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Visit your National Park – Free, Nearly Free Experiences

Candy Moulton
Encampment, Wyo.

You cannot turn on the television these days without being bombarded by economic news ” most of it irritating, some of it downright depressing. So how to break away? Travel. Go on a trip.

Have no money? That shouldn’t stop you as long as you have just enough to put some fuel in the vehicle (and thankfully that commodity is about a third less in price that it was this time last year). Can’t afford to eat out? Don’t. You have to eat at home, so if you travel, whenever possible take your lunch with you. Camp instead of renting a motel; or chose a budget option motel.

The first time I visited Yellowstone National Park, I went with my parents, sister, brother, an aunt and uncle and some cousins. We didn’t have much money but we had enough to drive across Wyoming to Powell where we stayed with the relatives. For our trip into the park my Mom and my Aunt Margaret packed a picnic lunch ” bologna sandwiches! I’ll never forget them because as we concluded our day we had half a sandwich left. In those days (1960s) bears begged by the roadside and everybody fed them.

“Anybody want this half sandwich?” my Dad asked. Hearing no call for the hours’ old offering, he gave it to a bear. About 60 minutes later my cousin Curtis was whining and crying about how hungry he was.

While you can’t feed the bears in Yellowstone now, you can take your own picnic lunch, or buy some inexpensive lunch makings at one of many establishments that you’ll find in or near all the national parks..

And once you’ve paid the entrance fee to the park ” it is currently $25 per carload of folks to enter Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and less at many other parks ” just about anything you want to do is free, or nearly so. At my house it is never too early to begin planning your next trip.

Here are some suggestions at a few of our National Parks of the West:

Free experiences:

Spot an owl. Or a bear, elk, wolf, otter, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyote, bison or trumpeter swan. The Lamar Valley in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park is often called the “American Serengeti” because of its abundant wildlife. Some good binoculars and a little patience are all you need to observe the wonders of the park’s wildlife. For a fee Xanterra Parks and Resorts also offers a variety of guided wildlife-watching experiences.

Go low. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin in California’s Death Valley National Park is one of the lowest places in the world. The vast salt flats are typically bone-dry but can turn into a ready-made lake after a big rainstorm. Look up at mountainside sign marking sea level posted well above the Badwater Basin viewpoint. No, up a little higher. Feeling small yet?

Walk in the footsteps of presidents. Six presidents – and Three Stooges – have stayed at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn. It was built for $140,000 in 1904 and is one of the most famous buildings in any national park. A Xanterra historian tells travelers about the inn’s colorful history during free walking tours offered several times a day throughout the summer.

Get high. Some hikers have called it one of the best short hikes in a national park. Though only five miles round trip, the hike to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park is a strenuous but breathtakingly beautiful hike. The view from the top of Angel’s Landing is worth the 21 steep switchbacks – called “Walter’s Wiggles” – and the final white-knuckle half mile. This is a hike for experienced trekkers who have no fear of heights. Take a deep breath at the top. And then look at the view. You won’t forget it.

Explore the buildings at Bent’s Old Fort. Possibly you will meet a “reincarnated” mountain man who will share stories of the early days at this important post along the Santa Fe Trail in Colorado.

Count the California condors. One of the rarest birds in the world, the California condor population dwindled to only 22 birds in the early ’80s. Thanks to a captive breeding program, six birds were eventually reintroduced to the wild, and the Grand Canyon was chosen because of the park’s many cliffs on which the birds can roost. Today, there are approximately 60 birds in the State of Arizona, and many of them live in the Grand Canyon. With a wingspan of 9-1/2 feet, it is easy to spot when it soars over the Canyon.

Hike to a doo in the dark. In Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park’s mysterious-looking hoodoos – red-rock spires – are even more interesting when explored by the light of the moon. The National Park Service offers moonlit hoodoo hikes three times each month during the full moon.

Wish on a star. Stargazing is a simple, free, safe and rejuvenating activity for the whole family. Because there is already minimal exterior lighting surrounding the lodges in most national parks, guests need only walk a few steps away to observe the night sky in relative quiet. Death Valley National Park in particular is known for its dark skies initiatives. The National Park Service also offers a variety of free stargazing programs in Yellowstone.

Nearly free experiences:

Become a Junior Ranger. The National Park Service’s perennially popular Junior Ranger program – available at many national park locations – continues to challenge and entertain young visitors.. Parents like these programs, too. While children are earning their Junior Ranger Patches, they are also learning about the importance of national parks. But don’t spoil the fun by telling them they’re learning. The Junior Ranger program is free in some parks, and others charge a nominal fee.

Reel in a big one. Fly fishing is excellent on many of Yellowstone National Park’s rivers, streams and lakes. Anglers over the age of 15 must purchase a fishing license at a ranger station, visitor center or gift shop. A three-day license is $15.

Freeze your brain. There’s something about having an ice cream cone in a national park. In South Dakota Mount Rushmore’s “monumental scoop” of ice cream is the quintessential ice cream experience, especially when enjoyed in the shadow of the four 60-foot high faces of Presidents George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. On a hot summer day, travelers line up for these crowd-pleasing treats. Also popular with cone connoisseurs: the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, Bright Angel Fountain in the Grand Canyon, the Red Rock Grill in Zion and the Harvey’s Diner in Petrified Forest and Cafe at Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Discover gold. For $11, you can tour a remote Moorish-style castle built by a Chicago millionaire and named for his friend, an amiable swindler called “Death Valley Scotty.” Located 50 miles from the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort, Scotty’s Castle is a favorite day-trip among park visitors. National Park Service tour guides in period costumes from the ’30s tell stories of Scotty’s adventures, including the so-called gold mine buried directly under the castle.


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