If you’ve ever visited one of the U.S.’s most popular national parks, you’ve probably paid an entrance fee.
Some visitors happily pay a small fee to gain entrance for themselves and their families so that they can enjoy a day or several in the parks. But if you’re on a tight budget, you might wonder why these fees are in place, and whether you can ever visit without paying them.
The answer is yes, you can.
Five days this year, all national parks in the nation will open up their gates to visitors without an entrance fee. Keep reading to learn when these fee-free days are this year, as well as a little more about the entrance fees and the purpose they serve.
How Do National Park Entrance Fees Work?
Averaging about $30 per vehicle, national park entrance fees are used to maintain popular national parks, pay for National Park Service rangers and staff, provide public programs to visitors, and more. All national parks charge a per-vehicle fee as well as a per-person fee.
So if you’re visiting Zion National Park during the busy season when the shuttle is operating and parking is scarce in the canyon, you can leave your vehicle at your hotel or a public lot. Then, ride the Springdale Shuttle to the entrance gate, and pay the per-person fee to walk into the park where you can then hop on the Zion Canyon Shuttle to get around.
The entrance fees, whether paid per-person or per-vehicle, are all valid for 7-days from the date that they are purchased. That means that once you pay, you can keep coming back for the rest of the week without paying again. However, the entrance fee only gets you access to one national park. You can’t pay to get into Zion, and then use your entrance pass to get into nearby Bryce Canyon or Capitol Reef.
Each national park sets its own entrance fee. Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks charge the following fees:
- Arches National Park charges $30 per vehicle or $15 per person.
- Bryce Canyon National Park charges $35 per vehicle or $20 per person.
- Canyonlands National Park charges $30 per vehicle or $15 per person.
- Capitol Reef National Park charges $25 per vehicle or $15 per person.
- Zion National Park charges $35 per vehicle or $20 per person.
Why Do National Parks Charge an Entrance Fee?
National park entrance fees serve a number of important purposes within the parks. Of the fee, a minimum of 80 percent of the money stays in that national park. The other 20 percent goes towards helping support parks that do charge a fee.
How each park uses the money raised by entrance fees varies. For instance, in Zion, some of the money goes towards maintaining the Zion Lodge, the shuttle system, and the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. The park employs more rangers and park service staff than many other parks, to help manage the crowds, direct traffic in the tunnel during operating hours, and to drive or direct the shuttles.
Many of the national parks that do not charge an entrance fee see far less traffic than a park like Zion. The 20 percent of Zion’s entrance fees that don’t stay in the park go towards helping maintain those parks to keep them operating for visitors.
Which National Parks Charge an Entrance Fee?
While most of the country’s most popular national parks do charge a fee, the majority actually do not.
In total, there are 416 national parks in the U.S. Of that number, only 116 charge an entrance fee. Besides Zion’s Mighty 5 national parks, many other popular parks also charge an entrance fee, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Shenandoah, Rocky Mountain, Olympic, and the Grand Canyon. You can find a full list of which national parks charge for entrance, as well as the cost of the fee, here.
2020’s Fee-Free Days
Every year, at least a few days are designated as national fee-free days for the national parks. In 2020, the national park service has already designated five such days.
The first fee-free day is today! To honor the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., all national parks that usually charge an entrance fee are free to visit.
If you didn’t make it to a national park today, don’t fret; you still have four more chances to visit this year, free of charge. The remaining fee-free days include:
- April 18: The first day of National Park Week
- August 25: The birthday of the National Park Service
- September 26: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
Other Ways to Save on National Park Entrance Fees
If you want to visit the national parks more than just a few days a year, but are looking to save some money, there is another option; national park annual passes.
Almost all of the 116 national parks that charge an entrance fee offer a park-specific annual pass. These vary in price, ranging from as little as $20 to up to $70.
However, if you plan to visit more than one national park in the space of a year, this park-specific pass won’t do you much good. Instead, the America the Beautiful Pass is a better choice. For $80, the America the Beautiful Pass allows entry for one cardholder and up to 3 additional passengers in the same car entry to any national park for free for a year. You’ll also get entry to other federally managed properties, like battlefields, forests, and more. To learn more about the pass and its options and benefits, check out this guide next.