Visiting all of the United States’ hundreds of national parks is a great bucket-list item, and an experience not soon forgotten. Driving around to and staying in each of the parks can get expensive if you’re not prepared. Here’s the cost breakdown for visiting all the parks in the lower 48 states.
Buy the annual pass
The National Park Service offers annual passes that cover entrance fees to all of the nation’s national parks. The pass costs $80, which may seem like a substantial amount to spend at first. However, compared with the entry fees at various parks (some of which charge $20 per car), the annual pass is one heck of a bargain.
While purchasing the annual pass at one of the parks’ offices is an option, it’s better to get it over the phone or on the internet, since not all parks sell passes.
Plan your route well
For a National Parks road trip, plan an efficient circular route of the states that will minimize spending on gas. If you live in or want to begin your journey in the South, it’s best to start by covering your own region in early spring before gas prices rise and the tourist rush of summer sets in. This will also allow for nicer weather once you reach the North.
If you live in the upper parts of the states, you’ll want to start exploring your part of the country toward the end of summer, when gas prices begin to drop and tourists start clearing out. The weather will then be more accommodating to your travels once you begin to head south.
Also, avoid passing through or stocking up in big cities. Though in some instances it may look like the most direct way to travel, you will be more likely to hit traffic, resulting in spending more on (more expensive) gas. Better take that upstate route and avoid New York City when you drive to Acadia.
Camp the smart way
Unless you want to spend $20 a night camping, you’ll want to pitch your tent outside national parks. Fortunately, there are plenty of national forests, grasslands, and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) sites that accommodate free camping (you can find many of these at www.freecampgrounds.com).
This style of camping is called dispersed camping. You set up for the night in a legal area that doesn’t have fees (or other campers). While you won’t be able to enjoy some amenities like parking lots and fire pits, you certainly won’t have to worry about your money going to waste. These areas typically surround national parks, so by and large your camping costs will be limited to multi-day trips between parks in areas without federal land available.
Cooking, camping and hygiene supplies
Before taking on the parks, be sure to get all the gear you need—toiletries, cooking utensils, and camping equipment. While you most likely already own some of the appropriate gear (like blankets and cooking pots), you will definitely need to make some purchases to have the most comfortable experience possible while you’re living outdoors.
If you’re traveling with more than two people, purchasing a tent is a must. Tent-pitching supplies, as well as utility gear like a multi-tool (a Swiss Army Knife is an example of this), are necessities. Another thing to take into consideration is the weather—for as much time as you’ll spend outdoors, it’s important to buy a raincoat and heavy jacket if you don’t have one already.
A weekly laundry budget for going into nearby towns to clean your clothing and gear is important, too—this will cost around $8.00 per week you are camping. You’ll also want to make sure you budget for a supply of toiletries like deodorant and toothpaste, which will cost different amounts depending on how long you are on the road.
Cook your own food
The best way to stretch your dollar when it comes to food is to cook it yourself. When drawing up your budget, plan to spend $5 per person per meal for each member of your group. That’s the absolute minimum you’ll typically need to buy food to cook for yourselves.
There is a lot of variance with this, and how much you’ll need will change based on where you are buying food. The larger your group gets, the more bang you’ll be able to get for your buck as well, because you’ll be more able to buy in bulk. Since you’ll be taking a cooler, you can cook more than you need and have leftovers for future meals. Be sure to also stock up on snacks for days of long driving and walking.
Traveling rarely goes as planned. Tornado warnings may occur near your campsite. Maybe your car has problems, or you get sick. In moments like these, you’ll be thrilled to have a little extra money saved—so that you won’t have to sweat it.
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