National Parks are protected and set aside for everyone in the country to enjoy... but (provided you're not visiting during one of the NPS's many free admission days each year) a visit to one can be expensive. It's $30 to bring a carload of people into the Grand Canyon, or $15 per individual if you hike in, and that doesn't even count parking fees, camping costs, or the price of lodging and extra activities!
However, there are a few National Parks that don't charge admission fees at all. Of course, there might still be other costs (boat rentals, camping permits, etc.) but it's still a lot cheaper to visit! Here's our list of National Parks that are always free to enter and admire:
A state road runs through North Cascades National Park, so it's free to visit! Even if you don't leave the road, you'll still get some jaw-dropping views, but take some time for a hike or two. Visit Diablo Lake, with its crystal-clear, electric blue water, see a glacier, and enjoy the rugged alpine beauty.
Redwood National Park is often lumped together with the various Redwood State Parks nearby, but the National Park is the only unit in the group that has free admission. And, backcountry camping permits to almost every site (except Gold Bluffs Beach) are free, too! Just pack in your gear and get ready to spend the night among the peaceful giants in the forests.
The fact that Channel Islands is free is kinda misleading, since you'll more than likely need to rent kayaks, or charter a boat or plane out to one of the islands, but if you can borrow or bring in your own kayak, or arrange to rent one in advance for cheap, it's worth it. Santa Cruz is the largest island in the park, and it's got tons of trails, the world's largest sea cave, and some historic sites to see, as well as one-of-a-kind views of the coast!
Ancient bristlecone pines, glacier-capped mountains, incredible stargazing... it's all free at Great Basin National Park! If you're feeling fancy, you can book a tour of the totally epic Lehman Caves in advance, which will set you back a few bucks, but with so many lakes and hikes to check out here, you don't need to spend a dime to have fun!
Hot Springs National Park is another tricky one. You'll probably have to pay for parking, since its in more of an urban setting, but admission to walk around and explore is free. The park's visitor center, at the historic Fordyce Bath House, is free of charge as well, and lets you get a good idea of what it was like to come to Hot Springs when it was in its prime. A trip to a privately-run bathhouse isn't too expensive, $30 a person or so, but you can sample the mineral water yourself for free, too!
Voyageurs is another National Park that's free... once you get there. It's mostly accessible by boat, so bring or rent a kayak or canoe, or charter a ride out to one of the visitor centers. There's loads of hiking, but boating among the waterways and islands is incredibly fun. In the winter, you can snowmobile, snowshoe, or ski across the frozen lakes to reach the main body of the park as well.
Ohio's underrated national park, Cuyahoga Valley, is a haven of natural beauty and serenity. Parts of it used to be a toxic dump that was cleaned up, and other sections follow the old Ohio & Erie Canal... in fact, the park's most famous hike follows the canal's towpath. There are waterfalls, shady groves of trees, historic farmsteads, and even a scenic train ride through the park. The train might cost a bit of money, but it's worth it. Pro tip: the park is super bike-friendly!
I'm pretty sure the fact that admission to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free is a big reason why it's consistently one of the most-visited NPS units. Also, it's utterly gorgeous, and easy to get to. Cruise Cades Cove for historic sites and stunning views, hike Clingmans Dome, and explore the mysterious abandoned ghost town of Elkmont while you visit!
A visit to Congaree National Park is almost like a trip to the jungle... except Congaree is in South Carolina, and it's free to visit. The Boardwalk Trail offers great views of the cool ecosystem, with its swamps and forests, and you can canoe around the park as well. Sunrise is the best time to spot wildlife!
Sure, 95% of Biscayne National Park is underwater, but it's free, and it's a totally awesome preserve to visit. The visitor center has tons to see and do: movies, art galleries, museum exhibits, walking paths, boat tours, and a porch with rocking chairs where you can relax and enjoy the views of Biscayne!
Gates of the Arctic National Park is free, but it's only accessible by bush plane, and there are no roads or trails. That all seems to matter less when you consider that a visit here is the ultimate extreme bucket list goal. You get to experience the Arctic tundra, and you'll get to say that you've been to the northernmost National Park!
Kobuk Valley's unique landscapes of sand dunes and tundra, its archaeological sites, and incredible wildlife make it worth a visit when you're in the area. If you're staying for too long, you'll need cold weather wilderness survival gear and skills, and in the winter, you can only get in via plane, snow machine, or dogsled, but it's a snowy wonderland that will take your breath away!
Okay, a lot of National Parks in Alaska are free... Denali isn't, and while it's an awesome park, there are tons of cheaper and equally cool options, like Lake Clark National Park. Brown bears, salmon runs, historic sites, lakeshore beauty, and steamy volcanoes make a visit here super special.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is bigger than Switzerland (it's 13 million acres) and exploring this massive chunk of Alaskan beauty won't cost you a cent. Summer might technically only last two months or so here, but you won't mind the cold as you spot volcanoes, explore ghost towns, hunt for wildlife, and soak in the rugged landscape.
Kenai Fjords is a quick trip away from the rad little town of Seward, AK, and even though it's most commonly explore on a tour or excursion, you can hike the Harding Icefield Trail or go on a ranger-led tour that will cost nothing!