Some of the best things in life truly are free, particularly in our national parks. The National Park Service knows this, and so does concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts.
The National Park Service is offering five opportunities in 2013 to enjoy national parks without paying an entrance fee. Those dates are Jan. 21, Martin Luther King, Jr. day; April 22-26, National Park Week; Aug. 25, National Park Service birthday; Sept. 28, National Public Lands Day; and Nov. 9-11, Veterans Day Weekend.
“Everyone loves a bargain, and national parks are among the bargains around,” said Betsy O’Rourke, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra. “Watching Old Faithful erupt, seeing the sun rise over the Grand Canyon…these are the kinds of experiences that travelers will remember for a lifetime. And you can’t put a price tag on memories.”
And even those experiences things that aren’t free are still an incredible value, in part because every item with a price tag 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, 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.
Many visitors plan a variety of free experiences as well as select a few interpretive experiences to round out a vacation. “It is great to experience a park on your own and in your own way, but a guided tour is one of the best ways to learn about the history, geology and wildlife of any national park,” said O’Rourke.
Here are 15 ideas for free national park activities on fee-free weekends and throughout the year.
1. Skate. Yellowstone National Park’s two winter-season lodges – Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel – feature free outdoor ice-skating rinks. Guests can borrow skates at no cost. Yellowstone’s two winter-season lodges opened for the season in mid-December and will close again in early March. Lodges begin reopening for the summer season in early May.
2. Discover borax. Xanterra’s Borax Museum at the Ranch at Furnace Creek in California’s Death Valley National Park shows how a simple chemical was largely responsible for the fortunes and misfortunes of many a miner, and it was largely responsible for bringing tourism to this California desert. Many ancient mining tools, antique stagecoaches and even a steam locomotive are on display.
3. Write a letter – and actually post it. Old fashioned writing desks in Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Old Faithful Inn draw a surprising number of inspired guests, who ditch their devices in favor of stationery and post cards, pens and stamps.
4. Compare china patterns. The Bright Angel History Room in Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Lodge includes displays of early Fred Harvey Company china patterns. Harvey was the restaurateur who is credited for bringing 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 Railroad route.
5. Watch American Indian dancers. An American Indian troupe performs authentic tribal dances outside the historic Hopi House gift shop in the Grand Canyon during the summer season. Schedules are posted in lodges and other buildings throughout the park.
6. Hitch a ride. The National Park Service offers free shuttles throughout Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks. The environmentally friendly vehicles transfer visitors to specific points throughout each park.
7. Listen to music. Yellowstone guests can experience free live music on summer evenings in the 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.
8. Be a train spotter. Join the throngs of tourists who wave at passengers aboard Grand Canyon Railway when they arrive and depart the park.
9. Watch an otter outfox a fox. Part of the fun of wildlife watching in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park and other parks is discovering the personalities of the park’s permanent residents. Yellowstone river otters, for example, are cagey – and cute – and their clever ways ensure a steady population and a fascinating show for travelers lucky enough to spot one. One employee reported watching an otter tease a hungry fox by repeatedly diving into a river and popping up in a different place once the fox moved into position again. You could practically see the smirk on the otter’s face each time his mischievous moves foiled the fox.
10. Get 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.
11. 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?
12. Wish on a star. Stargazing is a simple, free, safe and rejuvenating 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 to observe the night sky in relative quiet. Death Valley National Park in particular is known for its dark skies initiatives. The National Park Service also offers a variety of free stargazing programs in Yellowstone.
13. 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.
14. 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.
15. Soak. There are two ways to get to the bottom of the Grand Canyon – by foot or by mule — and in the warm months both of them can be sweaty experiences. The Bright Angel Creek running alongside Xanterra’s Phantom Ranch on the floor of the Canyon offers a welcome, chilly and free way to cool off. On any afternoon, you’ll see campers, hikers and mule-riders soaking on rocks and enjoying the cool creek water while staring up at the soaring canyon walls – and probably wondering how the heck they’ll manage to get back up.