In honor of my ongoing trip report from Colorado, it seems fitting to share information on free admittance to national parks. If you’re looking for something to do this weekend, you’re in luck as more than 100 national parks that normally charge an entrance free are free this Saturday, June 9. Although normal entrance fees for the National Park Service are usually $25 or less (per carload), free is even better, especially if you are checking them out for the first time and aren’t sure if you’ll like a park or not.
I’m a big fan of this country’s national parks. So much of the USA’s beauty is outdoors, and hiking is a favorite pastime of mine. I am a “regular” at Shenandoah National Park, and am fortunate enough to have hiked in many other national parks as well. Even if you’re not a hiker, there are still plenty of National Park sites that you can visit for free over the week. Like nature but not a fan of hiking? Try a tour of Jewel Cave National Monument. Big history buff? Hit up Fort Pulaski.
Here’s How to Make Your Visit More Enjoyable:
Talk to a Ranger
National park rangers spend just about all day everyday in the parks. They know the best trails, the best places to spot wildlife, and the history, ecology, and geology of the area. I do a lot of research ahead of time, and usually know which trails I want to hike, but sometimes circumstances change and you need a Plan B quickly…rangers are the ultimate resource! They answer my questions all the time – everything from information on forest fires to why certain parts of the park are gated (interesting, in Rocky Mountain National Park it’s to keep the elk out of certain areas, and people are welcome to head in!) and more. They also often have ranger programs, including lectures, campfire talks, and group hikes that can all be very informative.
Pack a Picnic Lunch
Some national parks have great tourist facilities, including snack bars and/or restaurants, while others have practically no infrastructure. In most cases, even when there are restaurants, the food isn’t very good and it can be overpriced. Instead, pack a picnic lunch, find a cozy overlook, and enjoy. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also have a great view to enjoy while you’re dining. Time your dinner over sunset for one of the most romantic meals you could ever have. You’re already at one of the most beautiful places on earth; why would you leave to stare at the inside of a building? (Bonus Tip: If you tend to fall asleep on the picnic blanket because you’re so relaxed, make sure you’re wearing sunscreen!).
Find Some Solitude!
National parks, for good reason, have become very popular. At times, you may wonder if you accidentally made a wrong turn and found yourself in Disney Land! Off-peak visits can be the easiest way to avoid these groups, such as heading mid-week instead of Saturday or heading in February instead of July. If you’re stuck heading in the peak of travel, there are still ways to avoid crowds, though. I found myself at Rocky Mountain National Park over Memorial Day weekend, and had parts of the park to myself. Early mornings and evenings are almost always less crowded, since day-trippers usually don’t arrive til 10 and depart by 4 or 5pm and nights are often perfect for stargazing, due to the distance from city centers. If you’re in the park of the middle of the day, don’t despair: the farther away you get from a parking lot, the less people you’ll be with. Last year at Yosemite, there were hordes of people near the first sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove, but a mile down the trail there were less than a dozen tourists, and three miles down, it was just us and the deer. If none of these ideas sound amenable to you, just check out some of the less-visited national parks instead.
Don’t Expect to See the Entire Park in One Day
Most national parks are huge. Rocky Mountain National Park covers over 415 square miles, for example! While you could definitely see all the highlights in a single day if you started early and ended late, you’ll never see it all in one day. Wildlife comes and goes, there are hundreds of miles of trails, and dozens of scenic overlooks to enjoy, some of which you may want to stop at twice to see in the changing light. Staying overnight, especially inside park boundaries if possible, can give you lots more time to enjoy the many facets of the park. That’s not to mention how different the parks are in each season, from roaring rivers and waterfalls in spring, wildflowers and fully accessible hikes over summer, great chances to see wildlife in fall, and dramatic landscapes in winter. Soak in what you can and plan to return.
If June 9 doesn’t work with your plans, other free entrance dates in 2012 are September 29 and November 10-12. Make your plans today!