Our national public lands are once again gearing up for a round of fee free days — a selection of holidays throughout the year where entrance fees are waived to most National Parks and other federal lands (including many entry fee areas like those on federal land in the San Gabriel Mountains). Entrance fees at many parks continue to rise, and by allowing visitors to enter the park without paying a fee, many of those parks become much more accessible for folks who otherwise may not be able to afford a visit.
However, those fee free days can also make certain popular parks even more crowded. Nobody wants to compare their first experience on public lands to trying to find a parking spot at a mall on Black Friday, right? Here is the full list of fee free days for 2020 … and some suggestions for some off-the-beaten path destinations where you might have a bit more solitude.
January 20 – Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The first fee free day is in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday — and its winter date means that if you’re willing to load up your car with the right gear, a snow-based park would be a solid destination. Yosemite National Park can be a bit of a zoo in the summer, but a winter snowshoe in the valley is a wonderful way to experience this park. Just make sure to check road conditions before you go. If you want another incredible place to pack your snowshoes, Bryce Canyon National Park should be on your list. The scenery here is stunning year-round, but a solid layer of snow really turns it up to 11.
April 18 – First Day of National Park Week
The first day of National Park Week is the only fee free day in the spring — which means anyone heading to a park for wildflowers is probably going to have a lot of company. This is around the time when the lower elevations of Joshua Tree National Park are in decent bloom. I really can’t emphasize how amazing those displays can be (a few years ago I was lucky enough to hike to Mastodon Peak during that area’s peak bloom and it was unforgettable), but I’d save those trips for other days if I were you. Instead, you should check out some of the trails at nearby Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow National Monuments. The unforgettable Whitewater Preserve is free year-round and has a beautiful trail network, and the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve just west of Joshua Tree lets you explore rare desert wetlands (and probably check a ton of birds off your spotting list, too).
August 25 – Birthday of the National Park Service
Although the first National Park was founded in 1872, the Park Service didn’t exist until 1916. It also happens to be during what is peak visitation for the national parks across the country. Do yourself a favor and skip ‘the big ones’ on this fee free day. Yosemite and Sequoia are probably going to be packed, but nearby Pinnacles National Park will likely have some room (just prep for heat). Alternatively, the national forests of the Eastern Sierra will also be waiving many parking permit fees, and places like Devil’s Postpile National Monument or the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest are perfect this time of year.
September 26 – National Public Lands Day
Entry to most public lands is fee free on National Public Lands Day. Traditionally, this is more of a volunteer day than a visitation day. You can find volunteer efforts for National Public Lands day here (as well as volunteer opportunities in national parks throughout the year). State and local parks also celebrate this holiday, and you will definitely be able to find events at a park near you. This is a great time to dip your toe into trail maintenance or even just chip in with a cleanup effort. In L.A., for instance, the Friends of Griffith Park did a massive mulching day in Griffith Park‘s historic bird sanctuary to prep for native plant restorations a few months later.
That said, many national parks also offer interpretive hikes and programs for beginner hikers and first time visitors, and this is a lovely time to explore some of the higher altitude parks like Yellowstone before they hunker down for the winter season.
November 11 – Veterans Day
In the West, November can be the last gasps of a brutal summer or the first snowstorms of winter depending on where you’re talking about. The shoulder season can actually be a lovely and mellow time to visit often crowded parks like Yosemite or Zion, or a good excuse to take your snowshoes to a place like Lassen or Crater Lake. If it’s not still summer in California, this can also be a great time to get in on some of the desert locations like Death Valley as well.
Keep in mind
The fee free days in national parks don’t cover things like tours, campground reservations, transportations, or other services run by concessionaires. Services may vary depending on the parks you visit and the seasons you visit them. Always check with the park before you head out for the latest updates on weather conditions and availability. Some national parks and many federal lands don’t charge entry fees year-round. And start planning now! You don’t want to get caught off guard when these days roll around!