Traveling the National Parks on a Budget

By Ashley Kilroy · April 28, 2023 · 10 minute read

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Traveling the National Parks on a Budget

America’s national parks are legendary: You can probably conjure up images of Old Faithful at Yellowstone, El Capitan at Yosemite, and the Great Smoky Mountains without too much trouble. But what you may not realize is that our country’s network of over 400 national parks can also be a terrific, budget-friendly vacation destination.

Planning a road trip to a national park with the family or your BFFs can be an amazing way to see the natural beauty of the U.S. And it’s a popular idea: In 2022, the parks welcomed 312 million visitors, up 5% from the previous year.

By doing some prep work, you can be among those travelers who revel in the iconic landscapes of the parks while having an environmentally friendly, low-cost adventure. Here, you’ll learn the ropes, from advice on destinations to ideas for keeping expenses down.

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, are free to enter. 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. The ever-popular Yosemite and Acadia National Parks charge the same fee.

If you want to see which parks charge a fee, check out the National Park Service’s website .

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 2023, like on Great American Outdoors Day on August 4.

To find parks conveniently located near you, use the National Park Service’s “Find a Park ” tool 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 budgeting for it. Saving money for a trip is an important 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 since 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 factor 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, lots of liquids to fuel you on hikes, and perhaps 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, it can pay to be flexible with your dates and look for the lowest possible fare. Sites like Expedia and Kayak can notify you when prices drop on flights you are interested in. Another smart move is to pack light so you won’t pay those ouch-inducing baggage fees.

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, which are about two and a quarter hours apart. Once you’re at Zion, you might decide to hop over to Bryce Canyon National Park, barely an hour and a half away, and see the incredible rock formations known as hoodoos.

You’ll be able to visit multiple parks without too much drive time, save money on gas, and see all the more spectacular sights. It may be the best way to travel around America on a budget.

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Lodging

You know the law of supply and demand: When demand is high, supply gets scarce — and potentially pricey. With that in mind, note that the peak season for visiting national parks is 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 spring 2023 at Yosemite, for instance, rooms ranged from $101 to $500+ a night. A location farther out from the park will be cheaper as well. Those who accumulate points on a travel credit card or cash back rewards credit card 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, though prices can range from $5 to $30 or so. 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.

Activities and Entertainment

If you have never visited a national park before, you might not know what they offer. While part of their appeal is just being in the great outdoors and soaking in the views, you also have activities available to you. There may be anything from guided walks and museums to talks and 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.

In addition to that, you might seek other activities. For instance, if you are visiting Florida’s Everglades National Park, perhaps you want to go on a kayak adventure with a guide. It can be a terrific way to see the mangroves and sawgrass marshes the area is famous for. That will be an additional cost to keep in mind.

There’s also 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 typically costs $80 ($20 for seniors) and gives you unlimited entrance to over 2,000 federal recreation areas, such as national parks.

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Saving for Your Travel

Saving up for your trip can be pretty straightforward. One way is to set up a dedicated travel fund. Separating your vacation money from your regular savings account 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 has more time to accrue 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.

The Takeaway

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.

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 account fee-free, with no monthly or minimum-balance charges.

Let SoFi help you afford your next adventure sooner.

FAQ

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.

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 and historic sites may not be open every day. Larger parks may close due to weather events. Always check in with a park (either online or by calling) 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 between $20 to $35 for seven days.


Photo credit: iStock/MargaretW

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