One of my life goals is to visit every single national park in the United States. Whether it is the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, the gentle giant trees in Redwood NP, or the stalactites and stalagmites of Mammoth Cave, natural wonders abound. I admit that I am not well traveled. I got a late start. My husband’s and my parents rarely left town. As a result, there are lots of places we hope to see, and we are trying to give our daughter great life experiences. National parks offer something special. With the right planning, they can make a very affordable vacation or weekend trip as well.
National Park Costs
National park entrance fees vary, but are usually around $10. Admission is usually good for seven days and is per car load, not per person. The most expensive entrance fee I’ve seen is for the Grand Canyon at $25. I imagine the more popular parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite are similar.
The National Parks Service offers several free admission days throughout the year. For 2012, the remaining days are this Saturday, September 29th and Veterans Day weekend, November 10-12. In some parks, there is a volunteer program where you can earn a free pass for service. When you compare the price of admission to a national park versus Disneyland, it’s a pretty good deal.
If you plan on visiting several national parks in one year, you can buy an annual pass for $80. It gives you entrance to all national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, monuments, and other federal lands, over 2000 in all. Active military and dependents can get this pass for free with identification. Not that I’d want to be a senior citizen or handicapped, but seniors who are US citizens or permanent residents can get a lifetime national parks pass for $10, and disabled persons receive a free pass. Parks are handicapped accessible, so everyone can enjoy.
Lodging can be really cheap, mid-range or luxurious. Campgrounds within the national parks are usually very affordable, but popular ones must be reserved well in advance. There are usually BLM campgrounds close to national parks that are often free, but are first come, first served. We usually stay at campgrounds outside the boundaries because I never remember to book six months in advance, and national park campgrounds tend to be pretty primitive. That appealed to me in my 20’s, but with a child, we like to be able to shower and wash dishes. For the not so adventurous traveler, many national parks have lodges and restaurants than can cost upwards of several hundred dollars per night. When I’m old, it might be fun to stay at the lodge, but we prefer camping for now.
Hiking and Sightseeing
National parks are set up for all levels of adventure. If you want, you can drive through and stop at the overlooks of the most popular attractions. Even my mom and dad who don’t like to sightsee and whose philosophy is “why would you walk anywhere when you have a perfectly good car” have been impressed on some of the driving tours we take when they come to visit. Many parks offer shuttle buses that run every half hour or so and let you off at certain stops throughout the park. If you are a hiker, look at the handout that you receive at the entrance. Trails are marked by distance, elevation, and level of difficulty from easy to strenuous.
We love to hike. Even though our daughter is only five, she’s like the Energizer bunny. If she is entertained and has good snacks, she can go for about ten miles without much difficulty. One of our favorites is Arches National Park. For a little kid, the arches and rock formations are magical, and she will walk forever to get to an arch.
Downsides of Visiting National Parks
National parks are hard to get to. If you don’t live near one, you’ll have to go out of your way. Nature usually isn’t right off the interstate. We are trying to hit all the ones within driving distance, and then we will probably have to take some longer trips or fly to a central location and drive from there.
No pets are allowed. Pets can stay on some of the main driving areas, but can’t go on park trails. I learned this the hard way. A friend and I ignored the rule once. On a trail, my Jack Russell terrier got out of her collar, and took off with a pack of wild dogs at the bottom of Canyon de Chelly (national monument). Luckily she returned very dirty, but unharmed. They aren’t just being mean with that rule. It’s dangerous for pets.
Being Unplugged Means Quality Family Time
Since we live in the southwest United States, we’re located in a hotbed of national parks. From our house, you can reach 14 different ones within a day’s drive. National Parks we have visited include:
- Arches (Truly amazing. How do they stay up?)
- Bryce Canyon (if you haven’t seen a hoodoo, you’re missing out)
- Capitol Reef
- Mesa Verde (only 15 miles from our house!)
- Rocky Mountain (saw a moose for the first time)
- Mammoth Cave (Can you make it through fat man’s squeeze?)
- Great Smoky Mountains
- Redwood (my personal favorite)
- Grand Canyon (can’t imagine the first settler who saw this)
- Yellowstone (snowstorm in August!)
Since there are 58 national parks, we have a long way to go. The journey is the fun part. The other bonus we’ve gotten from our national park adventures is meeting people from all over the world. Last fall we were at a campground outside Capitol Reef and met a couple from London on “holiday” as the Brits call it. They were touring several national parks and had flown into Las Vegas and rented an RV. After driving very tiny cars on the opposite side of the road, hearing them tell the story of picking up this enormous vehicle, then trying to navigate the highways was priceless. The accent made it that much more enjoyable.
Besides the scenery, my favorite part of national park trips is the time spent with family. There is no television, internet, or cell service available. We read, talk, chase lizards, roast marshmallows, and just relax. Like many families, we are incredibly busy and, sometimes, just getting through the week takes all we have. If you get off the grid, you are forced to slow down, and you can enjoy the little things that have been buried deep within the daily schedules we try so hard to stay ahead of.
I’ve read that visits from younger people into the national parks are on the decline. While it could be that seniors are flocking in for the cheap admission, I think we are a society wrapped around our technology. It saddens me when I meet someone who doesn’t go outdoors other than to get into their car. National parks are one of the ever shrinking places where we can view the world without much modernization. Tomorrow is a free national park day. Take advantage if you can. Otherwise, I dare you to make a plan to visit at least one national park in the near future. I’ve never heard anyone say that the Half Dome or Old Faithful were overrated.
Have you visited a national park? Which is your favorite? Do you know the difference between a stalactite and stalagmite?