2018 National Parks Service Fee-Free Days


The Department of the Interior has released the 2018 dates when entry to 118 fee-based National Parks Service units will be FREE! Sadly, the DOI has cut the number of free days by half this year, but putting these on the calendar now can support budget friendly travel in the new year. This is especially so if you plan to visit parks with a $30 entry fee, like Acadia, Yosemite, Glacier, and others. And in light of possible major increases in peak-season entry fees these dates are even more important for budget-minded parks travelers.

  • January 15 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • April 21 – First Day of National Park Week
  • September 22 – National Public Lands Day
  • November 11 – Veterans Day

Though, the best deal going for public lands is still to purchase the America the Beautiful pass for only $80. Find out more about this valuable pass here. We’d suggest looking at Avios, British Airways rewards program, and American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards for getting to some of the more hard to reach parks like Glacier and Yellowstone. For a complete listing of parks that typically charge a fee for entry, click here.

As a reminder, any fourth grade student can get a free annual pass through the Every Kid in a Park program that admits them and their family, and active duty military and citizens with a permanent disability can also get free yearly passes.

Which parks and what dates are you thinking about?

Banner photo, Grand Teton National Park, by Derek Wright.

Camping with a Dog: The Best Tips for Fun and Safety

Shared public lands, or what you might commonly refer to as national parks, forests, and conservation areas, provide the perfect opportunity to enjoy the beauty of nature with your pooch. If you’re bringing your pet along, however, there are several things to prepare for, including safe bedding and having a plan in place for injuries -- not to mention finding a park that is four-paw friendly. Find out more in Aurora's guest post by clicking here!

NPS Moving to Require Reservations to Enter Arches National Park


The National Parks Service is considering requiring all private vehicles to have a permit to enter Arches National Park based on time of day during the peak months of March to October. There will be 4 time slots available, though arrivals before 7am and after 6pm will not require a reservation. Biking and walking into the park (the latter being a hard proposition at Arches) will not require a reservations to enter. Interestingly, if you have a campground reservation or a Fiery Furnace hiking reservation, that qualifies you to enter without an additional private vehicle entry reservation. The comment period for the proposed use of entry reservations for is now online. Feel free to comment as you see fit.

The NPS has tentatively decided that the cap will be around 2,000 private vehicles per day. Roughly 75% of those will be bookable (for free) via recreation.gov at the 6 month window. The remaining 25% will be held back for “day before” or “day of” reservations.

The NPS has long been interested in traffic and parking management at Arches National Park. This is a culmination of many studies, some dating back to the 1980’s. Traffic since 2013 has spiked at Arches (and the other Utah parks) and at this point, the NPS feels something must be done. During our last visit in 2016, we noticed it was a significant issue and the Devil’s Garden parking filled up by 9:00 a.m. and the line to enter, as we exited one day at 2:00 p.m., stretched nearly 1/2 a mile back to highway US 191. It will be interesting to see if and how this works.

A free public shuttle system inside the park has been previously reviewed and the NPS has found it to be both too expensive and too long, as it would take a bus 80 minutes to travel from one end of the park to the other.

The NPS does note this will help with conservation, as there are less vehicles on the road and also less illegal parking along the sides of roads and away from parking lots.

Interestingly, a proposed but ultimately rejected idea was to pave the Salt Valley Road and use it as a second entrance in the north by the Devil’s Garden. The Salt Valley Road goes right through the heart of the backcountry of Arches and it was determined to let that land stay as unencumbered wilderness.

Visit parkplanning.nps.gov to let your thoughts be known or click here to visit the direct comment page, the comment period closes on Dec 4th.

Banner photo of Double Arch, by Amy Beth Wright.

Visiting the NPS in the ATL

The Atlanta metro area National Parks Service units distill poignant moments in American history, including the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. As well, the ecological sites are strikingly beautiful, restorative, and ripe with recreational opportunities

Within the city limits, you can enjoy:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site
  • Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
  • Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

A bit further afield, visit:
Little River Canyon National Preserve, the start of Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Find our more in our spotlight on Atlanta by clicking here.

Vacation Value Time: VVT

As fall moves to winter, we’re reminded how valuable the summer season is—long days and short nights, and, in most of the country, ideal weather for exploring. We value summer as a time to explore our public lands, because only 9% of NPS units do not experience freezing temps during the winter. Only 36 out of the 417 are in USDA Hardiness Zone 10a, the first zone that is above the freezing mark. While you can enjoy winter activities in traditional summer parks, like Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain, you are by no means assured you can arrive at your destination; often the roads are closed for winter weather for days at a time and significant snowfall (or lack thereof) can quickly curtail plans. Others physically shut down during the winter, like many of the Boston NPS units. So in short, the ideal time frame to enjoy and visit our national public lands is quite short, which is why time in the April - October months are so valuable and important.

To that end, we think of time as more of a commodity, and describe this as “Vacation Value Time,” (or VVT, for short). VVT is the point at which you’d spend additional money to get more daytime vacation time, whether that means paying for a higher priced plane ticket to spend an extra afternoon in Glacier National Park, or splurging on a hotel room closer to a destination in peak season to cut down on driving time to and from the destination. In brief, how much do you value your vacation time and how much extra are you willing to spend to have more of it?

Trail of the Cedars, Glacier National Park, photo by Derek Wright.

Trail of the Cedars, Glacier National Park, photo by Derek Wright.

For example, we would theoretically spend $90 if we could get three more hours for vacation in, say, Channel Islands National Park. This might mean taking a direct flight to Santa Barbara that costs $90 more than the connecting flight though LAX, which is two hours from the park, with traffic. We “bought” ourselves those three extra hours in Channel Islands by spending up on the flight. If your child or partner has to nap later in the day after a crack of dawn flight, it may well be worth it to spend the extra money for the 8:00 a.m or 9:00 a.m, as with the extra money you are again buying VVT, ensuring you can enjoy the daytime hours together.
Our jobs give us a bit more flexibility on time off so our VVT is perhaps a bit lower than others. For us, we’ve found $30 is a good measure per hour of what we would spend on VVT when planning flights, hotel locations, choosing campground sites, and selecting a rental car or using ride sharing. Everyone has their own unique VVT, and that’s something you need to discover by looking at budgets and the time that you have available to you. A family of 5 with only two vacation weeks per year that align for everyone is going to have a much higher VVT (maybe $75 to $100 an hour) though a retiree will probably have a much lower VVT, perhaps $15 or so.

Now, this is not a treatise advising reckless spending; again, the investment is as it suits the needs of your household. We have simply noticed that there are times when spending extra money to have more time is well worth it, and frugality at all costs comes with its own cost. We feel it’s worth it to take the direct flight that saves three hours of traveling, even though it’s say $80 more for the two of us, as the hours saved we use to tour an extra NPS site. if we calculate our VVT at $30 per hour, that's $90 for those three hours, giving us a time “profit” of $10. What do you think—in what instances would you spend a little extra to have a little more time on vacation?

Massive Increase in National Parks' Entry Fees Proposed


As you may have heard, the Department of the Interior announced on Tuesday a potential increase in entry fees for select parks. The new entry fees are $70 per private vehicle, $50 per motorcycle, and $30 per person if biking or hiking into the park. The new fee would apply to the “peak” periods of visitation and usage for each park, which Interior says will be defined as the five busiest months. Whether this is to be a consecutive five months or simply the five busiest months in the calendar, is not yet known.

Interestingly, the $80 America the Beautiful national pass does not go up in price. 

The hiked fees are to be in place next year at these 17 national parks: Acadia, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Joshua Tree, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion.

The official line is the additional money collected is to be used to pay for the deferred maintenance backlog that has now reached $12 billion dollars.

Sadly the whole reason there is a backlog is that Congress has underfunded the National Parks Service and other public lands for decades. Even more upsetting is that the executive branch's proposed national budget for Interior and the National Parks is to be slashed by billions in the upcoming fiscal year. With proper funding, these backlogs of maintenance would not exist.  More info on the backlog can be found in this excellent piece from Outside Magazine.

With the America the Beautiful national pass staying at $80, that means you can simply purchase this pass when you go to one of the new $70 peak entry parks. With the pass, you purchase one year of unlimited entry into national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day use fees) at national forests and grasslands, as well as lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It’s still a great deal, though we’re a bit nervous about possible increases to this pass sooner rather than later as it’s been at $80 now for many years.

It’s worth noting that National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis from the Obama administration was also heavy on increasing fees to the parks Many parks saw their largest increase in percentages with fees under Jarvis’ tenure. Increasing fees for us to use our public lands is not new, but these changes are a whole new type of fee, based on park popularity not the actual needs of the park. This percentage though is far beyond what Jarvis and previous administrations have proposed.

We’re a bit skeptical of the line that the increase is only happening so there will be more money to fix the parks. To simply address this issue, don't slash the allocation for the Interior in the national budget. These 17 parks are also the most highly visited parks in the system (the one exception to this is Canyonlands, which ranked 28 out of 59 last year.) Our thoughts are that this increase is also an unfortunate and ill advised attempt to also address overcrowding in the parks, which has become a hot button issue for the NPS, as the New York Times reported last month. While some solutions have been proposed such as timed entry tickets and vehicle restrictions (making some parks car free in place of a free shuttle system) none of these proposals have gone anywhere beyond the exploration stage. Thus, this new increase solves two problems for the NPS, the backlog (which should be covered by our tax dollars, since these are public lands we all own) and overcrowding, by simply increasing the price to the point people decide to not go to the busiest parks.

If you wish to comment on these potential changes, visit parkplanning.nps.gov as comments will be accepted until November 23, 2017.

Banner photo, Bryce Canyon National Park, photo by Derek Wright.

Our Guide to Washington, D.C., Part I

There’s so much to see in Washington, D.C.! We’re going to do a quick two-sentence and two-part guide to each of the National Park Service units in the Washington D.C. jurisdiction area, which does also includes a few sites in Virginia and Maryland. Here in part one, we’ll be exploring NPS units that you can visit without a car, either by walking, using public transportation or a quick hop using a cab or car share service. Click here to read the full guide!