National parks are even better to explore when they’re free.
By Teresa Bitler
National Park Week begins April 18, giving you the chance to visit your favorite national park — or discover a new favorite — for free. Here are five ways you can make the most of the week, which runs through April 26.
Go opening weekend. If you want to get in for free, plan to visit April 18 and 19, when parks that normally charge an entrance fee will waive it. (Note: You will still have to pay for tours, camping, and concessions unless stated otherwise.) We recommend making the most of your free visit by applying your savings to trying a new activity in the park. Only 127 of the nation’s 407 national parks charge an entrance fee, though. While those parks are drawing the crowds and attention, you might want to consider heading to one of the 280 other options and take advantage of a possibly quieter visit there.
Fort Sumter in South Carolina is included in National Park Week. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Don’t forget the national monument. National Park Week doesn’t just apply to the nation’s park; it applies to all public lands administered by the National Park Service (NPS). This includes national monuments such as Fort Sumter National Monument in South Carolina, White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, and Muir Woods National Monument in California; historical parks such as Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia; and battlefields, such as Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia. You can also get free admission to recreation areas such as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and seashores, including Cape Cod National Seashore and Assateague Island National Seashore. The NPS also administers national rivers, heritage areas, and military parks.
Earth Day at Yosemite National Park. (Photo: InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr)
Plan before you go. For the best experience, visit the park’s website and learn what you can expect while there. What’s the park like? Will you be able to drive from one scenic point to the next, or will you be encouraged to take the park shuttle? What activities and tours are available? What will the weather be like? Many parks offer special activities in conjunction with National Park Week. For example, Great Smoky Mountains National Park will host an entire day of free music at its Sugarlands Visitor Center on April 18, and Yosemite National Park will celebrate Earth Day (April 22) with events throughout the week.
Take advantage of free programs. National parks offer ranger-led hikes, geography talks, fossil walks, and other free programs throughout the year. Check the event calendar before you go to see what’s available and whether reservations are required. If you have kids, stop by the visitor center for information on the free Junior Ranger program that challenges them to complete park-specific activities in exchange for a patch and certificate. Bonus: April 18 is also National Junior Ranger Day, so in addition to the free park admission, some parks are planning special Junior Ranger activities for kids.
The night sky just outside Bryce Canyon National Park. (Photo: Mike Durkin/Flickr)
Stay overnight. Popular parks can get very crowded during the day, especially during National Park week. Beat the crowds by spending the night in park either at the park’s campground or a historic park lodge like El Tovar at the Grand Canyon. By spending the night, you can also take advantage of the night sky programs like the one at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah or Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Plus, you may be able to get some incredible sunrise and sunset photographs.
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