5 ways to experience the national parks on a budget


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If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation that gives you amazing memories, plenty of Instagram-worthy moments and the ability to DIY a trip based on your interests, a visit to a national park ticks all the boxes.

Another bonus: the National Park Service, which just celebrated its centennial in 2016, has sites that are accessible at all price points. You can pay for deluxe five-star accommodations near your park of choice, or you can choose to save some money and camp under the stars. That said, it’s smart to have your budget, and your itinerary, planned out ahead of time to make sure you don’t miss anything on your bucket list.

Here’s how to get the most out of your national park vacation.

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1. Plan ahead

There are plenty of things to consider when planning your park vacation, starting with which one you want to visit first. Are you looking forward to seeing the marquee parks — think Yosemite, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon — or is your goal to hike, fish or camp away from the crowd? When deciding which of the 60 national parks you want to explore, don’t overlook these details:

Time or seasonal limitations: For popular parks like The Grand Canyon, national holidays, school vacations and summers may be exceptionally busy; this demand often drives up the potential cost of lodging, as well as wait times for tourist buses and activities. On the flip side, going to a park in the dead of winter may not be ideal, as some trails and areas may be closed due to snow and ice. If you’re beholden to a certain time frame, there may be little you can do to avoid the high-prices of peak tourist season. If, however, you’ve got some flexibility, list the attractions you most want to experience and the parks that house them, then look for off-season deals.

Activity options: If you think you can just show up and, say, hike The Narrows in Zion National Park, you’ll be disappointed. Many trails are open to all visitors, but some unique trails and activities, like fishing, may be limited due to safety and environmental considerations. They may also require the purchase of an additional permit, so it’s worthwhile to research at least a month ahead of your trip to make sure your planned activities don’t require registering in advance.

Permit prices will vary based on the activity and the park — hiking the Narrows, for example, starts at $15 and reservations open three months in advance of your visit. The National Park Service has a database that can help you find information about the park you want to visit, including fees for popular activities.

Lodging: While camping is often the most economical option — for example, at Yosemite, family campground sites cost $26 a night — these sites tend to book quickly. You can use the NPS website to find out which parks offer camping, but there isn’t a central reservations resource.

Instead, you’ll want to look up camping availability for your specific park as soon as you’ve settled on the dates of your trip. You’ll have a bit more flexibility when booking at hotels or motels outside the parks, and you may even be able to take advantage of credit card points or hotel promotions to help you curb costs. You can also consider saving a few bucks by opting for campgrounds outside the official park.

Torn about camping or staying in a hotel? Consider booking reservations for both at places that allow you to cancel without paying a fee.

Emergencies: When dealing with the great outdoors, it’s always important to have a little room in your budget for the unexpected. A streak of bad weather might make camping a less-than-desirable option, while a twisted ankle could send you straight to the local hospital. Include a buffer in your budget and consider travel insurance to help mitigate costs.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

2. Budget for fees

Even if you’re planning to camp and eat granola for every meal, costs can add up fast. It’s important to have a sense of how much park passes, permits and food or gear may cost.

  • Park entrance fees: Fees will vary depending on the park and the season, but you may have the option to choose between a vehicle fee and a per-person fee. For example, in Acadia National Park, a vehicle fee costs $30 for seven days. A per-person fee for people hiking or biking is $15 for seven days. If you’re going with several friends or family members, it’s going to be cheaper for you to pay a vehicle fee rather than walking in and paying a per-person fee.

Planning to visit multiple parks? Consider an annual pass, which costs $80 but allows entrance by vehicle to all national parks for the entire year.

  • Permit fees: We mentioned it above, but it’s worth repeating — don’t forget to look up the costs associated with any activities you want to experience during your visit. Including them in your budget from the very beginning can help you avoid overextending your finances when Junior decides he simply must kayak around Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
  • Tour fees: Some national parks cover huge amounts of territory, and taking advantage of park buses or shuttles is a great way to see the sites. Sometimes the service for a shuttle bus is included in entrance admission fees, while other parks offer narrated tours by an on-board naturalist for an additional cost. Independent tour operators also offer specific tours catering to interests like sea kayaking, canyoneering, or guided trail hiking. Get quotes ahead of time to make sure these activities fit your budget.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

3. Take advantage of any entry-fee bargains

The National Parks have varying bargains that can help make a trip even less expensive than anticipated. Here are some to consider; for a complete list of deals, visit the National Parks Land Pass website.

  • Annual park pass. For $80, an annual pass covers a vehicle (and all visitors within) for day-use and entrance fees at National Parks.
  • Free pass for U.S. military. Current members of the U.S. Military can receive a discount pass to all national parks.
  • Annual fourth-grade pass. The National Parks also has a program that offers all fourth-graders (including those who are home schooled) free access to the National Parks.
  • Senior pass. For $80 for a lifetime, or $20 a year, seniors over 62 can receive a pass to all the parks.
  • Access pass. U.S. citizens and permanent residents with permanent disabilities may be able to apply for a free pass to the parks.

There are also certain days when entrance to all National Parks are free. In 2019, these include:

  • January 21 (Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
  • April 20 (first day of National Park Week)
  • August 25 (National Park Services Birthday)
  • September 28 (National Public Lands Day)
  • November 11 (Veteran’s Day)

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

4. Buy gently-used gear

Hiking boots, rain gear, sunscreen — don’t let Mother Nature catch you off guard. Gear outfitters usually exist close to national parks, but the prices there will often be more expensive than what you would find if you shopped secondhand or looked for outdoor sales online. And don’t forget to ask around — fellow outdoors enthusiasts may have some basics you can borrow.

If you’re digging up gear from the basement that hasn’t seen the light of day since your camping trip five years ago, make sure it’s in good condition. Otherwise, you may end up scrambling for gear once you reach your destination, often times paying tourist prices for something you could have purchased ahead of time from a local retailer.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

5. Consider parks off-the-beaten path

While national parks entrance fees don’t vary greatly, some big name ones get traffic all year round — which can mean higher hotel and restaurant rates in nearby towns. If your goal is primarily to explore the great outdoors, look beyond Yellowstone, Bryce, and Zion to smaller — yet no less stunning — parks. Some to consider:

  • the 800,000 square foot Big Bend National Park along the Rio Grande in Texas
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado (with depths of nearly 3,000 feet, it’s often compared to the Grand Canyon)
  • Capital Reef National Park in Utah

These parks don’t necessarily get the same amount of visitors as the big names, but they still feature incredible views, great trails and nearby hotels and restaurants that are less expensive than the ones near big name parks.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

Get ready for priceless memories

While an inexpensive national park trip can require some upfront planning, locking down any permits and reservations can help you enjoy every second once you enter the park. Building flexibility into your budget can give you the financial freedom to spring for, say, a night at a motel if you absolutely must access WiFi. But no matter how you decide to plan your trip, access to national parks gives you the chance to have a once-in-a-lifetime vacation without breaking the bank.

This article originally appeared on StudentLoanHero.com and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.