Visiting one of the country’s 62 official national parks is one of the most quintessentially American travel experiences one can have. Most of the year, you’ll have to pay an entrance fee to visit them, but, on a few special dates, those same natural splendors are open to the public free of charge.
It’s not just parks that fall under the entrance fee-free days; the National Park Service system covers 85 million acres across America, including 419 points of interest like monuments, historical sites, seashores and trails.
“The purpose of the fee-free day is to help promote awareness of national parks, encourage visitors and remove any economic barrier that might be preventing anyone visiting national parks,” says Stephanie Loeb Roulett, a public-affairs specialist for the NPS.
Although that perk will get you into NPS-designated sites, it doesn’t cover charges for additional activities like camping, special tours or boat launches, so don’t leave your wallet in the car. (On second thought, don’t leave your wallet in the car no matter what you’re doing.)
How should you plan a visit to a national park site on one of 2020’s fee-free days? Figure out the goal of your trip first.
“Take a look on our ‘Find a Park’ page on our site, and then try to determine what you want to do,” Roulett says. “Do you want to volunteer? Go hiking? Visit a historic home? Try to narrow it down.”
To avoid contributing to overtourism, steer clear of the most popular parks on the fee-free days, opting instead for the ones less likely to be swamped. Roulett has suggestions for the specific days of the promotion.
1. Jan. 20: Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
The first fee-free day of the year falls on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Roulett encourages park-seekers to explore sites connected with the life and legacy of King. Options include visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in his hometown of Atlanta or the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in White Hall, Alabama, to retrace the steps of King’s 1965 voting rights march on a 54-mile trail.
For travelers interested in using the day to make a winter escape, Roulett recommends Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing or the Channel Islands National Park in Southern California for winter wildlife-watching.
“Then, of course, there’s the option to escape winter and cold places, like the Everglades National Park, Virgin Islands National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park,” she says.
2. April 18: First day of National Park Week
To kick off National Park Week (on National Junior Ranger Day, no less), the NPS will offer its only springtime fee-free day. Each day from April 18 to 26 will have a theme, including Military Monday, Earth Day and Bark Ranger Day, the latter paying homage to the dogs who work the parks. Ring in the occasion by bringing your dog to a park this day.
“Acadia National Park, in Maine, is one of the most pet-friendly sites as long as you do your research in advance and see which trails your pet can go on,” Roulett says.
For the most up-to-date pet policies, visit the NPS website nps.gov.
3. Aug. 25: National Park Service’s birthday
You can thank President Woodrow Wilson for America having the National Park Service in the first place: The country’s 28th president signed the service into existence on this date in 1916. Throughout the week, NPS will celebrate with programming that will vary by location.
Be mindful of what site you visit: August is peak tourist season for the parks.
There are a number of excellent alternatives to some of the super-popular parks, Roulett says. “Rather than visiting Yosemite, there’s Devils Postpile National Monument, also in California, about 90 miles from Yosemite, that also has some incredible waterfalls and mountain scenery.” It might be less crowded.
Roulett’s alternative for Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is the nearby Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park in western Colorado. Instead of roasting in Death Valley National Park, try the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, also in Colorado.
“It’s spectacular with incredible geologic wonders,” she says. “It’s a nice alternative if you want to find something a little bit more off the beaten path.”
4. Sept. 26: National Public Lands Day
Every fourth Saturday in September, America’s largest single-day volunteer effort takes place at parks across the country for National Public Lands Day, a tradition that started in 1994.
“It is primarily a volunteer day, but we’ve been seeing an uptick in additional programming for outdoor recreation,” Roulett says. “If you want to get outdoors more but don’t really know how, there’s a lot of events around that day that focus on the outdoors for beginners.”
For the greatest chance of volunteering, try visiting urban parks in your area to support the grounds and green space that needs to be maintained.
5. Nov. 11: Veterans Day
The entrance fee-free day in November falls on Veterans Day. Show America’s service members reverence by visiting an NPS site with military history.
“We have numerous battlefields, military parks and historic sites that commemorate and honor America’s veterans,” Roulett says.
Highlights include the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston National Historical Park, Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania and Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama, where you can pay tribute to the first African Americans who overcame racial barriers to serve as pilots in World War II.
And if you do end up going to a park on a day that you have to pay to enter, know that your money will be put to work. The Park Service says at least 80% of fees stay at the park where they were collected and are used to repair, maintain or enhance the area (like habitat restoration, building accessible parking or restrooms and making new park trails).
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