Every penny counts, so here are nine budget-friendly national parks where you can enjoy the natural beauty of America without breaking the bank.
These parks offer a variety of ways to save money, including free admission, discounted camping fees, and low-cost activities:
- Great Smoky Mountains
- North Cascades
- Channel Islands
- Great Sand Dunes
- Cuyahoga Valley
So, without further ado, here are the top 9 budget-friendly national parks to check out:
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park allows you to explore the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains.
Entrance to the park is absolutely free! With over 800 miles of hiking trails, including the paved yet steep Clingmans Dome trail, there is no shortage of outdoor activities.
If you're looking for a place to stay near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this Reddit user recommends Gatlinburg: "There are plenty of restaurants and things to do plus you will be incredibly close to the Smoky Mountain National Park."
"Gatlinburg is very walkable if you stay close to the main part of town. There is another entrance to the National Park in Townsend."
To save on accommodations, another user recommended Sevierville, "Stay in Sevierville, there's always affordable hotels there, you can go through the Park and go into North Carolina."
Excited to try the trails? Forums say this is one of the best activities to do at the park. Here are the top 3 trails shared by previous visitors:
- Alum Cave to Mount LeConte
- Ramsey Cascades
- Abrams Falls in Cades Cove
While in North Carolina, you may want to check out Ghostly Getaways: Uncover The Most Haunted Places in Charlotte, North Carolina
2. Redwood National Park
Although Redwood National Park in California charges a day-use entry fee for some of its areas, entry to Redwood National Park itself is free.
Also, there are several fee-free days throughout the year, like the first day or two of National Park Week, the Park Service birthday, and National Public Lands Day
Home to some of the tallest trees in the world, this park offers endless hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing opportunities.
This Reddit user shared a profound experience driving through the magnificent trees at Redwood, along with a clip of the cozy, foggy drive: "You can feel how small you really are when you get close to these ancient and beautiful trees."
Another Reddit user recommended the "mindblowing" Miner's Ridge Trail when you visit: "If you hit all of the redwoods make sure you do the miners ridge trail. It's a 12.4 mile loop through massive trees and it dunes you on the beach."
"You head north and come back up through fern canyon. I've been on the west coast for 5 years and it's the most mind blowing hike I've done."
3. Congaree National Park
In South Carolina, Congaree National Park is a hidden gem that offers visitors a chance to explore a unique ecosystem with towering trees and diverse wildlife.
You should enjoy free entry all year round with no fees for admission, camping, or ranger-led programs. With over 25 miles of hiking trails, including the popular Boardwalk Loop Trail, this budget-friendly national park has plenty to see and do.
One Reddit user has this to say about the Congaree National Park that makes it worth visiting:
"The forest there has a beautiful eerieness to it, especially at night. The owls are deafening and the spiderwebs are bountiful."
"It is some of the only old-growth forests on the east coast with some of the largest cypress trees that exist.
"There's also a lot of cool history there on how Congaree joined the National Park Service." Another user recommended other activities to try while at the park:
"Try and kayak or canoe the river while you are there. And the boardwalk was so nice. It’s a couple of miles and is accessible to everyone."
4. North Cascades National Park
With over 300 glaciers and endless opportunities for hiking and camping, this park is a great choice for anyone looking to escape the crowds.
One Reddit user swore by the Cascade Pass, saying it's the best for a day hike. The user added that the "Sahale Glacier would be a long day hike."
5. Channel Islands National Park
Located off the coast of California, Channel Islands National Park offers visitors a chance to explore pristine beaches, rugged cliffs, and diverse wildlife.
Although reaching the islands may require a fee for ferries or flights, entry to Channel Islands National Park is free. This Reddit user advised to contact Island Packers Cruises, the park's exclusive ferry concessionaire, and the park's hiking trail maps.
It hosts unique wildlife, like endemic foxes, skunks, lizards, numerous shorebirds, and sea mammals like humpback and gray whales, elephant seals, and sea lions.
This Reddit user testified that the park is peaceful, safe, and has a must-see top view "where you can see all the islands in the distance."
For a convenient trip, heed the advice of another Reddit user: skip Anacapa due to the small island covered in bird droppings and opt for Santa Cruz Island instead.
The user added that Santa Cruz offers fantastic hiking opportunities and a more immersive wilderness experience.
To see the best of the West Coast beach life, check out our list: 22 Stunning California Beaches Pictures That Will Make You Fall In Love With the West Coast
6. Great Sand Dunes National Park
Next up — the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.
Home to the tallest dunes in North America, this park offers hiking, sandboarding, and stargazing opportunities. The park has an entry fee of $25 per vehicle, but once inside, you can maximize these budget-friendly activities:
A visitor recommended sandboarding — a thrilling experience if your body's up for it. For board rentals, visit the general store just outside the park's entrance.
According to user tylerbc, hiking to the top of the dunes, mainly barefoot, is an enjoyable activity. It's a surreal sensory experience as you wander around.
Camping in the summer left a positive impression, especially on kids. Take it from this Reddit user: "Like a giant playground with a mini beach. I was getting sand out of my hiking shoes for the next few days."
7. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Located in Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers visitors a chance to explore the Midwest charm with over 125 miles of hiking trails, scenic train rides, and historic landmarks.
If you're considering a visit, you might have reservations due to its proximity to urban areas and historical pollution incidents. However, Reddit users who've experienced the park firsthand have positive feedback.
One visitor found it a pleasant post-COVID road trip destination, emphasizing its charm. Another highlighted the park's unique features, such as the Beaver Marsh, where you can spot wildlife and enjoy a train ride.
Plus, the park's waterways are surprisingly clean. Another user noted that it's a family-friendly, driveable park with beautiful isolated forests and roads, and people even live within its boundaries.
Learn more about Midwest national parks here: 5 Midwest National Parks That Are True Hidden Gems
8. Voyageurs National Park
With over 500 islands and opportunities for boating, fishing, and wildlife viewing, you can explore the beauty of the Northwoods without breaking the bank.
Not a fan of kayaking or canoeing? One helpful Reddit user suggests alternative adventures that make the most of this beautiful park:
- Rent a houseboat or speedboat to enjoy houseboat camping or see stunning landscapes.
- Enjoy some of the best fishing spots in Minnesota.
- In winter, when the lakes freeze over, you can snowshoe, ski, or snowmobile through the park's outer land-connected areas.
- Hike on some of the larger islands, accessible by boat.
- Canoe across the island's lakes while exploring backcountry trails.
Lodge accommodations are also available around the lake for those seeking a more comfortable stay. The user also advised to keep an eye out for wildlife, including moose, bears, deer, bald eagles, foxes, and beavers.
9. Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park is also free entry for all! Explore the mangrove forests, the Bay, the Keys, and coral reefs without any entrance cost, although some activities like camping or boat tours require a fee.
However, as one Reddit user wisely pointed out, it's crucial to know when the ferries are operating, as they are only used on certain days of the week.
The tides and weather can also dictate their availability. As long as all goes well with the ferry schedule, you're golden! But be prepared and plan accordingly to avoid being stuck on the mainland during your visit.
A Quick Look at the Best Times to Visit
For your convenience, here's a table of the best times to visit the nine national parks in this list:
|National Park||Best Time to Visit|
|Great Smoky Mountains||Summer (June, July, August) and Fall (September, October)|
|Redwood||Summer (late May to mid-September)|
|Congaree||Spring (March to May) and Fall (September to November)|
|North Cascades||Summer (June to September)|
|Channel Islands||Spring (March to May) and Fall (September to November)|
|Great Sand Dunes||Spring (April and May) and Fall (September and October)|
|Cuyahoga Valley||Spring (April and May) and Fall (September and October)|
|Voyageurs||Summer (June to August)|
|Biscayne||Winter (December to February)|
Bonus Safety Tips for Monetary Transactions
When it comes to keeping your transactions safe and hassle-free during your National Park adventures, a few simple tips can go a long way.
From smart payment choices to securing your wallet, these strategies will help you enjoy your trip with peace of mind.
1. Avoid carrying all your cash
Instead of bringing all your spending money in cash, consider other options like travel credit cards or contactless wallet apps.
2. Shift towards digital payments
Many National Parks are moving away from cash transactions, so having a travel credit card (if you're an international visitor) or using contactless payment methods like Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay can be more convenient.
3. Use low denomination bills
If you carry cash, opt for smaller denominations like $5, $10, or $20, as some places may not accept larger bills.
4. Secure your wallet
Invest in a tracking device for your wallet, such as a Tile Pro card-sized tracker, to help locate it if lost. These devices can be a lifesaver.
5. Consider an Interagency Annual Park Pass
If you're an overseas traveler and plan to visit at least three National Parks, getting an $80 Interagency Annual Park Pass can save you money.
It's valid for up to 12 months from the purchase date and can be purchased at the first park you visit with an entry fee.
Are You Ready to Explore Nature's Wonders on a Dime?
After highlighting nine amazing national parks that won't break the bank, it's clear that even the thriftiest traveler can experience the beauty of America's natural wonders.
Plan ahead to take advantage of free entry days and minimized fees. Hike stunning trails, see fascinating wildlife, and make lifelong memories.
Create your national parks bucket list and start mapping out your amazing adventures. Just bring your sense of wonder and a few practical savings strategies.
With flexibility and a commitment to fun on a dime, you'll return home with rejuvenated spirits and an expanded perspective — with your wallet intact.
Venture forth, explorers!