Visiting national parks is one of the biggest travel bargains in North America. While the parks do collect admission, camping, and various concession fees, they’re still far cheaper than almost any type of vacation you can name.
Camping in national parks doesn’t mean luxurious accommodations, but on the other hand you’re usually facing a $20 bill or less for a night’s stay, and you’re parked in the midst of some of America’s best real estate. Spend a night camped near the ocean at Padre Island, or in the shadow of Devil’s Tower, and you’ll get the idea. Wake up in the morning and there you are—right where you want to be.
Some really great national park campsites are even free! Check out Campendium for locations. That site has easy-to-use filters to allow you to select the type of campsite you want, and price ranges.
There are a few ways to make America’s greatest travel bargain into an even better one. First, if you are under age 62, get an “America The Beautiful” pass for $80. This gives you free entry to any unit of the National Park system, and that adds up quickly when you are visiting some of the larger parks that charge $10-20 entry fees.
This is a “multi-agency” pass, so it also covers entrance fees to national forests (administered by the US Forest Service), Bureau of Land Management sites (which are common out west), and other federal recreational lands.
Currently in the military? You might qualify for a free annual pass. Check https://store.usgs.gov/pass/index.html for details.
The deal gets even better if you are age 62 or older. For a mere $10 you can get a “Senior Pass” which offers all the same perks as the “America The Beautiful” pass—and the pass is good for your entire life.
If that isn’t good enough, that same lifetime Senior Pass often gets you half off camping fees too. If you were looking for some karmic payoff for finally reaching retirement age, this has to be it. It’s the steal of the century for frequent travelers.
Another way to optimize your costs when traveling to national parks is to plan a round robin that covers more than one site at a time. The example map here shows a proposed “Four Corners Loop” that covers Mesa Verde (A), Hovenweep (B), Natural Bridges (C), Capitol Reef (D), Bryce (E), Zion (F), north rim of Grand Canyon (G), Navajo (H), Canyon de Chelly (I), Hubbell Trading Post (J), Petrified Forest (K), El Morro (L), El Malpais (M), and Chaco Culture (N).
If you did this trip, you’d cover only 1,400 miles to see 14 major national park sites. That’s only about $350 in fuel at today’s prices, another bargain for a lifetime experience.
It would take about four to six weeks for most people to complete the loop without too much rushing, so if you only have a week of vacation, just design your own loop that’s a little less ambitious. We picked Utah for this example, but similar trips can be figured in almost any part of the continental US.
Got a tip on saving money in National Parks? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
–By Rich Luhr