The U.S. National Park System is beloved for providing relatively easy access to some of the most pristine natural beauty you'll find anywhere. But even though taking in the great outdoors may make you feel free, entrance to many of the popular sites is not. With the exception of a few select days of the year, many of the 63 national parks charge an admission fee to help pay for basic upkeep and staffing. But if you're traveling on a budget, there are still some that won't cost you a dime. Read on to find out which of the best national parks are always free to visit.
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Redwood National Park
Just because a site is well known doesn't mean you'll have to pay to see it. And according to Adam Marland, travel photographer and writer for We Dream of Travel, taking in the grandeur of the "tallest trees on Planet Earth" makes a trip to Redwood National Park a "truly humbling experience" for visitors—without having to shell out any cash.
"The best feature of the park is clearly the enchanted forest, but the second best feature is the free entry! In fact, there are no entrance fees to drive the scenic roads or highways in Redwood National Park, nor in any of the three state parks nearby," he says.
New River Gorge National Park
Even as the newest addition to the system, one site is already garnering a reputation for being one of the most worthwhile to visit in the U.S. The best part? It won't cost you anything.
"New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia is one of the best national parks for hiking that is also free," Jennifer Melroy, writer and founder of National Park Obsessed, tells Best Life. "Treks includes several bucket list hikes such as Endless Wall and Grandview Rim. In addition to hiking, there is the chance to walk across the largest single-span steel arch bridge in the United States."
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Biscayne National Park
The national parks represent all different kinds of environments—including aquatic ones. If you're looking to spend some time marveling at nature with your snorkel and fins, there's one free option you should add to your list.
"Located off of the coast in South Florida near Miami, Biscayne National Park is open 365 days a year and does not require an entry fee," Erin Moreland, travel blogger at Super Simple Salty Life, tells Best Life. "Ninety-five percent of the park is actually underwater, and the park contains a portion of one of the largest and healthiest coral reefs in the world. Visitors can typically spot manatees, alligators, dolphins, sea turtles, and tons of tropical fish as well."
Great Basin National Park
Just because some parks don't have an immediately-recognized landmark doesn't mean they're not worth visiting—and one Nevada site in particular is popular for its spectacular caves and stunning ecological diversity.
"Great Basin National Park is a gem of the West!" Kate Brassington, co-founder of The Family Vacation Guide, tells Best Life. "The park is free to visit, with many beautiful lakes and hikes, including the Osceola Ditch, Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, and Bristlecone&Glacier Trail."
Brassington emphasizes that this park isn't just a great place to visit during the daylight hours. "Great Basin National Park is also an International Dark Sky Park, meaning that you can view stars, planets, and even galaxies through the naked eye on a moonless night," she says. "It's definitely a magical bucket list experience you will want to have with your family."
Congaree National Park
It's not every day that something both free and spectacular goes unnoticed. But one South Carolina park flies below the radar despite not charging visitors an entrance fee.
"Congaree National Park is an often-overlooked national park, but so beautiful and worthwhile," Brittanie Harbick, co-host of the Travel Squad Podcast, tells Best Life. "The Weston Lake Loop trail offered an elevated boardwalk above the forest floor that allowed us to really take in the sights of the bottomland hardwood forest and floodplains. Our favorite part of the trail was the Weston Lake overview, where we saw an alligator, a snake, and turtles swimming in the water."
However, she adds that while the swampy park is "definitely worth a visit, don't forget to bring bug spray."
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Kenai Fjords National Park
The National Park System has a surprising number of options that make it easy to do bite-sized visits or short stays at sites. However, those that take a little extra work to get to will make it worth your while.
"If you're an individual who enjoys both adventure and wildlife, Kenai Fjords National Park needs to be at the top of your list," Phillip Imler, PhD, founder and president of the Global Alliance of National Parks, says of the Alaskan destination. "Anyone can engage in a wide range of activities without paying any camping fees, including kayaking, cross-country skiing, fishing, hiking, and much more. You can even take a boat cruise to nearby islands to see the rich biodiversity and hike to the well-known tourist destination known as 'Exit Glacier.'"
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Even as the most-visited site in the system, Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge its visitors for access. But due to a recent policy change, there is a small caveat to visits here being completely free.
"The Smokies can't charge an entrance fee due to deed restrictions, but they are implementing a parking permit system," Melroy says. "The crux of the system is that it is still free to enter the park, but if you want to park for more the 15 minutes, you have to buy a parking pass. It's a necessary workaround to give the busiest National Park a much-needed funding boost."
According to the National Park Service (NPS), stashing your vehicle onsite will run you $5 a day or $15 for a whole week when it goes into effect on March 1, 2023—although, by comparison, many other sites charge up to $15 per person and $30 per vehicle for access. However, experts say it's a small price to pay for access to the gorgeous destination.
"It's such a beautiful national park with lush forests, streams, rivers, and waterfalls! We really enjoyed Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park, right before sunset because it gives 360-degree views of the Smokies and gorgeous sunset views," Harbick tells Best Life. "Another must-do activity is the Alum Cave Bluffs Trail to Myrtle Point, which offers panoramic views of the Smokies. Along the trail, we were lucky enough to witness a mama bear and her two cubs hanging out in a tree."
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Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Not every part of the U.S. is fortunate enough to have plenty of national parks nearby. But one state's sole site also happens to be completely free of charge.
"Cuyahoga Valley National Park—the only national park in Ohio—is yet another free gem in the system," says Brassington. "The 33,000-acre park offers activities galore for families, including hiking, a train ride, bicycling, winter sports, and more."
"The Ohio and Erie Canal and Valley Railway both run through the area, and you can even take a scenic train ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad," she says. "Hiking through the park, you'll see various waterfalls, including Brandywine Falls—the most glorious in the park—which is surrounded by a 1.5-mile hike called the Brandywine Falls Trailhead. Or, you can hike or cycle on the 87-mile Towpath Trail, which follows along the old Ohio and Erie Canal."
North Cascades National Park
Even though entrance fees are unlikely to keep avid nature fans away from any site, one national park manages to be the fourth least-visited in the entire system while also being completely free. But its location about three hours away from Seattle in northern Washington State—and the fact that it's home to more than 300 glaciers—should make it a shoo-in for any national parks bucket list.
"North Cascades National Park is a bit remote but worth the trek, as it is home to glaciers, waterfalls, and amazing mountain scenery," suggest Harbick. "If you have the time, definitely hike the Cascade Pass Trail, where you will climb through the forest via 30-plus switchbacks, hike across a blockfield, and maybe see a mountain goat before rounding the bend to views of the meadows, valleys, and rugged mountains."
Looking for an unforgettable sight? "Be sure to stop at Diablo Lake Vista Point to take in the magnificent views of the beautiful bright turquoise water," she adds.