Although there’s no such thing as a free lunch, it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to visit one of over 400 national parks across America. Says Candy Harrington, author of Barrier-Free Travel; Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks for Wheelers and Slow Walkers, “You’d be amazed at how many freebies are out there — from free admission and tours, to special programs and even transportation. The real secret is knowing about them though, as some deals are widely publicized, while others are closely guarded secrets.”
With that in mind, here are Candy’s top 10 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 members of the military 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 branches of the military — including reservists and National Guard members — and it has the same benefits as the Access Pass.
- Many national parks have free cell phone tours. For example, In Olympic National Park, visitors can call (360) 406-5056 to get recorded information on different areas of the park. 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 many times they have manual wheelchairs for loan.
- Some national parks offer free tours on a first-come basis. Over in Zion National Park 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 National Park, a ranger clued me in 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.
- 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 ranger. It’s a fun way to encourage kids to learn about the natural environment while they explore 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 the national 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.
Barrier-Free Travel; Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks for Wheelers and Slow Walkers includes detailed access information about trails, sites and attractions in two popular Washington state national parks. Information on accessible lodging in and near the parks and lots of accessible room photos are also included. Available at www.BarrierFreeOlympic.com it’s a good choice for seniors, parents with stroller-aged children, Baby Boomers, folks who need to take things a little slower, and anybody who uses a cane, walker, wheelchair or scooter.
Candy also blogs about accessible travel at www.barrierfreetravels.com.