Tips for an Affordable National Park Vacation

loved my recent vacation to four National Parks: Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon and Mesa Verde.  The problem for me and a lot of people, though, is money.  I have two jobs to pay tuition, rent, etc., but I still like to travel occasionally.  National Parks can be money pits if you don’t know what to look out for, so here are a few tips…

  • Some parks have gas stations and some don’t.  Those that do charge an exorbitant amount of money per gallon, and if you run out of gas in the park, it can be even worse.  A ranger in Mesa Verde NP mentioned they charge $35 per gallon if they have to bring you any gas.
  • If you’re planning on visiting just one National Park, it’s cheaper to pay the one-time entrance fee that’s good for 7 days.  If you’re planning on visiting multiple National Parks, or visiting the same one multiple times over one year, it’ll be cheaper in the long run to buy either an individual park pass or the America the Beautiful pass which covers all parks.  Some national parks, like the Smoky Mountains in TN/NC have no entrance fee at all.
  • Food is ridiculously expensive in the parks.  Try to bring your own water, snacks, breakfast food and maybe even lunch meats to cut down on costs.  If you’re thinking about eating in the park, try splitting entrees or just ordering appetizers.  I took a large cooler of water, a couple of Dr. Peppers for the road, some lunch meat and several different snacks which would still be good even after the trip.
  • Camping is always a bunch cheaper than staying in a lodge in the park or even a hotel in the gateway city.  I spent $18 on a camp site in the Grand Canyon versus a $100 hotel bill for one night (that’s a low estimate, some hotels cost much more).  If you’re dead-set against camping, try getting a reservation in the park’s off-season when the hotels and lodges are more likely to have deals or specials.
  • National Park gift shops can be money pits if you’re not careful.  Go for 2-for-1 deals on t-shirts or simply opt to buy cheaper souvenirs.  I personally like the retro-looking postcards that can be displayed in scrapbooks or hung in frames.

I had a great time on my trip and I didn’t spend a crazy amount of money.  If a girl working a job on campus and a part-time retail gig can do it, so can you.

One thought on “Tips for an Affordable National Park Vacation

  1. There’s also a lot of options for free camping just outside of many national parks, especially out west. The National Forests allow camping pretty much anywhere, just so long as you follow certain distance requirements (often time posted) and always practice leave no trace.

    Many forest service roads just after Tusayan on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and just past the DeMotte Campground on the North Rim have many pull offs just off the road.

    It’s a different vibe, and you have to be comfortable being without toilets, electricity and a picnic table for a night, but it saves you even more.

    Zion is another place where free camping abounds to those who know it. I’ve got a google map here for those interested:

    Great tips on food and gas, I know from experience how much it can suck buying forgotten supplies in parks. I look forward to exploring the rest of your site!

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