How to Explore a National Park for Free

Mount Rushmore for Kids, What to do in the Black Hills with kids, South Dakota for families,
Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln gaze across the western horizon. Photo Credit: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Want to explore National Parks for free?

National parks offer priceless beauty and for 10 days in 2017 the admission price is just that–priceless. The National Park Service will waive the usual admission over several weekends in 2017. Only 124 of the 417 total national park sites charge admission ($3 to $30) and the remaining sites are free to enter year-round.

With iconic destinations like Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Statue of Liberty National Monument, your family can explore for free. Throw the tent in the SUV and it’s a budget vacation kids will remember for years. Most camping spots are less than $30 a night and even gourmet marshmallows are a bargain when toasted over a campfire.

History of the National Park Service

Explore the National Park sites of Texas, like Big Bend.
Explore Big Bend with your family for a taste of the Chihuahua desert, one of four deserts of North America. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The idea of a national park is an American innovation that’s been adopted across the world. The first national park, Yellowstone in Wyoming, was set aside in 1872 to protect and preserve it for future generations. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service to govern the 35 national parks in the U.S. at the time.

Since then, the National Park Service has blossomed into 417 national parks, national historical parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national battlefields and national seashores. Some parks feature vast, iconic scenery like Big Bend National Park in West Texas. Others are recognized for their historical significance like the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

Explore the San Antonio Missions, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Explore Mission San Juan, only mission to have a white stucco exterior, and part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

National Parks for Free

The National Park Service charges reasonable fees for their parks, a week in Grand Canyon National Park is $30 for seven days. Though the National Park Service offers several fee-free days sprinkled throughout the year.

Note: Fee-free days does not include user fees like camping, boat launches, shuttle buses, ferry rides, parking fees and tour fees.

Fee Fee Days 2017

 

Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday January 16, 2017
Presidents Day February 20, 2017
National Park Weekends April 15-16 & April 22-23, 2017
National Park Service Birthday August 25, 2017
National Public Lands Day September 30, 2017
Veterans Day Weekend November 11-12, 2017

If you plan on visiting several national parks, an annual pass might be for you. I found several options and I’ve been an annual pass holder for years.

National Park Service Annual Passes

Type of Pass

Eligibility

Cost

America the Beautiful Pass All visitors $80
Military Pass Current U.S. military members and their dependents Free
Every Kid in a Park Pass 10-year-old U.S. students that complete requirements at EveryKidinaPark.gov Free

Program funded until August 31, 2017

Senior Lifetime Pass U.S. citizens and permanent residents 62 years and older $10 until August 27 then $80 on August 28, 2017
Access Pass U.S. citizens and permanent residents with a permanent disability Free
Volunteer Pass Visitors volunteering 250 hours a year Free

Explore a National Park Service Site with an annual pass or during the fee-free weekends.

Know Before You Go:

  • National Parks are popular destinations during school breaks and holidays. Make reservations as early as possible.
  • Reservations for lodging are available 13 months in advance.
  • Parking can be an issue at popular destinations during the middle of the day.
  • Watch your children at all times, many features have barricades kids can climb over.

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