As far as spectacular nature tourism goes, it’s hard to find more affordable options than America’s National Parks, but by the time you tally up your transportation costs, park entrance fees and paying for your campsite, your trip might end up costing more than you anticipated. If you’re looking for some incredible hiking on a budget this year, these 10 National Parks waive the entrance fees and still offer some of the best trails in the world. Get your best hiking boots on and load up your backpack for some world-class adventure without dropping a dime.
1. North Cascades, Washington
One of three National Parks in Washington, North Cascades is the furthest from Seattle, but at less than a three-hour drive, that’s not saying much. The Cascade Mountains span British Columbia and Washington and the peaks within the National Park are crowned by more than 300 glaciers. This rugged, alpine landscape is home to plummeting waterfalls and green valleys and is almost entirely protected as wilderness so infrastructure and roads are few and far between.
The park is intersected by state highway 20, so you can always drive in without having to pay an entrance fee. The visitor center and Colonial Creek Campground are right on the main road so it’s a great place to start your adventure.
2. Redwood National Park, California
Redwood National Park is actually part of a partnership with four state parks which encompasses about 139,000 acres and protects almost half of all remaining old-growth coastal redwoods. Coastal redwoods are an evergreen tree that lives 1,200 to 2,200 years or longer and reach up to 379 ft in height and 29ft in diameter. These trees are also among the oldest living organisms on Earth and this park is easily one of the best places to see redwoods in California.
While the state parks charge entrance fees, Redwood National Park itself charges no entrance fee nor does it charge for most backcountry camping permits, so you can enjoy several of the best hikes in Redwood National Park, including the 15-mile Redwood Creek trail, free of charge.
3. Channel Islands, California
About 90 minutes off the coast of Los Angeles lie five virtually untouched islands surrounded by a remarkable diversity of rare wildlife. Here you can kayak and snorkel among breaching whales and leaping dolphins, hike with soaring bald eagles overhead and chill out with sea lions basking on the secluded beaches.
Channel Islands is easily one of the best National Parks in California and while you do have to pay to take the ferry there, there is no entrance fee once you arrive.
4. Great Basin, Nevada
Great Basin is in east central Nevada, near the border with Utah, and perhaps for this reason it tends to be overlooked as Vegas visitors make a beeline for the Grand Canyon (which is a similar distance) while others head for nearby Death Valley and Zion. However, Great Basin’s stunning scenery, including the 13,063ft tall Wheeler Peak, bristlecone pines, sage covered foothills, subterranean caves and exceptionally dark night skies make it a worthy destination for your next southwest adventure.
Best of all, it’s all free to access, except for a tour of Lehman Caves which is well worth dropping $12 - $15 per adult on.
5. Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina and Tennessee
Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the sprawling Great Smoky Mountains National Park houses endless acres of lush old-growth forests, cascading waterfalls, rocky bluffs and ancient mountains. Once you’re in the park, you have over 800 miles of hiking trails to choose from including a 71-mile stretch of the world-famous Appalachian Trail.
It’s best known for being the country’s most-visited National Park, so you might be quite surprised to discover that Great Smoky Mountains is also free to enter. However, plans are being floated to charge for parking starting in 2023.
6. Gates of the Arctic, Alaska
Seeking to get away from the crowds as well as the entrance fees? Gates of the Arctic in northern Alaska is the country’s least crowded National Park with under 3,000 visitors in 2020 and one of the most remote and rugged. The vast park lies entirely north of the Arctic Circle and the landscape there is truly untouched, without even roads or trails to explore the glacier-carved valleys where caribou roam and the sun never sets in summer. Just getting to the park, however, requires commitment as you need to either fly in or hike in.
Backpacking here requires strong wilderness skills, stamina and experience as you will be relying on compass readings and topographic maps to navigate and will often be hiking in stream beds and wildlife trails. It will, however, be a once in a lifetime backcountry hiking experience.
7. Congaree, South Carolina
Another quiet National Park lies down in South Carolina along the Congaree River. Congaree protects the largest portion of old-growth floodplain forest remaining in North America and the tallest trees in the eastern United States. The Boardwalk Loop Trail is the main hiking attraction, taking you on a raised wooden path through the swamp and diverse forest, but you can explore deeper into the backcountry with trails made for tree viewing and bird watching, all for free.
8. Cuyahoga, Ohio
Sandwiched between the urban centers of Cleveland and Akron, you might well be surprised to discover the natural oasis provided by Cuyahoga, which may not provide the grandeur of popular parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, but certainly offers the best leaf peeping in the area within its dense forests, rolling hills and scenic waterfalls. There are 125 miles of hiking trails and you can enjoy them all free of charge.
9. New River Gorge, West Virginia
The New River is actually one of the oldest rivers on the continent, and through time has carved this deep gorge through the Appalachian Mountains that is home to rugged whitewater currents. The park is the country’s newest National Park and protects 53 miles of the river and its splendid canyon walls, high cliffs, dense forests and spectacular views that make a natural adventureland for hikers, rafters and bikers, all without paying to get in.
10. Voyageurs, Minnesota
Voyageurs protects four tranquil takes up in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border and while it’s most popular for water sports, its hiking trails range from five day backcountry thru-hikes to short day strolls where you can admire rocky ridges and wetlands.
Depending on the time of year, you’ll need a boat, kayak, pair of cross country skis or snowmobile to reach most of it, so you might pay for transportation but once you arrive, there’s no entrance fee to explore.
Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.
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