Although there’s no such thing as a free My Update System lunch, it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to visit one of over 400 national parks and recreation areas across America. There’s no shortage of freebies to be had in these beautiful public lands, from free admission and tours to special programs and even transportation. And although many of these cost-saving deals are well advertised, some are held as closely guarded secrets. With that in mind, here are ten tips to help trim your travel budget on your next national park visit.
US Citizens with a permanent disability can get a free Access Pass, which is good for free admission to all national parks, recreation sites, national monuments, and wildlife refuges. Passes can be obtained at entrance kiosks with proof of citizenship and disability. The pass also offers a 50% discount on campsites and boat launch fees. Active military members can also get a free annual pass by presenting their Common Access Card or Military ID (Form 1173).
This pass is available to members of all military branches — including reservists and National Guard members — and it has the same benefits as the Access Pass. Many parks have free cell phone tours. For example, In Olympic National Park, visitors can call (360) 406-5056 to get recorded information on different park areas. Consult the park newspaper to see if a cell phone tour is available. If you’re traveling with someone who can’t walk very far, check with the park visitor center, as they often have manual wheelchairs for loan.
Some parks offer free tours on a first-come basis. Over in Zion, visitors can take a free 90-minute ranger-led bus tour of Zion Canyon. Seats are limited and can only be reserved in person at the visitor center, up to three days in advance. It’s always a good idea to inquire at the visitor center whenever you visit a park, as that’s how you’ll discover freebies like this. While we are on the subject, rangers are an excellent source of free information, so don’t hesitate to ask them for specific suggestions. On one visit to Yosemite, a ranger told me that Washburn Point was an excellent stop for wheelchair-users. This information wasn’t in the park newspaper, but the ranger knew because her brother was disabled.
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Take advantage of the free shuttle buses in many parks, as they will save you time and frustration. For example, in Bryce National Park, parking is limited along the main park road, but folks that take the optional shuttle bus dodge the parking hassle and have more time to enjoy the park. If you have kids in tow, ask about the junior ranger program at the main park visitor center. To become a junior ranger, a child has to complete activities in the free junior ranger activity book, then have them checked by a ranger. If all goes well, they are sworn in as a junior rangers. It’s a fun way to encourage kids to learn about the natural environment while exploring a park.
If you have a fourth-grader in the family, you’ll be able to save even more money this year, thanks to the Every Kid in a Park Initiative. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, all fourth graders will receive a season pass for their family, good for admission to all parks in the 2015-2016 school year. Last but not least, everybody gets free admission on national park free entrance days. These include the National Park Service Birthday (August 25), National Public Lands Day (September 26), and the first weekend of National Parks Week (mid-April).
There’s also no admission charge on Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Jr Day, and Presidents Day weekend. Candy Harrington is the founding editor of Emerging Horizons ( http://www.EmergingHorizons.com ) and the author of several accessible travel titles, including the classic Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. Her newest book Barrier-Free Travel: Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks for Wheelers and Slow Walkers ( http://www.barrierfreeolympic.com ), includes detailed access information about trails, sites, lodging options, and attractions in these two popular Washington state national parks.