Whether you’ve already got a national parks passport chock full of stickers and stamps or you’re just getting ready to take your first Grand Circle tour, the national parks are some of the most popular destination for RVers and campers of all stripes — and for good reason. These landscapes are so undeniably moving that we as people have made a dedicated effort to set them aside, to consecrate and preserve them for future generations. As someone who’s visited about a dozen, I think it’s safe to say you want to see as many of them as you possibly can.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the limited number of fee-free days the National Park Service offers each year to encourage people to get outdoors and spend time with their friends and family.
National Park Fees
First things first: what are the national park fees in the first place, and which parks assess them? How much might you expect to pay at the entryway to, say, Arches National Park or Yellowstone National Park?
Well, each park’s entry fee varies, ranging from absolutely nothing, as at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, all the way up to $35 per vehicle or more in places like Glacier National Park. What’s more, the exact cost to you will depend on what sort of vehicle you’re bringing into the park as well as how long you wish to visit; you might be charged a lower fee if you arrive by motorcycle, or pay more for a pass that’s good for three or seven days.
Because there’s so much variability when it comes to specific national park entry fees, the best way to figure out how much your target park costs to enter is to check out this comprehensive and up-to-date list, managed by the National Park Service itself. Keep in mind that these fees might not cover additional services or activities, like cave tours or camping costs.
How to Get Free Entry to the National Parks
Now that you know what you’ll pay to get in on most days of the year, let’s talk about those special ones where you don’t have to pay anything. Each year, the National Park Service hosts a few specific days where entry fees are waived to encourage more people to get outside and explore these unique landscapes. These change on an annual basis, but here are the official national park fee-free days in 2019, per the National Park Service.
- Monday, January 21 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- Saturday, April 20 – Start of National Park Week/National Junior Ranger Day
- Sunday, August 25 – National Park Service Anniversary
- Saturday, September 28 – National Public Lands Day
- Monday, November 11 – Veterans Day
As you can see, while one of these dates has already passed (and one is soon approaching), you still have ample opportunities to take advantage of this offer and gain free entry to national parks across the country. (That said, always be sure to double check that your destination park is participating if you don’t want to face an unpleasant surprise when you arrive at the gates!)
National Park Annual Pass
Can’t make any of those dates for your national park trip this year?
No worries. There are lots of other ways to save money on your excursion in the great outdoors — such as investing in an annual park pass (or taking advantage of a free or discounted one, if you fall into certain demographics!)
The National Park Service offers its America the Beautiful Pass, which gets you into more than 2,000 federal recreation sites across the country, for a standard fee of $80 per year. The pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas, or up to four adults at sites that charge per person. (Children age 15 or under are admitted for free!)
If you have a permanent disability, or you’re a current active duty military member, you can get one of these annual passes for free, as can students for the duration of their 4th grade school year. And seniors aged 62 or older can get a lifelong annual pass for the same $80 the rest of us pay for a single year — or choose to pay $20 yearly instead.
These annual passes are invaluable for those who spend lots of time traveling around between multiple national parks, such as full-time RVers. But if you tend to stay in a single area and revisit the same park again and again, you could also purchase a park-specific annual pass, which usually runs more along the order of $50 or so.
It’s also important to note that many very famous parks and attractions are not actually managed by the National Park Service, but are rather privately owned, and thus may charge you for entrance on an entirely different fee schedule. For instance, Monument Valley Park is actually tribally owned, as is Meteor Crater, which lies just outside of Winslow, Arizona. That means that your annual national parks pass won’t get you entry to either of these locations — you’ll still have to pay the regular entry fee!
National Park Camping
Camping inside the national parks is a travel bucket list item for many RVers, and it’s a great way to get front-row access to all the action without sacrificing convenience or comfort. Of course, because this way of experiencing the parks is so popular, the national park campgrounds do tend to fill up quickly, so it’s a good idea to make your reservations well in advance. Furthermore, some parks don’t actually offer reservations and must simply be utilized on a first-come, first-served basis. If that’s the case at your destination park, be sure to arrive early!
If you’re bringing an RV to the national parks, it’s important to understand that the entry fee doesn’t necessarily cover the cost of your campsite. What’s more, that campsite may or may not have modern amenities like water and electrical hookups. Each national park has its own array of campgrounds to select from, some of which include services and some of which are primitive only. You may have to pay a nightly campsite fee ranging from about $5 to $25, or you may be able to boondock for free. It all depends on the individual park! So again, be sure to check out the information available directly from the Park Service (or one of our helpful National Park Guides!) to get the full details about the camping options at your destination.
National Parks Near Me
Although we often tend to think of the national parks as being mostly concentrated in the wide-open west, no matter what part of our beautiful country you call home, chances are, you’ve got a federal recreation site in your area. Along with actual National Parks, there are also National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, and lots of other amazing landscapes and attractions to discover.
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