How To Get Free Entry To US National Parks

The National Park System is one of the greatest treasures of the United States because it not only preserves unique landscapes and ecosystems but also because it provides a place for people to experience and learn about nature and the outdoors. However, if you want to visit multiple national parks in one trip, the entrance fees can start to add up. Most national parks charge a per-car entrance fee of around $20 to $35. If you plan to visit more than three or four parks, you can save some money by purchasing an annual pass that will allow you to enter as many national parks as you want — within one calendar year — for $80. However, if you're on a strict travel budget and would like to avoid paying for a park pass entirely, there are also quite a few ways to gain free entry into U.S. national parks.

The most straightforward way to get into a national park for free is to visit on a free entry day. The National Parks Services also runs a few programs that allow for members of certain groups to enter for free, and you can also score a free annual park pass through volunteering work. Although you may have heard stories from friends and family about a government shutdown being a good time to go to a national park for free, it looks like that will no longer be possible during future shutdowns.

Free days and free entry programs

Every year, the National Park Service announces a few days where entrance for all visitors will be free of charge. These days usually include national holidays like Martin Luther King Day and Veteran's Day, as well as holidays relating to the national park system such as the first day of National Park Week, the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act, and National Public Lands Day. Visiting national parks on these dates is a great way to save some money while enjoying the beauty of nature. However, it is important to note that the parks will likely be quite busy.

Another option if you want to visit a national park for free on any day of the year while also avoiding crowds is to travel with a person who qualifies for free entry. People who qualify for free entry include military service members and veterans as well as tribal members who have a tribal ID card. People from these two groups are granted free entry for themselves and up to three others as long as everyone is traveling in the same vehicle. Furthermore, the recently instituted Every Kid Outdoors program allows fourth graders to receive a free national park entrance pass for themselves and their families after signing up online.

What about volunteer work and government shutdowns?

Another way to get free entrance into U.S. national parks and give back to the community at the same time is through volunteering. In fact, volunteering at any national park or participating federal government agency for a total of 250 hours is enough to receive free entrance into any national park or recreational area for a full year. These volunteer hours don't have to be accumulated in any specific time frame and all previous hours are valid towards your free pass as long as they occurred after 2007.

While, in the past, government shutdowns allowed visitors to enter national parks for free, this no longer seems to be true. In September 2023, an announcement from the U.S. Department of the Interior on the matter states that if a shutdown occurs in the future, park gates will be locked and visitors will be barred from entering. The only way it would be possible to enter during a shutdown is if the state government where a specific park is located diverts funds to keep the parks open and running. Luckily, it seems that Arizona, Utah, and Colorado are taking steps to be able to stay open in case of a shutdown, according to Forbes.

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