National Parks Are Free September 24. Visit these 10 Lesser Known Sites.

In honor of National Public Lands Day on September 24, entrance to all National Park Service sites will be free

September 24 is one of five days in 2022 when the National Park Service (NPS) offers free admission to visitors—and comes just after the start of fall, a colorful season for a road trip. Schools are back in session, the summer tourism rush has waned, and fall colors are happening.

It’s just a wonderful time of year.

While many visitors will use the free day for recreation, National Public Lands Day is the country’s largest single day of volunteering for parks and public lands. There’s something to be said for planting a tree or doing invasive species removal or a cleanup around a river versus just going to enjoy the sites. It makes you a steward of that space.

And don’t forget: Places you can help out go beyond the 63 national parks. There are also federal public lands, national monuments, wildlife refuges, historic sites, seashores, and recreation areas you can visit without admission.

Instead of competing with the crowds at America’s most famous parks, visit lesser-known options. Here are 10 sites to visit across the country.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

The New River is the United State’s newest national park but is one of the oldest waterways in the world and the primeval forest gorge it runs through is one of the most breathtaking in the Appalachians. The region is an adventure mecca with world-class white-water runs and challenging single-track trails. Rim and gorge hiking trails offer beautiful views.

Not only is it great for fall foliage but they also have a cool event every year called Bridge Day. Every third Saturday in October (October 15, 2022), Bridge Day brings thousands of spectators to watch BASE jumpers fling themselves off the New River Gorge Bridge. Don’t want to run into those crowds? Skip Bridge Day.

Get more tips for visiting New River Gorge National Park

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present-day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.

People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

Get more tips for visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Cavern National Park, New Mexico

The main attraction of this national park is the show cave—the Carlsbad Cavern (and the Big Room in particular). Unlike most caves around the nation, one does not need a guided tour to explore the cave—visitors can walk on their own through the natural entrance or take an elevator from the visitor center. 

Visitors can choose between the steep paved trail making its way down into the cave or the elevator directly down to the Big Room Trail. The 1.25-mile long Natural Entrance Trail is steep (it gains or loses) around 750 feet in elevation. This is equivalent to walking up a 75-story building. It takes about an hour to complete. Once down in the caves, the Big Room Trail is leading to the popular Big Room.

Get more tips for visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees.

Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

More than 700 years after its inhabitants disappeared, Mesa Verde retains an air of mystery. No one knows for sure why the Ancestral Puebloans left their elaborate cliff dwellings in the 1300s. What remains is a wonderland for adventurers of all sizes who can clamber up ladders to carved-out dwellings, see rock art, and delve into the mysteries of ancient America.

Get more tips for visiting Mesa Verde National Park

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the state, means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive overlooks the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins.

Get more tips for visiting Natural Bridges National Monuments

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Pinnacles is named for the towering rock spires that rise abruptly out of the chaparral-covered hills east of Salinas Valley. Its famous formations are the eroded remnants of a long-extinct volcano that originated in present-day southern California before getting sheared in two and moving nearly 200 miles north along the San Andreas Fault.

Get more tips for visiting Pinnacles National Park

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, Texas

Four of the five surviving Spanish colonial missions in and around San Antonio comprise the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The park and its missions offer visitors a look at the oldest unrestored stone church in the country—Mission Concepción; the “Queen of the Missions” known as Mission San José and the largest of the missions fully restored to its original design in the 1930s; the restored acequias (irrigation canals) of Mission San Juan; and Mission Espada, the first mission built in Texas. The city’s group of five Spanish colonial missions — of which San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is included—is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Get more tips for visiting San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Cumberland Island is Georgia’s southernmost island and a place where you can truly get away from the modern world. With no bridge to come to Cumberland Island travelers have to use a ferry or private boat to get to this beautiful place which is managed by the national park service. Although Georgia’s Atlantic coastline is only about 100 miles long, the Peach State is home to 30 percent of the barrier islands along the Atlantic Seaboard. And Cumberland is the largest and fairest of them all with the longest expanse of the pristine seashore—18 glorious miles of deserted sand. Truly, this is a bucket list destination.

Get more tips for visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is a park for isolation. This is where the Badlands start cutting into the landscape carving sharp rock faces and hoodoos into the countryside. Both the north and south units offer great hiking, expansive vistas, easily accessible wilderness, abundant wildlife, and not many visitors. This is a wonderful park for hiking due to the elevation (or lack thereof) and abundance of trails.

Get more tips for visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

Explore More National Parks on These Fee-Free Days in 2021

Have you planned your camping trips for 2021 yet? Plan your travels around these six fee-free days at the national parks!

With over 400 National Park Service sites, there are plenty of options for your next RV weekend getaway or extended vacation. Take pictures of Zion canyon’s narrows, gaze at Arches’ massive sandstone arches, view exhibits about the desert flora and fauna at a Saguaro visitor’s center, or hike one of the many trails in the Great Smoky Mountains. America’s national parks have much to offer in the way of scenery, activities, and history.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The U.S. Department of the Interior recently announced that all National Park Service sites will have six entrance fee-free days in 2021. The fee-free days are part of the Administration’s commitment to increase access, promote recreational opportunities, improve visitor facilities, and conserve natural and historical treasures in national parks for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people.

Joshua Tree National Park , California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The six fee-free days in 2021 are:

  • January 18: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • April 17: First day of National Park Week
  • August 4: First anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
  • August 25: National Park Service Birthday
  • September 25: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

Mark your calendars and start planning your camping trip.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Each of the fee-free days celebrates or commemorates a significant event including the establishment earlier this year by President Trump of the Great American Outdoors Act. The legislation marks the single largest investment ever in national parks and will result in enhanced facilities and expanded recreational prospects for all visitors,” said Margaret Everson, Counselor to the Secretary, exercising the delegated authority of the National Park Service Director.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Throughout the country, every national park provides a variety of opportunities to get out in nature, connect with our common heritage, and experience the vast array of benefits that come from spending time outdoors. Hopefully, the fee-free days will encourage everyone to spend some time in their national parks.”

There are more than 400 National Park Service sites nationwide, with at least one in every state. Approximately 100 parks charge an entrance fee with costs ranging from $5 to $35. The other 300-plus national parks do not have entrance fees.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt signed Secretary’s Orders 3386 and 3387 granting veterans, Gold Star Families and fifth-graders free access to all national parks, wildlife refuges, and other federal lands managed by the Department of the Interior. Veterans and Gold Star Families will have free access forever while fifth-grade students were granted the reprieve through this academic year as some of last year’s fourth-graders may have been unable to make full use of the Every Kid Outdoors Annual Fourth Grade Pass due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Active duty military and fourth-grade students will continue to have free access with discounted passes also available for seniors. For other visitors who love visiting public lands, the annual $80 America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is a great option which allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas including all national parks.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last year, 327 million people visited national parks and spent $21 billion in local communities. This supported 340,500 jobs across the country and had a $41.7 billion impact on the U.S. economy.

Keep track of your visits with a National Parks Passport. Simply stamp your book before departing and continue to add on more throughout the year. Stamps are typically located at the visitor’s center.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada

Other federal land management agencies offering their own fee-free days in 2021 include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im