Best National Parks in the USA

Benefits and Budget-Friendly Travel Options
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Transform Screen Time into Green Time in the Great Outdoors

John Muir is credited with saying, “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” 

Spending time in nature quickly reveals the benefits of “dirt” and below we’ll talk about the best national parks in the USA, public lands to explore, and budget-friendly options to enjoy them.

The more time you spend outside at these special national treasures, the more you will understand the physical and mental health benefits, experience a growing environmental awareness and appreciation, and learn that saving money and playing in Mother Nature’s playground can be a natural part of life.

It seems that more and more people are already “getting it” when it comes to craving open air and natural surroundings. Travelzoo surveyed 15 million members about how they plan to travel in 2023. 57% look forward to beach vacations, 53% want to explore cultural and historical locations, and 44% plan on a road trip. These wanderlust goals are satisfied by venturing outside to explore Federal, State, or locally maintained parks and recreation areas.

The icing on the cake? National Parks and other recreation areas are making it easier (and more affordable) to move, play, learn, and explore in the great outdoors. Let’s get started.

  • Beach Vacation 57% 57%
  • Cultural and Historical Locations 53% 53%
  • Road Trip 55% 55%

In this article, we’ll share the real benefits of getting outside, where you can visit a National Park and other Public Lands managed by the federal government, how to save with your choice of park passes that are friendly to your budget, and a portal into the jaw-dropping quantity of options you have to play in America’s backyard. Let’s get started!

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Glacier Bay National Park is a highlight of Alaska’s Inside Passage and part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site.

Why Get Outside?

Discover the advantages of  outdoor activities offered by our nation’s parks and recreational areas.

First, lack of physical exercise is one of the nation’s biggest health challenges. Between working at a desk, watching television, or playing electronic games that bring the semblance of the outdoors and physical exertion into our living rooms without ever seeing actual sunshine or breaking a sweat, we have too many other options to avoid daily movement. Sadly, consistently getting outside is moving further and further down the daily to-do list.

The good news, if the surveys above tell us anything, is that many people feel the effects of decreased time outside and are intuitively seeking ways to break up their “normal” routine to add more life to their lives!

Now more than ever, people know the close relationship between mental and physical health and how staying fit improves overall quality of life. Something as simple as walking the trails to a lake and casting a line into the water provides physical and mental benefits, working your muscles and unplugging from the busyness of everyday life…even if you never get a nibble. 

Families and friends are craving a closer connection, especially those who have gone extended periods without seeing one another or those busy families who feel burnt out from demanding jobs that have blocked them from sharing important family milestones. Natural bonding moments happen when you’re under a big open sky without a small electronic device to distract you. When you unplug and step outside, you can play; as the saying goes, those who play together stay together.

Second, the money we spend traveling outside helps both parks and people. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report that visitor spending represents a sizable component of the economy in many communities around USACE lake and river projects. Think about the many rural areas in and around the best National Parks in the USA. When we hear about the impacts of tourism, both good and bad, we often think of famous places around the globe like Rome and Naples; however, money spent during your local and national travels spreads a lot of good too. It creates jobs, funds park maintenance, and provides visitor services.

Finally, exploring the great outdoors leads to an understanding and awareness of environmental issues. It builds a love for the animals, flora, and fauna that a television show or textbook cannot match. Nature really is the best teacher and motivational speaker for inspiring us to be good stewards of the land we share. Something as simple as using an accessible trail to identify birds and butterflies expands your appreciation of the little connections between nature and man. Paddling on the waterways with marine life makes you want to do what you can at home to avoid polluting the water that may eventually end up in their habitats.

Experiential travel immerses you in an environment where you get physical, emotional, mental, and educational benefits that stay with you for a lifetime. And you can do all of this at a discount, so your wallet is happy too.

The Best National Parks in the USA Draw Millions of Visitors Each Year

297,000,000 people visited the national parks in 2021. That’s a lot of people! Money spent by visitors through park fees, food, goods, and services helps to the parks and surrounding communities thrive.

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Almost 16 million people drove the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2021. Check out the Waterrock Knob visitor center sitting at the highest elevation for epic sunrises and sunset.

Domestic travel shows no signs of slowing down in 2023. It’s estimated that Americans will enjoy 2.2 billion (that’s with a B) road trips this year. Many will be traveling with friends and family and are looking for experiential travel. We want to see the iconic “stuff,” but we also want an experience that opens our minds to something new. 

Below, we share brief information about our National Park properties and the links you need to find what opportunities are close to where you live or will be traveling. Our goal is to help you find resources and savings to fully enjoy what America offers, whether traveling solo, with the family, multi-generational, camping or RVing, traveling with your pup, or any other combination of companions. 

The outdoors is for everyone, and we all are welcome! So, with that in mind, here are some ways to save and play outside in 2023…

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The America the Beautiful Annual Pass is an Interagency Pass that covers entrance to: National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, US Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Free! All the Best National Parks in the USA in 2023

Mark your Calendar! Five entrance-fee-free days in 2023 at The National Park Service:

January 16: Martin Luther King Jr. Day

April 22: First Day of National Park Week

August 4: Great American Outdoors Day

September 23: National Public Lands Day

November 11: Veterans Day

January 16: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Did you know…MLK Jr. Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities. Many national parks host service projects where you can volunteer to participate.

April 22: First day of National Park Week

Did you know…There are over 400 national parks. You may be familiar with places like Rocky Mountain National Park, or Yellowstone National Park, but not all national parks are called “parks.” For example, there is the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, and El Malpais National Monument.  Find a location then share your experience during National Park Week using the hashtag #NationalParkWeek.

August 4: Great American Outdoors Day

Did you know…The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) was signed into law on August 4, 2020. This landmark legislation for public lands provides funding for infrastructure improvements in national parks, so we have more ways to experience natural, cultural, and recreational resources around the country. It also permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

September 23: National Public Lands Day

Did you know…National Public Lands Day is traditionally the largest single-day volunteer effort. Held on the fourth Saturday in September every year since 1994, the day inspires environmental stewardship and celebrates our connection to green spaces. What better way to care for the earth than to dig your hands in the soil or spend time keeping it in top shape? Find volunteer opportunities with the National Parks and share your experience on your favorite social platform with #NPLD

November 11: Veterans Day

Did you know…Our military was the first steward of the national parks. If you’re interested in military history, there are battlefields, military parks, and historic sites that help visitors get a deeper understanding of how the land of the free got that way and can stay that way with our military’s protection. Stand among the towering trees of our best national parks, the shadows of Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon, walk the decks of the USS Arizona Memorial, or run your fingers over the names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. You will be impressed and humbled by our great nation and those who choose to serve. On Veterans Day, you can visit the parks for free. 

Other Free Days at National Parks in 2023

Other parks may offer additional dates that are free to the public. To find out if the park you plan to visit offers free days, check directly online or call them.

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Dry Tortugas National Park is less than 1% dry land so the best way to see it, after your boat ride to the island, is underwater. Coral reefs, colorful fish, and sunken ships await!

For example, the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Manteo, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks (OBX), offers two additional free admission days related to aviation. In addition to the five dates listed above, you can get into the park for free on:

  • Saturday, August 19: National Aviation Day
  • Sunday, December 17: 120th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight

* * * * *

California and Oregon: One Pass, Four Parks

Four national parks are joining forces to offer admission to four popular locations in California and Oregon with the same annual pass. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park, Lava Beds National Monument, Crater Lake National Park, and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area will honor each other’s passes beginning January 1, 2023.

Buy an annual pass at one, and get all four included with that pass! 

The annual pass price is $55 for 2023; when you buy one, you can use it at all four parks. Then, in 2024 a single multi-park pass will be created and available at these parks. 

If you have time left on your existing pass for Lassen Volcanic and Whiskeytown, you can use it at Lava Beds and Crater Lake beginning January 1, 2023.

***

Award-Winning Lewis and Clark Trail Junior Ranger Program – Free Booklet

Explore from home, or get outside and discover the national parks along the Lewis and Clark Trails. 

More than 30 locations across 13 states collaborated to create a multi-sensory education program that teaches kids history and a love and appreciation for the great outdoors. This program includes historical people and events not introduced at this level in other educational programs. For example, this program acknowledges that although the 4900-mile-long trail covered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition was a vast, unknown wilderness to them, the land they explored was home to more than 60 original tribes who were active in trade, arts, and technology.

Kids and young at heart are welcome to travel the Lewis and Clark Trail with the free booklet, online resources, and interactive displays at the national parks.

Find each park participating in the Junior Ranger Program in these states: Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington

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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which towers above Lake Michigan, offers great places to view constellations you never knew existed, marvel at the Milky Way, and maybe even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

America the Beautiful: How Much is the National Park Pass?

Several types of Annual Passes are available, and savings vary based on your age (seniors and fourth graders have a special pass) and military status. 

The best national parks in the USA are a part of our American Heritage. While many of the more than 400 parks are free, about 100 have an entrance fee ranging from $5 – $35. This entrance fee is separate from other costs, like camping fees, special tours, or boat launches. When you pay an entrance fee or purchase an annual pass, most money stays with the park and directly benefits the services and experience.

Choose passes based on your travel plans for the year and status, then choose the best one for you. In most cases, the cost is less than $100 and may cover entrance for more than one person, offering a substantial benefit over 12 months.

America the Beautiful Interagency Pass: Free-$80

The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, known as The America the Beautiful Pass, gives you and your companions access to more than 2000 federal recreation areas from the following agencies:

  • National Park Service
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • US Forest Service
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Not all federal recreation areas sell or accept the pass; however, many sites don’t have an entrance fee. You can check the website for the location you intend to visit to determine if they are part of the America the Beautiful Pass program. However, even if they don’t participate in the pass program yet, it’s always a good idea to show them your pass and ask if they apply any discounts to their fees. Some will!

What you’ll pay for the pass depends on your status:

  • Seniors (Age 62+) Annual Pass: $20
  • Seniors (Age 62+) Lifetime Pass: $80
  • Military Gold Star Family memory or Veteran-Lifetime: Free
  • Military Currently Serving or a Dependent-Annual: Free
  • Person Ages (16-62) Annual Pass: $80
  • International Visitor Annual Pass: $80
  • Volunteer on Federal Lands that has completed 250 hours of service: Free
  • U.S. Student in 4th Grade, including Homeschooled and free choice learners (10yrs old): Free
  • U.S. Citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities Lifetime Access Pass: Free

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services

There are more than 560 National Wildlife Refuges and 70 national fish hatcheries managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Elk in the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado move according to the season. In the summer, herds feed on tundra vegetation found in the higher elevations. In the winter, you’ll find them in the lower elevations.

There are more than 560 National Wildlife Refuges, 70 national fish hatcheries, numerous field offices, and thousands of active conservation projects around the country. About 30 national wildlife refuges charge $3-$5 a day and they use this to cover facility and road maintenance. 

When you have an annual pass from the National Parks America the Beautiful program, your entrance to the refuges is included.

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BLM (the Bureau of Land Management) maintains diverse public lands which include over 650 locations where you can enjoy horseback riding. This scene is from the Wild Horse Range in Rock Springs, WY.

The Bureau of Land Management

The BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land and about 30 percent of the minerals in the United States across our forests, mountains, rangelands, arctic tundra, and deserts

The BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land and about 30 percent of the minerals in the United States across our forests, mountains, rangelands, arctic tundra, and deserts. The land holds stories over 10,000 years, from prehistoric times to the present. 

Their mission is to sustain public lands’ health, diversity, and productivity for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. They want to be sure that all families have the opportunity to hunt, camp, fish, hike, and play on our nation’s public lands.

Some properties collect a small fee to maintain and improve the quality of the services and amenities. If you have the America the Beautiful Pass, you can use it for BLM lands.

The Fee-Free Days on BLM Lands are:

  • January 16: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • February 20: Washington’s Birthday
  • June 19: Juneteenth National Independence Day
  • August 4: Great American Outdoors Day
  • September 23: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

Other BLM Interagency Pass Programs

Oregon / Washington

  • Oregon Pacific Coast Annual Passport: $35
  • Oregon Pacific Coast 5-day vehicle passport: $10

This day-use passport covers entry, vehicle parking, and day-use fees at all State and Federal fee sites along the Oregon Coast managed by the Forest Service, National Parks Service, BLM, and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. 

Utah

Utah-Little Sahara Recreation Area is 60,000 acres of sagebrush flats and free-moving sand dunes in Juab County, Utah, popular with offroad vehicles and camping. ($18/night)

  • Annual Pass: $120/vehicle/year, $65/second vehicle/year
  • Little Sahara Recreation Area Annual Pass for Seniors (62+): $60/vehicle/year
  • Active Military: Inquire about a discount

U.S. Forest Service: Outdoor Recreation Areas and Discounts

The Forest Service is in charge of 193 million acres of public lands that make up our nation’s forests and grasslands.

Bass harbor head light - part of the national parks system

Known as the Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast, Acadia National Park has 4 million visits a year. The Bass Harbor Head Light is located inside the park.

The Forest Service is in charge of 193 million acres of public lands that make up our nation’s forests and grasslands. You can enjoy activities like backpacking, beachcombing, biking, caving, fishing, hunting, sledding, skiing, surfing, scuba diving, and every other activity ending in “ing” in this outdoor playground spanning over 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 recreation sites, 57,00 miles of streams, 122 alpine ski areas, 338,000 heritage sites, and specialty designated sites and more.

U.S. Forest Service Resources:

Entrance fees or permit fees (like ski permits, mushroom harvesting, rock climbing, OHV, or other special use) vary, and in many cases, you can use Forest Service land for free. Use the link below to locate the Forest you want to visit for more information.

The U.S. Forest Service participates in the Interagency America the Beautiful Pass program. They also participate in fee-free days; it appears they follow the National Parks calendar. Scroll to the end of this article for links to find a forest.

Regional Discounts for the U.S. Forest Service

There may be regional discounts on U.S. Forest Service lands. Be sure to check the location’s page. For example:

In Boise, Idaho National Forest, you can purchase a Payette River Seasonal ($20/vehicle) or Day Pass ($3/vehicle), which covers sites along the river.

In California, The Adventure Pass covers the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres, and San Bernardino National Forests. 

The Washington/Oregon area has a Northwest Forest Day Pass ($5) and Annual Pass ($30) for entry into all Forest Service-operated recreational sites in Washington and Oregon, where a day-use fee is required.

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Because many of US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) projects are near water, we can enjoy primitive and developed camping. Unlike military areas, the general public can use COE recreation areas

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Public Lands Opened to Everyone

Did you know the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) has campgrounds in 43 states, manages 450+ lakes and waterways, oversees 12 million acres of public lands and waters nationwide, and 90 percent of their recreation areas are located within 50 miles of a major city

This creates an outdoor Adventureland with 41,188 miles of shoreline, 3,572 miles of trails, 91,583 campsites with some sites offering full RV hookups, and 3,713 boat ramps nationally. 

Many recreation areas are located around water because one of the missions of the COE is to protect our waterways.

Unlike military areas, the general public can use COE recreation areas. Over 350 million people enjoyed fishing, hiking, camping, RVing, skiing, snorkeling, scuba diving, boating, biking, hiking, horseback riding, and so many more outdoor activities on COE-maintained land in 2009.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Annual Pass: $40, valid for one year from the month of purchase.

You can find recreation areas managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to plan your America Road Trip.

Bureau of Reclamation

Did you know some of the most popular locations for water-based outdoor recreation started as Reclamation water projects?

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Water and land outdoor recreation can be enjoyed on Bureau of Reclamation maintained lands.

Most of the approximately 6.5 million acres of land and water included in Reclamation projects are available for public use. Twelve projects are now National Recreation Areas managed by the USDA Forest Service and National Park Service. You will find important natural and cultural resources and educational opportunities at many sites, making it the perfect immersive experience.

You can expect water activities, such as boating, fishing, and whitewater rafting in the rivers downstream from dams. Some drier activities are available too in national wildlife refuges and state wildlife management areas where you can enjoy bird watching, photography, camping, hiking, and wildlife viewing.

According to their website, the New Melones Field Office in California is the only Reclamation office selling or accepting America the Beautiful passes. However, as stated earlier, if you already have a pass, show it to the attendant (if present) when you get there and ask if they give discounts to pass holders.

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The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is on the tentative list to become a World Heritage Site.

Other Discounts for Parks, Museums, Science Center, and more

The discounts you can get at outdoor parks, museums, science centers, and other venues are as diverse as we are!

Most websites will post their specials, reduced rates, annual passes, and other ways to save, so it’s always good to check online or ask when you are purchasing your ticket if you qualify for a discount. 

Plus, don’t assume that you cannot purchase an annual pass just because you have already purchased your day-use ticket. If you find out about a yearly pass discount after visiting a venue, and you believe you will see other sites within the year, or return to the one you bought the day pass for, find out if you can apply the cost of your ticket to the annual pass. 

For example, you may visit a museum or animal rehabilitation facility and later find out they are part of a larger association of nationwide venues. These associations may have reciprocal programs that help you stretch your dollars even further. I’ve found the volunteers very helpful! It’s always beneficial to ask.

Examples of discounts often applied to ticket costs are:

  • Teachers
  • First Responders
  • Students (K-12, College, Homeschool)
  • Seniors
  • Active Military, Veterans, Gold Star Families
  • Foster, Guardian, and Adoptive Parents
  • Those receiving government assistance such as EBT card
  • Volunteers (at that venue or group)
  • Special days (free or discounted tickets for national or local events)
  • Special local passes (such as a City Pass or State parks pass)

And, there are other types of federally managed lands and programs to see to, like the National Marine Sanctuaries, Presidio Trust, Smithsonian Institute, Tennessee Valley Authority, National Archives and Records, Bureaus of Engravingand Printing, and our America Scenic Byways. Links to all of these are included below.

Military Campgrounds for RV Travel

You must have a military affiliation to enjoy discounted rates at a military campground.  Check where to find a military campground for your RV life if you qualify.

Summary: National Parks and Federally Managed Recreation Lands Discounts, Annual Passes, and Resources to Plan Your Next Adventure Outdoors

It’s mind boggling when you realize how many fantastic options there are to explore the outdoors. We are blessed with public lands to learn, appreciate and play. You can visit a National Marine Sanctuary to learn about underwater habitats and maritime history – be sure to click that link in blue to get an overview of where they are, explore a museum for a walk through the past and much more.

This article talks about our Federally maintained lands, funded by our tax dollars and our entrance and use fees. There are thousands of options to choose from when you want to take a walk in nature, go fishing, go camping, surf, scuba dive, learn about the environment, view wildlife, mountain bike, go off road, and much more. Then, there are even more ways to get outside when you discover what’s in your own backyard with parks and other outdoor spaces managed by cities, counties, and states. The world really is an endless playground!

America the Beautiful Pass, how to purchase your annual pass and save when enjoying public lands
bureau of land management, find an outdoor recration area by state or activity, public lands in the USA
America's scenic byways give you many opportunities to enjoy a beautiful road trips in many states - these are public lands to enjoy as you get outside and travel the United States
National Park Service, find a park with the interactive map by state, Enjoy our public lands, get outside
U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, find a facility by state or activity, public lands for the usa
A visit to presidio near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco will help you learn about history and enjoy the natural outdoors in the pubic lands federally managed for our use
National Archives and Records, you can visit the National Archives Museum, see our founding documents, learning from our public lands and properties
U.S. Forest Service, find a forest by state or outdoor activity-public lands
bureau of reclamation, overview of their recreation areas, public land for use to enjoy the outdoors
The Smithsonian Institute , visit the museum in D.C. and New York can open the doors of learning - public lands
bureau of engraving and printing, visitor center and tour information to learn more by visiting our public lands
national marine sanctuaries public land for use to learn and explore the federally managed lands in the united states
u.s. army corps of engineers, find a lake to explore for fishing, boating, and more - enjoy public lands managed by the federal government agencies
Tennessee Valley Authority, find hiking and biking trails or a spot for primitive campsites on public lands

Want More? Try These:

National Marine Sanctuaries

Learn More!
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About The Author

Dawn Damico

Editor of Vitabella Magazine, travel writer and photographer, and content marketing strategist for the travel, health, wellness, and real estate markets. I'm curious! I love to explore and share what I discover with hopes it will make your life easier, more fun, and hopefully less stressful. Grab a cup of coffee (or tea...or wine), sit back, and enjoy the food, health and travel articles that fill this online magazine. Feel free drop me a line - I'd love to hear from you! Can I help you with a project you're working on or your content needs? Are you a DMO who would like some additional content to help promote your destination? Learn more about my services for SEO copywriting, web content, content marketing solutions, and creating destination guides. My portfolio is found here: http://www.YourResearchDiva.com/portfolio