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National parks a bargain, especially this year

Glacier National Park, Mont.
Glacier National Park, Mont.Douglas C. Pizac / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

People can find good deals in the national parks this summer despite tight budgets, rising fees and a huge backlog of maintenance work.

Throughout most of the National Park System, visitors do not have to pay any entrance fees. Only 21 of the 147 with fees raised rates this year, by an average $1 per person and $5 per car. The system includes 390 parks, monuments, battlefields, recreation areas, historic sites and other areas.

For those who want to avoid lines and crowds, 26 of the 58 national parks had fewer than a half-million visitors last year. By comparison, the 10 busiest each attracted between 2 million and 9 million visitors.

Among the less-trodden parks, 14 charge no entrance fees. Many are in Alaska, home to the continent's biggest array of glaciers and peaks above 16,000 feet.

Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, Gates of the Arctic, Katmai and Wrangell-St. Elias each drew fewer than 60,000 visitors. Kenai Fjords and Glacier Bay, popular with cruise ships, drew a quarter-million or more.

Other less-visited national parks with no entrance fees include:

  • Isle Royale in Michigan, offering timber wolves and moose.
  • North Cascades in Washington state, with its glaciated and jagged terrain for technical climbs and hikes.
  • Great Basin in Nevada, featuring a remnant glacier, tunnels and caves.
  • Congaree in South Carolina, a swamp protecting the nation's last southern bottomland hardwood forest.
  • Voyageurs in Minnesota, a wilderness for canoeing.
  • Redwood in California, featuring the world's tallest trees.
  • Channel Islands in California, home to sea birds and sea lions.

By law, parks that collect fees can keep 80 percent of the money for their own upkeep. The other 20 percent goes to a fund used by the entire park system, including parks that do not charge fees.

"If you compare it to the cost of many public attractions this year, everything from Disney World to a football or baseball game, it's still an incredibly good buy. Especially since it is free at the vast majority of parks," parks spokeswoman Elaine Sevy said.

Among other good deals are:

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon. A new paleontology center provides a crash course in the area's well-preserved fossils of plants and animals. They span 40 million years of the Cenozoic Era, which goes from 65 million years ago to the present.

Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee and North Carolina. It's the most-visited park, with 9 million visitors. Admission is free and there is a new 1.5-mile exhibit trail that bridges Cherokee and white settler cultures. The exhibit traces how the Cherokee lived along the Oconaluftee River and frontier families farmed in the mountains. Visitors will come upon Indians from the adjacent Cherokee Reservation telling stories in both English and Cherokee.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. There are entrance fees, but the park celebrates its centennial this summer with a free four-day festival June 29-July 2. For $195, September visitors can take a daylong horseback ride to Spring House, a cliff dwelling closed since the 1960s. For $20, there is a ranger-led hike in September to the Oak House, closed since the 1930s. A ranger-led hike to the Mug House, which has never been open to the public before, is also available for $20 from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Reservations are recommended.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, California. Entrance fees are going up, but a new visitor center has opened with exhibits in English and Spanish. The park features peaks dominated by 14,491-feet Mount Whitney, hundreds of marble caverns and giant sequoia trees 200 feet high.

Governors Island National Monument, New York. Its reopening includes free ferry transportation on Fridays and Saturdays until Labor Day weekend. Visitors can tour the historic district, picnic on the parade grounds and walk around the harbor to see the Statue of Liberty.

Washington Monument, Washington, D.C. Its reopening brings tighter security screenings, but also the best free view of the nation's capital. Advance tickets from the Park Service are needed.