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Our National Parks - a great family vacation...and affordable

Jul 27, 2021 | Thomas Smith


Our National Parks are a treasure, and also quite affordable. Learn how to inexpensively entertain your family while also creating a lifetime of memories.

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hiker balancing on a rock

When our kids were young, they had no interest in Disney, or “resort” vacations.  Instead, they trended toward activities that featured wide open spaces.  I fondly remember my childhood visits to Arches National Park, and the Grand Tetons.  My folks were frugal, and I now know money was tight for them.  Therefore, our vacations consisted of “National Park” road trips.

In the summer of 2007, when the boys were 10, 8, 6, and 4. We took a page from my parents’ playbook and embarked on a 7-day road trip, hitting Mesa Verde, Yellowstone, Devils Tower, Little Bighorn, and Mount Rushmore, before heading back home. It was such a rousing success, and so inexpensive, that we decided to attempt the same formula in the winter during our Christmas break.  

We were able to hit Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, Canyonlands, Arches, and Mesa Verde again on a 6-day winter road trip.

The boys loved this concept as this afforded them the opportunity to run, climb, hike, and transform their boyish energy into lifelong memories.  All told, over a 10-year period, we hit every national park west of the Mississippi except for 3 in Washington state.  

As our youngest son aged into his teenage years, we gradually transitioned into more traditional summer vacations, including inexpensive cruises, or beach trips.  However, our kids still speak fondly of those National Park Road trips…which pleases my wife and I, because they were so affordable, yet so memorable!  That said…. Here are some “pro tips” on how to pull off a National Park adventure for your summer vacation without breaking your budget:

  1. Plan in advance.  You might expect that with my vocation, I prepared for my family vacations well in advance. There were several reasons for this:  
    • I am a planner
    • I don’t like surprises
    • We were a family of 6…and we preferred to all be in one room.  If you are trying to sleep 6 people in one room…you’ve got to plan in advance.
  2. Stay in one of the official lodges in the National Park.  This is a big deal and should be scheduled well in advance.  Get organized, look at your school calendar, and try to book 9-10 months in advance.  The rates are VERY affordable, but the largest rooms go early.  There is nothing like staying in one of the iconic National Park lodges.  
    • Most National Parks have several Inns and Lodges to choose from. Go to the official NPS (National Park Service) website for the National Park of choice. Click on Things to do/Lodging. Most National parks sign long term concessionaire agreements with third party vendors to staff and manage all Food and Lodging in the park. 
    • Resist the temptation to simply Google “Yellowstone Lodging”. This search will populate your screen with all of the Hotel and Inns that are adjacent to Yellowstone. You must go to the official NPS website then navigate to “Lodging”.
    • Next you will be directed to the concessionaire website … for example Yellowstone has contracted with Xanterra for almost 20 years. The Xanterra site is the ONLY site from which you can book the ultra-low and affordable rooms in any of the Yellowstone iconic Inns or Lodges. 
    • If the National Park is large (again, for instance Yellowstone), and you will be there more than 3 days, be sure to book at least two lodges so that you can see the entire park without spending 4 hours in the car each day just getting back to your room.
    • Some Parks are small with only one Lodge and might be best viewed by staying outside the park, (for instance Zion), this is where your research comes into play. There is typically at least one gateway city that borders the Park, and affordable lodging can be found in these gateways…but only if you plan in advance.
    • If you are inclined to camp out, you can also book campsites inside the park.  This is by far the MOST affordable option, but this was “off the table” for my wife.
    • Lastly, not every Lodge or Inn at every national park is an affordable bargain. For instance, the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, and the El Tovar on the south side of Grand Canyon, are pricier options for the well-heeled who might be looking for more luxurious accommodations.  Rest assured, however, there are other affordable National Park Lodge choices at every park where a pricey option exists. 
  3. Leave EARLY in the morning. We only planned for 7 days. For my family, the closest National Park of interest was over 12 hours away…sometimes over 22 hours. … Therefore, we planned our trip so that we left at 2 or 3 in the morning.  The kids slept for the first 6 hours.  We timed it so that on day 2 we were at a park.  
  4. Hit the Visitors Center first. Based upon the capabilities and readiness of your family, get the scoop on which hikes/activities/areas are best suited for your family. 
  5. Sign up for the “Junior Ranger” program. Each Park will deputize your son or daughter and give him/her a handbook of noteworthy projects and age-appropriate missions.
  6. Take a hike with a Ranger. These Ranger led hikes are free, and very informative.  
  7. Hire a guide. Many parks are in locales where unsurpassed natural beauty abounds…. especially if you can get a little bit off the grid. Southern Utah, for instance is regarded for its epic sandstone slot canyons accessible only on foot or through specific avenues. On seven separate occasions we hired a guide to escort our family of six into these restricted areas safely.  Do your research, interview your guide, and book in advance.  Please note these guides will only be found by researching the areas surrounding the National Park…not on the NPS website. 
  8. Purchase an annual pass.  As of this writing, an NPS annual pass is $80, and it provides entry for everyone inside 1 vehicle.  This is a bargain, if you are going to visit more than three or four National Parks in one year. For several years, we were hitting 10-15 national parks and monuments a year.  Each visit can cost $35 for a seven-day pass. So, you can see that if you visit three parks in one year, you are ahead. The annual pass covers EVERY national park, forest, monument, wildlife refuge, and bureau of land management sites in the US and its territories. 
  9. Take advantage of the National Park Service “free days”.  As of this writing, there are 6 scheduled free days of entrance in 2021. 
  10. Most importantly….at the first Visitors center you step into…. buy your son or daughter a “National Park Passport”.  This is a by far one of the most memorable things we have done. Each park and monument has a “passport station” with a complimentary stamp to be used on your child’s passport. This is how we know how many parks and monuments we have visited!  I still remember one of my sons making us stop at the Visitors Center for Hovenweep National Monument in Utah just so that we could complete the Utah section of their Passport.  Remember, since we had the “annual pass”, our entrance into the park was free. 

As you can see, we are National Park aficionados. Pam and I calculated that we have been to Zion National Park (our favorite), over 13 times. We have been to Yellowstone 5 times.  Some of our most memorable trips were in winter. Bryce Canyon, with its spires and hoodoos, is particularly stunning in the winter. However, probably one of the best attributes of our National Park system is the affordability it offers a family to enjoy the great outdoors at a very low price point.

I hope this has been helpful, and if anything in this blog sparks an interest, or you want to discuss your next National Park vacation, shoot me an email, as I would love to hear your insights. 


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