Some of the best things in life are free, particularly in national parks. The National Park Service knows this, and so does concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts.
The National Park Service is offering six opportunities in 2014 to enjoy national parks without paying an entrance fee. Those dates are Jan. 20, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; Feb. 15–17, Presidents’ Day weekend; April 19-20, National Park Week’s opening weekend; Aug. 25, National Park Service birthday; Sept. 27, National Public Lands Day; and Nov. 11, Veterans Day Weekend.
“National parks are among the best bargains around anytime of the year, and the annual National Park Service fee-free days give park visitors a little extra cash in their pockets, something everyone appreciates,” said Betsy O’Rourke, Xanterra’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Enjoying the starry skies in Death Valley, watching an early-morning eruption of Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone, seeing a California condor soar over the Grand Canyon…these are the kinds of experiences that travelers will remember for a lifetime.”
And even those things that aren’t free are still an incredible value, in part because every item with a price tag – from guest rooms to meals – in every U.S. national park has the approval of the National Park Service and the commitment of concessioners like Xanterra Parks & Resorts to offer a fair value for services and products.
“Whether it is an activity, a restaurant meal, gift shop purchase or hotel room, travelers are seeking value as well as a memorable vacation experience, and our national parks offer both,” said O’Rourke.
Xanterra operates lodges, restaurants, gift shops, tours and activities in Yellowstone, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Zion, Crater Lake, Glacier, Rocky Mountain and Petrified Forest National Parks and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Xanterra also operates Grand Canyon Railway which provides daily train trips to the Grand Canyon.
Some national park lodges are seasonal and not open during all fee-free days. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, the two winter season lodges are open from mid-December through early March, and the nine summer season lodges open and close on a staggered schedule from mid-May to mid-October. Other summer season lodges are in Crater Lake and Glacier National Park. And in Death Valley, the Inn at Furnace Creek is open from mid-October through mid-May while the Ranch at Furnace Creek is open year-round.
Many lodges offer discounts and packages that help stretch vacation dollars even more.
Here are 10 ideas for free national park activities on fee-free weekends and throughout the year.
1. Wish on a star. Stargazing is a simple, free, safe and inspirational activity for the whole family. Because there is already minimal exterior lighting surrounding the lodges in most national parks, guests need only walk a few steps away from them to observe the night sky in relative quiet. Recently recognized by the International Dark Sky Association and among the darkest of the national parks, California’s Death Valley National Park features some of the finest stargazing this side of Mars.
2. Compare china patterns. The Bright Angel History Room in Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Lodge includes displays of early Fred Harvey Company china patterns, crystal and sample menus. The Fred Harvey Company in partnership with the Santa Fe Railway is credited with attracting tourism to the Grand Canyon and throughout the West by offering excellent food at a good value in restaurants at stops along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway route.
3. Aim high. Some hikers have called it one of the best short hikes in a national park. Though only five miles round trip, the hike to Angel’s Landing in Utah’s Zion National Park is a strenuous but breathtakingly beautiful hike. The view from the top of Angel’s Landing is worth the 21 steep switchbacks – called “Walter’s Wiggles” – and the final white-knuckle half mile. This is a hike for experienced trekkers who have no fear of heights. Take a deep breath at the top. And then look at the view. You won’t forget it.
4. Go low. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin in California’s Death Valley National Park is one of the lowest places in the world. The vast salt flats are typically bone-dry but can turn into a ready-made lake after a big rainstorm. Look up at a mountainside sign marking sea level posted well above the Badwater Basin viewpoint. No, up a little higher. Feeling small yet?
5. Walk in the footsteps of presidents. Six presidents – and Three Stooges – have stayed at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn. It was built for $140,000 in 1904 and is one of the most famous buildings in any national park. A Xanterra historian tells travelers about the inn’s colorful history during free walking tours offered several times a day throughout the summer.
6. Make a snowball – in June. In Oregon’s remote Crater Lake National Park, winter weather appears from October through June, when the very last of the snow melts. Snow in July isn’t uncommon either. Historic Crater Lake Lodge is open mid-May through mid-October, and guests are advised to be prepared for any kind of weather.
7. Discover borax. Xanterra’s interesting and slightly quirky Borax Museum at the family-friendly Ranch at Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park shows how a simple chemical was largely responsible for the fortunes and misfortunes of many a miner, and how it was responsible for bringing tourism to this California desert. Many ancient mining tools, antique stagecoaches and even a steam locomotive are on display.
8. Listen to music. Yellowstone guests can experience free live music on summer evenings in the elegant Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and the Old Faithful Inn. The string quartet concert on many summer nights in the sunroom of Lake Yellowstone Hotel is so popular that in-the-know visitors arrive early for the seats with the best views of the sun setting over the lake. The pianist in the Mammoth Hotel is happy to accommodate requests – and he knows nearly all of them by heart.
9. Travel to the sun. Borrowing its name from a nearby mountain, Glacier National Park’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road inspires photographers, artists and dreamers from around the world. Take a free National Park Service shuttle and settle in to enjoy the views.
10. Spot a rare bird. The Grand Canyon is home to around 75 free-flying California condors, one of the rarest birds in the world. While they won’t win any beauty contests in the birding world, these massive birds – the largest land-based bird in North America – are elegant as they gracefully soar over the Canyon. With a wingspan of up to 9 ½ feet and weighing up to 22 pounds, they are relatively easy to spot.