knoxville news
knoxville news knoxville advertising entertainment knoxville obituaries rss linkedin twitter facebook contact smoky mountains knoxville legal notices knoxville classifieds travel knoxville sports business lifestyle knoxville daily sun

6 freebies and 1 great year-round deal at America’s national parks
By Tom Adkinson

January 15, 2021

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of travel stories spotlighting destinations and activities to consider in a time of coronavirus and to inspire safe outings elsewhere.)

national park service shield
The symbol-laden arrowhead logo of the National Park Service adorns the visitor center at White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns declared that national parks are “America’s best idea.” They are, and for six days this year, admission is free at the roughly one-fourth of them that charge an entrance fee.

The freebie days are scattered through the year. The schedule starts this month – January 18 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day – and stretches until November 11, Veterans Day.

In between are April 17, the first day of National Park Week; August 4, the one-year anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act; August 25, the National Park Service birthday; and September 25, National Public Lands Day.

Potomac Park great falls
Great Falls of the Potomac Park, an NPS unit, is only 15 miles from the U.S. Capitol, proving you don’t have to go out west for grand scenery. Image by Tom Adkinson.

There are 423 sites that the National Park Service (NPS) preserves, protects and interprets, and 108 of them have entrance fees. Of those 423 NPS sites, 62 are national parks. Others include national monuments, national battlefields, national seashores, national recreation areas, national military parks, national historical parks and national rivers.

The most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12.5 million visitors in 2019), does not charge an entrance fee, but other big-name destinations do. Among them are Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Shenandoah, Harpers Ferry, Glacier, Everglades, Crater Lake, Carlsbad Caverns and Acadia.

You’ll find them from Maine to California, from Florida to Alaska and out into the Pacific Ocean. In fact, there are NPS rangers in their distinctive Smokey Bear hats in all 50 states and in territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
A painter works to capture the beauty of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, whose landscape rivals that of nearby Badlands National Park. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Volcanoes National Park
A photographer lines up a shot as hikes walk across a dried lava crater at Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Although the six freebie days are appealing, the entrance fees are modest on other days – yet there still is a way to get a bargain, especially if you are in the senior citizen category.

It’s an annual pass, and it’s actually for much more than National Park Service locations. The full name is the America the Beautiful – the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. That’s a long name, but it delivers a tremendous amount of access to recreational aspects of public lands.

“When you’re planning a road trip, an America the Beautiful Pass is unbeatable. It’s probably the best entertainment deal in America,” said John Slaughter, former superintendent of a collection of NPS sites called the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution Parks Group that touches South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Devils Tower
Theodore Roosevelt named Devils Tower in Wyoming the first national monument, a category of protected locations now part of the National Park Service. Image by Tom Adkinson.

For $80, the America the Beautiful Pass gets you into more than 2,000 recreation areas managed by the NPS, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers. Passes cover up to four people in a single vehicle, so they can really stretch a trip’s budget. They are good for 12 months from the date of purchase, so a strategically timed pass purchase can affect trips in two years.

“The America the Beautiful Pass is one of the best resources ever offered to the American public,” Slaughter said.

And what’s the bonus for the senior crowd? Although there is a one-year senior pass available for $20, a lifetime pass costs only $80. Since you qualify at age 62, you can see that it’s not much of a gamble to buy one right away and head out on the highway.

Trip Planning Resources: and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

knoxville daily sun

Knoxville Daily Sun
2021 Image Builders
User Agreement | Privacy Policy