How to plan your National Parks vacation and save money


If you love vacations full of nature and incredible sights, a trip to one or more of our glorious national parks might be just right for you. All across the country, you can experience the land as it once was through the preservation efforts of the National Parks Service.

Some of the parks are more heavily trafficked than others, and with good reason; namely, they’re absolutely stunning. Here are the top three best national parks destinations, and a good ways to save with a national park pass if you go.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This park is located in North Carolina and Tennessee and features scenic highways and over 800 miles of hiking trails. The Great Smoky Mountains reaches a towering height of nearly 7,000 feet and the range is famous for its mystical and smoky haze. The Smokies are America’s most visited national park for good reason. The combination of exquisite mountaintops, forests, waterfalls, and sunsets create breathtaking vanishing points along the horizon and truly make this park a must-see. It’s a favorite for people who would prefer to drive through a park rather than walking. Visitors can go on an auto tour on historic park roads as they take in lovely panoramic views. A couple of popular roadways are Newfound Gap Road, Clingmans Dome Road, and Balsam Mountain Heintooga Ridge Road.

To learn more about scenic drives in the Smokies, click here.

Grand Canyon National Park

As the name suggests, this park is home to the iconic Grand Canyon. 6.2 million people visited the mile-deep hole in 2017, and it’s Arizona’s most famous vacation destination. Word of warning: the fame often means large crowds at the choicest viewing spots. Located on the South Rim of the Canyon, Desert View Drive is a large scenic road which runs through to Route 64, passing by many picturesque points and trails along the way. There are five unmarked pullouts along Desert View Drive as well the Tusayan Museum, which includes a bookstore and gift shop. If you are a sunset/sunrise junkie, Yaki Point is where you want to visit. Unless you want to park your car and walk, this spot is only accessible through the Orange Shuttle which departs from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Yaki Point is a Grand Canyon-favorite because of breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, and the tranquility that comes along with them as visitors take in all of the Canyon’s beauty.

There are plenty of other great points and stops to visit at the Grand Canyon. Visit the US National Parks Service Website if you would like more information about them.

Zion National Park

The highs and lows in Utah’s Zion National Park are equally as beautiful. You can check out the famous canyons, cliffs, rock towers, and other topography that makes that park such a popular destination. To begin with, Zion Canyon Drive is a good place to start if you want to “car hike” through some of the park’s famous landmarks. Considered the shortest trail in the park, consider visiting the Court of the Patriarchs – a set of majestic sandstone cliffs that are nothing short of grandeur. This sight is housed in the Upper East Canyon is the Zion Canyon Overlook Trail, an easily accessible high-altitude overlook with vast panoramic views. Another great leisurely hike is the Emerald Pools Trail which you can either visit by Shuttle or by car in the winter. Here, you’ll see beautiful waterfalls, alcoves, and natural pools all around. However, the Emerald Pools can get quite crowded in the summertime so visiting either early or later in the day is recommended.

National Parks Pass: Worth It?

Few things in life are free, and entrance to our national parks is no exception to the rule. You’ll likely have to pay for a vehicle permit and potentially pay day use or other fees charged at various parks.

There are a couple ways to save big on national park fees, though. Some parks offer free admittance on certain days or weekends, so you could plan your visit around those days. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Veteran’s Day are free entrance days. You can check for a full list of which parks offer free admittance here.

The Parks Service also offers a national parks passes that waive vehicle permit and day use fees at over 2,000 national parks sites nationwide. plus may also give a discount on other fees. To start with, there’s an annual pass that is priced at $80/person and is available to anyone. Members of the U.S. Military are eligible for free annual passes, as are fourth graders (this is known as the annual 4th Grade Pass). Senior citizens age 62 and above can choose to purchase annual passes for $20 or lifetime passes for $80. In addition, access passes are available for those with disabilities, as are volunteer passes among certain restrictions. To see what kind of pass you qualify for, check out the National Parks Service Page below.

National Park Tours

If you’re looking to obtain a full experience of America’s National Parks, consider going on a national park travel tour. Companies such as Cosmos and Vacations by Rail offer a collection of escorted national park tours. For example, Cosmos hosts a Highlights of the Canyonlands tour where travelers stay overnight insight the Grand Canyon National Park. Not to mention, Vacations by Rail sends tourists to popular parks like Glacier National Park and the Grand Canyon via iconic rail routes. Whether you are interested in visiting the wonders of America’s national parks on a separate trip or through a travel tour, it’s good to know your options when planning a vacation so you can optimize your experience.

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