Monday was the first of ten fee-free dates in 2017 on which the National Park Service (NPS) invites visitors to enter - for free - the 124 parks that normally charge entrance fees*. I dropped the ball for January, but you still have nine more dates from which to choose, including two weekends in April during National Park Week.
Those 124 parks are among an incredible 413 designated NPS sites in our country, including protected lands in the territories of American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands. That leaves 289 parks that never charge an entrance fee.
Not long ago, I was primarily familiar with only the 59 parks; those that actually have the words “National Park” in their names. Thousands of miles later, I’ve learned that the NPS is so much more. Its purview encompasses national recreation areas, historic sites, battlefields, seashores, lakeshores, parkways, cemeteries, and more. These millions of acres preserve unique geology, resources, and habitats for wildlife and vegetation. By protecting all this, along with designated heritage sites, the NPS allows these areas to remain unimpaired so that US and global citizens may visit them for enjoyment and education.
I've been to only a fraction of those 400-plus sites. Some were planned visits. Others were unexpected gems discovered by chance. Always, I was thrilled and humbled by the experience.
We've been awed by the breathtaking photographs from intrepid adventurers transporting us to astounding vistas found in the national parks. For many of us those extreme locations may indeed be out of reach. I implore you, don't be discouraged. One does not have to be an elite athlete or seasoned outdoorsman to experience the wonders and the history curated by the NPS. No matter a visitor’s level of physical fitness, the NPS makes every effort to ensure everybody finds a way to enjoy the parks. There are paved areas that accommodate wheelchairs, trails designed for short easy strolls, scenic drives, and visitors’ centers stocked with fascinating information.
I love a road trip but, not everyone does. When you're ready to plan your visit, research will yield vacation packages by air, bus, or rail. Activities and campsites for the weekend warriors. Boondocking or for-fee sites for RVers. Programs for children. Tours for adventure-seekers of all levels conducted by private companies, with experienced guides, to primitive hiking and camping in back country areas. One such outfit has been highly recommended by a trusted source. My baby sister. She booked an excursion with Shoestring Adventures in California and absolutely loved her very first camping experience.
Visiting a national park doesn't have to limit your accommodations to a tent or an RV. Should you wish to be separated from nature by more than a few yards of lightweight fabric, you have options inside and outside the parks. Close to park entrances I've stayed in hotels and vacation rentals. Inside park boundaries, the charming rooms of historic lodges in Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Big Bend. Recently, I've preferred Airbnb properties outside the parks whenever possible. This, currently, has proven to be the most cost effective option for me - until I get that RV that I want!
To escape to a national park is to find your place on earth, your connection to the planet. There is nothing that restores my perspective as does immersion in the vast beauty of those protected lands. Surrounded by such wilderness there is no other recourse than to embrace how very small I am in the world. In those temples of nature my sins and weaknesses are absolved, my soul redeemed.
A metamorphosis. Every time.
*Costs for camping, reservations, tours, and concessions are not typically waived; check first with the park you're interested in exploring.
Views of my visits to Joshua Tree, Saguaro, and Big Bend National Parks