It’s a free entry day at national parks; next is set for November
Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
If you’re within driving distance of a national park, today is a great day to visit. Sept. 24 is one of several days each year on which the U.S. National Park Service offers free entrance.
It’s a prime opportunity for visitors who want to take in some of the most spectacular natural wonders in the country at no cost. With hundreds of parks across the country and a long list of parks that participate in free entry days, there’s a good chance you live close enough to one to make some last-minute weekend plans and enjoy the start of fall outdoors.
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Saturday’s free entrance day is part of the celebration of National Public Lands Day, held annually on the fourth Saturday in September. Organized by the National Environmental Education Foundation, hundreds of thousands of volunteers work to clean up and restore parks and other outdoor spaces on this day each year. But a key part of the day for national park enthusiasts is free entry to national parks.
Visiting a national park on one of the National Park Service’s free entry days can save you up to $35 per vehicle at some of the most popular national parks such as Glacier and the Grand Canyon.
Can’t make it to a park today? Mark your calendar: the next free entry day at national parks is set for just over a month from now on Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
Remember that some of the country’s most visited parks now require reservations for entry. You can make reservations for the parks here. If you’re visiting Yellowstone National Park, be sure to check which parts of the park are accessible following record floods this summer.
A helpful tip to enhance your experience if you plan to visit on one of the fee-free days is to pass on visiting beautiful but busy spots like Olympic National Park and Acadia National Park in favor of lesser-known parks instead.
“While there’s no replacement for Yellowstone and Yosemite, there are lots of national monuments and other national park service units that can give you that big national park experience without the crowds,” says Jason Epperson of the RV Miles website and podcast, whose family has visited over 50 national park service sites during five years of living full-time on the road.
Epperson points to Dinosaur National Monument on the border of Colorado and Utah, which offers “epic hikes, large canyons and white water rafting” in addition to real-life dinosaur bones for viewing, as a good option for ditching the masses
TPG put together the list below of less-crowded national parks and monuments that are great options to visit, especially when entry fees are waived (including two favorites that are always free to visit throughout the year).
Lassen Volcanic National Park
About 2.5 hours by car from Reno, Nevada, and less than four hours from San Francisco, this Northern California national park sees just a fraction of the Yosemite hordes. Lassen Volcanic National Park is a hydrothermal wonderland where you can spot steaming fumaroles, hook a rainbow trout or dip into a clear mountain lake over the course of a day.
Manzanita Lake is a favorite for kayaking and fishing. And the beach at Summit Lake is accessible from the main park highway.
Congaree National Park
Primeval forest landscapes await at this South Carolina national park located less than 20 miles southeast of the state capital, Columbia, and about 100 miles from Charleston, if you’re coming from the coast. Entrance is always free at Congaree National Park.
The wilderness here is home to one of the country’s largest remaining intact expanses of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest and is an amazing place to see bald cypress trees, some with circumferences of more than 26 feet. The park is also a Globally Important Bird Area with spectacular biodiversity. The tree canopy is so dense in parts that barred owls can sometimes be heard calling in the middle of the day, so keep your eyes (and ears) tuned.
Dinosaur National Monument
Opting to visit a national monument instead of a national park can be a good bet for ditching the guidebook crowds. And Dinosaur National Monument in Jessen, Utah, is a place where the behemoths once roamed in a particularly picturesque setting.
It’s 3.5 hours by car from Salt Lake City and about 4.5 hours from Denver. In addition to seeing prehistoric dinosaur remains embedded in rocks and petroglyphs, you can go rafting through lonely canyons along the Green and Yampa Rivers within the 210,000-acre park and hike uncrowded trails where sheer cliffs tower at every turn. For those looking to avoid the river during the winter, there is also the Quarry Visitor Center nearby that’s a great daytime activity for any kids who love dinosaurs.
Everglades National Park
With three different entrances spread across the girth of South Florida, Everglades National Park — the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. — makes it easy to spread out and escape any crowds (if not the alligators, more than a million of which live in Florida).
Depending on your preference for sun exposure, you can choose from shaded boat rides from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center near Naples or tram rides from the Shark Valley Visitor Center, or opt for a full-sun stroll along the excellent Anhinga Trail near Homestead.
Wind Cave National Park
In the southwestern reaches of South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park is “one of the very best places to see bison, elk and prairie dogs without waiting in the Yellowstone traffic jams,” said Epperson. And it’s another national park that never charges an entry fee to visit yet remains uncrowded for most of the year.
The park is home to the eponymous Wind Cave, one of the longest and most complex caves in the world. It’s named for the air pressure system created by barometric winds at its entrance (yes, you can feel it!). You can enter the cave during ranger-led tours only, but there are plenty of other exterior hiking trails to enjoy, too, if that sounds a bit too claustrophobic.
Isle Royale National Park
Ferries and seaplanes carry visitors from points in Minnesota and Michigan to this splendid national park on an island in Lake Superior. An International Biosphere Reserve, Isle Royale National Park is home to beavers, moose, gray wolves, mink and many more animals — and on most days, there are far more of them than any human visitors.
You can explore via a day hike on a short visit or stay longer to paddle miles of waterways within the park that includes inland lakes, coves and bays.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Here’s another worthy hop by seaplane or boat where when national parks fees are waived.
Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park makes for one of the most amazing day trips from Key West (the park is about 70 miles west of Duval Street), with some of Florida’s best snorkeling within the 100-square-mile park that’s almost entirely underwater.
The thing to see topside in the Dry Tortugas, beyond the park’s pristine strip of white sand beach, is the 19th-century Fort Jefferson – a huge coastal fortress at the park made from millions of bricks that contrast to dazzling effect with the surrounding turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a good destination to consider now, or for a warm-weather escape when the National Park Service offers wintertime free entry day(s) in 2023.
Wherever you choose to visit within the National Park Service’s portfolio, Epperson says to remember that most people don’t stray more than 100 feet from the roadside within the national parks. “Even big popular places have plenty of places to get away,” he said.
You can see the entire list of participating parks and national monuments that are waiving entrance fees here.
Also, we want to point out the park service offers free admission year-round to several groups, including veterans, Gold Star Families and U.S. citizens and permanent residents with permanent disabilities.
Meanwhile, if you’re hoping to take advantage of a future free entry day at one of the nation’s 423 NPS sites, keep in mind that the 2022 calendar included free entry days in January, April, August, September and November, so we’ll be sure to update this story when we get the 2023 schedule.
Additional reporting by Madison Blancaflor and Sean Cudahy.