I’ve visited 32 of the 59 National Parks throughout the United States over the last dozen years.  Each park is unique and fascinating.  If you are looking for an affordable vacation, I highly recommend planning a trip that includes one or more national parks.

Congress established Yellowstone National Park as the first national park back in 1872.  There are now 59 designated national parks in the National Park Service along with hundreds of national monuments, trails, and historic sites.  National parks are a great way to explore nature and history at the same time.

Double rainbow in Denali National Park!

A national park vacation doesn’t have to cost a fortune if you plan ahead.  We avoid higher costs and larger crowds by traveling before everyone else does.  The weather is usually fine and most park roads and trails are open by late May.

The biggest travel costs for any vacation are usually transportation, lodging, and food.  You can keep costs at a minimum by planning ahead and making smart choices.  Some parks are in locations where lodging options are limited and therefore more expensive.  Deals can still be found by doing some research ahead of time.

We usually travel during the “shoulder seasons” of late spring or early fall.  We find that traveling before the summer crowds start to build in mid June is best for our sanity.   My school year usually ends before Memorial Day weekend and we hit the road.  Last year, we visited national parks and monuments in both Colorado and Utah.  The only reservations we made were for Mesa Verde National Park because of its remote location.  The rest of our trip we were able to travel at our own pace and had no problem finding affordable lodging along the way.  It definitely pays to travel when you can avoid the crowds!

National park passes are available for $80.00 per year which is a great deal if you plan to visit a number of parks during one calendar year.  The pass covers everyone in your vehicle so it’s a great deal for a family.  Members of the U.S. military branches receive a free pass, as do all fourth graders in public, private, or home schools.  Seniors who are 62 years of age or older can purchase a lifetime pass for $80.00.   A few parks don’t have an entrance fee but most range from $10.00-$30.00 per week.  The National Park Service also designates a few days throughout the year as free entrance days.  Visit the  National Parks Service website to find the most up-to-date information on entrance fees and other vital information for planning your trip.

The Switchback Kids have a wonderful blog filled with great tips on how to visit national parks on a budget.  Although their year-long adventure spent visiting all 59 national parks is complete, you can still visit Cole and Elizabeth anytime at  Switchback Kids.  I highly recommend reading their accounts of traveling throughout the park system as a young couple on a tight budget.

Camping is cheap and affordable either within or near most national parks.  Many parks also have other lodging options available such as motel rooms, cabins, and rooms within historic lodges.  Some of these options are costly and can increase your travel costs dramatically.  However, there are times when I think it’s worth the extra cost to stay in park lodging.  We did this at Mesa Verde’s Far View Lodge last May.  We knew we wanted to take all of the guided tours within the park.  Camping wasn’t an option for us since the nights were still chilly and we’re big babies.  Staying outside of the park and driving back and forth each day didn’t make sense to us either.  By booking a room in advance at the Far View Lodge, we got a reasonable rate and we were able to enjoy all of the park’s activities without stressing ourselves out each day.

National parks offer a variety of attractions and experiences and most of them are free once you enter the park.  Some parks offer miles of hiking opportunities, while others offer scenic driving loops or tours.  There is something for every fitness level and age.  Although many national parks are located in wilderness areas, there are also many parks located near towns and cities.  This past summer I had the pleasure of discovering  Cuyahoga Valley National Park located near Cleveland, Ohio.  We spent two days exploring the park by foot and train.  I would happily return to explore more of this urban oasis.

Saquaro National Park
Head west and visit Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona

No matter which direction you head, there are so many wonderful parks to visit, you can’t go wrong.  Start planning your national park adventure today!

“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”             
Wallace Stegner