The National Park Service reduced the number of free days to address budget shortfalls and aging infrastructure.
Last year, Americans enjoyed ample free days at national parks. This year, the pickings are much more slim.
From 16 fee-free park days in 2016 to 10 last year, the National Park Service now offers just four waived admission dates. And since one of those was Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 15, visitors should circle their calendars for the three remaining chances.
2018 National Park Free Admission Days Reduced
Want to save the price of admission? Target these three free admission days at all national parks:
- Saturday, April 21: First day of National Park Week
- Saturday, September 22: National Public Lands Day
- Sunday, November 11: Veterans Day
For those dates, parks will waive entrance fees for visitors, but amenity and service fees such as those for camping, tours, and boat launches still apply.
According to the NPS, the reduced free days reflect an improving economy.
“Now that the nation is recovering from the recession and the  Centennial has passed, the NPS is returning to a lower number of fee-free days,” NPS spokesman Jeremy Barnum told the National Parks Traveler. “Fewer fee-free days means additional revenue to improve facilities, address deferred maintenance issues, and enhance the overall park experience for visitors.”
But the NPS’s slashing of free admission opportunities represents one part of a potential double whammy that would affect lower-income, busy, and working families and individuals. Right now, the NPS is poised to double, and in some cases triple, entrance fees at America’s premiere national parks.
The Rising Price of National Parks
It’s all part of what Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said is an effort to “ensure that our grandkids’ grandkids will have the same if not better experience than we have today.”
America’s national parks have a maintenance backlog estimated at nearly $12 billion. To cover the cost, the NPS proposed raising the entrance fees for vehicles to $70, as well as reducing the number of free days.
While opponents of reducing free days and increasing rates agree America’s parks need more money, they argue squeezing visitors is the wrong tactic. In a statement opposing the free-day reduction, Center for Western Priorities’ advocacy director, Jesse Prentice-Dunn, took aim at Secretary Zinke.
“Not everyone can book a helicopter or charter a boat when they want to visit our national parks,” he said, referring to Zinke’s travels. “America’s parks must remain affordable for working families.”
Currently, 118 of America’s 417 NPS sites and parks charge entrance fees. Those looking to visit on one of the remaining free days should make plans now. Those dates are sure to be packed with visitors unable or unwilling to pay escalating entrance fees.