The Insider’s Guide to Getting the Most Out of National Parks

The Insider's Guide to Getting the Most Out of National Parks

This is a post by my husband, Aaron. -Anna

National Parks are the best slice of natural wonders the United States has to offer. The U.S. is richly diverse when it comes to geography. Deserts, mountains, great plains, tropical forests, frozen glaciers. You name it, somewhere in the Unites States, you can find it. The variety and beauty that each park offers makes the car-load fee more than worth it!

I love National Parks, and have visited 35 out of the 59 National Parks in the U.S. My goal is to see them all in my lifetime. There's no doubt that some are better than others, but I have never been disappointed in any of the parks I have seen. It's hard to pick a favorite because each one is so uniquely different.

For sheer beauty, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks are hard to beat.

For ruggedness try North Cascades.

If you are looking for uniqueness, try watching 400,000 bats pour our of Carlsbad Caverns.

For a more urban park, try Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio. It's the closest national park to a major city, Cleveland.

For pure amazement, go the Grand Canyon. It's hard to imagine until you see it.

For the unexplainable check out the “moving rocks” of Death Valley. While you are there stop by the bad water basin, the lowest point in North America (-282 below sea level).  You may want to avoid the park in the summer though…the hottest temp ever recored on earth (137 degrees) was at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley.

To see one of the only temperate rain forest in the world, go to Olympic National Park.

For the best sunrise on the planet, Haleakala in Hawaii (island of Maui) is the place to go.

Wanna drive your car through a tree? Then you've got to head to northern California's Redwood National Park.

See the worlds tallest tree, The General Sherman, at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.

Want to see a forest that turned to stone? Well, best you head to the Petrified Forest in Arizona.

Feel like heading underground? Go to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky (the longest  known cave system in the world) or Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.

Want to swim in the deepest lake in the USA? Then take a dip in Crater Lake. Be warned though, in order to access the lake it's the equivalent of waking up and down the empire state building….remember going doing is easy!

Want to see erosion at it's finest? Check out Arches National Park in Utah or Great Sand Dunes in Colorado (and yes, the sand comes from eons of eroded mountains).

Looking to learn some history and see houses built into cliffs? Than head to the southwest corner of Colorado, the guided tours at Mesa Verde are top-notch.

Feel like you might need a steamy soak in some hot springs? Then make your way over to Arkansas's Hot Springs National Park.

Or, get nostalgic and visit the world's first national park, Yellowstone.

So, you see what I mean, when say it's tough to pick a favorite?

The Insider's Guide to Getting the Most Out of National Parks…

There are 59 National Parks spread out over 27 states, so chances are you probably have a National Prk somewhere within striking distance, especially if you live in the American West. Fees vary depending on what park you are visiting and the popularity level. Fees can range anywhere from free to $25. Large, popular parks such as The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Teton are at the high-end of the price range, while less traveled and more remote parks tend to be cheaper. Keep in mind though that cost does not reflect awesomeness! Just because a park charges less of an entrance fee, does not mean it's less worthy. Out of all the parks I've visited, I have never paid more than $25 to get in. Entry fees are also charged by the carload (!) which means that friends or family members arriving in the same car only have to pay a single entrance fee. So cram Grandma and Grandpa in the trunk, tie uncle Bob to the roof and get out there. Your pass is valid for 7 days and any number of trips in and out of the park are permitted.

Le's break the cost down a bit further. A family of four arrives at the Grand Canyon for a seven-day vacation. The entrance fee is $25. That's $6.25 a person. Divide the individual cost ($6.25) by 7 (#of days they are staying) and you arrive at .89 (cents!) a day, per person! Any way you slice it, that's a good deal. Parks typically charge less for people entering on foot, bicycle or motorcycle. If you plan on visiting several national parks during your trip you may want to consider purchasing an “America the Beautiful” pass. The pass is $80, valid for 12 months and allows the pass holder (and any passengers in the car) access to any federal recreation site that charges a fee. This includes national parks, monuments, memorials, historical and military parks, national parkways and national seashores and wilderness areas. Considering the NPS (National Park Service) oversees 405 areas designated as part of the national park system, you get a lot of bang for your buck with the pass. I've purchased one of these in the past and it quickly pays for itself, especially if you'll be seeing the more popular parks. The pass is free for active members of the U.S. military and for all you oldies out there over the age of 62, it's $10 and valid for life! If you feel like volunteering, an individual who accumulates at least 500 hours of documented volunteer work (such as serving as a campground host) is also eligible for a “Volunteer pass” with similar benefits offered by the American the Beautiful pass.

Once inside the park many of the park sponsored activities are free…guided walks, ranger talks, campfire programs and exhibits at visitors center. There is a chance you may run into an extra fee here and there, especially in parks where the only way to see the sites is by taking a guided tour i.e Mesa Verde, Mammoth Caves, Carlsbad Caven and Windcave Nat'l parks…but more often than not, enjoying the parks are totally free (other than the entry fee). On certain days of the year (MLK day, National Park week, NPS birthday, National Public Land Days and Veterans Day) entry fees are waived, which is even better. But remember though, the small fees you do encounter goes back into the National Park system and helps repair roads, trails, park facilities and in general helps to keep the parks preserved for future generations.

If you plan to stay in the parks, camping is the most economically. Primitive camp sites (pit toilets and no running water) are sometimes free but usually run around $10 a night. That's not per person, but per site. Depending on the size, multiple tents can be pitched on one site, so go camping with some friends and cut the cost even more by splitting it!  Modern sites (bathrooms, running water, electrical hookups ) tend to cost a little more, usually in the $20 zone because of the nicer amenities. Backcountry camping is almost always free, but does require a permit and some extra effort to get to these areas. If you want to splurge, some national parks have lodges within their boundaries, but these are often expensive, especially in the more popular parks.

So whatever your reason and whatever your destination, if you are heading out on a vacation this summer, try the national parks. They have something for everybody and are some the most affordable and enjoyable places you can go.

If you like National Parks as much as me then you might enjoy this brief timeline of the National Park Service

Milestones in conservation:

1827 – Andrew Jackson set aside 4 parcels of land in Arkansas, which would eventually become Hot Springs National Park, as a special reservation. One of the first acts of land conservation.

1832 – The national park concept is born when artist George Catlin, on a trip to the Dakotas recognized the need to federally protected American's natural resources.

1864 – Abraham Lincoln signed over the Yosemite Valley to the state of California, so it could be “held for public use, resort and recreation…inalienable for all time”.

1872- Ulysses S. Grant designates Yellowstone as the nation's first official National Park.

1906 – Antiquities Act is signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt, giving the President the power to set aside valuable public natural areas as parks and conservation areas to be protected by the federal government as national monuments.  Using the act he set aside over 230 million acres, creating 5 new national parks. The Act is still used today.

1906 – Devils Tower in Wyoming is proclaimed the first National Monument.

1916- President Woodrow Wilson signs into law “The Organic Act” officially creating the National Park Service.

1933- Franklin Roosevelt signs an executive order 6166 consolidating the nations national parks, monuments, military parks, parkways and memorials into a single National Park System.

1933-1964 – Mission 66 was a measure designed to increase public awareness of National Parks, increase visitor-ship and visitor services and deal with the growing backlog of deferred maintenance within the parks. Out of this, the “visitor center” concept was born giving the public a point of contact with the park services.

1966- The NPS has their 50th anniversary.

1977- Jimmy Carter creates a dozen National Monuments in Alaska.

1993-2000 – President Bill Clinton adds 19 new “units” to the National Park system, more than any other President, including Roosevelt.

2001-2008 – George Bush approves seven new “units” to the NPS.

2009- Present – Barack Obama – approves three new National Parks, the newest being Pinnacles National Park in California.


Are you a fan on National Parks too? If so, what is your favorite one and why? If you haven't been to any yet, which one would you most like to visit?

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