Best national parks to visit on free days

Rejoice, all ye turned away during the government shutdown. On these days, the 133 national parks that charge entrance fees—out of 401 parks total—will waive them, including the likes of Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Denali and Everglades National Parks.

But beyond these famous four, rangers at 129 additional parks, most lesser known, will be waving vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians through the entry gates with nary an extended palm (although other fees, such as those for camping and boats, still apply). The already-free parks will remain free.

The eight other fee-free days in 2014 include Presidents Day weekend (February 15 through 17), the first weekend of National Park Week (April 19 and 20), the National Park Service’s 98th birthday (August 25), National Public Lands Day (September 27) and Veterans Day (November 11), according to an NPS press release.

Now that the calendar is set, we thought we’d take the opportunity to pair these dates with seasonally appropriate mates. Parks in the Desert Southwest and Florida, for example, can be perfectly pleasant during the winter months—although we didn’t rule out one overlooked western park with unique winter charm. Likewise, some of the chillier parks feel just right come August, as do northeastern beaches.

Of course, the greatest expense in visiting these natural wonders is getting there. After all, gas and plane tickets aren’t cheap. So even if you can’t make it to one of our picks on the exact day listed, let this list serve instead as inspiration for your next national park adventure.

(Omar Infante-Ramos/The Active Times)

1. February 15—Canaveral National Seashore, FL

On the same barrier island as Kennedy Space Center is what the NPS calls “longest expanse of pristine shore in Florida—the way it used to be.” This protected patch of sand dunes and wetlands on the Atlantic Flyway is a birder’s paradise. Not only is winter one of the best times to see migratory species here, it’s also one of the most pleasant times to camp and fish around aptly named Mosquito Lagoon—with fewer of its namesake mosquitoes. Usual vehicle entrance fee is $5.

(Rob/The Active Times)

2. February 16—Cabrillo National Monument, CA

This monument on Point Loma overlooking San Diego Bay commemorates the the first landing by a European on the West Coast. Besides its historic lighthouse and panoramic views, Point Loma is a compact slice of nature in an urban setting, with its rugged coastal landscape and surprising variety of wildlife, including coyotes, foxes and rabbits. Winter is the best time to explore its teeming tidepools, and is also peak season for spotting gray whales as they migrate south to Baja. Usually $5 per vehicle, $3 per person.

(Zrim/The Active Times)

3. February 17—Saguaro National Park, AZ

This desert national park, bisected by the city of Tucson, is named for the nation’s largest species of cactus, the giant saguaro. The temperature is right in February for exploring its miles of front- and backcountry trails, and—if you’re in luck—is the beginning of wildflower season as blooming poppies begin to paint the desert floor in golden-yellow hues. Normal entry is $10 per vehicle/$5 per person.

(Nicola Stathers/The Active Times)

4. April 19—Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

What better place to celebrate the beginning of National Park Week than in the landscape that inspired the man so instrumental in expanding the national park system? As the North Dakota badlands begin to thaw out from the winter, the three unconnected islands of nature that comprise T.R. National Park spring to life with the wobbly energy of newborn bison and wild horses, absent the $10-per-vehicle fee.

(Satirenoir/The Active Times)

5. April 20—Shenandoah National Park, VA

This protected stretch of the Blue Ridge is only 70 miles west of Washington, D.C., making it the perfect place for urbanized Beltway folk to knock out an Appalachian Trail section hike on a spring day—while skipping the $15/vehicle entrance fee.

(Jasperdo/The Active Times)

6. August 25—Cape Cod National Seashore, MA

New Englanders can wish the National Park Service a happy 98th birthday while cooling off at the beach along Cape Cod’s 40 miles of protected shores. Entrance fees are usually $15 per vehicle and $3 per pedestrian or cyclist.

(Jdegenhardt/The Active Times)

7. August 25—Crater Lake National Park, OR

Because of its high elevation in the Cascade Range and huge annual snowfall—about 44 feet on average, according to the NPS—it’s not uncommon to see patches of snow on the ground into August. This makes for a short, but sweet summer season at the deepest lake in the United States, a collapsed volcanic caldera ringed by cliffs up to 2,000 feet high. From July to September all the roads encircling the lake are open, giving access to hiking, biking, boating, swimming and camping. Normal entrance is $10 per car, $5 per pedestrian or cyclist.

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