This gives you free entry to national parks like Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains
Free entry to national parks like Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains might sound too good to be true. After all, America’s great outdoors is home to some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country, and entrance fees are part of the government’s way of preserving these important natural, historical, and cultural sites. However, to ensure accessibility for all, there are a number of programs that allow visitors free entry to national parks and also state sites.
National parks offer free entry across the network on select days — about one per season, and the 2023 days are fast approaching — as well as other ways to get free passes, including a volunteer program. State parks have various fee waivers, with some offering free entry to certain groups (like children, seniors, or the military) and others simply welcoming all visitors for free.
Below we share all the tricks to get into national parks and state parks without opening your wallet.
This article has been updated with new information since the original publication date.
Free entry to national parks
The national park system offers all visitors a number of free admission days each year and grants access to its 423 sites. The first of these dates is Monday, January 16, the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. — which also serves as a service day in the national parks, with opportunities for volunteers to help with service projects.
There are four additional free dates in 2023: April 22 for the first day of National Parks Week, August 4 for the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act, September 23 for National Public Lands Day, and November 11 for Veterans Day. (The full list of annual dates is available on the NPS website.)
In addition, a free military pass is available for current US service members and their dependents. Those who qualify may present their ID cards (Department of Defense, Veteran Health, or Veteran) or show the veteran designation on their state-issued ID or obtain a passport online (with a $10 processing fee). Gold Star families and US military veterans are also eligible for a lifetime pass.
Another free entry national park program allows all fourth graders and their families free entry for a year through the Every Kid Outdoors program. Students must first complete an adventure journal and will then be rewarded with a pass that must be printed and shown at entry points (digital copies are not currently allowed). Aimed at introducing elementary school students to the countries and history of the country, the fourth grade family pass is available from September of the school year to August of the following summer. Each pass entitles the student and up to three adults in the same private (non-commercial) vehicle. The pass is also available for homeschooled and voluntary learners aged 10+.
American citizens and permanent residents with permanent disabilities can also apply for a free lifetime pass called an Access Pass, which is available online or through the mail for a $10 processing fee. In addition, those who have volunteered at least 250 hours with federal agencies participating in the Interagency Pass program may receive a free annual volunteer pass through their volunteer coordinator or manager.
Free entry to state parks
Eight states offer free access to their parks, including Arkansas (except those with tours), Illinois (beaches charge a $1 per person entry fee), Iowa (except Lake Manawa and Waubonsie), Kentucky, Missouri (camping and tours require reservations and Fees), Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Those who choose to walk or bike in New Mexico’s parks are also exempt from the entrance fee. A metered state park vacation began in New Jersey last May and will last through June 30, 2023. Most North Carolina state parks are free to enter, but fees may apply for certain activities and rentals.