Writer and historian Wallace Stegner famously called national parks America’s “best idea.” Turns out they’re also among the best ideas for an affordable RV vacation thanks to hundreds of drivable destinations throughout the country, free or inexpensive admission, camping, and picnicking opportunities, and tons of cheap activities.
Here are five reasons national parks make a great low-budget getaway.
There’s probably a national park within easy driving distance
Road trip! When people think of America’s national parks, they tend to imagine sweeping expanses of Western wilderness, like the Grand Canyon. But there are hundreds of national parks, historic sites, preserves, scenic and historic trails, national monuments and memorials, and other places across the country that fall under the National Park Service’s care. That means there’s likely a site within easy driving distance of where you live or plan to spend vacation time.
The National Park Service manages 423 individual units covering more than 85 million acres in all 50 states including sites in 40 of the 50 most populous cities in the United States, according to the service’s website.
Visitors can use the National Park Service’s online “Find a Park” tool at NPS.gov/findapark to search for parks by state, activity, or topic of interest, or browse a full list.
National parks are inexpensive (or even free) to visit
More than two-thirds of national park sites, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, don’t charge an entrance fee.
Also look for special passes and programs that offer free or discounted admission, such as the annual fee-free entrance days (there are five in 2020) and the Every Kid Outdoors program, which provides free admission for fourth-graders and their families. There’s also the free, lifetime Access Pass which is available to people with a permanent disability, the annual free Military Pass for people currently serving, and the lifetime Senior Pass which costs just $80 for people age 62 and older.
And if multiple parks are in your plans, annual America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is a great bargain. It costs $80 and allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including all national parks. If visiting several parks with entrance fees within a year, this pass pays for itself very quickly.
There’s a lot of free stuff to do once you’re there
At many vacation spots, admission fees are only the tip of the cost iceberg. Not so at national parks where the talks, walks, films, museums, and other programs are typically either free or included in the admission fee.
Visitors might join a free Keys Ranch Tour at Joshua Tree National Park, hear free geology talks at Capitol Reef National Park, and hike with a ranger at Saguaro National Park. There are also interactive Junior Ranger activities for kids at more than 200 National Park Service areas.
Visitors can forgo hotels and restaurants in favor of camping and picnicking
To fully experience the majesty of national parks—starry skies, splendid sunrises, and sunsets—skip the hotel and camp instead. There are campsites in more than 130 national park units, so you can wake up on the beach at Cumberland Island National Seashore, among the ponderosa pines at Grand Canyon National Park, or with a view of otherworldly spires in Bryce Canyon National Park.
The parks offer two types of camping experiences. RVers can drive directly to established campgrounds to set up a trailer or motorhome. These campgrounds sometimes have amenities such as water, electricity hookups, bathrooms and showers, fire rings, dump stations, camp stores, and food storage boxes to protect food from wildlife.
To go off-grid, pack a backpack and head out into the wilderness on foot or in a canoe, kayak, or raft to try backcountry camping with only your gear and a sense of adventure.
You can make it a volunteer vacation
Another way for budget travelers to visit national parks is to volunteer there. Last year, 300,000-plus volunteers contributed more than 7.2 million hours of service. Some positions are specialized and require particular talents, knowledge, skills, and abilities, as well as a background check. Other positions only require a desire and willingness to volunteer. People who rack up 250 volunteer hours can get a free Volunteer Pass, good for a year’s worth of unlimited entrance fees.
However, you choose to experience the national parks, be sure to get the latest information before you go.
I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.