The American national parks offer inspiring, singular sights and experiences to over 300 million visitors a year. Sweeping vistas, historical relevance, and undisrupted natural beauty have secured these sites as powerful magnets for travelers the world over, and in this age of globalization, it’s easier than ever to inhabit spaces previously only explored from the window of a postcard.
Each of the national parks has been tasked with the mission to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” However the parks draw an endless stream of tourists, not all of whom visit with the mission of the NPS in mind. In addition, courageous Rangers and park employees are dealing with an onslaught of disasters both political and natural, as well as consistently and precipitously low funding.
Meager fare hikes at some of the more popular sites have aimed to combat the monetary challenges confronting our national parks, but many question if raising the price of admission will prevent lower-income citizens from experiencing our nation’s natural resources. How do we enjoy these parks while preserving the ideal they were built upon? How do we best keep these lands accessible while ensuring the NPS is able to carry out its mission to protect them for future generations?
Dollars and Sense
Part of the gift that Theodore Roosevelt envisioned was that the wealth preserved in our national parks could be shared by all. It can be pretty easy to decry any rate hikes as going against this aim.
The sad fact is that the National Park Service has been criminally underfunded for decades, the victim of political gamesmanship and buzzwords when in reality, the NPS funding level of around $3 billion a year doesn’t even come close to filling a maintenance backlog of over 4 times that. In fact, the United States gives more than that $3 billion in military aid to Israel alone, a developed nation in its own right, with its own nuclear arsenal. Without delving too deep into the indefensible politics of the underfunded United States Park System and the predilection of old white men for expensive military toys, the rate hikes are a matter of survival and preservation.
However, concerns of the parks becoming exclusive playgrounds for the rich are unfounded and shortsighted. Take, for example, Zion National Park, whose participation in the Federal Recreation Lands Enhancement Act appropriates 80% of its admission fees to benefit itself and distributes 20% to benefit parks where no entry fee is charged. Its $35 per car rate saw an increase of $5 this year. That admission price is valid for seven consecutive days and a car constitutes any recreational vehicle with fifteen or fewer adults (children under fifteen years of age are free). Compare that to a family of four visiting Disneyland for just five days. The cheapest tickets would run you $1190, and another $100 for parking.
Yet even this point is moot, because the NPS offers annual passes to its properties at an absurd discount. If you’re in the Early Bird Special crowd, they basically throw them at you, charging you but once for a lifetime pass and helping you enjoy the golden years while they last. You’ve earned it, somehow, greyhairs, so you do you.
For the rest of us, $80 will get you a year’s worth of access to over 2,000 National Parks, Monuments, Forests, Grasslands, Recreation Areas, and Wildlife Refuges, as well as lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Some state forest programs recognize the America the Beautiful Pass as well. It covers entry and parking for a car of up to fifteen, or four adults on foot or bike, and campsites are often substantially discounted for pass holders. Our pass paid for itself almost immediately.
Overcrowding is Damaging These Delicate Places (And is a Serious Killjoy)
The legendary majesty of our national parks and monuments attracts a dizzying number of tourists, and rightfully so. Their natural wonders are magnificent and preserved for a reason. With each passing year, it becomes easier to find out about their quiet corners and hidden gems. Places that were once known only to rangers, guides and locals now have their own blog posts and Instagram hashtags. Zion National Park now has 30 miles of routes forged by the off-trail meandering of its visitors. Industrial tourism is not just becoming an impediment to enjoying a vacation, but a real danger to these delicate ecosystems.
While we can’t really take credit for the timing of our trip, we’re going to anyway, and advise you to follow our example. Our road trip took place during September and October. While there were still mobs of people, we didn’t have many problems finding a serene moment or campsite, fortunate circumstances, given that our itinerary was pulled out of thin air.
Summer vacation is an easy, if not habitual, time to take a trip, but larger parks like the Grand Canyon’s South Rim or Arches are overrun during these times. If the NPS had kid-friendly anthropomorphic crows, coyotes, and rock formations wandering around these natural marvels, it wouldn’t be out of place. There are people arriving by the busload, making these sites feel more like carnivals than parks. It makes for some interesting developments in what is, for the most part, wilderness. The South Rim had a better grocery store than most of the villages dotting the barren lands we drove through to get there.
If you’re not chained to the schedules of your sex fruit or have chosen not to have any, take your vacation days and go during off-peak times. The views will not be any less epic, and the experience will be that much more tranquil. One might even suggest that a week on the road may be more instructive for young visitors than as much time grinding through an increasingly flawed education system. The parks have a junior ranger program that made us envious for years where we would have been young enough to qualify, and not just for the tiny, dope khaki vests.
When we lucked out on finding sites or dodging crowds, it was largely due to hitting the parks mid-week. The only thing more vexing than waiting for your travel partner to take the damn picture already is waiting for the endless procession of people to get the hell out of your shot. Going to a major attraction in the middle of the week will help beef up the scrapbook while keeping the heart rate down.
Many of the parks have some amazing programming that happens throughout the week. While Bat Flight at the mouth of Carlsbad Caverns may be a little crowded on a Friday, on a Tuesday you’ll be able to have plenty of face time with those heroes in khaki, the Park Rangers. Use peak days for travel or staying the night in tourist towns. Unlearn the rules of the work week. You’re on vacation, so make the calendar work for
you. Use Fridays and Saturdays to recharge your batteries, set up a reservation at a restaurant and snag a margarita. The wonders of the world will be there on Monday, and you can share in Mother Earth’s sigh of relief when you hit the comparatively empty sights.
We encountered lucky strokes more than once on our travels, but it’s not a magic trick we’d like to repeat. The planning may seem painful, but it’s worth it. Most of the major national parks have campgrounds that can be reserved through the NPS website. Sleeping on Bureau of Land Management plots or pulled off a dirt road in a national forest is totally do-able – if you’re into roughing it. If you’d like a fire pit, maybe some water, electricity and a toilet, plan ahead and reserve a spot. There’s nothing better than being able to enjoy the day with full knowledge of where you’re going to sleep that night, and evading the ugly and silent war that unfurls within the cars that are turned away from full campgrounds en masse.
We Want You To Have Fun, But Please Enjoy Responsibly
Unfortunately, we witnessed a number of transgressions against our parks on our travels. Some were relatively small (though I guess that’s a call for the person who has to pick up the dirty diaper) like littering, leaning on ancient ruins, or bringing your kitten on the trail (to be fair, Reggie was little heartbreaker). Some were downright criminal. We watched a man hungry for a souvenir chip away at a rock at Arches. We stopped to confront a family attempting to chop down a joshua tree in California, but their ax emboldened them to ignore us.
When alluding to hundreds of thousands of acres, it can be tempting to dismiss the people heedlessly tromping past fences, signs, and barriers. However, the impact of the constant flow of this off-trail traffic wreaks havoc on flora and fauna alike. These attacks on the fragile environments utilize the scarce funds and time of an already understaffed team of Rangers to deal with their repercussions, resources that could be better spent in the service of anything else.
Take heart, gentle traveler, for there is a way to mindfully take joy in the true national treasures of the United States. The men and women protecting our parks are fighting an uphill battle to protect us from ourselves, but we can help them. Follow the rules on the clearly posted signs. They are meant to protect both you and the wildlife. Place trash in the proper receptacles. They’re everywhere. Adhere to the trails. The maps are free and comprehensive. Do not try to steal the limited, federally-protected (for now) nature. Basically, don’t be terrible.
Above all else, vote with your wallet. With politicians seemingly unwilling to listen to the consensus of the American people and properly fund the National Park Service, the NPS could use your support. The NPS is amazing at making so much happen with so little money; and is exceptionally thoughtful in designing many park elements to be wheelchair accessible, making them enjoyable for visitors of any ability.
One need not be the athletic sort to find something of interest. From camping on gypsum dunes in White Sands, to exploring the tumultuous history of the San Antonio Missions, to touring the depths of the world’s largest cave system at Mammoth Cave, to yes, scaling the summit of El Capitan in the Guadalupe Mountains, there are parks to suit any proclivity.
Purchase an annual pass. Having one of these in your wallet makes that great American road trip that much cheaper. Purchase a park passport at any gift shop and start collecting stamps. You will be amazed at the wonders you’ll discover.
After seeing a good chunk of the breathtaking terrain the National Park Service is charged with safekeeping, we’re ride or die for team khaki. Mostly we just want to hang out with Rangers and shower them with consentual hugs and high fives.
While the treasures of the Parks system belong to the American people, and indeed, the world, there has to be a balance. The planet suffers enough for humanity’s hubris and greed, and once these magical places are gone, it will take a millennium for them to ever approach their current grandeur. So much has already been lost forever.
If you’ve ever been to one of these truly awesome places, you know that there can never be a dollar value affixed to the experience. For those who are angered at the thought of having these gifts placed on a higher economic shelf, that anger can be justly focused on those that make the laws of the land. Just as Roosevelt and all those after him felt a duty to the future, it is up to those on team khaki, whatever country they may hail from, to take up the mantle and do what they can to preserve the majesty left to us by our forebears.
Interested in reading more?
Purchase an annual pass here:
Check out our individual guides to visiting the national parks and plan your own adventure.