Some of the best things in life – and especially at national parks – truly are free. And even those things that aren’t free are still an incredible value.
“Whether it is an early-morning wildlife watching excursion in Yellowstone or a hike along the Rim Trail at Grand Canyon National Park, many times the experiences that have no price tag are the ones that visitors find most valuable because they are so memorable,” said Dave Hartvigsen, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a concessioner in some of the nation’s most spectacular national parks. “And even those activities with a nominal price tag – like enjoying an ice cream cone in the shadows of the Mount Rushmore presidents – are still a great value.”
That’s because all in-park products from food to hotel rooms are priced comparable to the same products found outside a park’s boundaries. This “Model of Comparability” is mandated and monitored by the National Park Service (NPS).
“When you can purchase a hotel room that is just a few steps away from the rim of the Grand Canyon for the same price as a comparable hotel room several miles away from the rim, you can see that in-park products are a terrific value,” said Hartvigsen. “Visitors to U.S. national parks are protected from price-gouging by the Park Service.”
Xanterra operates lodges, restaurants, gift shops, tours and activities in Yellowstone, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Zion, Crater Lake, Petrified Forest and Rocky Mountain National Parks and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Xanterra also operates Grand Canyon Railway, which provides daily train trips to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.
Here are 25 free and nearly free experiences in U.S. national parks:
1. Spot an owl. Or a bear, elk, wolf, otter, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyote, bison or trumpeter swan. The Lamar Valley in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park is often called the “American Serengeti” because of its abundant wildlife. Some good binoculars and a little patience are all visitors need to observe the wonders of the park’s wildlife. Xanterra also offers a variety of guided wildlife-watching experiences.
2. 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 mountainside sign marking sea level posted well above the Badwater Basin viewpoint. No, up a little higher. Feeling small yet?
3. Walk in their footsteps. 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 and recognizable lodging establishments in the world. A Xanterra historian tells travelers about the inn’s colorful history during free walking tours offered several times a day throughout the summer, while Old Faithful geyser offers its powerful display every 90 minutes or so.
4. 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 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.
5. Count the condors. One of the rarest birds in the world, the California condor population dwindled to only 22 birds in the early 1980s. Thanks to a captive breeding program, six birds were eventually reintroduced to the wild, and the Grand Canyon was chosen because of the park’s many cliffs on which the birds can roost. Today, there are approximately 70 birds in northern Arizona and southern Utah, and many of them live in the Grand Canyon. With a wingspan of 9½ feet, the condor is easy to spot when it soars over the Canyon.
6. 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 and elsewhere.
7. 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.
8. Watch a movie. The National Park Service does an incredible job of developing brief documentary-style movies shown in visitor centers. A new movie at the recently renovated Furnace Creek Visitor Center in Death Valley National Park, for example, covers the history, geology and legends of the rugged California park – all in about 20 minutes.
9. 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 largely 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.
10. Be a train spotter. Join the throngs of tourists who wave at passengers aboard Grand Canyon Railway when they arrive and depart the park.
11. 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.
12. Rest. The Mile-and-a-Half Rest House on the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National Park is a popular day trip for park visitors. The walk down is easy for most, but visitors should rest up before the return hike, a steep ascent with multiple switchbacks. The National Park Service advises visitors to plan for one-third of their hiking time for descent and two-thirds for the climb back up to the Grand Canyon Village.
13. Reflect. Although the summer months see the highest number of visitors, most parks feature places where travelers can find solitude and sit and reflect on nature’s beauty. In Yellowstone, a surprisingly small percentage of visitors wander beyond the viewpoints – one estimate suggests only 3 percent – so motivated visitors need only walk a mile or two along a hiking trail to find a tree log or meadow for quiet reflection.
14. Read. The National Park Service loves signs, and it does them well. Signs at viewpoints and pull-offs provide often-fascinating details about the history or geology of a particular site. Signs are kid-friendly, and many parents use park signs as a fun and memorable way for youngsters to practice their reading skills. One of the most famous signs in all of the parks is emblazoned on the Roosevelt Arch at the northwest entrance to Yellowstone, stating “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
15. Watch American Indian dancers. The Pollen Trail Dancers, an American Indian troupe, perform authentic tribal dances outside the historic Hopi House gift shop in the Grand Canyon. The free performances – traditionally performed at pow wows – are staged twice on performance days. Schedules are posted in lodges and other buildings throughout the park.
16. Snap a shutter. The Grand Canyon is one of the world’s most photographed places, and every season has something different to offer both the amateur and professional photographer. During the late summer Northern Arizona experiences its “monsoon season” with thunderstorms creating dramatic shadows over the Grand Canyon. Free shuttles and the Xanterra Sunset Tour ($21) are available for photographing sunsets along Hermits Road. Great sunrise images are often captured from the Desert View Drive.
17. 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.
18. Climb the Watchtower. Building a structure that provides the widest possible view of the Grand Canyon yet harmonizes with its setting was architect Mary Colter’s goal when she designed this gift shop and rest area at Desert View Point. A replica of a prehistoric Indian tower, the Desert View Watchtower was constructed in 1932, and it commands a magnificent view of the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert to the east and the San Francisco Peaks to the south. The interior walls of the tower feature murals by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.
19. Learn how to sculpt a mountain. The 15-minute Sculptor’s Studio Talk at Mount Rushmore National Memorial introduces visitors to the tools and techniques used by sculptor Gutzon Borglum. His legacy endures as visitors from around the world marvel at the figures of George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
20. Listen to music. Listening to music wafting through the lobby of an old hotel has a soothing, timeless quality. Yellowstone guests can experience free live music on summer evenings in the Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. The nightly string quartet concert 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.
Nearly Free Experiences:
21. Become a Junior Ranger. The National Park Service’s perennially popular Junior Ranger program – available at many national park locations – continues to challenge and entertain young visitors. Parents like these programs too. While children are earning their Junior Ranger Patches, they are also learning about the importance of national parks. But don’t spoil the fun by telling them they’re learning. The Junior Ranger program is free in some parks, and others charge a nominal fee. For complete information, visit www.nps.gov.
22. Arrive. A carload of visitors can purchase a seven-day entrance permit for just $25 in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and other parks. The fees collected by the National Park Service go back into the parks for improvements such as the construction of a new visitor center, maintenance projects and a variety of other programs. Travelers who plan to visit more than one park should consider purchasing an annual park pass or an “America the Beautiful” interagency pass.
23. Reel in a big one. Fly fishing is excellent on many of Yellowstone National Park’s rivers, streams and lakes. Anglers over the age of 15 must purchase a fishing license at a ranger station, visitor center or gift shop. A three-day license is $15.
24. Meet the Old Man. Spot the vertical log – fondly called ‘the old man’ that has floated around Crater Lake for more than 60 years.
25. Discover gold. For $15, travelers can tour a remote Moorish-style castle built by a Chicago millionaire and named for his friend, an amiable swindler called “Death Valley Scotty.” Located 50 miles from the Furnace Creek Resort, Scotty’s Castle is a favorite day-trip among park visitors. National Park Service tour guides in period costumes from the ‘30s tell stories of Scotty’s adventures, including the so-called gold mine buried directly under the castle.