What You Can See on Fee-Free Days at U.S. National Parks This Year

You've always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon, so why not do it on a fee-free day?. (Photo: Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock)

The United States has so many national parks and protected wilderness areas to explore, but some of those spots have entrance fees or activities fees. While the fees help to support the sites, they can sometimes sting the wallet.

Luckily, sites managed by agencies like the National Parks Service, the National Wildlife Refuge and even the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers offer fee-free days so visitors can take in the wonders of our country at the price that works for any family budget.

Each agency has different fee-free days and stipulations for what that applies to, so scroll down to see when fee-free days are for these agencies and recommendations on where you can spend the day getting the most bang for your buck this year.

1. U.S. National Parks Service

Isle Royale National Park in the middle of Michigan's Lake Superior offers visitors the chance to truly get away from it all. (Photo: Steven Schremp/Shutterstock)

The National Parks Service has several fee-free days in 2020, which refers to the entrance fee only:

  • Monday, Jan. 20: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
  • Saturday, April 18: First Day of National Park Week/National Junior Ranger Day
  • Tuesday, Aug. 25: National Park Service Anniversary
  • Saturday, Sept. 26: National Public Lands Day
  • Wednesday, Nov. 11: Veterans Day

Only 110 of the 419 parks managed by the NPS charge entrance fees in the first place, meaning plenty of the sites are free every day. Entrance fee-free days, however, offer a great opportunity to explore old favorites or discover a new wonder, like Isle Royal National Park, an island smack in the middle of Lake Superior in Michigan as you can see in the photo above. Hiking, camping and scuba diving are just some of the activities available at this remote locale.

To give you a taste of the possibilities, here are three other parks you could visit during one of this year's fee-free days.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

The painted dunes of Lassen Volcanic National Park in California create a surreal landscape. (Photo: kojihirano/Shutterstock)

Lassen Volcanic National Park in California allows visitors to explore painted sand dunes, volcanoes, hydro-thermal areas and boiling mud pits. It's also a park that doesn't receive as many visitors as some other better-known parks. You can hike through the park along 150 miles of trails, or simply take a driving tour along the 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway.

Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The main laboratory at Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey. (Photo: Shinya Suzuki [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)

There's more to the National Parks Service than the great outdoors. If you're in New Jersey, consider visiting the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. This NPS-managed site preserves 20,000 square feet of Thomas Edison's laboratories and the Glenmont estate where Edison lived. You also can take in a bit of movie history by visiting the Black Maria, the studio where some of the first moving pictures in American history were filmed.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson in Florida's Dry Tortugas National Park was an important site for naval security. (Photo: Lindsey C. Straub [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

At Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida, you can get both history and the outdoors in the same park. Getting to this park requires special planning due to its isolated location, but it's worth the effort to see Fort Jefferson, go snorkeling and camp in a unique part of the NPS.

As a reminder, the fee wavier is just for the entrance fee to a national park site. All amenity or user fees, like camping, boat launching or special tours, are still in place on fee-free days.

2. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas is especially notable for its birding. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) maintains national wildlife refuges that offer the exciting possibility of first-hand encounters with wildlife. While refuges are relatively cheap to visit — only $3 to $8 per vehicle — entrance fee-free days make the possibility of taking in wilderness all the more enticing.

On USFWS fee-free days, only the entrance to the site is free. Permits for activities like hunting or fishing are not covered. The USFWS offers the following entrance fee-free days:

  • Jan. 20: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
  • Feb. 17: Presidents' Day
  • Sept. 26: National Public Lands Day
  • Oct. 11: First Sunday of National Wildlife Refuge Week
  • Nov. 11: Veterans Day

Texas' Laguna Atascosa Refuge is a great option for a wildlife refuge visit and offers hiking, kayaking and fishing. The birding opportunities are also top-notch as the site, located in South Texas, is along migratory routes for shorebirds and some tropical birds as well. Oh, and you may even spot a bobcat or two.

Three other wildlife refuges to visit include:

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge

Snow geese and blue geese gather in a lake in DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Larry Koester [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

Located in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge encompasses more than 2,000 acres of wetlands. DeSoto is a prime spot for wildlife photography, particularly of migratory waterfowl, like snow geese. In the winter months, provided you're willing to brave the Midwestern cold, you will probably spot a number of bald eagles in the refuge.

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Visitors can walk on boardwalks through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. (Photo: Outlook/Shutterstock)

The Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia allows for fishing, biking and kayaking, among other activities. While there are plenty of migratory birds at Back Bay, loggerhead sea turtles are also a common sight. This endangered species nests along the refuge's beaches starting in late May and hatch around August.

Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge

A bird sits on a fallen tree in Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state. (Photo: KimonBerlin [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

Take in the mountains and the sea from Washington's Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge. This bay attracts a wide range of waterfowl and shorebirds looking for a little rest and relaxation. Visitors are restricted in their activities in this avian oasis, with hiking and wildlife photography being the most popular choices. There is also a lighthouse tour for those so inclined.

3. U.S. Forest Service

The Vermilion Gorge Trail in Minnesota's Superior National Forest is just one of many paths in the forest. (Photo: Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Forest Service oversees 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands, and you can visit many of them without a fee any time of year.

During fee-free days, the agency waives the fees associated with picnic grounds, developed trailheads and other day-use areas. The fee-free days for the U.S. Forest Service are:

  • Jan. 20: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
  • Feb. 17: Presidents Day
  • June 13: National Get Outdoors Day
  • Sept. 26: National Public Lands Day
  • Nov. 11: Veterans Day

You could start with Superior National Forest. Located in Northern Minnesota, this national forest boasts 2,500 miles of hiking and riding trails and plenty of boating options. In the winter, people can come to use their snowmobiles, go skiing or try their hand at skijoring.

Salmon-Challis National Forest

A sunset on the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho highlights the forest's beauty. (Photo: Michael Richardson, Intermountain Forest Service, USDA Region 4 [CC0]/Flickr)

Maybe you're more a go big or go home type. In that case, Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho is for you. This national forest covers some 4.3 million acres of untamed wilderness, including 1.3 million acres of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, the largest contiguous wilderness area in the Continental United States. Given its size, there's a lot to do, including camping, fishing and riding. This means you'll be visiting more than once for sure.

Coconino National Forest

Coconino National Forest in Arizona has a variety of scenic landscapes, from red rocks to pine forests. (Photo: Alan Levine [CC0]/Flickr)

For a variety of scenes all in a forest, Coconino National Forest in Arizona may be a good choice. You'll find the famous red rocks of Sedona here along with the Ponderosa pine forests. Deserts and tundras coexist in this forest as well. You can do just about anything outdoorsy here, from camping to picnicking to hiking to just taking in the sights. (But leave the fireworks at home, OK?)

4. U.S. Bureau of Land Management

There's plenty to do at Oregon's Quartzville Creek Wild and Scenic River, including fishing. (Photo: Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) maintains public lands for a variety of uses, from recreation to energy development to ranching. Like the next few agencies on this list, it may not immediately come to mind for recreational activities, but the BLM offers a range of sites and activities, particularly in the western U.S.

To find a BLM recreation site, visit their website and filter results by state or activity. The agency's fee-free days cover day-use fees and standard amenity fees. You can take advantage of the waivers on these days:

  • Jan. 20: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
  • Feb. 17: Presidents Day
  • Sept. 26: National Public Lands Day
  • Nov. 11: Veterans Day

If you're near Oregon, check out the Quartzville Creek Wild and Scenic River. Visitors can fish, hike, camp, swim and even pan for gold in the area.

5. U.S. Army Corp of Engineers

Lake Allatoona in Georgia offers a variety of activities, making it one of the most visited Army Corps of Engineers lakes in the country. (Photo: RodClementPhotography/Shutterstock)

The Army Corp of Engineers (ACE) is probably most known for its work with dams and flood control. Part of that work includes managing more than 400 lakes and reservoirs around the country, and those locations double as recreational sites the public can visit and enjoy. From camping to hiking to boating to just enjoying a day in a park, there's lots to do in at an ACE-managed site.

To find a lake near you, go to the ACE's website and click on a state. Georgia's Lake Allatoona is located a mere 30 miles northwest of Atlanta, and visitors can camp, hike or picnic before heading back to enjoy the state's capital.

The fee-free days at such locations waive the day-use fee, so boat launch ramps and swimming beaches are free. Camping fees will still apply. The two fee-free days are:

  • Sept. 26: National Public Lands Day
  • Nov. 11: Veterans Day

6. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

New Melones Lake in the New Melones Recreation Area offers different camping opportunities for those willing to brave the California sun. (Photo: Cassiohabib/Shutterstock)

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation oversees water resource management throughout the the western half of the U.S. One site appears to be covered by the agency's fee-free days, the New Melones Recreation Area, a part of the Central Valley Project in California. Here, people can camp, fish, boat and more in the Glory Hole and Tuttletown Recreation Areas near the towns of Angels Camp and Sonora, respectively.

The free days for the area are below, and for other sites, it's best to look up a site near you and ask before you go.

  • Jan. 20: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
  • Feb. 17: Presidents Day
  • Sept. 26: National Public Lands Day
  • Nov. 11: Veterans Day