Everybody and their grandmother knows that the National Parks Service is debating a ginormous hike in admission fees for its most popular parks. But, the point of the parks is to set them aside for everyone, and while overcrowding and the need for more funds to improve them is a legitimate concern, a $70 fee is prohibitively expensive for a lot of people. Luckily, Travel + Leisure found a few hacks to get you access to a park, cost (and guilt) free, and we’ve dug up a few more.
The first (and most obvious) hack is to take advantage of free admission days. While the exact dates change year to year, the holidays usually remain the same. There’s one in January for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, one in February for President’s Day, two weekends in April on either end of National Parks Week, one day in August for the birthday of the NPS, one in September for Public Lands Day and one weekend in November for Veterans Day Weekend.
Of course, there are more options besides the ever-popular free days. You can always volunteer at a park. If you dedicate 250 service hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program, you can qualify for a free volunteer pass to national parks. Some parks offer volunteer days or days of service that will get you out cleaning up trails, doing routine maintenance, restoring natural habitats, removing non-native plants, and other such jobs. If you’re near one particular park, there are loads of longer-term volunteer opportunities; park entrance ambassadors, interpretive tour guides, campground hosts, weed warriors, trail patrol, and other positions are often widely available. High school and college kids especially, take note. They offer some pretty killer internship opportunities, and volunteering at a park looks good on a college application or resume. Volunteer.gov is the best resource for getting an idea of what parks near you need, or you can contact a park directly and get the inside scoop.
Another thing that not a ton of people know about are the artist-in-residence programs that many parks offer. There are about 50 in parks across the country, ranging from remote cabins in the Alaskan wilderness of Denali to the urbaner Golden Gate National Recreation Area. They typically last 4-6 weeks and are open to visual artists, writers, musicians, and other creative media. You’ll also likely be given the chance to present your work as well. You do have to apply, but you’ll get lodging and a small amount of money as reimbursement… and, of course, the priceless chance to fully immerse yourself in a park for an extended period of time. The National Parks Service has some information as does the National Park Arts Foundation.
Another hack is to have a 10-year-old kid. The government has a program called “Every Kid in a Park” that permits fourth graders and their families to visit all public lands fo’ freeeee. Kids are at the perfect age to start to fully appreciate the culture, history, science, and beauty of parks when they’re in the fourth grade, and getting them excited about public lands at a young age can do a lot to help preserve them for generations to come. Here’s the lowdown on how to apply for a pass and how to use it.
If you currently serve in the military, then definitely take advantage of their Military Passes. Current U.S. military members and dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Army Reserve and National Guard members can apply for the pass in person at one of these sites. Just bring your Common Access Card or Military ID.
And, if all else fails, here’s a map of all of the National Parks that currently remain free to visit. You might find yourself surprised at the places you can go, fee free!
More National Parks awesomeness…