Photograph by Ben Horton, Nat Geo Image Collection
Read Caption

A tent sits under a rare Joshua tree.

Photograph by Ben Horton, Nat Geo Image Collection

National Parks: America's Best Travel Bargain

A family vacation can get pricey, but you won't break the bank with a trip to one of America's national parks.

It's never been more expensive to take a break. By some measures, a typical family vacation can now cost more than $4,000. But even with the rising price of, well, everything, the most spectacular destinations in the United States—our stunning collection of national parks—remain an incredible bargain.

Don’t believe me? Consider the numbers:

Getting There

Most Americans live within a day’s drive of a national park. Acadia in Maine, Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, Joshua Tree in California, Olympic in Washington State—chances are high there’s a national park near you.

If you’re traveling as a family, $50 for gas is a bargain compared to a handful of plane tickets. And finding a nearby park is easy, too. Visit Find Your Park and click on "Find Yours." You’ll also see a list of national monuments, many of which are just as beautiful as national parks.  

Admission

To celebrate 2016’s National Park Service centennial, all fourth graders (and their families) get free admission to all national parks. But even if there isn’t a fourth grader in your family, the cost of a seven-day family pass at a national park is $30 or less.

Thirty dollars! To put that in perspective, a seven-day subway pass in New York City costs $31 a person, and a seven-day pass at Walt Disney World costs more than $370 a person. Still not convinced? A few years back, the Ansel Adams photograph "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park" sold for $722,500. The cost of witnessing the same scene in real life? Thirty bucks.

Spending the Night

National park campsites often cost about $20 a night. Imagine: For about the cost of two movie tickets you can spend the night in some of the world’s most beautiful places. You can wake up next to shimmering Yellowstone Lake, the snowcapped Teton Mountains, or Zion’s towering red rock formations. Remember that the next time you go out to lunch.

But let’s say camping isn’t your thing and hotels are more your style. Park hotel rooms are still a relative bargain. National parks are run by the United States government, so hotels in the park are generally cheaper than private hotels outside the park.

For example, a room at Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Lodge, located steps away from some of the park's most popular viewpoints, costs $93 a night in summer. A similar room in Tusayan, a small town located outside the park, costs more than $200—more than double. Not surprisingly, park hotels fill up fast during popular travel months, but if you plan ahead you'll save a bundle.

Food

At most tourist destinations, meals are a huge hidden cost. But at national parks, bringing your own food is not just allowed—it’s encouraged. From outdoor picnics at beautiful viewpoints to campfire dinners under the stars, dining alfresco is part of the experience. Not only will you save money—and avoid the long lines at park restaurants—but you’ll probably eat healthier, too.

Activities

Here’s where it really gets good. The most popular activities in national parks—hiking, biking, swimming, rock climbing, ranger talks, campfire programs, stargazing—are all free.

Prior to the creation of national parks, private landowners often charged tourists high prices to access popular hiking trails in places like Grand Canyon and Yosemite. And those people gladly paid. Today, thanks to the National Park Service, those trails and activities are open to the public—so take advantage of them!

Potential Cost of a One-Week National Park Family Vacation

  • Travel expenses: $100 (gas)
  • Park entrance fee: $30
  • Camping fees: $120
  • Food: $200
  • Activities: $0
  • Total cost: $450 ($65 per day)

Next to staying at your rich uncle’s summerhouse, there isn’t a better travel bargain in the United States.

James Kaiser has written several best-selling guidebooks to national parks. Learn more at jameskaiser.com or follow him on Instagram @JamesKaiser_.