13 Money-Saving Tips for Visiting U.S. National Parks

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Happy 100th birthday to the National Park Service. Famed Yellowstone was the very first national park, recognized by Congress in 1872. But the agency didn't become official until President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act of 1916, in the spirit of conservation and environmental awareness. The Park Service has since grown to include 412 national parks, monuments, battlefields, recreation areas, and more. The official centennial presents a great opportunity for everyone to plan a trip. Here are 13 tips for saving money on your next visit to a national park.

Related: 19 of the Most Underrated National Parks


To commemorate the centennial, the National Park Service is offering 16 opportunities for free entrance to parks across the country in 2016. The remaining dates are Aug. 25 to 28 (for the National Park Service's birthday), Sept. 24 (National Public Lands Day), and Nov. 11 (Veterans Day). It's a savings for visitors to the 127 sites that normally charge entrance fees.


Motorists who drive into national parks typically pay an entrance fee of up to $30 a vehicle for seven days, which is generally a good value for families. But individuals who bike or ride a motorcycle through the gates often get reduced rates -- by as much as half. Destinations popular with cyclists include Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, Redwood National Park in California, and Skyline Drive in Virginia. Public transit also may be a cheaper option for individual visitors or even couples. In the Yosemite area, bus tickets to Yosemite Valley start at less than $5 (one way) and include park admission. Inside the park, a free shuttle operates all day.


Not only does piling everyone into one car save on gas, it also saves on entrance fees. Most national parks charge per vehicle, rather than per person, which can make a tight squeeze worth it. Once inside a large park, visitors can often leave their cars and take free shuttles for more savings on fuel. Although some parks have gas stations within park limits, prices tend to be higher than in town.


Planning to stay overnight? National parks draw lots of tourists during the high season, reducing room availability at hotels and pushing rates through the roof. Camping is the cheapest option, but campgrounds are often filled to capacity in the summer. Try to reserve a spot online, ahead of time, especially at popular parks, which often see spaces booked months in advance. Other budget-friendly options include staying in a cabin on park grounds or booking a privately run campsite nearby. Inexpensive motels outside many national parks cater to frugal visitors who balk at the rates inside.

Related: 10 Cheap Places to Stay Near Major National Parks


National Park Service volunteers who complete 250 hours of service receive a free annual pass to all national parks. Through programs such as Wilderness Volunteers, participants pay about $300 for a weeklong mission, including room and board, along with training. Transportation to the site isn't covered, but the organization runs projects all over the West, so this could be a good deal if you can find something close to home.


At most national parks, veterans, AAA members, seniors, students, military personnel, and people with disabilities receive reduced rates or get in free. And it may not be only the member who saves. Discounts sometimes apply to entire groups even if just one person qualifies. For example, U.S. citizens and residents 62 and older can purchase a lifetime pass for $10, which admits everyone in the vehicle, or the pass holder and three other adults where admission is charged per person (children under 16 are free).


For avid travelers or outdoor enthusiasts who plan to visit several sites in the national park system during the year, an America the Beautiful Pass might make financial sense. For $80 a year, the pass provides unlimited access to more than 2,000 national recreation sites, including all 59 national parks. Pass holders 16 and older can enter any site with up to three other adults (children under 16 are free) at parks that charge per-person fees. At sites that charge per vehicle, the pass covers everyone in the car.


In addition to checking travel sites for deals when planning a budget trip to a national park, visit the discount travel site Cosmos, which offers tours and travel plans in partnership with the Park Service. The Park Service's official newsletter offers travel tips, promotions, and updates.


Many national parks can be reached by train. Amtrak Vacations offers deals that combine travel, lodging, meals, and attraction fees, making trip planning more convenient. Vacation packages feature Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, and Crater Lake national parks, among others.


Many national parks are in remote locations or tourist destinations where prices on just about everything are higher than back home. So be sure to stock up on sunscreen, batteries, bug spray, first aid equipment, and other essentials at discount stores before the trip. Food is also more costly on park grounds and sometimes hard to come by, so bring snacks, beverages, and even meals. Just be sure to follow park regulations for food storage and waste disposal. No one wants a bear making off with a picnic basket.


If you rarely hike or camp, don't spend a ton of money on new gear for a trip to a national park. Instead, look for used and rented gear, including backpacks, lights, tents, stoves, and more. Check secondhand stores and sites such as Craigslist, Amazon, and eBay, or post a request on Freecycle to find people giving away unwanted outdoor gear for free. Lots of folks get the camping bug only to discover it's not for them, and buying their gently used equipment is an easy way to save big.


National parks such as Rocky Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone spring to mind as hot spots, but the national park system also includes hundreds of monuments, landmarks, memorials, preserves, and recreational areas. These sites tend to be cheaper to visit -- rarely more than $10 to enter -- and include attractions such as the Washington and Lincoln memorials in Washington, D.C. (free). Spend a week visiting Utah's spectacular Natural Bridges ($10 a vehicle); Castillo de San Marcos in Saint Augustine, Florida ($10 for adults 16 and older); or Fort McHenry in Baltimore (also $10 for adults). The Park Service has hundreds of spots to explore, so look beyond the most famous (read: overcrowded and priciest) destinations.


The Every Kid in a Park pass affords all U.S. fourth-grade students and their families free entrance to any national park (along with other federal lands and waters) for the 2015-2016 school year -- an $80 value. To solve the challenge of getting kids to these national treasures, particularly from underserved communities, the National Park Foundation provides transportation grants to federal agencies wishing to host fourth-graders. Those wishing to take advantage of the initiative need to act quickly: It ends Aug. 31.