A visit to America’s National Parks is truly a bucket list vacation for travelers of all ages.
I’m sharing practical tips to help you save money and make the most of your visit.
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Purchase a National Park Annual Pass
If you are visiting multiple National Parks during your trip, the best value is to purchase a National Park Annual Pass for $80.
This will also give you an incentive to cross more National Parks off your list before it expires in 12 months.
Purchased annual National Park passes can have two owners. The cost of the pass and the card can be shared with a family member, neighbor, or friend.
If we would have paid for the National Parks that we visited separately during our trip it would have been the following cost:
- Grand Canyon National Park: $35
- Bryce Canyon National Park: $35
- Zion National Park: $35
- Kolob Canyon in Zion National Park (Park of Zion but a separate entrance 50 miles away): $35
Other Types of Annual Passes and Discounts for the National Parks
- Lifetime Senior Pass- For U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over
- Annual Senior Pass
- Access Pass– is available free for US citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities
- Military Pass
- Pass for Veterans
Where Can You Go With the National Park Pass?
The Annual Pass covers entrance fees to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites including:
- National Parks
- National Wildlife Refuges
- Lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
- National Forests and Grasslands
What Does the National Park Annual Pass Cover?
The Annual Pass covers your entrance, standard amenity fees, and day-use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person).
*Children age 15 or under are admitted free.
Take Advantage of the “Every Kid Outdoors Pass” if You Have a Fourth Grader
The Every Kids Outdoors pass provides free entry to national parks across the country is good for the fourth grade school year.
For example, during the 2020/2021 4th grade school year, the pass would end on August 31,2021.
This is such a great incentive to travel while your family is younger.
*You will need to print the pass that has its own unique code because digital passes aren’t accepted at the parks. At some site locations, a park ranger may exchange your paper-printed card for a plastic one.
This pass covers all of the kids and adults in your vehicle. If you arrive at a site on bicycle, the pass admits all children under 16 and up to three adults on bicycles.
Got a 5th Grader?
There is also a special voucher for 5th graders who missed out on travel during the 2019-2020 school year.
With this voucher, 5th graders and their families will have free access to national parks and other federal lands managed by the Department of the Interior from October 28, 2020, through August 31, 2021.
Visit a National Park Without an Entry Fee
Did you know that only 108 of the 423 National Park Service sites and parks currently charge entrance fees?
There are plenty of National Park Sites that you can explore for FREE.
For example, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia are both FREE to visit.
Purchase A Shuttle Ticket for Zion in Advance
The shuttle tickets are only $1 per person. You need a shuttle ticket to access areas of the park not open to private vehicles.
The shuttle provides access along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to areas including Emerald Pools, West Rim Trail and Angels Landing, the Riverside Walk, and the Narrows.
Advanced tickets for the Zion Canyon Shuttle are released twice a month, on the 16th and the last day of the month.
If you can’t secure an advanced shuttle ticket, there are additional tickets released online at 5:00 p.m for the following day.
You can still drive a beautiful scenic route but you don’t want to miss the most popular areas of the park.
Your other options are biking in or using one of the private shuttle companies that are more expensive.
Visit Local State and City Parks
Even though the focus for this article is National Parks, you don’t want to overlook local state and city parks while you are in the area.
For example, your National Park pass won’t work at Horseshoe Bend whose parking is managed by the city of Page in Arizona….but I would still recommend going there to see it.
State and city parks can also be a great option if the National Park your visiting is overcrowded.
Use Las Vegas as a Base to Fly into
By flying into Las Vegas, Nevada, you get the best of both worlds with both urban and outdoor adventures.
Another perk of flying into Las Vegas is that there are more airline carriers, direct flights, and flight times available to choose from. We also gained more time for our vacation by flying instead of adding extra days for driving from home.
You can enjoy the attractions in the city for a few days along with the unique outdoor adventures within an hour of Las Vegas.
We also gained more time to explore in Las Vegas by flying home on the red-eye the last day of our trip.
Prioritize Your National Parks
There are 13 National Parks within driving distance of 7 hours or less from Las Vegas.
You can choose your own adventure but you need to be realistic with your drive time and vacation days.
Another factor can be how many days you want to spend exploring each National Park.
National Park Drive Time From Las Vegas
- Death Valley National Park, California – 2 hours
- Zion National Park, Utah -2 hours and 35 minutes
- Joshua Tree National Park, California – 3 hours
- Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah – 4 hours
- Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona North or South Rim – 4.5 hours
- Great Basin National Park, Nevada – 4.5 hours
- Capital Reef National Park, Utah- 5.25 hours
- Yosemite National Park, California – 5.5 hours
- Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona – 5.5 hours
- Sequoia National Park, California – 6.25 hours
- Kings Canyon National Park, California – 6.75 hours
- Arches National Park, Utah – 6.75
- Canyonlands National Park, Utah – 7 hours
Save on Your Flight
We purchased direct flights for our trip to Las Vegas from Delta for a price lower than the budget airlines a few months in advance of our trip on a Tuesday. Tuesday is typically the best day to purchase airline tickets for a lower fare.
I used the incognito mode to search Google Flights for the best flight options from my local airport. The cookies in your browser can cause flight prices to increase if you repeatedly are searching for the same flights without a private mode. To use incognito mode, click on “File” and then select the “New Incognito Window” tab.
It’s also worth checking if there are any bundle deals for flights and hotels for when you arrive.
If you have an airline credit card, check to see how many points you have. You can weigh it out to decide if it’s worth using them toward a flight.
If you are flexible on your travel days you can also save money on your flight.
How to Save on Baggage Fees
Light packers can avoid checked bag fees by using a carry-on instead (if your airline ticket includes a carry-on.) Make sure that you check the airline’s restrictions and bag measurements.
A small backpack can also be used as a personal item if it can fit under the seat in front of you.
If you fly several times a year, it might also be worth having a credit card for your airline of choice. We didn’t have to pay for checked bags because I have a Delta AMEX credit card.
How to Save on Your Rental Vehicle
Shop around for rental car rates. Prices for rentals are typically higher at the airport vs. a location farther away.
We saved money on our minivan rental by using our Costco credit card and booking our rental through Costco Travel.
The price for our rental was less than other deal sites. We had an additional driver added at no additional cost. We also didn’t need to purchase additional rental insurance because it was covered on our credit card.
Instead of an SUV we opted for a minivan for more leg room for our teenage boys and storage for our luggage for the same price.
Make sure that you fill up your vehicle before you return it to the rental agency so that you aren’t charged a higher rate for gas per gallon.
Visit Off-Season When Possible
We visited several National Parks during Spring Break mid-April. If you visit in the spring there is a risk of some road or trail closures due to snow so the later in the spring season the better.
We only experienced snow one time during our trip on our way to Zion National Park in the morning. Thankfully they did a great job treating the roads and the light snow melted by that afternoon.
If you can visit during the non-peak times in the fall when the kids are back in school, even better. For many National Parks, the lowest prices and crowds are during the winter months.
When is Peak Season for Most National Parks?
The peak season for most National Parks is around June and July with warmer temperatures, international travelers, and more families available to travel while school is out.
If you visit during the peak of summer you will most likely experience crowded parks, longer lines, and higher prices with fewer options when it comes to accommodations to choose from.
Try to book your accommodations in advance and arrive at the parks really early or late.
For example, we visited the Grand Canyon close to sunset and then came back the following day.
For travelers visiting the Grand Canyon, you do have more of the park available to see from mid-May to mid-October when the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is also open to guests.
Consider Your Window of Availability For Travel
For our trip planning, we had a lot of moving parts to work around when it came to scheduling.
My husband had to bid for his vacation dates a year in advance and we had two student-athletes in high school, with spring conditioning and games.
We had a goal of both of our boys seeing several of these National Parks before they graduated high school. For our family, spring break was the most realistic time to accomplish that.
We knew that schedules would only get trickier after graduation with summer jobs and conditioning.
If you have flexibility in your schedule take advantage of it and you can save even more.
Even if you can’t avoid peak season for your planning, the National Parks are still worth visiting.
For example, you can ride bicycles on the Cades Cove Scenic Loop every Wednesday, vehicle-free from the beginning of May until the beginning of September.
If you visit a National Park during peak season, stop by the visitor center and ask a Park Ranger their recommendations for the best use of your time while in the park.
Things to Consider While Planning Your Trip
It’s important to be pragmatic about how many National Parks you can realistically visit within your time constraints.
Consider the following factors in your National Park planning:
- Who you are traveling with and their ages
- The type of vehicle you will be using ( car, SUV, minivan, camper)
- What you want to do at each park (hike, scenic drive, camp)
- Your budget
- Special Tours or Activities (Ex. renting gear to hike The Narrows)
- How many days you want to visit each park
- Drive Time -Use Google Maps to figure out the distance and time between each stop or National Park
Book Special Tours at National Parks in Advance of Your Trip
With Get Your Guide you can cancel up to 24 hours before your activity starts for a full refund. It’s a no-risk option if your plans change unexpectedly.
Consider Alternative Lodging
During our visit, we stayed at two different KOA deluxe cabins.
We spent one night at the Flagstaff KOA Holiday in Arizona while visiting the Grand Canyon. The following 3 nights were at the Cannonville/ Bryce Canyon KOA Holiday while we were visiting Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park.
We liked the deluxe cabin option because all of the basics were covered in our cabin and didn’t need to bring bedding or items for cooking. That was especially important for us because we flew and rented a vehicle.
If you want to travel in an RV, consider exploring a rental from RVshare.
I would recommend securing your lodging as soon as possible for peace of mind and more inventory options to choose from.
If you want to camp, there are lots of campground options ranging from primitive/ backcountry, RV hookups, and traditional campgrounds inside and outside of the parks.
Make sure that you make a reservation for your campground or cabin of choice because they are very popular.
You can also save money on lodging if you are willing to drive a farther distance from the National Parks.
Compare Rates on Hotels and Vacation Rentals
Consider what areas you want to use as a base during your trip and how often you want to pack up and go.
At least 2-3 nights in one location is ideal but sometimes it doesn’t work if you are trying to cover a lot of ground during your road trip.
Type in your location of choice in the map above to compare prices on both hotels and vacation rentals.
Cook the Majority of Your Meals
If you want to reduce your costs during your visit, you can cook the majority of your meals. Pack a lunch during your time at the park and stock up on groceries once you are within a reasonable drive of where you are staying.
Our deluxe cabin, had everything we needed to cook a meal.
If you go out to eat, you can’t go wrong with pizza or Mexican food for a filling meal at a reasonable price.
Pack a Cooler With Snacks and Drinks
Full transparency, we didn’t use our kitchen in the cabins beyond the coffee maker and reheating leftover pizza for breakfast.
We enjoy going out to eat on vacation and finding the local dining gems to support.
We did however save on in-between stops with LOTS of snacks and drinks.
Our backpack cooler was used as one of the personal items/ carry-ons on our flight to Las Vegas.
Once we arrived, we loaded up on granola and protein bars, drinks, apples, Body Armor, and gallon jugs of water to use to refill our water bottles.
Dress in Layers and Pack Gear
Make sure that you have the right gear with you on hikes.
Try to steer clear of cotton clothing if possible. Athletic types of clothing do well because they dry quicker. Dress in layers in anticipation of temperature changes and elevation.
Make sure that you bring a backpack with plenty of water and snacks for hikes. You can rent gear or bring some of the items with you.
If you plan on hiking The Narrows at Zion National Park use these tips before you go:
- Close-toed shoes- (preferably waterproof hiking boots made for canyoneering)
- Hat for sun protection
- Hiking stick
- Dry Bag– (Keep extra clothing and snacks dry)
- Seasonally appropriate synthetic layers
- Neoprene booties
- First Aid Kit
- Waterproof Cell Phone Case
- Waders – during cooler water temperature months