National Park Fee Free Days

National Park Fee Free Days

The first time I learned about the National Park Service’s entrance fee free days was purely through luck during the fall of 2005. Taking advantage of the 3 day weekend from college courses created by Veteran’s Day falling on a Friday, my husband (then boyfriend) and I took a road trip from Missoula, MT over to Yellowstone National Park.

When we arrived at the North entrance to Yellowstone in between Gardiner, MT and Mammoth, WY, the park ranger at the gate informed us that no fees were being collected that day in recognition of Veteran’s Day (one of the National Park Service’s entrance fee free days that year). He gave us some complimentary maps, along with general park information and wished us happy trails as we set off on our whirlwind trip around Yellowstone.

The National Park Service entrance fee free days were created to increase access opportunities to these American treasures for all people and promote the advantages of outdoor recreation for public enjoyment and benefit. Entrance fee free days typically coincide with significant holidays or days of recognition, commemoration and/or celebration.

family of 4 hiking the hell roaring trail in yellowstone on National Park Fee Free Days.

2023 National Park Fee Free Days

In 2023, there are 5 entrance fee free days to the National Parks being offered:

  • January 16th- Martin Luther King Day
  • April 22nd- the first day of National Park Week
  • August 4th- anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
  • September 23rd- National Public Lands Day
  • November 11th- Veteran’s Day

Planning your next family adventure to coincide with a entrance fee free day is a great way schedule your visit to a national park or monument. It can help you to plan out your trip in advance and potentially reduce your trip costs.

Keep reading for more tips on visiting the National Parks and Monuments!

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mom and dad holding infant in front of yellowstone national park sign on National Park Fee Free Days

Why Visit A National Park or Monument?

National parks and monuments are AWESOME! Why are they awesome?

National Park Sites Are Unique

What I appreciate about the National Park Service system is that there are over 400 unique and special National Park sites scattered throughout the United States. Each one preserves and protects unique scenic landscapes, scientific and natural features (flora, fauna, geology, etc), recreational access, or the location of historically and/or culturally significant people, sites or events.

The National Park Service system includes national monuments and national recreation areas as well. The difference between national parks, monuments and recreation sites typically correlates to how and why an area is protected.

National Parks are designated by Congress and tend to protect scenic, inspirational, educational or recreational values. National monuments can be designated by presidential proclamations and protect objects of historical, cultural and scientific interest.

National Park Sites Are Worthy of the Great American Family Roadtrip

Many a family road trip of mine growing up included visiting national parks and monuments of the western United States. In particular, the national park sites that stand out in my memory are:

picture from the 1990s on left with young girl in the painted hills compared to picture on the right from 2021 of the same girl as an adult with her family in the painted hills.

Highlights of the national parks for me include:

I have many special memories from visiting the national parks with my parents, grandparents, husband, friends, and now my kids too. My dad loves visiting national parks and would drive our family HOURS allover the country to experience them.

Children of All Ages Can Become Junior Rangers!

Of course, another incentive to visit the national parks with your kids is so they can become a Junior Rangers! By completing certain activities while visiting a national park, sharing their experiences and answering questions to a park ranger, youth can receive a patch or badge and certificate.

The point of the program is to help youth learn about the national parks so they take an interest protecting the landscape, resources and history of a park, and then share their stories and experience from a park with their family and friends. It’s a fun way to engage youth, the future stewards of our planet.

A collection of national park service junior ranger patches and badges.

What Do National Park Entrance Fee Free Days Entail?

Of the roughly 419 national parks, only 116 of them charge an entry free to enter. So the majority of national parks and monuments are FREE to visit EVERY DAY!!!

However, of the national parks and monuments that typically DO charge an entry fee (like Yellowstone or Glacier), as is implied, entrance fee free days are days when NO entry fee is collected.

However keep in mind, even if the entry to a national park or monument is waived for the day, that does not mean other fees within the park or monument are waived. Other National Park Service site fees could include activity fees for camping, boat launch, transportation or tours.

It is also important to remember that the specific fee free days recognized by the park service change annually. The fee free days tend to correlate with either a federally recognized holiday or day of recognition or importance, so fee free days do not always occur on the same day each year (for example, a fee free day tends to not correlate annually with November 5th, but it usually does correlate with the Veteran’s Day holiday).

Family camping at Olympic National park with tent set up on beach.

Visiting A Park Site On A Fee Free Day

Since I used to live very close to Yellowstone National Park, two of my kids made their first trips to Yellowstone when they were around two weeks old. However, it wasn’t until last summer while I was pregnant with my third baby, that I took advantage of a fee free day with my kids.

Despite living right in between Mount Rainier National Park and Mount St. Helens Volcanic Monument, I very rarely visit these places, but, decided that my kids need to experience these national treasures too in order to grow an appreciation for them. So despite being somewhere in the third trimester of my pregnancy, I decided we were going hiking up at Mount Rainier for the day.

I’d never visited Mount Rainier through the White River Entrance on the north east side, so that’s where I set my sights. When I arrived I was sort of worried since there seemed to be a steady stream of traffic already filtering into the park for the day.

toddler hiking single track trail at mount rainier national park

However, lucky for us, as we headed up the road I quickly found a parking spot at Sunrise Point which was almost completely full. We parked, scanned the beautiful view and then took off on an adventure down the Palisade Lakes Trail.

We ventured down to Hidden Lake and then out to Clover Lake which was around 2 miles from our parking location. Despite an immediate descent within the first 1/2 mile to Hidden Lake, the rest of the hike was relatively flat and gradual which was perfect for my 4 and 2 year old hiking buddies.

My 2 year old set the pace and the highlight for the kids was that they got to have a picnic lunch and play in the water at Clover Lake before we turned around and headed back to our parking location. I had a couple highlights.

One, being that most other visitors only ventured around 1/4th mile from Sunrise Point before turning around and this meant that we had the trail mostly to ourselves. The second, being that this was the first hike that my 2 year old did almost completely on her own without wanting to be carried in a pack!

I didn’t even bring along my Osprey kid carrier just in case! If your little hikers are still in training or too small to cover ground on their own yet, check out these recommended kid carriers from the Tales of a Mountain Mama team!

I really enjoyed this easy hike with my kids and hope to visit the area again this year, but maybe make it a little further down the trail so we can visit the next lake, Dick’s Lake!

toddler boy and toddler girl hiking singletrack hiking trail in alpine area of mount rainier national park.

Things to Remember When Visiting National Parks and Monuments

There are a couple things to keep in mind when visiting national parks and monuments. National parks have increased in popularity in recent years, some more so than others.

The Most Visited National Parks

In 2022, the most visited National Park Service sites were:

If visiting a national park or monument on a fee free day, be prepared for potentially contending with increased crowds. National parks in closer proximity to larger population centers and urban areas experience this increased influx of visitors on fee free days and weekends more so than parks and monuments further off the beaten path.

boy leaning against wooden sign marking hiking trail at great smoky mountain national park.

Vehicle Reservations to Enter National Park Sites

With the elevated visitor numbers in recent years, some national parks have also implemented a vehicle reservation system to limit the number of visitors to certain parts of parks each day. Although I understand the reasoning for the limiting visitor numbers to protect park resources and enhance the visitor experience by limiting crowds, I’m not particularly a fan of this advanced reservation system.

Sure, it makes sense for families who have an itinerary or scheduled a trip in advance. Of course they want to guarantee that if they’re doing the trip of a lifetime that their lodging and recreational pursuits are guaranteed.

For the off the cuff, fly by the seat of your pants families like mine that can’t schedule trips in advance due to variable and irregular work schedules, it stinks.

Last summer while on an impromptu road trip in northwestern Montana, my family made the trek up to Polebridge, Montana which sits near the North Fork entrance to Glacier National Park. We planned to snag delectable huckleberry pastries at the Polebridge Mercantile before going on a day hike in the park.

However, the very nice park ranger at the gate informed us that without a vehicle reservation, we could not enter the park through that entrance. He did say if we returned after 3pm in the afternoon, then yes we could drive in to visit, but that wouldn’t work with our schedule so we instead enjoyed our huckleberry pastries while walking a short interpretative trail near the Polebridge Mercantile instead.

2 girls standing on sandstone looking at the cliff dwelling homes in mesa verde national park

Timed Entry Tickets to Enter National Park Sites

TMM team member Jamie Melton visited Arches National Park with her family during the April 22nd fee free day in 2023. She managed to snag a timed entry ticket no problem when they were released at 6pm the previous evening.

Her reservation was for 8am and she was glad they didn’t plan for any later because the park ended up very busy that day, but whether the crowds were due to association with a fee free day or seasonality, she was unsure. I have visited Arches and Canyonlands National Parks both during the in the winter months and both were ghost towns when I visited- absolutely lovely, scenic, comfortable temps AND crowd free!

Visiting National Park Sites With Pets

Another thing to keep in mind when visiting national parks and monuments is that if you travel with pets, check in advance to see if pets are allowed and be sure to bring a leash as well. Pets are required to be on leashes when visiting the parks, but some campgrounds, lodges, hiking trails or interpretive sites may not allow them at all, so check in advance!

Mother hiking with toddler on trail in Arches National Park.

National Park Sites Through An Artist’s Eyes

I would love to visit all the National Park Service sites someday, or maybe become an artist in residence at one. The National Park Service Artist-in-Residence program invites artists to interpret the unique features of a given National Park site through their art and share it with the public typically through educational programs.

I’m a fan of the Parks Project which is an official partner to the national parks, connecting funding and support to unique park projects through advocacy, education and art. Check out their stories and consider supporting a project at your favorite national park by sporting some Parks Project art!

My dad always travels with a sketchbook and has created countless sketches of the places he has visited over his lifetime, including many National Parks. He instilled a love of the outdoors, national parks and creative expression through art in both my sister and I.

The opportunity to stay at a National Park site and create art that connects people with that area would be a dream come true for me. Since I’m ears deep in raising 3 children under 5, the next best thing I can currently manage is introducing the National Parks and art to my kids.

National Parks Are National Treasures For Everyone!

National Parks truly are national treasures. Every National Park or Monument I have ever visited taught me something new or introduced a new unique landscape.

The National Park Service’s fee free days help make this dream and outdoor recreation and enjoyment a bit more accessible and affordable to families. So get outside, reset and recharge; national park sites are there for public benefit and enjoyment!

two toddlers hiking through redwoods national park.

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  • Being outside everyday is a lifestyle choice for Domo and her family. She got hooked on mountain running in high school, then stayed outside exploring the mountains and woods as a wildland firefighter, and later as a Natural Resources educator for Montana State University Extension. These days, she can be found wrangling her borderline feral children (Maverick (3) and Ruthiemay (1)) on the farm, or exploring nearby trails of the west. Everything this mountain to farm mama loves is at the end of a dirt road, and besides exploring rural stretches of the west, her passions are art, conservation and agriculture. Sustainable agriculture depends upon healthy natural resources and art communicates where words fail; we realize the true value of conservation when we get outside and let our imagination soar.

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