National parks are protected for everyone to enjoy, but a visit to one can be expensive. As an example, it’s $35 to bring a car full of people into Grand Canyon National Park, or $20 per individual if you hike in, and that doesn’t account for parking fees, camping costs, or the price of lodging and extra activities.
However, a handful of national parks don’t charge admission fees at all. Here are 16 national parks in the U.S. that are always free to enter (but keep in mind that there might still be other costs, including boat rentals, camping permits, or parking fees).
1. North Cascades National Park, Washington
A state road runs through North Cascades National Park, so it’s free to visit. Even if you don’t leave the main road, you’ll still get jaw-dropping views—but take some time to enjoy a hike or two. Visit Diablo Lake with its crystal-clear, electric blue water; see a glacier; and enjoy the rugged alpine beauty.
The fragile glacial world of Washington’s North Cascades National Park
2. Redwood National Park, California
Redwood National Park is often grouped with the various state parks nearby, but the national park is the only unit in the group offering free admission. Backcountry camping permits to almost every site (except Gold Bluffs Beach) are also free. Just pack in your gear and get ready to spend the night among the peaceful giants in the forests.
3. Channel Islands National Park, California
While admission to Channel Islands National Park is technically free, you’ll need to pay for a ferry ride to the islands and likely rent kayaks and other gear when you get there (or you can bring your own kayak on the ferry for an additional fee). Santa Cruz is the largest island in the park, offering trails, sea caves, and historical sites, as well as one-of-a-kind views of the California coast.
4. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Ancient bristlecone pines, glacier-capped mountains, incredible stargazing—it’s all free in Great Basin National Park. You can book a tour of the epic Lehman Caves in advance, which will set you back a few dollars, but with so many lakes and hikes to check out here, you don’t need to spend any money to have fun.
5. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Hot Springs National Park is located in an urban setting, and you may need to spend some money on parking fees, but admission to walk around and explore is free. The park’s visitor center, in the historic Fordyce Bath House, gives you get a good idea of what it was like to visit Hot Springs in its heyday. A trip to a privately-run bathhouse isn’t too expensive—around $30 per person—but you can sample the mineral water for free.
A city within a park: Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park turns 100
6. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Similar to Channel Islands, Voyageurs National Park is free to visit—once you get there. It’s mostly accessible by boat, so bring or rent a kayak or canoe, or charter a ride out to one of the visitor centers. There are options for hiking, but boating among the waterways and islands is also enjoyable. In the winter, you can snowmobile, snowshoe, or ski across the frozen lakes to reach the main body of the park.
Want a unique winter thrill? Try driving an ice road across a frozen lake in Voyageurs National Park
7. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Ohio’s only national park, Cuyahoga Valley, is a haven of natural beauty and serenity. The old Ohio and Erie Canal travels through it, and the park’s most famous hike follows the canal’s towpath. There are waterfalls, shady groves of trees, historic farmsteads, and even a scenic train ride through the park. The park is bike-friendly, so bring your bike along (or rent one nearby).
8. New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia
The newest national park in the U.S., New River Gorge, was upgraded from a national river in 2020. Located in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, the park is centered around the dramatic New River Gorge and features countless outdoor recreation opportunities—many of which won’t cost you a dime. Hike or bike one of the park’s scenic trails, admire the views of the New River Gorge Bridge, go whitewater rafting on the New River, or drive the historic Fayette Station Road.
9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains is consistently the most-visited national park in the country. Entrance to the park is free, but visitors will likely be charged parking fees starting in 2023. Cruise Cades Cove for historic sites and stunning views and tour the mysterious abandoned ghost town of Elkmont while you visit.
An insider’s guide to hidden gems in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
10. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
A visit to South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is otherworldly. Check out the Boardwalk Trail for views of the unique ecosystem. With swamps and forests, you can canoe around the park as well—sunrise is the best time to spot wildlife.
Finding solace in the old-growth forest of Congaree, one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S.
11. Biscayne National Park, Florida
Sure, 95 percent of Biscayne National Park is underwater, but it’s free to visit. The visitor center is home to movies, art galleries, museum exhibits, walking paths, boat tours, and a porch with rocking chairs where you can relax and enjoy the views of Biscayne Bay.
12. Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park is free to visit, but it’s only accessible by bush plane, and there are no roads or trails. That all seems to matter less when you consider that a visit here is the ultimate extreme bucket list goal. You get to experience the Arctic tundra, and you get to say that you’ve been to the northernmost national park.
13. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
Kobuk Valley‘s unique landscapes of sand dunes and tundra, archaeological sites, and incredible wildlife make it worth a visit. If you plan to stay for more than a day, you’ll need cold weather wilderness survival gear and skills. In the winter, you can only access the park via plane, snow machine, or dogsled.
14. Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
Lake Clark National Park is a free-entrance alternative to the more famous Denali National Park. Brown bears, salmon runs, historic sites, lakeshore beauty, and steamy volcanoes make a visit here extra special.
15. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
At 13 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the biggest national park in the U.S.—in fact, it’s the size of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the country of Switzerland combined. Summer might technically only last 2 months or so here, but you won’t mind the cold as you spot volcanoes and glaciers, tour ghost towns, and soak in the rugged landscape.
16. Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Kenai Fjords is a quick trip away from Seward, Alaska, and even though it’s most commonly seen on a tour or excursion, you can hike the Harding Icefield Trail or go on a ranger-led tour—for free.