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7 Things To Know About Visiting US National Parks

Like many US citizens, we grew up wandering in national parks – some of our earliest memories are of camping in Tennessee’s Smokies, where we thrilled at conquering boulders and sighting black bears. In college we hiked and drove the Shenandoah range of Virginia. Later we explored Maine’s Acadia by bicycle, the Hawai’i Volcanoes and Joshua Tree on foot, and then came the grand parks of Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes. From those two we’ve viewed everything from meteor showers to frozen lakes, countless elk and bighorn sheep, and a lone black bear climbing a high ridge. Despite many rich experiences, we hadn’t stopped to consider the breadth of the US National Park system, their value in our nation’s culture, or even the struggle it took to bring them into existence. The national park system delivers so much, and asks no more than respect in return. We encourage you to enjoy our incredible parks. Here are a few tips to help you get there.

And in the coming months we’ll be adding more blogs with information on ways to enjoy the US National Parks.

Moss Covered Rocks in a River in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina and Tennessee USA


great smoky mountains national park, north carolina & tennessee, by wes hicks

1. US National Parks Are Open

With the exception of closure due to natural disasters such as hurricanes or fires*, all of the US National Parks are open, and plan to be open this summer. So far, no national parks say they will close again.

* In some cases, portions of a park may be closed due to a natural disaster, but the park remains open. This is true of the fire damage to Rocky Mountain National Park in the fall of 2020. This recent update gives information on areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that have reopened, and those that remain closed.

A few of the busiest US National Parks require reservations for visits during the summer of 2021.

US National Parks requiring reservations in 2021:

• Acadia National Park, Maine
• Glacier National Park, Montana
• Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
• Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
• Yosemite National Park, California
• Zion National Park, Utah

River and cliffs in Yosemite National Park California USA


yosemite national park, california; photo by christian joudrey

2. US National Park Entrance Fees & Costs

2021 Fee-Free Days at US National Parks

It’s tempting to believe that all of the 423 US National Park sites are free, but with a 2021 National Park Service budget of over $3B (a drop from 2020 and 2019), it’s hard to argue with the need for entrance fees. 108 of the national parks do charge an entrance fee, which can range from $5-$35. Still, in the nature of their founding as resources for all Americans, the Park Service offers up days each year when the national parks entrance fees are waived.

Acadia National Park Maine seashore view with blue sky


acadia national park, maine; photo by mike haupt

The 2021 National Parks calendar includes six days to visit the national parks without an entrance fee:

January 18th – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, a federal holiday
April 17th – First day of National Park Week 2021 – April 17 – 25 – during which each day will have its own theme.
August 4th – Great American Outdoors Day to celebrate signing of the Great American Outdoors Act, H.R.1957
August 25th – National Park Service Birthday
September 25th – National Public Lands Day
November 11th – Veterans Day

Click herefor a list of all US National Parks not charging an entrance fee on these dates. If you don’t see your park, it is already free. One example is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which was designated from its establishment in 1934 to always have free entrance.

Please note that the fee waiver is only for admission into the park itself. Entry fee-free days do not include site-specific costs such as guided tours, camping, or fishing permits.

US National Parks Pass

The best way to ensure that you will get the most out of the national parks is to purchase the national parks yearly pass. At an annual cost of $80, the America the Beautiful Pass covers entry to all of the US National Parks for one year. It can be purchased online through the US Geological Survey for a $5 handling fee, through REI, and on the US Park Pass website, which also gives a lot of information about the pass. It can also be purchased at many of the federal recreation areas, listed here.

If you’re a US citizen 62 years or older, that same $80 buys you a national parks lifetime pass.

If you are a US citizen or permanent resident of the United States that has been medically determined to have a permanent disability, The Access Lifetime Pass is a free pass for you. And you do not have to have a 100% disability to qualify.

If you’re serving in the US military, a current US Military ID will get you free access to most federal lands that charge an entrance fee. Military veterans and Gold Star families also became eligible to free access to the national parks on November 11th, 2020. Certain forms of ID are required. Find out more here

Lucky 4th graders across the US, including those who are home schooled and free-choice learners, are allowed free entry from September through August of the year that they are in the 4th grade.

Daily, Weekly and Annual National Park Entrance Fees

All of the money collected from national park entrance fees, which can range from $5-$35, remains in the National Park service, and at least 80% stays within the park where it was collected. So if you are paying a daily fee to access the national park in your own back yard, you can consider it a donation to your own community. Many of the park entrance fees go back to days before the land became a part of the national park system. With entrance fees at $5 back in 1914, the price hasn’t gone up very much in over a century. Learn more about how the national parks use their entrance fees here.

a yellow VW camper van travels down a road in Arches National Park Utah USA


arches national park, utah; photo by dino reichmuth

Park Fee Breakdown – A Day vs Week Example

Rocky Mountain National Park offers $25 day passes for automobiles and motorcycles, but a 7-consecutive-days pass is $35 for automobiles and $30 for motorcycles.

Pedestrians and cyclists will pay $20 per person for a 7-day pass.

It’s hard to take in such a huge park in a day, so a 7-day pass really is a bargain for the experience.

Single National Park Pass vs All-Park Pass Example

On the other hand, if you’re nearby and the only national park you plan to visit throughout the year is Rocky Mountain National Park, the annual Rocky Mountain National Park Pass alone is $70. If more park sites are on your wish list, the America the Beautiful Pass is definitely the best deal, as it is the only truly comprehensive US National Park Pass.

Separate National Park Fees

Camping and fishing require separate licenses, with separate fees, and are usually available on a first-come-first-served basis.

4 people sit around a camp fire in Big Bend National Park Texas USA


big bend national park, texas; photo by caleb fisher

3. How Many National Parks Are There, Anyway?

New River Gorge is the Newest US National Park

Just before the close of 2020, a new US National Park was added. New River Gorge is the deepest river gorge east of the Mississippi River, and also the first national park in the state of West Virginia. Its addition brings the total number of national parks in America to 63, and the number of national park sites in the US to 423. But not all US states have national parks. These 63 US National Parks are spread across thirty states and two US territories.

US States & Territories With The Most National Parks 

California, Alaska and Utah are the states claiming the greatest number of national parks, at 9, 8 and 5, respectively. Colorado is just behind with 4 national parks. Arizona, Florida and Washington each have 3 national parks, while many of the other states on the list have 2 national parks. US territories with national parks are American Samoa, whose park is on three islands and protects coral reefs, white beaches, rainforests and volcanic mountains, and the US Virgin Islands National Park, which preserves natural ecospheres, as well as centuries-old archaeological sites.

a winding road travels through rock canyons in Kings Canyon National Park California USA


kings canyon national park, california; photo by vitto sommella

Sites Considered Part of the US National Park System

63 parks = only about 15% of the total 423 sites in the National Parks footprint. But that doesn’t mean other US states and territories are left out. The variety of what is worthy of inclusion in the national parks system is wide. National Park sites include: national monuments like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island or Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico; national battlefields, parks and sites – most everything connected to the Revolutionary War, Civil War, etc.; national historic sites and national historical parks – Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and Independence Hall; national lakeshores such as those found around The Great Lakes of North America; national memorials – think Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials in Washington, DC, as well as the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania; national parkways with scenic views – Virginia’s Skyline Drive connecting Shenandoah National Park to the Blue Ridge Mountains; national preserves and reserves – Idaho’s Craters of the Moon and the Mojave Desert in California; national recreation areas and scenic trails – Appalachian National Scenic Trail and the California National Historic Trail (5,665 miles across ten states!!); national seashores like Assateague Island in Virginia and Maryland, and North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras; national wild and scenic rivers and riverways – the Delaware and the Skagit, which travels through Washington’s Northern Cascades; as well as other designations, such as Washington, D.C.’s National Mall and the White House. All of these areas are protected by the US National Park System, mostly without any charge at all to enjoy.

Cherry Blossoms in bloom border the Tidal Basin with the Washington Monument standing behind them in Washington DC USA


washington, dc tidal basin and washington monument; photo by andy he

America’s Largest National Park – Which You May Never Have Even Heard Of

We’ve got land here in the US, and some seriously big national parks. What do we think of when we think of big?

Yellowstone: At 2.2 million acres, is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
The Grand Canyon: 1.2M acres
Everglades National Park: 1.5M acres
Death Valley: 3.4M acres
Denali National Park & Preserve: 6.1M acres

Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Alaska USA


root glacier, wrangell-st.elias national park, alaska; photo by mckayla crump

All of these parks are dwarfed by 13.2M acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preservein Alaska. The largest US National Park is greater in size than Yellowstone, Yosemite and the country of Switzerland combined. Wrangell-St. Elias spans four mountain ranges with some of the highest peaks in the US, including Mount Saint Elias, at 18,008 feet (5489 meters.) It’s got glaciers, volcanoes with active lava flows, and an abundance of wildlife with very little human intervention. If you are looking to get truly lost in the wilds of America, this park may be your destination.

4. Traveling To & Into The National Parks

Although most of the 63 US National Parks are in remote locations, some do have an airport not far away. Here are a handful of national parks that you can fly to, with their nearest airport and the distance:

Acadia, Maine – Bangor International Airport (50 miles, give or take)
Badlands, South Dakota – Rapid City Regional Airport (38 miles)
Grand Canyon, Arizona – Flagstaff/Pulliam Airport (85 miles, give or take)
Hawai’i Volcano, Hawaii's Big Island – Hilo International Airport (29 miles)
Joshua Tree, California – Palm Springs International Airport (45 miles)
Mount Rainier, Washington – Sea-Tac International Airport (95 miles)
Saguaro, Arizona – Tucson International Airport (17 miles, give or take)
Yellowstone, Montana – West Yellowstone Airport (3 miles)

If a park you want to visit isn’t listed above, do your research. An airport may be closer to the park than you expect. And the drive in may be worth it for local culture and scenic beauty. A national park road trip is always fun – especially when you plan your own.

Snow covered peaks at Badlands National Park South Dakota USA


badlands national park, south dakota; photo by luke wass

Driving In the National Parks

You can book a car rental for getting around when you land, because most national parks you can drive through – and the views and sights are well worth it.

a view on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park with young elk on grass in foreground and mountains in background

trail ridge road, rocky mountain national park, colorado; photo by brian wolski

Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road is among the most famous scenic drives in the US. First opened in 1932, it’s known for spectacular views from 12,183 feet (3,713 meters) at its highest, and span of 48 miles (77 km) between the jumping on point in the town of Estes Park, all the way to Grand Lake to the west.

The park loop along Acadia National Park’s famous carriage roads is staggeringly beautiful, especially during leaf peeping season. It winds through pines, then suddenly reveals views onto the Atlantic Ocean. Acadia’s carriage roads were financed and directed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., between 1913 and 1940. He donated 11,000 acres to create them because he wanted to ensure that the park could be experienced by all – the elderly, the ill, the disabled. He believed everyone should have access to inspiring Acadia; it was a way of sharing this park with all citizens.

National Parks Without A Car

Everglades National Park in Florida - water view from an airboat


everglades national park, florida, on an airboat

If you don’t have a vehicle, don’t worry – you can definitely enjoy the national parks without a car. Many national parks have free shuttle services to and around the park, as well as camping, cabins and more refined lodging within park grounds. In the Everglades you can tour by airboat, as well as kayak or canoe. The Alaskan National Parks are also good for a visit on water. Getting down to water level gives a unique perspective.

5. National Parks With Kids + Junior Ranger Program

a young boy wears a straw hat at Joshua Tree National Park in California


joshua tree national park, california, by samantha broxton

And whether you are driving through, shuttling around, or traveling on water, national parks are easily experienced with kids. They’re guaranteed to instill lasting memories, as well as respect for the land. The National Park Service is so determined to get kids involved in the parks, their Junior Ranger program is in almost all parks, and some Junior Ranger programs are national. Participants are typically ages 5 to 13, and receive an official Junior Ranger patch and Junior Ranger certificate – and do fun activities to earn this recognition.

The National Park Foundation also has a program called Open Outdoors for Kids.

6. Dog-Friendly & Pet-Friendly National Parks

a black dog on a leash stands looking out at Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Zeke conquers Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado; photo by Brian Wolski

The national parks welcome pets. You can even camp with them! Many parks preserve special areas for pet visitors to enjoy, and plan specific, pet-related activities. BARK Ranger programs exist in NPS sites as diverse as Fort Matanzas National Monument in Florida, Vicksburg National Military Park, Ozark National Scenic Riverways, and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park – with many other BARK Ranger programsscattered across the country. There is even a BARK Ranger Dog Tag that your pooch can earn. Service dogs are included, too!

This year, BARK Ranger Day is Sunday, April 26th.

Dogs and other pets are allowed in so many of the US National Park Service sites. The best way to check which are pet-friendly is through this comprehensive map 

Some of the many national parks that allow pets:

 Acadia National Park, ME Agate Fossilbeds National Monument, NE
Arches National Park, UT Assateague Island Natl Seashore, VA-MD
Aztec Ruins National Monument, NM Badlands National Park, SD
Big Bend National Park, TX Biscayne National Park, FL
Carlsbad Caverns Natl Park, NM Cape Cod National Seashore, MA
Capitol Reef National Park, UT Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers Nat'l Monument, OH
Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, GA Chickasaw National Recreation Area, OK
Congaree National Park, SC Crater Lake National Park, OR
Cumberland Island National Seashore, GA Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, NJ-PA Denali National Park & Preserve, AK
Everglades National Park, FL Fire Island National Seashore, NY
Glacier National Park, MT Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Grand Teton National Park, WY Great Basin National Park, NV
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, CO Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC-TN
Gulf Islands National Seashore, AL Harpers Ferry Nat'l Historical Park, WV
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, HI Hot Springs National Park, AR
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, IN Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, LA
Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA Lincoln Home National Historic Site, IL
Mammoth Cave National Park, KY Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Missouri Nat'l Recreational River, MO Mt Rushmore National Memorial, SD
Nez Perce National Historic Park, ID Obed National Scenic River, TN
Olympic National Park, WA Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
Point Reyes national Seashore, CA Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River, TX
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO Saguaro National Monument, AZ
Saratoga National Historic Park, NY San Juan Island Nat'l Historical Park, WA
Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, AL Shenandoah National Park, VA
Sitka National Historical Park, AK Sleeping Bear Dunes Nat'l Lakeshore, MI
Tallgrass Prairie Nat'l Preserve, KS Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND
Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, NV Valley Forge National Historical Park, PA
Vicksburg National Military Park, MS Virgin Islands National Park, VI
Voyageurs National Park, MN White Sands National Park, NM
Wright Brothers Nat'l Memorial, NC Yellowstone National Park, WY
Yosemite National Park, CA Zion National Park, UT


7. Some Insider Travel Tips for Visiting US National Parks

Water View in Acadia National Park Maine


acadia national park, maine; photo by michael loftus

Acadia National Park, Maine

Don’t be afraid to hike the gentle rocks of Cadillac Mountain – even in a dress! We love roughing it in dresses and don't believe there is one specific way you need to dress for the great outdoors. Acadia is particularly fashion friendly, and a hike up Cadillac can be done in a relaxed dress, skirt, or skort. Rewards like Jordan Pond House, famous for afternoon tea and popovers with Maine jam, are not a long hike. You'll enjoy the refreshment on a summer afternoon.

mountains made of sand with snowcapped mountains in the background at Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

great sand dunes national park, colorado; photo by vincent ledvina

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah

The sand will get HOT during the day. Head out early to play in the dunes, whether hiking up the great hills, or sliding down on sandboards and sleds. By noon, that sand has baked in the sun enough to burn you. At Great Sand Dunes, refresh with an afternoon walk in the shade of the mountains just outside the park. And if it's spring and the snow season was decent, a little stream runs through the bottom of the dunes and is perfect for cooling scorched feet as you head back to the car or visitor center.

a moose butt faces camera as the moose blocks a roadway in Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado

moose in the road at rocky mountain national park, colorado; photo by brian wolski

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Drive slowly – wild animals appear on the road around any bend. Never, ever get close to the elk, especially the bulls. They are territorial and will charge at you. Pay attention to park signage about where not to trespass in elk meadows. This is the time to use your camera's long lens. A distance of 25 yards (23 meters) is recommended as a minimum safe distance from any wildlife - think 2 bus-lengths, and 100 yards (91 meters) - 8 bus-lengths - is the distance to remain from bears or wolves.
Bring and/or wear layers, even in summer. It gets mighty cold and windy at altitude. Driving Trail Ridge Road you may want to stop for a hike, or just to view the bighorn sheep. The winds are strong and it can get nippy. A pullover, jacket or coat, hat, scarf, and gloves or mittens are handy to have along.

live lava flow at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawai'i


hawai'i volcanoes national park, live lava flow; photo by jack ebnet

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Lassen National Park & Yellowstone National Park

Keep a safe distance from the lava flows, as well as steam and hydrothermal features. One of the most beautiful sights we have ever witnessed was the active lava flow at night at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Especially when the lava flows over the cliff to land in waves crashing against rock. The lava shooting up with the waves is spectacular under a clear, dark sky. But there is a distance to be kept from that flowing lava on the Big Island and the lava in Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias and Lassen National Parks, just as there is a distance to keep from the hydrothermals at Lassen and Yellowstone. Because the heat is no joke, and things can fly up into the air in unexpected spots. The lava flows in Hawai'i can get as hot as 1,165° F (629° C), and the hydrothermal features at Yellowstone range in temperature between 100°-200° F (38°-93° C.) A burn from these natural forces would cause permanent disfigurement, at least. Not the sort of souvenir you want to bring back from your trip.

All National Parks & National Park Sites

a water bottle with pictures of mountains is at Zion National Park in Utah USA


zion national park; photo by alan carrillo

Bring water for yourself, your family, and your pets. It's crucial to stay hydrated, especially in hot climates and at altitude. Don't expect to find water for sale at the visitor center, although you will probably find fountains where you can refill your water bottle. Use your own, refillable water bottle so that you won't be contributing to more plastic waste in the park, and on the planet. Even though many water bottles do get recycled, recycling cannot keep up with the vast number that are added into the system every day. Try and break free of plastic dependency and help out our planet.

 

banner photo: great sand dunes national park, colorado