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If you’re ready for a summer vacation but aren’t about to head to a densely packed city, consider a national park trip. That said, national parks have entrance fees that can quickly eat up a decent chunk of your vacation budget — especially if you’re planning to visit multiple parks (national parks road trip, anyone?).
The priciest national parks, which include Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Yosemite, each cost $35 per vehicle. But, there are ways to get in at no cost, including free entry for some elementary school students.
Can’t take advantage of free entry? 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 the national parks for free or at a discount in 2021.
Visit on a free-entrance day
Every year, the National Park Service selects a handful of dates when it waives the entrance fees to all of its sites that normally charge for admission.
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.
If you’re visiting on a free-entrance day, only admission fees are waived. Fee-based activities like camping, reserving a boat launch or hiring a guided tour still incur a charge.
» Learn more: How to visit Pacific Northwest National Parks on points
Travel with a fourth-grader
Fourth-graders can obtain a free pass for the duration of their fourth-grade school year and through the following summer (through Aug. 31). To obtain one, visit the Every Kid Outdoors site where you can download a printable voucher. The pass is for U.S. fourth-grade (or home-school equivalent) students.
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. Any other children in the group under the age of 16 can also join in for free.
Volunteer with certain federal agencies
People who volunteer 250 hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program can request this no-cost pass, which will be valid for 12 months from the date of issue.
The six agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program are:
National Park Service.
U.S. Forest Service.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bureau of Land Management.
Bureau of Reclamation.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Show military identification
If you’re currently in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Space Force, Reserve or National Guard, you can claim a free, Annual Pass for U.S. Military in person at a federal recreation site by showing identification. Free admission covers both you and your dependents.
As of Nov. 11, 2020, you can now claim a free pass if you’re a veteran or Gold Star Family and can show proof of eligibility.
Other ways to save money on national park entrance fees
If those freebie options won’t work for you, there are still ways to save a significant amount of money on park entrance fees.
Purchase an America the Beautiful Annual Pass
If you don’t qualify for any of the above discounts, the America the Beautiful Annual Pass can still allow you to visit parks at a discount. It costs $80 and covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges, plus day-use fees at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The more parks you visit, the more value you get out of it. That’s useful for, say, an Arizona and Utah national parks vacation, where it’s easy to hit multiple parks including Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon on subsequent days.
Say you visited Utah’s five national parks, which are relatively easy to visit on the same road trip:
Arches National Park ($30 per vehicle).
Bryce Canyon National Park ($35 per vehicle).
Canyonlands National Park ($30 per vehicle).
Capitol Reef National Park ($20 per vehicle).
Zion National Park ($35 per vehicle).
Individually, you’d pay $150 to visit them all. Purchase the America the Beautiful pass, and you’d save $70, had those been the only national parks you visited that year.
Even if you only plan on visiting just three parks a year, the annual pass generally pays for itself.
» Learn more: How to save on road trips
Purchase a senior annual pass
If you’re a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and are at least 62 years old, you can purchase an annual pass for $20. Perhaps even a better deal, you can purchase a lifetime pass for $80. If you purchase a lifetime pass when you're 62 and use it every year for the next 20 years, that’d come out to just $4 per year.
The bottom line
America’s national parks are not just epic, they offer some of the greatest vacation values anywhere — whether or not you’re visiting them for free. But if you can visit national parks on a free entrance day or through other programs, you’ll find yourself looking at even steeper savings.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card