use a Military Lifetime Pass

New Africa/Adobe man in military uniform with German shepherd dog

Veterans and Gold Star Families can also land free passes to national parks for life through the Military Lifetime Pass program.

To get the discount, active military members or veterans need to present their valid veteran IDs, and Gold Star Families need to have a valid Gold Star Family Voucher.

Volunteer or work a part-time job

ysbrandcosijn/Adobee forester spreading food for red deer in rutting season

Volunteers who log 250 service hours with federal agencies participating in something called the Interagency Pass Program can get a free one-year national parks pass.

If you don’t have the time to volunteer and happen to live near a national park, you might be able to get a part-time job within the park, which will mean free entry both while you are working and after work hours.

Stay outside the parks

Terézia Poláková/Airbnb Treehouse airbnb

The views alone can make it tempting to stay inside a place such as Grand Canyon National Park, but you might save considerable money if you seek accommodations outside of the parks.

Using the Grand Canyon as an example, travelers may want to look for hotels in nearby towns or in Flagstaff to avoid the sometimes steeper costs of staying in the park.

Take free shuttles

Jennifer Jean/Adobe man riding Denali National Park Shuttle Bus

Some national parks have free shuttles that can take you to the best viewpoints or day-trip destinations.

While this may take away some of the freedom of driving to and around a park yourself, it does offer some unique opportunities. 

For instance, as a passenger, you can take in the full beauty of the park while someone else does the driving — and pays for the gas.

Know which parks are free

BullRun/Adobe woman's hand pointing on mark on cartography planning

According to the National Park Service, only about 100 of more than 400 national parks charge visitors an entry fee. 

Those that do charge usually cap the price around $35, and some are as cheap as $5.

If you’re planning a trip to see multiple parks on a budget, research which are free before you go.

Bottom line

Friends Stock/Adobe female traveler holding a credit card

Visiting U.S. national parks can be a great summer excursion — and it’s one that you can do even on a tight budget.

There are many ways to see the nation’s most breathtaking natural wonders while spending very little. And when you do need to spend, consider using a rewards credit card that enables you to earn travel rewards and other perks.

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Author Details

Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore is a seasoned freelance writer who also teaches writing courses at Rutgers University. She's based in Jersey City and enjoys travel, live music and, of course, spending quality time with her pup.

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