The gift that is the U.S. National Park Service just keeps giving this month, with two free entrance days on offer at all National Park Service sites that usually charge to enter this August — including on Aug. 25 and, if you can squeeze it in, today.
That makes it pretty tempting to plan a last-minute trip into the great outdoors. Just don’t expect to have the most popular of the country’s natural wonders to yourself on fee-free days — or any other days this summer — for that matter.
Pent-up demand for travel has sent visits to national parks surging in 2021, with Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park among those breaking visitor number records, according to a June 11, 2021 story in the Billings Gazette.
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One way to enhance your own user experience if you plan to visit on a fee-free day — when you’ll hardly be the only one crowding the entry gate for a complimentary welcome — is to pass on visiting beautiful but busy spots like Olympic National Park and Acadia National Park in favor of lesser-known park service sites instead.
“While there’s no replacement for Yellowstone and Yosemite, there are lots of national monuments and other national park service units that can give you that big national park experience without the crowds,” says Jason Epperson of the RV Miles, website and podcast, whose family has visited over 50 national park service sites during five years of living full-time on the road.
Epperson points to Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado/Utah border, which offers “epic hikes, large canyons and white water rafting” in addition to real-life dinosaur bones for viewing, as a good option for ditching the masses
And while it might be too late to get out there to enjoy free entrance today with many national parks still requiring reservations this summer, start planning ahead for Aug. 25, Sept. 25 and Nov. 11 to take advantage of the remaining free entry days this year at the below less-crowded national parks and monuments offering it (including two favorites that are always free to visit throughout the year).
Lassen Volcanic National Park
About 2.5 hours by car from Reno and less than four hours from San Francisco, this Northern California national park sees just a fraction of the Yosemite hordes. Lassen Volcanic National Park is a hydrothermal wonderland home to roughly 50 black bears where you can spot steaming fumaroles, hook a rainbow trout or dip into a clear mountain lake over the course of a day.
Manzanita Lake is a favorite for kayaking and fishing. And the beach at Summit Lake, accessible from the main park highway, makes it easy to stop for a swim while you’re touring.
Congaree National Park
Primeval forest landscapes await at this South Carolina national park located less than 20 miles southeast of the state capital, Columbia (and about 100 miles from Charleston, if you’re coming from the coast). And entrance is always free at Congaree National Park.
The wilderness here is home to one of the country’s largest remaining intact expanses of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest and is an amazing place to see bald cypress trees, some with circumferences of more than 26 feet. The park is also a Globally Important Bird Area with spectacular biodiversity. The tree canopy is so dense in parts that Barred Owls can sometimes be heard calling in the middle of the day, so keep your eyes (and ears) tuned.
Dinosaur National Monument
Opting to visit a national monument instead of a national park can be a good bet for ditching the guidebook crowds. And Dinosaur National Monument in Jessen, Utah, is a place where the behemoths once roamed in a particularly picturesque setting.
You’re 3.5 hours by car from Salt Lake City and about 4.5 hours from Denver. And in addition to seeing prehistoric dinosaur remains embedded in rocks and petroglyphs, you can go rafting through lonely canyons along the Green and Yampa Rivers within the 210,000-acre park and hike uncrowded trails where sheer cliffs tower at every turn.
Everglades National Park
With three different entrances spread across the girth of South Florida, Everglades National Park—the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S.—makes it easy to spread out and escape any crowds (if not the alligators, more than a million of which live in Florida).
Summertime temperatures in South Florida, of course, can be brutal, which does help to cut down on the park’s attendance at this time. Perhaps opt to explore via a shaded boat ride from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center near Naples or a tram ride from the Shark Valley Visitor Center instead of a full-sun stroll along the admittedly excellent Anhinga Trail near Homestead.
Wind Cave National Park
In the southwestern reaches of South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park is “one of the very best places to see bison, elk and prairie dogs without waiting in the Yellowstone traffic jams,” said Epperson. And it’s another national park that never charges an entry fee to visit yet remains uncrowded for most of the year.
The park is home to the eponymous Wind Cave, one of the longest and most complex caves in the world that’s named for the air pressure system created by barometric winds at its entrance (yes, you can feel it!). You can enter the cave during ranger-led tours only, but there are plenty of other exterior hiking trails to enjoy, too, if that sounds a bit too claustrophobic.
Isle Royale National Park
Ferries and seaplanes carry visitors from points in Minnesota and Michigan to this splendid national park on an island in Lake Superior. An International Biosphere Reserve, Isle Royale National Park is home to beavers, moose, gray wolves, mink and many more animals–and on most days, anyway, far more of them than any human visitors.
You can explore via a day hike on a short visit or stay longer to paddle miles of waterways within the park that includes inland lakes, coves and bays.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Here’s another worthy hop by seaplane or boat where the national park fees are being waived over the course of six days in 2021.
Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park makes for one of the most amazing day trips from Key West (the park is about 70 miles west of Duval Street), with some of Florida’s best snorkeling within the 100-square-mile park that’s almost entirely underwater.
The thing to see topside in the Dry Tortugas, beyond the park’s pristine strip of white sand beach, is the 19th century Fort Jefferson–a huge coastal fortress at the park made from millions of reddish bricks that contrast to dazzling effect with the surrounding turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The bottom line
Wherever you choose to visit within the National Park Service’s portfolio, said Epperson, remember that most people don’t stray more than 100 feet from the roadside within the national parks. “Even big popular places have plenty of places to get away,” he said. You can see the entire list of participating parks and national monuments that are waiving entrance fees in 2021 here.
Featured photo of Lassen Volcanic National Park by Stass Gricko/500px/Getty Images.