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How to Do National Parks on Fee-Free Days

Photograph by Flickr

Of the country's more than 400 national parks, only about 130 of them charge an entrance fee. But even these parks are free to visit every once in a while.

For a few days each year, the National Park Service waives the entrance fee to all of its properties, making it particularly appealing—and downright cheap—to visit those natural spaces set aside for our enjoyment and appreciation. Though dates change from year to year, remaining dates in 2015 include August 25, September 26 and November 11.

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Start making plans to take advantage with these five tips to get the most out of your national parks fee-free day.

1. Have a plan

You aren't the only person taking a family out for a fee-free day, and those parks that drop an entrance fee will be particularly busy on these specific dates. Decide at least a day in advance where you will go so you can arrive early. There will be crowds at the park entrances, and parking lots will fill up quickly.

In addition to arriving early, read up on the park and decide what you want to do. Because it may take longer to reach your specific destination within a park (due to the parking situation and crowded trams), don't try to do too much in a single day. If you're not sure what to do, stop by the visitor's center and talk to a ranger, who can help you formulate a plan based on the interests and skill sets of all family members.

While you're there, ask whether the park has a Junior Ranger program (most of the bigger parks do), which provides additional context with educational activities for kids. Many visitor centers also have a short film that provides an overview of the park, which can help provide guidance on where to focus your time and effort.

2. Scope out amenities

The national park website has extensive information about each individual park, and it's worth taking the time to research what amenities and facilities are available before you arrive. Some of the more popular parks, such as Yosemite and Grand Canyon, have an active village center with markets and cafeterias. But these are the rarities. Chances are you'll want to pack a picnic lunch to enjoy midway through your day, and don't forget to take snacks because options may be limited and/or expensive, depending on the park you choose to visit.

Additionally, some parks offer other experiences, such as horseback riding or float trips. Occasionally you can walk up and claim a spot for some of these activities, but don't plan on that being the case on fee-free dates. If you want to partake in a particular activity with your family, it is in your best interest to reserve your spot in advance.

This also holds true if you'd like to camp in a national park on one of these days. You can make camping reservations several months in advance (this differs from park to park), so be mindful of this if seeking out a campsite.

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3. Not everything is free

On these select days, the National Park Service waives the cost for general entrance, commercial tour and transportation entrance (for those parks that have a pass-through road), but that's where the deal ends. You can still expect to pay full price for in-park activities, camping, tours, concessions and fees collected by third-party vendors.

4. Normal visitation rules still apply

Even though the national parks are free, they are still federally protected areas and all the same rules are still in play. Despite the surge in visitation on this particular day, there may be more employees on hand, but the ranger-to-visitor ratio is certainly not ideal. This means you need to look out for yourself, your family and even other folks so your day in the park is a pleasant one.

It should go without saying that your family should be properly prepared before heading out on a hike, and you should abide by all park rules. Follow posted rules forbidding entrance into abandoned mines or on particular trails, and report violators. Our national parks are available for the public to enjoy, but it's important that we all do our part to take care of them. That can be especially difficult to remember on fee-free days, when there are so many people around.

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5. Consider this a learning opportunity

There's no way to do everything offered in a single national park on a single day, but the fee-free day is a wonderful way to check one out to see if you want to return for another visit. All things considered, the entrance fee at national parks is not all that expensive in comparison to other attractions. If you think you might visit several sites in a year, consider purchasing an annual pass for $80, which allows your family to visit any of the properties run by the National Park Service at any time.

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