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5 Reasons to Avoid Free National Park Days

If you’re a fan of America’s national parks, you may have heard about several days each year where you and other visitors can enter any park for free. But visiting on one of these free national park days may not be the best way to experience some of these incredible places. In fact, it may actually be a day to avoid them!

Let’s take a closer look at why. 

Why Does the National Park Service Have Free Days?

National parks remain one of the more affordable ways to learn, have fun, and get out in nature. However, they do cost some money to enter. This can be a hurdle to some, especially those with lower incomes.

In addition, free national park days draw attention to our national parks. This encourages more people to visit and take advantage of these treasured places.

How to get in a National Park for FREE!

When Are Free National Park Days?

The exact dates of some free national park days may shift slightly each year, but most are regularly held on certain holidays. These include Martin Luther King Jr. Day (the third Monday in January) and the first day of National Park Week (typically in April.) Parks also grant free entrance on August 4 (the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act), September 24 (National Public Lands Day), and Veterans Day, November 11.

In addition, military members and those with disabilities can contact the National Park Service (NPS) to receive lifetime passes that allow free entry to any park on any day they choose.

hetch hetchy in yosemite national park
Many state and national parks and forests offer free entrance days so anyone can get out and enjoy nature.

Do Other Parks Have Free Entrance Days?

Absolutely! Many different state or county parks, monuments, historical sites, state and national forests, and other outdoor recreation sites have days where entry is free. However, don’t show up at one of these places and expect to waltz in without paying on a free national park day. Those only apply to NPS properties. Reach out to other parks or sites to learn if they have any regularly scheduled free days.

Pro Tip: Make entering national parks easier by getting an America the Beautiful National Park Pass. We uncovered the pros and cons to this entry pass!

family playing in stream at yellowstone national park

5 Reasons to Avoid Free National Park Days

So if national parks are so amazing and free days eliminate another hurdle to exploring them, they should be a great day to visit, right? Not necessarily! Here are a few things you may not be considering that might make you reconsider a visit on a free national park day.

1. Over Crowding (Too Many People)

National parks are more popular than ever these days, and plenty of people see fee-free days as an excellent opportunity to get out and explore them. They also overlap with federal holidays in some cases, meaning more people are off work already. This can create a perfect storm for serious overcrowding just about everywhere.

You may struggle to find a spot in a campground or rental. You might also discover crowded trails, packed parking lots, or long lines for park amenities. These issues could strike nearly any time in some parks but are naturally worse during these events.

Friends hiking together in a national park
People will flock to national parks on free entry days, making them overcrowded and hard to enjoy.

2. Fees Help Support the Parks

Our national parks are treasures that belong to all Americans, but keeping them running and in good shape isn’t free. Tens of thousands of people work every day to maintain trails and amenities, educate visitors, and keep the parks safe.

While taking advantage of a free national park day might help your wallet, consider whether you can afford the entrance fee instead. Chances are, it won’t make much of a difference in your overall financial picture, but it plays a crucial role in preserving our parks for generations to come.

You’re not the only one with the brilliant idea to see Old Faithful while at Yellowstone or drive Skyline Drive in Shenandoah. If an attraction is among the park’s most popular, you may have a tough time getting a parking spot or viewpoint on these heavily trafficked fee-free days. Even if you do, you may not have a good time due to the noise, crowds, or other issues. 

So the very thing that a national park is known for might not even be attainable, and will that really satisfy your curiosity? It definitely won’t instill all of the inspiration for which the park was formed.

crowd of people near bison in yellowstone national park
Due to large crowds, there can be major negative impacts on the natural ecosystems in national parks.

4. Overcrowding Impacts the Environment

If you’re like most national park visitors, you probably care about the environment. Unfortunately, cramming hundreds or even thousands more people than usual into a national park can significantly negatively impact nature.

More people bring more trash, which may not always end up in proper bins. Some might not stay on trails, park in sensitive locations, or dispose of human waste improperly. This also puts the NPS in a bad spot, with their regular maintenance and cleaning crews overwhelmed by the number of people. 

5. Bad Time of Year 

Two of the best-known free national park days are Veterans Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Unfortunately, these late fall and winter holidays aren’t typically the best times of year to see many national parks, especially in the northern part of the country or at high elevations.

Even under the best circumstances, you may find yourself pretty chilly. Meanwhile, in other cases, you may not be able to even access some or all of the national parks due to bad weather. This makes several fee-free days somewhat tricky to use, except in warmer climates. 

people at overlook in bryce national park
There are pros and cons to free national park visits. Be prepared for them before you go!

What Are the Best National Parks to Visit on Free Days?

One of the best parts of the national park system is its incredible diversity. With places like the rocky shores of Acadia, the deserts of Saguaro, and the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains, there’s a park for every taste and hobby. That means the best parks to visit on free days are those that fit your interests and desires. 

However, it’s still important to keep the issues above in mind, which could mean avoiding certain busier parks or those with bad weather at the time. In addition, it’s generally better to see a park you can reach and reasonably see within a day. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay to enter the following day, which eliminates the benefits of the fee-free promotion. 

Pro Tip: Want to see some cool wildlife while exploring national parks? We uncovered the Best National Parks to See American Bison.

Top 10 Tips for Visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in the Summer

Remember These Important Tips When Visiting a National Park

Free national park days certainly have their benefits. But it’s crucial to understand the potential drawbacks too if you’re considering visiting during one. In any case, just because you didn’t have to pay to enter doesn’t mean the other rules suddenly don’t apply.

Always pack out any trash or waste you bring in or dispose of it appropriately. Don’t feed the animals, and respect the natural environment that drew you and so many others here.

The NPS provides these days as a privilege. It’s up to all visitors to respect it.

What’s been your experience with free national park days? Tell us in the comments!

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Tuesday 24th of May 2022

100000% agreed. We skip the free days due to the amount of crowds! We accidentally went to Mammoth Cave recently on a free day and there were tons of school field trips there. Glad they're enjoying the parks, but we can go any other day when it's much less crowded!

Mortons on the Move

Tuesday 24th of May 2022

Yes! For schools or individuals who might not be able to afford a day pass, free days are a great option. Otherwise, we're with you about the crowds. We'd rather pay the fee on another day and enjoy more serenity.