What’s more American: loving National Parks or loving free stuff? You don’t have to choose between the two on September 28th, when every National Park will offer free admission on Public Lands Day. It’s an annual tradition to celebrate the best natural spaces our country has to offer, for the best possible price—$0. In the pursuit of maximum value, here are the nine national parks with the most expensive entry fees that you can visit fee-free, along with a few suggestions for adventures and the most affordable camping and food.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Spend the day marveling at Bryce Canyon’s famous Hoodoos and attend a free ranger program like the geology talk at 11 a.m. or a guided walk along the rim at 1 p.m. When you’ve worked up an appetite, grab a pulled pork sandwich for $6.49 at Idk Barbecue in nearby Tropic, Utah. Camping in the park is $20, but true deal-seekers can primitive camp for free on the national forest land just outside the entrance, along Tom’s Best Spring Road.
Glacier National Park, Montana
It’s the shoulder season at Glacier, which means several of the park’s campgrounds, like Many Glacier, transition to primitive camping and cost $10 a night. Fuel up in the morning with biscuits and gravy at Carolyn’s Café for $6.75, and at 2:30 p.m., attend the two-hour, three-mile Mountains, Meadows, and Magic Forest Hike that starts at the parking lot at 1913 Ranger Station.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
It’s first-come, first-served at the Desert View Campground ($12 a night) on the canyon’s south rim. After noon the grounds have usually filled up, but dispersed camping in the national forest outside the park is free. At 8 a.m., rangers lead a two-hour guided walk along the canyon’s rim. For lunch, grab a kale and sweet potato wrap at Harvey House Café for $9.50, a relative bargain for a national park that sees more than six million tourists a year.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Camping inside the park is pricey, but there are bargains in the neighboring Bridger-Teton National Forest. Atherton Creek is a lakeside designated campground ($15 a night), and Spread Creek Meadows has free dispersed camping. Both sites are less than a half-hour drive to the park entrance. Take a free tour of the landmark Murie Ranch and learn about the park’s conservation history, and later dine on a bowl of wild game and beef chili for $9.75 at The Trapper Grill.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Affordable camping is scarce in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, but no-charge dispersed camping exists in the adjacent Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. Try finding a campsite along Bunce School Road, or at the designated West Magnolia and Gordon Gulch areas further south. At 9:30 a.m., rangers lead a free 90-minute walk called “Autumn in the Rockies.” Work up an appetite, because Nepal’s Café in nearby Estes Park has an all-you-can-eat buffet for $12.99.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, California
At Sequoia and Kings Canyon, you can experience two national parks for the price of one. Given that the price is free on Public Lands Day, that’s a pretty good deal. There are plenty of campground options, but Azalea Campground ($18) is centrally located. Real go-getters can hustle for one of the five free spots at the primitive Convict Flat campground around the corner. The best ranger program, undoubtedly, is volunteering at 10 a.m. to help prepare the Dorst Creek Campground for the winter season. Your reward? A coupon for free entry to any national park year-round. For dinner, grab a turkey wrap for $5.75 at nearby Pinehurst Lodge.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
There are a number of first-come, first-served campgrounds for $15 in Yellowstone—Indian Creek, Tower Fall, and Lewis Lake are all good options—that access different sections of the park. Take a free tour around the otherworldly Hot Spring Terraces at 11 a.m. to learn about the park’s geothermal past. Nearby, the Tumbleweed Bookstore and Café offers ham paninis for just $8.50.
Yosemite National Park, California
In Yosemite, one of the best deals in the National Park System is the legendary, first-come first-served Camp 4. Get up before the sun rises to wait in line with the scrappy rock climbers who also want in on the campground’s central location and $6 a night bargain. After a morning exploring the valley, you can’t go wrong with a buffalo chicken sandwich for $8 at Meadow Grill in Curry Village. In the afternoon, take Glacier Point Road to the Sentinel Dome/Taft Point trailhead, where rangers lead the scenic Cliff and Domes walk at 2 p.m.
Zion National Park, Utah
Campgrounds in Zion Canyon are a reasonable $20, but if they are full, huge swaths of BLM land offer free dispersed camping just south of the park. Try the scenic Smithsonian Butte Backcountry Byway, but make sure you camp at least a half-mile off the main drive. Get up early for a bagel sandwich at Deep Creek Coffee Company for $8.50. Walk through the canyon on the Pa’rus Trail with a ranger for free at 8 a.m., and then spend the rest of your day hiking Angel’s Landing or navigating The Narrows.
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