5 Ways to Experience the National Parks on a Budget

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If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation that gives you amazing memories, plenty of Instagram-worthy moments and the ability to DIY a trip based on your interests, a visit to a national park ticks all the boxes.

Another bonus: the National Park Service, which just celebrated its centennial in 2016, has sites that are accessible at all price points. You can pay for deluxe five-star accommodations near your park of choice, or you can choose to save some money and camp under the stars. That said, it’s smart to have your budget, and your itinerary, planned out ahead of time to make sure you don’t miss anything on your bucket list.

Here’s how to get the most out of your national park vacation.

1. Plan ahead

There are plenty of things to consider when planning your park vacation, starting with which one you want to visit first. Are you looking forward to seeing the marquee parks — think Yosemite, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon — or is your goal to hike, fish or camp away from the crowd? When deciding which of the 60 national parks you want to explore, don’t overlook these details:

Time or seasonal limitations: For popular parks like The Grand Canyon, national holidays, school vacations and summers may be exceptionally busy; this demand often drives up the potential cost of lodging, as well as wait times for tourist buses and activities. On the flip side, going to a park in the dead of winter may not be ideal, as some trails and areas may be closed due to snow and ice. If you’re beholden to a certain time frame, there may be little you can do to avoid the high-prices of peak tourist season. If, however, you’ve got some flexibility, list the attractions you most want to experience and the parks that house them, then look for off-season deals.

Activity options: If you think you can just show up and, say, hike The Narrows in Zion National Park, you’ll be disappointed. Many trails are open to all visitors, but some unique trails and activities, like fishing, may be limited due to safety and environmental considerations. They may also require the purchase of an additional permit, so it’s worthwhile to research at least a month ahead of your trip to make sure your planned activities don’t require registering in advance.

Permit prices will vary based on the activity and the park — hiking the Narrows, for example, starts at $15 and reservations open three months in advance of your visit. The National Park Service has a database that can help you find information about the park you want to visit, including fees for popular activities.

Lodging: While camping is often the most economical option — for example, at Yosemite, family campground sites cost $26 a night — these sites tend to book quickly. You can use the NPS website to find out which parks offer camping, but there isn’t a central reservations resource.

Instead, you’ll want to look up camping availability for your specific park as soon as you’ve settled on the dates of your trip. You’ll have a bit more flexibility when booking at hotels or motels outside the parks, and you may even be able to take advantage of credit card points or hotel promotions to help you curb costs. You can also consider saving a few bucks by opting for campgrounds outside the official park.

Torn about camping or staying in a hotel? Consider booking reservations for both at places that allow you to cancel without paying a fee.

Emergencies: When dealing with the great outdoors, it’s always important to have a little room in your budget for the unexpected. A streak of bad weather might make camping a less-than-desirable option, while a twisted ankle could send you straight to the local hospital. Include a buffer in your budget and consider travel insurance to help mitigate costs.

2. Budget for fees

Even if you’re planning to camp and eat granola for every meal, costs can add up fast. It’s important to have a sense of how much park passes, permits and food or gear may cost.

  • Park entrance fees: Fees will vary depending on the park and the season, but you may have the option to choose between a vehicle fee and a per-person fee. For example, in Acadia National Park, a vehicle fee costs $30 for seven days. A per-person fee for people hiking or biking is $15 for seven days. If you’re going with several friends or family members, it’s going to be cheaper for you to pay a vehicle fee rather than walking in and paying a per-person fee.

Planning to visit multiple parks? Consider an annual pass, which costs $80 but allows entrance by vehicle to all national parks for the entire year.

  • Permit fees: We mentioned it above, but it’s worth repeating — don’t forget to look up the costs associated with any activities you want to experience during your visit. Including them in your budget from the very beginning can help you avoid overextending your finances when Junior decides he simply must kayak around Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
  • Tour fees: Some national parks cover huge amounts of territory, and taking advantage of park buses or shuttles is a great way to see the sites. Sometimes the service for a shuttle bus is included in entrance admission fees, while other parks offer narrated tours by an on-board naturalist for an additional cost. Independent tour operators also offer specific tours catering to interests like sea kayaking, canyoneering, or guided trail hiking. Get quotes ahead of time to make sure these activities fit your budget.

3. Take advantage of any entry-fee bargains

The National Parks have varying bargains that can help make a trip even less expensive than anticipated. Here are some to consider; for a complete list of deals, visit the National Parks Land Pass website.

  • Annual park pass. For $80, an annual pass covers a vehicle (and all visitors within) for day-use and entrance fees at National Parks.
  • Free pass for U.S. military. Current members of the U.S. Military can receive a discount pass to all national parks.
  • Annual fourth-grade pass. The National Parks also has a program that offers all fourth-graders (including those who are home schooled) free access to the National Parks.
  • Senior pass. For $80 for a lifetime, or $20 a year, seniors over 62 can receive a pass to all the parks.
  • Access pass. U.S. citizens and permanent residents with permanent disabilities may be able to apply for a free pass to the parks.

There are also certain days when entrance to all National Parks are free. In 2019, these include:

  • January 21 (Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
  • April 20 (first day of National Park Week)
  • August 25 (National Park Services Birthday)
  • September 28 (National Public Lands Day)
  • November 11 (Veteran’s Day)

4. Buy gently-used gear

Hiking boots, rain gear, sunscreen — don’t let Mother Nature catch you off guard. Gear outfitters usually exist close to national parks, but the prices there will often be more expensive than what you would find if you shopped secondhand or looked for outdoor sales online. And don’t forget to ask around — fellow outdoors enthusiasts may have some basics you can borrow.

If you’re digging up gear from the basement that hasn’t seen the light of day since your camping trip five years ago, make sure it’s in good condition. Otherwise, you may end up scrambling for gear once you reach your destination, often times paying tourist prices for something you could have purchased ahead of time from a local retailer.

5. Consider parks off-the-beaten path

While national parks entrance fees don’t vary greatly, some big name ones get traffic all year round — which can mean higher hotel and restaurant rates in nearby towns. If your goal is primarily to explore the great outdoors, look beyond Yellowstone, Bryce, and Zion to smaller — yet no less stunning — parks. Some to consider:

  • the 800,000 square foot Big Bend National Park along the Rio Grande in Texas
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado (with depths of nearly 3,000 feet, it’s often compared to the Grand Canyon)
  • Capital Reef National Park in Utah

These parks don’t necessarily get the same amount of visitors as the big names, but they still feature incredible views, great trails and nearby hotels and restaurants that are less expensive than the ones near big name parks.

Get ready for priceless memories

While an inexpensive national park trip can require some upfront planning, locking down any permits and reservations can help you enjoy every second once you enter the park. Building flexibility into your budget can give you the financial freedom to spring for, say, a night at a motel if you absolutely must access WiFi. But no matter how you decide to plan your trip, access to national parks gives you the chance to have a once-in-a-lifetime vacation without breaking the bank.

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1 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or possess a 10-year (non-conditional) Permanent Resident Card, reside in a state Earnest lends in, and satisfy our minimum eligibility criteria. You may find more information on loan eligibility here: https://www.earnest.com/eligibility. Not all applicants will be approved for a loan, and not all applicants will qualify for the lowest rate. Approval and interest rate depend on the review of a complete application.

Earnest fixed rate loan rates range from 3.20% APR (with Auto Pay) to 6.99% APR (with Auto Pay). Variable rate loan rates range from 1.99% APR (with Auto Pay) to 6.89% APR (with Auto Pay). For variable rate loans, although the interest rate will vary after you are approved, the interest rate will never exceed 8.95% for loan terms 10 years or less. For loan terms of 10 years to 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 9.95%. For loan terms over 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 11.95% (the maximum rates for these loans). Earnest variable interest rate loans are based on a publicly available index, the one month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Your rate will be calculated each month by adding a margin between 1.82% and 5.50% to the one month LIBOR. The rate will not increase more than once per month. Earnest rate ranges are current as of December 13, 2019, and are subject to change based on market conditions and borrower eligibility.

Auto Pay discount: If you make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic, monthly deduction from a savings or checking account, your rate will be reduced by one quarter of one percent (0.25%) for so long as you continue to make automatic, electronic monthly payments. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance.

The information provided on this page is updated as of 12/13/2019. Earnest reserves the right to change, pause, or terminate product offerings at any time without notice. Earnest loans are originated by Earnest Operations LLC. California Finance Lender License 6054788. NMLS # 1204917. Earnest Operations LLC is located at 302 2nd Street, Suite 401N, San Francisco, CA 94107. Terms and Conditions apply. Visit https://www.earnest.com/terms-of-service, email us at hello@earnest.com, or call 888-601-2801 for more information on our student loan refinance product.

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2 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Student loan Refinance: Fixed rates from 3.46% APR (with AutoPay) to 7.61% APR (without AutoPay). Variable rates currently from 2.31% APR (with AutoPay) to 7.61% (without AutoPay). Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at either 8.95% or 9.95% depending on term of loan. See APR examples and terms. Lowest variable rate of 2.31% APR assumes current 1 month LIBOR rate of 2.31% plus 0.75% margin minus 0.25% for AutoPay. If approved for a loan, the fixed or variable interest rate offered will depend on your credit history and the term of the loan and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account.

3 Important Disclosures for Figure.

Figure Disclosures

Figure’s Student Refinance Loan is a private loan. If you refinance federal loans, you forfeit certain flexible repayment options associated with those loans. If you expect to incur financial hardship that would impact your ability to repay, you should consider federal consolidation alternatives.

4 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

College Ave Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

1College Ave Refi Education loans are not currently available to residents of Maine.

2All rates shown include autopay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

3$5,000 is the minimum requirement to refinance. The maximum loan amount is $300,000 for those with medical, dental, pharmacy or veterinary doctorate degrees, and $150,000 for all other undergraduate or graduate degrees.

4This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a refi borrower with a Full Principal & Interest Repayment and a 10-year repayment term, has a $40,000 loan and a 5.5% Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $434.11 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $52,092.61. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 1/1/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.

5 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank National Association offering online lending products in all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Mortgage lending is not offered in Puerto Rico. All loans are provided by KeyBank National Association.
As used throughout these Terms & Conditions, the term “Lender” refers to KeyBank National Association and its affiliates, agents, guaranty insurers, investors, assigns, and successors in interest.

This term represents the actual cost of financing to the borrower over the life of the loan expressed as a yearly rate.


There are no origination fees or prepayment penalties associated with the loan. Lender may assess a late fee if any part of a payment is not received within 15 days of the payment due date. Any late fee assessed shall not exceed 5% of the late payment or $28, whichever is less. A borrower may be charged $20 for any payment (including a check or an electronic payment) that is returned unpaid due to non-sufficient funds (NSF) or a closed account.


For bachelor’s degrees and higher, up to 100% of outstanding private and federal student loans (minimum $5,000) are eligible for refinancing. If you are refinancing greater than $300,000 in student loan debt, Lender may refinance the loans into 2 or more new loans.
For eligible Associates degrees in the healthcare field (see Eligibility & Eligible Loans section below), Lender will refinance up to $50,000 in loans for non-ParentPlus refinance loans. Note, parents who are refinancing loans taken out on behalf of a child who has obtained an associates degrees in an eligible healthcare field are not subject to the $50,000 loan maximum, refer to https://www.laurelroad.com/refinance-student-loans/refinance-parent-plus-loans/ for more information about refinancing ParentPlus loans.


Borrower, and Co-signer if applicable, must be a U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident with a valid I-551 card (which must show a minimum of 10 years between “Resident Since” date and “Card Expires” date or has no expiration date); state that they are of at least borrowing age in the state of residence at the time of application; and meet Lender underwriting criteria (including, for example, employment, debt-to-income, disposable income, and credit history requirements).

Graduates may refinance any unsubsidized or subsidized Federal or private student loan that was used exclusively for qualified higher education expenses (as defined in 26 USC Section 221) at an accredited U.S. undergraduate or graduate school. Any federal loans refinanced with Lender are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment.

All loans must be in grace or repayment status and cannot be in default. Borrower must have graduated or be enrolled in good standing in the final term preceding graduation from an accredited Title IV U.S. school and must be employed, or have an eligible offer of employment. Parents looking to refinance loans taken out on behalf of a child should refer to https://www.laurelroad.com/refinance-student-loans/refinance-parent-plus-loans/ for applicable terms and conditions.

For Associates Degrees: Only associates degrees earned in one of the following are eligible for refinancing: Cardiovascular Technologist (CVT); Dental Hygiene; Diagnostic Medical Sonography; EMT/Paramedics; Nuclear Technician; Nursing; Occupational Therapy Assistant; Pharmacy Technician; Physical Therapy Assistant; Radiation Therapy; Radiologic/MRI Technologist; Respiratory Therapy; or Surgical Technologist. To refinance an Associates degree, a borrower must also either be currently enrolled and in the final term of an associate degree program at a Title IV eligible school with an offer of employment in the same field in which they will receive an eligible associate degree OR have graduated from a school that is Title IV eligible with an eligible associate and have been employed, for a minimum of 12 months, in the same field of study of the associate degree earned.


The interest rate you are offered will depend on your credit profile, income, and total debt payments as well as your choice of fixed or variable and choice of term. For applicants who are currently medical or dental residents, your rate offer may also vary depending on whether you have secured employment for after residency.


The repayment of any refinanced student loan will commence (1) immediately after disbursement by us, or (2) after any grace or in-school deferment period, existing prior to refinancing and/or consolidation with us, has expired.


After loan disbursement, if a borrower documents a qualifying economic hardship, we may agree in our discretion to allow for full or partial forbearance of payments for one or more 3-month time periods (not to exceed 12 months in the aggregate during the term of your loan), provided that we receive acceptable documentation (including updating documentation) of the nature and expected duration of the borrower’s economic hardship.

We may agree under certain circumstances to allow a borrower to make $100/month payments for a period of time immediately after loan disbursement if the borrower is employed full-time as an intern, resident, or similar postgraduate trainee at the time of loan disbursement. These payments may not be enough to cover all of the interest that accrues on the loan. Unpaid accrued interest will be added to your loan and monthly payments of principal and interest will begin when the post-graduate training program ends.

We may agree under certain circumstances to allow postponement (deferral) of monthly payments of principal and interest for a period of time immediately following loan disbursement (not to exceed 6 months after the borrower’s graduation with an eligible degree), if the borrower is an eligible student in the borrower’s final term at the time of loan disbursement or graduated less than 6 months before loan disbursement, and has accepted an offer of (or has already begun) full-time employment.

If Lender agrees (in its sole discretion) to postpone or reduce any monthly payment(s) for a period of time, interest on the loan will continue to accrue for each day principal is owed. Although the borrower might not be required to make payments during such a period, the borrower may continue to make payments during such a period. Making payments, or paying some of the interest, will reduce the total amount that will be required to be paid over the life of the loan. Interest not paid during any period when Lender has agreed to postpone or reduce any monthly payment will be added to the principal balance through capitalization (compounding) at the end of such a period, one month before the borrower is required to resume making regular monthly payments.


This information is current as of November 8, 2019 and is subject to change.

6 Important Disclosures for Splash Financial.

Splash Financial Disclosures

Terms and Conditions apply. Splash reserves the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. Rates and terms are also subject to change at any time without notice. Offers are subject to credit approval. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers.

7 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900). If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown. All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 1.76% effective November 10, 2019.

8 Important Disclosures for LendKey.

LendKey Disclosures

Refinancing via LendKey.com is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via LendKey.com. If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on LendKey.com reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it  endorse,  any educational institution.

Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments. The lowest advertised variable APR is only available for loan terms of  5 years and is reserved for applicants with FICO scores of at least 810.

As of 12/019/2019 student loan refinancing rates range from 1.90% to 8.59% Variable APR with AutoPay and 3.49% to 7.75% Fixed APR with AutoPay.

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

Published in Budgeting & Expenses,