Getty/Jordan Siemens

The free national park days apply to all 111 fee-charging parks in the United States, which means you have a plethora of options. We’re here to help narrow things down

Kate Wertheimer  – January 8, 2020 | Updated January 17, 2020

We love a free national park day! And we have to give props to the National Parks System, which does its best to offer free education, entry, and guided tours when possible, even in the face of budget cuts. This year, the NPS has announced five days when entry to all 111 fee-charging parks will be free. We put our heads together to come up with the best options for each date, when the parks are truly at their most beautiful best (and when crowds may be small—especially important on free days, when visitors come out in droves). Check out the list and start planning those camping trips!

January 20, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Yosemite National Park, CA


Here’s the thing: Yosemite is always crowded. No matter what. But you’ll likely avoid the biggest crowds by venturing out to any national park in wintertime. And you’ll be rewarded with the most magical ice-skating rink in the West, situated in Half Dome Village just beneath the iconic rock formation that stands at more than twice the height of the Empire State Building. There are affordable rentals, family-friendly fire pits for drinking hot cocoa and roasting ‘mallows, and the rink is open until 9pm for maximum time on the ice.

More parks to check out this time of year:
Yellowstone National Park, WY, for primetime gray wolf spotting (plus elk, bison, deer, fox, raptors…).

Denali National Park, AK, for a day trip from Fairbanks on the Alaska Railroad and, if you’re lucky, great views of the northern lights.

Death Valley National Park, CA, for the best and brightest stargazing (due to longer nights and lower humidity) and bearable temps (not hellishly hot, but also not freezing).

April 18, first day of National Park Week: Saguaro National Park, AZ

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Fact: Desert temperatures are at their most pleasant in the spring, and flora and fauna tend to come alive across all the national parks in springtime. The season also heralds longer days and a burst of wildflowers that contrast with the green of the cacti and the reddish brown earth to create a technicolor wonderland. Poppies, penstemons, marigolds, and cactus blooms are but a few of the florals popping this time of year. Just remember to look, not touch–no amount of likes on Instagram is worth destroying such a delicate (and beautiful!) ecosystem.

More parks to check out this time of year:
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, for blooming cacti, an underground network of more than 100 caves, and 17 species of bats that swirl in looping formations at dusk in April and May.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO, for a surf on the undulating dunes followed by a refreshing dip in Medano Creek, freshly flooded by snowmelt from the Sangre de Christo Mountains.

Big Bend National Park, TX, for river rafting when the Rio Grande’s flow is at its peak.

August 25, National Park Service birthday: Grand Teton National Park, WY

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The alpine terrain around Grand Teton (the highest peak in the Teton Range) provides a welcome reprieve from summer temps. Visitors can explore around a dozen small glaciers, the Snake River, plus lots of streams and lakes to cool off in. Bonus: Grand Teton is only 10 miles south of Yellowstone National Park, but is remarkably less crowded.

More parks to check out this time of year:
Olympic National Park, WA, for towering sea stack rock formations and some of the best tide pools on earth, boasting neon pink and chartreuse sea anemones and bright orange seastars.

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, CA, for mild temps and more than 800 miles of backcountry trails through glacial canyons and old-growth forests.

Crater Lake National Park, OR, for the best views of towering cliffs, sparkling blue water (some of the clearest in the country), and long, sunny hiking days.

September 26, National Public Lands Day: Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Getty/Brad McGinley Photography

By mid-September, the trees in Rocky Mountain National Park are typically painted in shades of gold. While the eye-catching displays bring lots of folks to the national parks in fall, there are plenty of quiet places to hear the dancing aspen leaves in Rocky Mountain. The Bear Lake trailhead leads to the popular subalpine lake and the Cub Lake trail, which takes hikers through 2.3 miles of autumn color before opening up at a mountain pond rimmed with amber grass. Just remember to always pack a rain jacket and warm layers—the weather can quickly swing from 70 degrees to chilly rain or even hail.

More parks to check out this time of year:
Glacier National Park, MT, for active wildlife, fall foliage views, and peak beauty.

Joshua Tree National Park, CA, for comfy temps and super dark skies (there’s almost always a view of the spiral Andromeda Galaxy from Cottonwood Campground and Pinto Basin Road).

Mount Rainier National Park, WA, for–yep–more gorgeous fall foliage, plus bright, crisp hiking days.

November 11, Veterans Day: Zion National Park, UT

Getty/Brad McGinley Photography

Like Yosemite, Zion is always crowded. But in late fall, the crowds begin to abate, as do scorching temps and unpredictable weather, like monsoons and flash flooding. We’re also confident that 2020 will be less packed than 2019, the park’s 100th anniversary. For adventurous types, water levels are low which makes for better–and safer–canyoneering, and for the rest of us, fewer crowds, cooler temps (bring layers), and drier weather make this a lovely, and safe, time to visit.

More parks to check out this time of year:
Arches National Park, UT, for pleasant weather and the best sun position for viewing the Fiery Furnace, a unique sandstone formation that offers incredible views at sunrise and sunset.

Haleakala National Park, HI, for an escape to the warm weather, a towering volcano, and hidden swimming holes on Maui.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA, for hydrothermal wonders like bubbling mud pots and lava rocks, plus the opportunity to snowshoe on top of a volcano, snowy weather permitting.