This site may contain affiliated links. Please see my disclosure to satisfy your curiosity.
As a Park Ranger, I spend 100% of my working time and, frequently, my nonworking time at a park.
At some point, I heard the saying, don’t mix pleasure with pay. Instead of listening and heeding valid advice, I said, hold my hiking sticks while I went headfirst into a government-funded ranger career. There are many benefits to the ranger route, including learning how to explore public land as cheaply as possible.
Which is ideal for my budget since my job is fun, but not well-funded.
The Reason: Shoulder Season
The best time to visit a National Park is the shoulder season which is any time before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Retired folks have been cashing in this savings for years!
The most expensive time of year is during the busy season, which is every day in summer. Lodging is cheaper in the shoulder season and crowds are smaller, which means less time in lines and more time exploring.
I prefer after Labor Day because park stores have steep discounts.
A few years ago, we lived near Yellowstone National Park. It was a magical time with frequent trips to the Disneyland of wildlife. Many friends, family, and random people would visit us, and it was a great excuse to visit this park mecca.
During one such visit, we wound our way to Yellowstone and were pursuing the sights and delights of the Old Faithful area. It was a crisp fall day, the crowds were meager and the sights were stunning.
We paused our sightseeing to wander the local gift shop. As I rambled around, I spotted a 20-ounce Yeti water bottle for 40% off! The store was about to shut down for the season and needed to move their products from the shelf to someone else.
I was happy to take their discounted gear off their hands!
For some reason I feel guilty about this next money saving venture like I am caught using the phone in the bathroom.
I avoid camping inside a national park.
Camping inside a park can be cheaper than a private campground and is extra convenient, but I prefer free camping.
Many parks have national forests right outside of the their boundaries. Forests have less traffic versus national parks because they have fewer amenities. It’s the lifestyle of the 1900s with its dirt roads, lack of running water, and food-looting wildlife. Since their is less demand, national forests have relaxed rules regarding camping called disbursed camping.
Dispersed camping is the term used for camping in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Typically, it refers to roadside car camping, but also refers to backpacking in undeveloped sites. Dispersed camping means there are no services like trash removal, and amenities such as toilets, tables and fire pits, are not usually available.US Forest Service
Like any activity, I start with a healthy dose of research. I want to avoid getting tangled in tickets. I am not interested in those memory-building experiences.
Once I know the forest I want to disperse camp, I scour the website for information. If that doesn’t give clues to the rules, I call the closest ranger station. Those friendly folks are more than happy to share the rules.
Initially, the research part was easy. Developing a leave no trace motto took a bit more practice. Packing out garbage, putting out fires, and leaving areas the way I found them was easy. But, proper food storage and burying my waste were unexpected habits I had to learn. Free doesn’t mean easy!
Park Pass, Please!
Entrance fees are a thing when visiting national parks. At Glacier National Park, the entrance fee is $35 for a week, which is $5 A DAY! A weeks worth of Starbucks fancy-pants coffee cost more than that!
At one point, Mr. BuLL and I bought annual passes. We were happy to pay $80 for a pass, that would ensure unaltered access to America’s Best Idea for 365 days. We used it, loved it, and, frequently, had to have it.
Last year, there were some big changes for veterans like Mr. BuLL and I. We can access national parks for free by proving our vet status through a Veteran Affairs ID or driver’s license with the veteran designation.
It’s a fabulous way to thank veterans. Nature was, and continues, to be an important part of mental and physical health. Free access ensures that I, and many other veterans, will find solace in our favorite public land.
Visiting National Parks
When I can’t squeeze anymore savings from my Park Ranger experience, I use my love of passive income to cushion the remaining expenses of visiting national parks. With over 400 national parks and three billion acres of public land, it’s an investment I am happy to make.
How do you save when you are visiting national parks? Want to guess how long it took to get comfortable using a dirt hole as a toilet?