How to Take an Affordable National Park Vacation

One of the best trips my husband and I ever took was our National Park loop. We started in Sedona, where we stayed two nights, then we traveled up to the Grand Canyon National Park for two nights. From there we proceeded to Bryce Canyon National Park for another two, and then finally hopped over to Zion National Park for two more nights. Even though we accidentally went during monsoon season (why didn’t any of our Arizona friends warn us?), it was a fantastic trip made even better by its affordability.

The National Park Pass

If you’re just going to one National Park, the entrance fee is $20 per car ( a few parks are $25). The pass is good for seven days, and doesn’t matter how many people you have in the car. If you’re arriving on foot, bus, motorcycle, or horseback, it’s $10/person (a few parks are $12), also good for 7 days.

If you’re visiting more than four parks on a single trip, or plan to visit more than four parks this year, spring for the America the Beautiful pass, which is $80 for one year. If you’re over the age of 62, a lifetime pass is just $62! If you have a permanent disability, the lifetime pass is free.

All of my relatives have ordered their passes when they turned 62. There’s no reason not to and the funds support our National Parks.

Camping in National Parks

Most National Parks offer camping. The few that don’t have camp sites inside the park have commercial campsite nearby and operate shuttles to those campsites. We ran into the problem at Bryce. However, the external sites were reasonably-priced and very close to the park. We actually got to camp in a teepee!

Of course, National Park campsites book up fast. Most use to reserve campsites, although the more popular campgrounds sometimes have their own reservations systems. The key to snagging a reservation is advance camping trip planning.

If you can’t camp, look into cabin sites or nearby private campgrounds. You can also try local hotels or motels, which may be more affordable than a hotel in a major city.

There are many advantages to camping however:

  • Food is cheaper because you cook it yourself
  • No taxes or additional fees except the reservation and entrance fees
  • Roasting marshmallows over a fire
  • Relaxing around a fire
  • Seeing stars and hearing wildlife

In addition, most parks offer Ranger activities for kids and evening talks and campfires. There’s never a lack of things to do in a national park! Once you’re in a park, you can usually use the park shuttle to get around, so you can leave your car at the campsite, which saves on gas (and helps reduce pollution in our National Parks.)

Top Ten National Parks

If I’ve whet your appetite for a National Park vacation, consider these ten most popular parks:

  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Grand Canyon National Park
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Grand Tetons National Park
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Zion National Park
  • Cuyahoga National Park
  • Acadia National Park

Still not convinced? Check out these Yellowstone National Park pictures. That ought to get you in the mood for an affordable camping vacation!

My trip cost less than $800 for nine days for two people. That included food, gas, a national park pass, six camping nights, two nights in a hotel due to monsoons (seriously, a warning would have been nice), and a $180 rental car because neither of us wanted to take our cars. Four people only would have cost an extra $100 for food.

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