With the prospect of continued social distancing on the horizon, America’s national parks offer the perfect alternative to vacations involving busy airports or densely packed cities. And if you time your visit just right, you could save big on entrance fees.
Every year, the National Park Service selects a handful of dates when it waives the entrance fees to sites that normally charge for admission. Can’t visit on one of these free days? There are other ways to save, including free or discounted passes and great savings on annual passes.
Here’s what you need to know to enjoy our national parks for free or at a discount in 2021.
Days you can visit a national park for free in 2021
For 2021, the National Park Service designated these free-entrance days:
Jan. 18: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
April 17: First day of National Park Week.
Aug. 4: First anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act.
Aug. 25: National Park Service birthday.
Sept. 25: National Public Lands Day.
Nov. 11: Veterans Day.
» Learn more: How to save on road trips
Which parks participate?
The National Park Service operates over 400 sites, including national parks, historical parks, monuments and even scenic trails. About 300 are free year-round.
On the free-entrance days every year, the 108 parks that normally charge an entrance fee waive it for all visitors. Acadia in Maine, Badlands in South Dakota, Bryce Canyon in Utah, Denali in Alaska, Grand Canyon in Arizona and Joshua Tree in California are just a few examples. The national park you’ve been jonesing to visit is probably free on these days, too.
You can find the full list of parks that participate in free-entrance days on this National Park Service webpage.
How much can I save?
Different parks charge different fees, so check online for the standard admission. For example, Grand Canyon National Park normally charges $20 per person if you enter by foot, shuttle bus, Grand Canyon Railway or private rafting trip. But if you load up the family in a private vehicle, you’ll pay just $35 for everyone in the car or van, up to 15 passengers. Want to visit the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in Oregon? On most days, you’ll pay $10 per person for everyone 16 and older.
If you’re visiting on a free-entrance day, only the admission fee is waived. Fee-based activities like camping, reserving a boat launch or hiring a guided tour will still incur a charge.
» Learn more: How to visit Pacific Northwest National Parks on points
Other ways to save
Can’t visit on one of the six free-entrance days? The National Park Service offers free passes good year-round for some visitors, plus money-saving annual and lifetime passes for others.
1. Annual fourth-grade pass
Fourth-graders can obtain a free pass for the duration of their fourth-grade school year and through the following summer. At park sites that charge per vehicle, the pass covers passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle who accompany the pass owner. At sites that charge per person, the fourth-grade pass owner can bring up to three adults for free.
2. 2021 fifth-grade pass
The pandemic cost a lot of fourth-graders their chance to visit during the 2019-2020 school year. So the National Park Service is offering free admission to fifth-graders through Aug. 31, 2021.
3. Volunteer pass
People who volunteer 250 hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program can request this no-cost pass.
4. Military pass
Available at no cost to any current U.S. military member in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Space Force, and Reserve and National Guard Members, as well as their dependents.
5. Access pass
This free pass is issued to any U.S. citizen or permanent resident with permanent disabilities (documentation required).
6. Senior pass
U.S. citizens and permanent residents 62 and older can purchase an annual pass for $20 or a lifetime pass for $80, which is a phenomenal deal.
7. Annual pass
If you don’t qualify for any of the above discounts, the America the Beautiful Annual Pass will give you the most bang for your buck. For $80 plus a $5 fee, this pass includes admission for you and up to three accompanying passengers 16 years of age or older in your private vehicle (kids 15 and under are admitted for free).
If you plan on visiting more than two parks a year, or if you intend to visit a national park with family members or a group, the annual pass should save you quite a bit over individual entrance fees.
The bottom line
America’s stunning national parks offer some of the greatest vacation values anywhere, especially if you can visit on a free-entrance day. Special passes for seniors, fourth-graders, volunteers, frequent visitors and other groups can also offer substantial savings.
With any paid admission fee, you’ll be contributing to the National Park Service’s conservation and upkeep efforts, ensuring these treasures can be enjoyed for years to come.
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