The United States is home to some of the most awe-inspiring natural landscapes in the world. Our national parks are a testament to the country’s commitment to preserving its natural heritage. To make these national treasures accessible to as many people as possible, the National Park Service (NPS) has established various initiatives for reduced or free admission to national parks.
The annual free admission days at national parks are some of the most anticipated events for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers. On these designated days, visitors can enter the parks without paying the usual entrance fees, which can cost $20-$35 per vehicle depending on the park. Free admission days/weeks are typically held to commemorate special occasions or celebrate national events, and they provide an excellent opportunity for families, students, and budget-conscious travelers to explore the beauty of America’s national parks without breaking the bank.
1. National Park Week/ Volunteer Week
The most well known national park free admission days are during National Park Week, which occurs each year in April. This weeklong event usually includes Earth Day (April 22) and all NPS-managed parks waive their fees. National Park Week is a prime time to visit popular parks such as Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Parks without incurring the usual costs. National Park Week also offers a range of special programs, events, and activities, such as guided hikes and ranger-led talks. Volunteer opportunities provide visitors with unique and immersive experiences.
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In addition to National Park Week, there are other occasions throughout the year when visitors can enjoy free admission to national parks. For instance, the NPS also offers free admission on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day, National Public Lands Day (fourth Saturday in September), and Veterans Day. These free admission days provide opportunities for Americans and international visitors alike to explore the diverse landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and unique ecosystems that national parks have to offer.
It’s worth noting that not all national parks charge entrance fees. In fact, out of the 423 units managed by the NPS, only 110 parks charge entrance fees, while the remaining 313 are always free to enter.
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3. Annual Pass
Apart from the designated free admission days/weeks, there are other ways to enjoy reduced or free admission to national parks in the US. One option is to obtain an America the Beautiful Pass, also known as the Annual Pass, which provides unlimited access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks, national wildlife refuges, and national forests, for one year from the month of purchase. The Annual Pass costs $80 and covers the entrance fees for the pass holder and up to three accompanying adults (16 years of age and older) at per-vehicle fee areas. Additionally, the pass provides free access to children under 16, as well as discounts on other amenities, such as camping and guided tours. The America the Beautiful Pass is an excellent value for frequent visitors or families planning to visit multiple national parks within a year.
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4. Senior Pass Discount
Another option for reduced admission to national parks is the Senior Pass, also known as the Interagency Senior Pass or the Lifetime Pass. The Senior Pass is a one-time fee of $80 and provides a lifetime access to federal recreation sites, including national parks, as well as a 50% discount on certain amenities such as camping, swimming, and boat launching fees. This pass is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are 62 years of age or older, and it can be a great option for seniors who plan to visit national parks frequently, especially since it doesn’t expire.
5. Access Pass – Lifetime Free Access
Get free or reduced admission through the Access Pass, which is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. This pass is free and provides lifetime access to federal recreation sites, including national parks, as well as discounts on certain amenities. The Access Pass can be a valuable resource for individuals with disabilities who want to explore the natural beauty and recreational opportunities offered by national parks.
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6. Other Passes: Volunteer Pass, Military Personnel Pass, Students Pass
The National Parks Services offers additional special passes for military personnel, fourth-grade students, and volunteers.
- Annual Military Pass provides free admission to active duty military personnel and their dependents.
- Every Kid Outdoors Pass allows fourth-grade students and their families to visit national parks for free during the school year.
- Volunteers-in-Parks Pass is given to individuals who volunteer for 250 hours or more in federal recreation sites, and it provides free admission to national parks as a gesture of appreciation for their service.
It’s worth noting that while free admission days/weeks and special passes provide opportunities for reduced or free admission to national parks, there may still be other fees associated with certain activities or services within the parks, such as camping, guided tours, or special events. It’s important to be aware of these additional costs and plan accordingly when visiting national parks.
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7. Other ways to save money while exploring national parks
In addition to the designated free admission days/weeks and special passes, there are other ways to potentially save on admission fees when visiting national parks. One option is to visit less crowded parks or explore the lesser-known areas of popular parks. Some national parks have multiple entrances, and fees may vary depending on the entrance. For example, the entrance fee for Yellowstone National Park, one of the most iconic national parks in the US, is higher at the popular West Entrance compared to the quieter North or Northeast Entrances. Planning your visit to take advantage of the lower-cost entrances can help you save on admission fees.
Another strategy is to plan your visit during the shoulder seasons, which are the periods just before or after the peak tourist season. During the peak season, which usually falls during the summer months or holiday periods, some national parks may charge higher entrance fees or have more crowded conditions. By visiting during the shoulder seasons, you can potentially save on admission fees and also enjoy a quieter and more peaceful experience in the parks.
Finally, it’s important to note that some national parks offer fee waivers or discounts for specific groups or activities. For example, some parks may offer discounted or free admission to educational groups, organized youth groups, or for specific recreational activities such as hiking, biking, or fishing. It’s worth checking the NPS website or contacting individual parks to inquire about any special discounts or waivers that may be available for your specific situation or interests.
Colorado State Parks and National Parks/Lands By the Numbers:
- 42 Colorado State Parks
- 4 National Parks
- 6 National Monuments
- 11 National Forests
- 42 National Wildlife Areas
- 8 National Wildlife Refuges
- 28 National Recreation Trails
- 2 National Grasslands
- 2 National Historic Sites