The U.S. has hundreds upon hundreds of exciting and exciting places to visit. And after a long year stuck inside or glued to a desk, you may want to explore some of them.
Planning a road trip to a national park with the family can be an amazing way to see America and travel on a budget. That’s because over 400 national parks across the U.S. fall under the National Park Service’s administration. Even if you wanted to see them all, you’d have your work cut out for you. That doesn’t stop people from returning again and again, though. Over 237,000,000 people visited national parks during the year 2020 alone.
Consider planning a trip if you would like to count yourself among these visitors this year. And let us help you make it as affordable as possible. Here are some costs to cover on an environmentally-friendly, low-cost adventure, as well as some pointers for planning a vacation on a budget.
Cheap National Parks to Visit
Unlike other standard vacation destinations (theme parks, etc.), most national parks don’t charge an entrance fee. Over two-thirds of these sites, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, avoid this cost. So the vast majority of these destinations are indeed cheap national parks to visit!
Even if you choose one that does charge, you’ll most likely pay by the carload, like the 7-day pass for your group at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado for $35.
If you want to see which parks charge a fee, check out the National Park Service’s website. They compile each fee-charging park and publish the actual cost, making planning a cinch.
Here’s an important warning, however: During peak times, you may need a reservation simply to drive into a park. You may gain admission if you have another kind of reservation (hotel room, say, or campsite), but double-check. Keep this top of mind if you are thinking you can just cruise on over and take selfies at, say, Half Dome for a day in August. Probably not going to happen without advance planning.
You can also take advantage of fee-free days. The National Park Service selects certain holidays and special occasions each year to offer admission-free entrance to everyone. So, you can visit over 400 sites at no cost in 2022, like on Great American Outdoors Day on August 4th.
To find parks conveniently located near you using the National Park Service’s online tool, use the “Find a Park”” function online. Then you can compare options and see what type of landscape you’d most like to visit.
Setting a Budget for Visiting National Parks
If you have a vacation in mind, you might have already started saving up. Saving money for a trip is a crucial step and allows you to explore the world guilt-free. But to make the most out of your visit to a national park, you need to know exactly what type of costs to expect. That way, you never have to worry about not having enough money on hand to enjoy yourself.
Here are some expenses you should account for in your national parks budget.
Food & Drink
Saving money on a road trip is often challenging. You don’t have all your basic necessities ready at your disposal. That includes food and drink, whether your style is more drive-through or sit-down dining or “I’m happy to cook for myself.” You’ll need to plan the cost of meals into your travel budget.
One budget-smart option is to rent a cabin with a kitchen. With that, you can pick up groceries once you arrive and cook your meals instead of ordering out. That’s a big savings right there! You may not be the type to cook on vacation, though. If not, you can look for affordable options near you for meals. But keep in mind: You’ll need to budget for your three meals a day, plus you’ll probably want some water and a snack here and there, or to go out for a beer or two one evening. There will likely be taxes and possibly tips involved. See how it all adds up and what you can afford.
One very dollar-smart move to stay well-fed and not blow your budget: Use a backpack cooler. If you want to spend your days hiking and walking, you’re going to get thirsty and hungry pretty quickly. You can load a cooler up with protein bars, nuts, apples, and granola, preventing you from buying potentially pricey food throughout the day.
Gas & Travel
When it comes to the expense of traveling to national parks, the nice news is that a destination might be closer than you think. Many of us hear the phrase “national park” and think of large, sweeping spots in the West, like the Grand Canyon. But that’s just one iconic site. There are actually hundreds of places in the U.S. under the National Park Service’s care, from historic sites to scenic trails. So, you may not have to plan out a cross-country trip to enjoy what this country has to offer.
However, if you have to travel a significant distance, why not whittle your transportation costs? For example, if you need to fly, look for times when tickets are cheaper, which may mean buying a ticket on a Tuesday and flying on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday . One of the travel hacks you can use in this case is setting up price alerts. Services like Expedia and Kayak notify you when prices drop on flights you are interested in. Otherwise, being flexible and packing light (so you won’t pay those ouch-inducing baggage fees) are your best friends for a cheap flight.
Perhaps you’re driving to your destination, though. If you want to improve gas mileage and get the most out of your trip, try to choose a park that isn’t isolated. For example, there are multiple national parks near Las Vegas, such as Death Valley National Park and Zion National Park. You’ll be able to visit multiple parks without too much drive time and see all the more spectacular sights! It may be the best way to travel America on a budget.
You know the law of supply and demand: When demand is high, supply gets scarce — and potentially super pricey. With that in mind, note that the peak season for visiting national parks takes place in summer. Kids are off from school, temperatures are warmer, and international travelers may visit our lovely landscapes. So that means bigger crowds, which impacts local lodging. It will be harder to find accommodations, and their prices will be higher, too.
Because of this, it’s best to book your lodging in advance so you don’t get shut out of affordable rooms. National Parks have a wide range of accommodations; during the spring at Yosemite, for instance, rooms can range from $120 to $518 a night when we checked. A location further out from the park will be cheaper as well. Those who accumulate points may find lodging nearby at a discount.
Of course, that’s not your only option. You can also rent an RV or stay at a campground. If you choose to camp, check to see if you need a reservation. At national parks, the average price is around $20 per night. These sites usually offer electricity hookups, water, camp stores, and fire rings. Research what your campground offers to help plan out your packing needs. If you snag one of these spots at a free-admission park and already have tents and other gear on hand…Congrats. You may have scored one of the cheapest national park visits to be found.
If you have never visited a national park before, you might not know what they offer. While part of their appeal is just in the great outdoors, you have activities available to you. There may be anything from guided walks to museums to talks to films, and they all typically come at no extra cost. It can be a great way to learn about local wildlife, fossils, history, and more.
But, in addition to that, there’s every chance that you may pass all kinds of mini-golf, waterparks, multiplexes, and other attractions as you explore the area near a national park. If a vacation isn’t a vacation without indulging in these offerings, factor that into your budget, too.
Permits & Passes
Again, most parks are available to the public for free. But if you want to visit multiple national parks, consider opting for a National Park Annual Pass. It costs $80 and gives you unlimited entrance to over 2,000 federal recreation areas, such as national parks.
Saving for Your Travel
Saving up for your trip can be pretty straightforward and simple. One way to do that is to set up a dedicated travel fund. Separating your vacation money from your regular savings account will simplify your process. What’s more, it will make your progress that much easier to track.
You can also maximize your savings by setting up automatic contributions to your travel fund. That way, you never forget to put in a few dollars on payday.
If that sounds appealing, you need to pick the correct type of account. Some options, like a high yield bank account, promise higher interest rates than your standard version. However, your choice will depend on your timeline. For example, someone taking a trip in a year or two has more time to build interest than someone taking a trip within a few months.
Let’s say you don’t have much time, though. Even if you can’t build much in the way of interest, you can still find extra cash in your life. You might need to budget a bit differently. For example, if you have a streaming service membership, you can cancel that for a while. Or perhaps you can pick up a side hustle on the weekends, whether that means driving for a rideshare service or walking dogs.
Vacations are a time to relax, enjoy yourself, and make memories with your loved ones. The last thing you need is for that time away to leave you deeply in debt and saddled with stress. That’s why a trip to a national park can be such a terrific destination: You’ll explore the great outdoors but can do so without breaking the bank, thanks to low fees, free activities, and the smart saving advice you learned here.
Save Smarter With SoFi
Are you considering a week wandering around Yellowstone? Or maybe a weekend at a nearby park? Or just looking to stash some cash while you figure things out? We’re here for you! SoFi Checking and Savings offers eligible accounts a competitive APY. That means your money grows faster. And we are devoted to being fee-free, with no monthly or minimum-balance charges.
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Is it expensive to visit national parks?
In many cases, it’s a more affordable vacation than other options. Over two-thirds of national parks offer free admission year-round. Plus, there are many throughout the country, meaning you can pick one that’s close and may not have to spend much on travel costs.
The main expenses will come from your lodging, food, and additional activities. But there are ways to strategize so you don’t spend excessively, such as packing your own food while exploring the parks.
How many days should you spend at a national park?
The length of your stay should depend on the type of itinerary you want to build and the size of the park you are visiting. There are many itineraries for Yosemite online that involve staying three to five days, but you could certainly spend much longer or shorter periods of time. Worth noting: Some smaller parks may be closed during certain parts of the year. And, if you want to visit a historic site or structure, it may not be open every day of the week. Always check in with a park (either online or by calling) to research beforehand.
How much does it cost on average to visit a national park?
Most national parks are free. The National Park Service allows you to see the entrance rates for each fee-charging national park. Use their listings to see if the park you want to visit charges an entrance fee. The per-vehicle prices are often in the range of $20 to $35 for seven days.