Visiting the National Parks doesn’t have to be expensive. While you can certainly fly first-class to your destination, pay for all of the extravagant tours, and stay in luxurious hotels, National Park travel can actually be very affordable.
In this guide, I’m sharing eight tips for visiting National Parks on a budget. These National Park travel tips will help you save money while traveling to our beautiful public lands.
Following these tips will allow you to travel to the National Parks in the most budget-friendly way possible so that you can visit everywhere from the lowest point in the California desert all the way to the top of the tallest glaciated mountain in Alaska.
8 Tips for Visiting National Parks on a Budget
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1. Go Camping Instead of Staying in a Hotel
Camping is significantly cheaper than staying in a hotel.
Hotels feature arbitrary charges and sky-high nightly rates while campgrounds offer low rates in prime locations. While the amenities at campgrounds might not be as stellar as hotels, sometimes the benefits of staying the night under the stars outweigh the inconveniences.
You can either camp inside the National Park boundaries or right outside the park. In many cases, campgrounds outside the park are more expensive because they’re privately owned. Government-operated campgrounds like those tucked inside the National Parks are often reasonably priced.
Here are a few of the advantages of camping in a National Park:
- You’ll be in close proximity to your favorite trails and scenic overlooks.
- You’ll get first dibs to the trailheads in the morning.
- You’ll be there long after the day-trippers have gone.
- You can watch the sunrise and sunset in the park.
- You can stay up all night and see the stars.
- There are fantastic views right from your campsite!
→ READ NEXT: 9 Reasons Why Camping Is Better Than a Hotel ⛺️
2. Buy an America the Beautiful Pass
Investing in an America the Beautiful Pass is the quickest way to save money at the entrance stations.
This National Parks pass is just $80 for most people and gets you access to 2,000+ federally-owned public lands, including all 63 National Parks and 425 National Park units.
Buy yours from REI here. (Free shipping for members!)
❗️TIP: If you are a veteran, active in the military, permanently disabled, or have a fourth-grader in your family, you are eligible for a FREE park pass.
3. Visit a Free National Park
Did you know there are more than 300 National Park units that don’t charge an entrance fee?
Here are some of my favorite National Parks that don’t charge an entrance fee:
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio
- North Cascades National Park in Washington
- New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina (You do have to buy and display a parking pass).
→ READ NEXT: 2023 US National Parks Visitor’s Guide 🇺🇸
4. Visit a National Park in the Shoulder Season
Visiting a National Park in the shoulder season (i.e. off-peak, low season) has many perks.
For one, crowds are slimmer so trailheads are easier to park at, trails are less packed, roads aren’t as jammed, and campgrounds/trail permits are easier to reserve.
Two, entrance stations could be unmanned, meaning you’re free to enter. Don’t rely on this, but it’s a possibility.
And three, campgrounds are known for being cheaper so you can save some money.
→ READ NEXT: 14 Mistakes to Avoid When Visiting the National Parks 🌲
5. Cook Your Own Meals
Cooking your own meals and brewing your own coffee at the National Parks is beneficial for three reasons.
One, you’ll save money. 💰
Two, you’ll spend more time in the parks because you won’t be leaving to go to a restaurant or coffee shop.
Third, you won’t have to spend time in lines at the park’s general store or in-park restaurant.
→ READ NEXT: Ways to Brew Tea and Coffee at Camp and on the Trail ☕️
6. Take a Road Trip Instead of Flying
Road-tripping is probably the biggest way to save money on a National Parks trip.
Road-tripping to the National Parks saves on airfare and rental car fees, which, if you’re camping, are the two biggest costs of a National Park trip.
PRO TIP: Make sure to research gas prices throughout your route ahead of time so that you can save the correct amount. Fuel prices differ from state to state, sometimes dramatically. ⛽️
7. Choose Budget-Friendly Activities in the Parks
While there are lots of exciting tours and excursions available in the National Parks, you could save dough by enjoying some budget-friendly activities in the parks.
Some of the best free activities in National Parks are hiking, driving the park roads, stopping at all of the scenic overlooks, wandering around the visitor centers, museums, and exhibits, stargazing, and participating in ranger programs.
If you bring your own bike, kayak, snorkel gear, climbing equipment, backpacking gear, etc. on your road trip, you can enjoy even more activities for free or cheap!
8. Visit the National Parks on a Fee-Free Day
Every year, the National Parks release a set of fee-free days where visitors can enter the parks without paying a dime.
Here are the National Park Fee-Free Days in 2023:
- January 16: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
- April 22: First Day of National Park Week
- August 4: Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
- September 23: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veteran’s Day
Discover Your Next Adventure
Which National Park should you visit next? I’ve got some suggestions!