What are Free Entrance Days?

Each year, a list of National Park Service Free Entrance Days is released. These are days on which entrance fees will be waived to all 400+ National Park Service units. On fee-free days, visitors do not need to pay an entrance fee to access the park and may also receive discounts or free access to stores, tours, and other amenities. These days are especially important for people who cannot afford nor have the necessary transportation to visit National Parks. 

Why do National Parks Collect Entrance Fees?

While the majority of the NPS’s units do not charge, currently 118 NPS units do charge entrance fees that typically range from $25 to $30 per vehicle. These entrance fees are used to support park maintenance, education, and other guest services. Roughly 80 percent of all fees collected stay within the park at which they were collected. The remaining 20 percent goes to the general NPS fund. With a $12 BILLION backlog for maintenance, these fees are essential to the upkeep of our parks. 

2018 National Park Service Free Entrance Days

Many National Park and public land supporters were disappointed to learn that there would only be four free entrance days in 2018. The four free entrance days in 2018 are:

January 15: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. 
April 21: First day of National Park Week
September 22: National Public Lands Day
November 11: Veterans Day

Official Explanation Behind Reduction of Free Entrance Days

This drastic cut from 10 free-entry days in 2017 to four in 2018 was met with criticism as it came on the heels of a proposed increase of park entrance fees to $70 for 17 of the most popular National Parks. While the majority of the NPS’s units do not charge, currently 118 NPS units do charge entrance fees that typically range from $25 to $30 per vehicle. These entrance fees are used to support park maintenance, education, and other visitor services. Roughly 80 percent of all fees collected stay within the park at which they were collected. The remaining 20 percent goes to the general NPS fund.

The only NPS response I have found in regard to the fee-free days cuts have been in a recent National Parks Traveler post. In that post, NPS spokesman Jeremy Barnum was quoted saying “Now that the nation is recovering from the recession and the Centennial has passed, the NPS is returning to a lower number of fee-free days.” Barnum also noted that “Fewer fee-free days means additional revenue to improve facilities, address deferred maintenance issues, and enhance the overall park experience for visitors.” While his comments are factual and justifiable, it is still disappointing and the fees collected on those fee-paying days will not do a lot to make a dent in the $12 BILLION backlog for maintenance. Only Congress can do something tangible about that.

Free Entrance Days are Important

Obviously, I am disappointed in the fewer number of free entrance days in 2018. My biggest frustration in this stems from the wedge that this reduction exasperates in regards to diversity and disparities. When I was teaching, I would use photos of different National Parks as my desktop background. Each week, I would change it and share a bit about the park with my at-risk students. The thought of going to a park was a far-fetched dream to them when they were worried about where the next meal was coming from. However, we talked about how the parks were “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”

To that student population and many other low-income folks, a $25 entrance fee is the same as a “closed for business” sign. I know some of my readers will grumble at that statement, but if you are, it’s likely that you are white, 50+, and likely least middle class. Our national parks have an age, race, and income issue. For those not described above, an entrance fee (especially an increased entrance fee of $70) and lack of public transportation to the parks are barriers that need to be addressed. Not exasperated. The free entrance days are essential to opening the door to more diverse populations in our National Parks.

National Park Service Free Entrance Days by the Numbers

After reading several frustrated tweets on the reduction of free entrance days, I felt compelled to do a bit of research. I wanted to know how many fee-free days there had been in recent years. My research was all conducted via Google, but I thought it was worth sharing with you anyway. I struggled to find numbers before 2011, but did read a quote by Barnum in the National Park Traveler article that “from 2003 through 2008, the National Park Service had two fee-free days a year.” I’m not sure how many days there were in 2009 and 2010, but Barnum indicated that days increased during that time to encourage visitors during the recession. 

Historical Look at Free Entrance Days

The following table shows National Park Service free entrance days from 2011 to 2018. You will notice that the total numbers of “Yes” responses do not directly add up to the “total” given at the bottom of the table. This is due to the fact that some years only a specific day (eg, Veterans Day) was free when in other years there was a multi-day event around that day (eg, Veterans Day Weekend). Additionally, I have broken the events around National Park Week into several categories to capture similar information. In some years, all related categories were marked “Yes” because they all were free days.

Date(s) 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
January (Third Monday in January)
Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday
Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
January (Dates vary by year)
Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Weekend
Yes Yes  No  No No No No  No
February (Third Monday in February)
Presidents Day
No No No   Yes Yes No Yes No
February (Dates vary by year)
Presidents Day Weekend
No No  No Yes  Yes No  No  No
April (Dates vary by year)
Opening Weekend of National Park Week
Yes Yes No   Yes Yes Yes Yes No
April (Dates vary by year)
First Day of National Park Week
Yes Yes No No  No Yes No Yes
April (Dates vary by year)
National Park Week
Yes Yes Yes  No  No Yes No No
April (Dates vary by year)
Closing Weekend of National Park Week
Yes Yes No  No  No Yes  Yes No
June (Dates vary by year)
National Get Outdoors Day
No Yes No   No No  No  No  No
June (Dates vary by year)
First Day of Summer
Yes No No No No No No No
August 25
National Park Service Birthday (AKA Founders Day)
No No  Yes   Yes Yes Yes  Yes No
August (Dates vary by year)
National Park Service Birthday Weekend
No No  No No  No Yes  No  No
September (Dates vary by year)
National Public Lands Day
Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes  Yes Yes
November 11
Veterans Day 
Yes Yes  Yes  Yes Yes Yes  Yes Yes
November (Dates vary by year)
Veterans Day Weekend
Yes Yes Yes  No No  No  Yes No
TOTALS BY YEAR: 17 17 11 9 9 16 10 
  2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018

 

Conclusions (TL;DR)

As the table is large, I wanted to summarize a few things for people who hate tables (who are you people!?) or are on mobile devices:

• Since 2011, fee-free days have been held on/around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, National Park Week, the National Park Service’s birthday, and Veterans Day.
• 2018 is the first time since 2013 that there will not be a fee-free day to celebrate the National Park Service’s Birthday.
• 2011 and 2012 each had a day (Get Outdoors Day and First Day of Summer respectively) that has not been marked since.
• Opening weekend (the weekend leading up to) is the most popular way to celebrate National Park Service Week.

Historical Entrance Day Sources

For those curious, I have included links below to where I found listings of fee-free days. While most of them are very familiar to national park fans, one is a personal blog. As always, the information I included in this post was accurate at the time of publication. I cannot control the content and/or changes to it on websites that are not my own. 

• [2011] http://funcheaporfree.com/2011/03/free-national-parks-days-mark-your/
• [2012] https://www.nationalparks.org/about/pressroom/press-releases/secretary-salazar-announces-national-park-fee-free-days-2012
• [2013] http://www.ohranger.com/blog/13/01/free-entrance-national-parks-public-lands-2013
• [2014] https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/mark-your-calendars-fee-free-days
• [2015] https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/2015-fee-free-days-your-national-parks
• [2016] https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/2016-free-admission-days-national-parks
• [2017] https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1207/11-14-2016-fee-free-days.htm
• [2018] https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/fee-free-parks.htm

Don’t Forget to Support Your National Parks!

Supporting your national parks by visiting your local parks and public lands, donating to park-specific foundations, join the National Park Foundation and/or National Parks Conservation Association, and share your stories to encourage others to “find their park.” If you are interested in reading more about my national park journies, you can browse my blog to see where I’ve been and what I love about our parks!