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America’s national parks are a national treasure. They’ve became even more popular in 2020 for families seeking an outdoor vacation. Visiting a US National Park is already an affordable family vacation, but nothing is more affordable than free! Each year, the parks offer free admission to fourth graders and members of the military. Staring in 2020, free admission also includes military veterans and Gold Star families. Plus, there are a handful of days when admission is free to everyone. Read on for details about how to visit a national park for free in 2021.
US National Parks For Free!
US National Parks offer priceless beauty, and for five days each year, the admission price is just that – priceless. Only about 100 of the 419 US National Park Service sites charge admission ($5 to $35); the remaining 300 sites are free to enter year-round.
With iconic destinations like Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Golden Gate Bridge, your family can explore the United States’ most distinct spots. Then throw the tent in the SUV and it’s a budget-friendly family vacation kids will remember for years. Most camping spots are less than $30 a night.
National Park Free Days for Families
Since the National Park Service charges reasonable entrance fees to the parks, a national park trip is budget friendly. A week in Grand Canyon National Park is $35 for seven days for a carload of people.
Even better than cheap is free, so the National Park Service offers several fee-free days sprinkled throughout the year. Generally, the free admission days include Martin Luther King Jr Day and the first day of National Parks Week, which will be April 17 in 2021.
Note: National park free days for families do not include user fees like camping, boat launches, shuttle buses and tour fees.
National Park Free Days for Families in 2020
National Park Free Days for Families in 2020
|Martin Luther King, Jr.
|Monday, January 20, 2020|
|First Day of National Park Week
Junior Ranger Day
|Saturday, April 18, 2020|
|National Park Service Birthday
|Tuesday, August 25, 2020|
|National Public Lands Day
|Saturday, September 26, 2020|
|Wednesday, November 11, 2020|
National Park Passes
If you plan on visiting several national parks, consider an annual National Park Pass. I’ve been an America the Beautiful Annual Pass holder for years.
|Type Of National Park Pass||Eligibility||Cost|
|America the Beautiful Annual Pass||All visitors||$80|
|Military Pass||Current U.S. military members and their dependents as well as Gold Star Families||Free|
|Fourth Grade Pass||U.S. 4th graders (including home-schooled and free-choice learner 10-year-olds)||Free|
|Senior Pass||U.S. citizens and permanent residents 62 years and older||$80 Lifetime/$20 annual|
|Access Pass||U.S. citizens and permanent residents with a permanent disability||Free|
|Volunteer Pass||Visitors volunteering 250 hours a year||Free|
How to Get Free Admission for Active Military
As one of the benefits for active military members, get an annual pass for free. Head to the nearest National Park Service site that sells annual passes. Present your Common Access Card (CAC) or your Military ID (Form 1173). Everyone in your vehicle or, if per-person fees are charged, you and three accompanying adults 16 years and older (kids 15 are under are always free) can enter for free.
- U.S. Army
- U.S. Navy
- U.S. Air Force
- U.S. Marines
- U.S. Coast Guard
- Military Reserves and National Guard
How to Get Free Admission for Military Veterans
Free admission was extended to military veterans effective November 11, 2020. To get free admission, present one of the following forms of ID for entry to a national park:
- Department of Defense Identification Card (CAC Card)
- Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC)
- Veteran ID Card
- Veterans designation on a state-issued U.S. driver’s license or identification card
The free admission covers everyone in a single vehicle or the veteran plus three others aged 16 and older if per-person fees are charged.
How to Get Free Admission for Gold Star Families
Gold Star Families are the families of an active duty military member who died in the line of duty — in war, an international terrorist attack or a military operation outside of the United States — while serving with the United States Armed Forces.
To get free admission, download, print and sign the Gold Star Family Voucher, which asks people to agree to the following language:
I hereby affirm that I am an eligible next of kin (NOK) of a member of the United States Armed Forces who lost his or her life in a qualifying situation, such as war, an international terrorist attack or a military operation outside of the United States while serving in the United States Armed Forces, as identified in sections 3.2 (Qualifying Situation) and 3.3 (Eligible NOK) of Department of Defense Instruction 1348.36.
Display the voucher in the vehicle or present it to a National Park Ranger for free admission. The voucher covers occupants of a single, private non-commercial vehicle OR the voucher-holder and three people aged 16 and up if the park charges per-person admission fees.
The History of the National Park Service
The U.S. National Parks are an American innovation that the world has adopted. In 1872 Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming became the first national park. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service to govern the 35 national parks in the U.S. at the time.
Since then the National Park Service has blossomed into 421 national parks, national historical parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national battlefields and national seashores.
Some parks feature vast, iconic scenery like Big Bend National Park in West Texas and Olympic National Park in Washington State. Others recognize an area’s historical significance like the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and the national parks of New York City. Finally national park sites document important events, like Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
Tips for Visiting National Parks with Kids
When my kids were babies, I promised myself to show them the treasures of their country. So after visiting 41 of the 61 big National Parks and close to 100 National Park Service sites, they’ve explored the jewels of the continent.
What Are National Park Junior Rangers?
They are junior-sized park rangers. Kids from 5 to 13 can join the ranks as they explore, learn and protect our national treasures. Over 200 national park sites hand out free booklets specially designed for each park (a few parks charge $3 for the booklet). Some can even be downloaded and completed at home when you can’t visit a national park in person.
First, kids explore a park site with their families and complete fun activities in the Junior Ranger booklet. Then kids turn in the booklets, take an oath and get an official Junior Ranger badge or patch.
Tips From a TravelingMom:
- Since national parks are popular destinations during school breaks, holidays and pandemics, make reservations as early as possible. Lodging reservations are available 13 months in advance.
- Parking can be an issue at popular destinations during the middle of the day.
- Since many features have barricades kids can climb over, watch your children at all times.
- Keep wild animals wild by not feeding them, even the cute ones that beg.
- Keep at least 25 feet between people and animals, 100 feet between people and bears.
- Bring refillable water bottles and food for your national park visit. Food service is limited and kids love picnics.
- Know your personal limits and the limits of your equipment.
- If you don’t have kids traveling with you, most parks allow adults to complete the NPS Junior Ranger booklets for the same badge or patch.