Already thinking about your 2023 vacation plans? To sweeten the deal, the National Park Service (NPS), caretaker of some of America’s most-prized natural and built landmarks, offers select free admission days.
For an added bonus, the waived entrance fees fall on weekend days or pad a long weekend.
“National parks are really amazing places and we want everyone to experience them,” said NPS Director Chuck Sams. “The entrance fee-free days encourage people to discover the beauty, history and inspiration awaiting them in more than 400 national parks throughout the country.”
About three-quarters of the parks never charge admission to enter. But for those that do, there are five free days annually. And there’s something for all tastes and interests. Remember that the NPS, in addition to awe-inspiring outdoor expanses like Yellowstone, Zion and Acadia, includes historical sites and monuments — even big tourist destinations like the Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Mark your calendars with 2023’s free days:
January 16 (Monday): Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
April 22 (Saturday): First day of National Park Week
August 4 (Friday): Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
September 23 (Saturday): National Public Lands Day
November 11 (Saturday): Veterans Day
Other federal land management agencies are offering their own fee-free days in 2023: the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Note that although the parks agency has the power to suspend the fees it collects, vendors and concessionaires don’t have to suspend theirs. Visitors may still have to pay for camping, boat launches, transportation, parking and guided tours.
It is important for people to know before a visit what features and amenities are open and available, especially if interested in overnight accommodations. And remember that weather and seasonal factors can impact accessibility, such as snow closures for portions of some parks in the winter and spring. Always check before you drive or hike into dangerous conditions.
For parks with an entrance fee, the cost ranges from $5 to $35 depending on if the charges are per person or per vehicle. Year-long passes for specific parks are available. You can feel pretty good about that expense, however. The money remains in the NPS, with 80%-100% staying in the park where collected. The funds provide programs and services, habitat restoration, and infrastructure maintenance and repair. Learn more about how entrance fees are used. And certainly upkeep needs can change. Maine’s Acadia, for one, is seeking public comment on a proposal to raise its fees.
If you can’t make one of the dates when the gates are wide open, consider buying an America the Beautiful annual pass for $80. The pass allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including all national parks that normally charge an entrance fee. There are also free or discounted passes available for senior citizens, current members of the military, fourth-grade students and their families, and disabled citizens. Learn more about the variety of passes offered by the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass series.
There’s little doubt about national park popularity. In 2021, 297 million people visited U.S. national parks and spent $20.5 billion in local communities, NPS says. This supported 322,600 jobs across the country and had a $42.5 billion benefit to the U.S. economy.
In addition to their economic contributions, these sites are a point of American pride for domestic and international travelers. Their vulnerability to human interference, the impact of climate change and funding challenges make responsible tourism more important than ever.
In some parks, the melting of glaciers and thawing of permafrost are visible. Along the coast, many parks grapple with sea level rise. And in many Western parks, tree mortality and wildfire activity are on the rise, the NPS says.
In 2021, NPS published an 80-page report detailing new guidance for park managers in the era of climate change. The new guidance aims to help park ecologists and managers confront the reality that they can no longer follow the straight-forward mission of absolute conservation. Instead, managers must choose which park features to save, which to shepherd through radical environmental transformation, and which to concede will vanish forever, thus reallocating resources to other areas.
“The concept of things going back to some historical fixed condition is really just no longer tenable,” Patty Glick, a senior scientist for climate adaptation at the National Wildlife Federation and one of the lead authors of the document, told the New York Times.
Actions now can be key for what’s to come.
In another report, from the United Nations cultural agency known as UNESCO, authors warned that some of the world’s most famous glaciers, including those in the Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks in the U.S., are at great risk of disappearing by 2050 unless global warming is held in check. Some loss might be inevitable given any degree of warming, they added. Glaciers are key to biodiversity, which feeds the planet, and to tourism.
America’s national parks are evolving in other ways, too. Yellowstone, for one, the first to be designated as a national park by President Ulysses Grant in 1872, has recently made it a priority to acknowledge the 27 tribal nations who lived on its land for 11,000 years pre-theft.