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Travel in Retirement: Making the Most of America’s National Parks System

In the 1800s, Americans set out in covered wagons to explore the vast expanse of unsettled wilderness. What they sought varied, from farmland and homesteads to gold or unexpected adventures—but nearly all found a beautiful array of landscapes. Now, 200 years later, Americans pack their RVs with all the comforts of home, looking for rest and relaxation in nature.

Retirees, in particular, favor national parks as a way to explore America in their free time. Whether you’re visiting a park close to home for a weekend trip, or touring the country in an RV, the options are nearly endless. So how can you make the most of our national parks as a retiree?

Read on to learn more about the national park senior annual pass, volunteering opportunities, how and when to visit, and more tips for embracing America’s natural majesty.

Admission to National Parks for Seniors

First, a quick bit of history: Yellowstone was the world’s first true national park, established in 1872. And in 1916, the National Park Service (NPS) was officially founded. The NPS now regulates more than 430 sites across the United States, preserving more than 85 million acres of nature for our collective appreciation.

In a time when inflation has many people curtailing entertainment spending, national parks are a refreshingly cheap option. There are two main options for admission to national parks for seniors aged 62 and older: 

  • National park senior annual pass: $20
  • National park senior lifetime pass: $80

Both passes cover access to all U.S. National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands. If you purchase annual passes, hold on to them—you can trade four annual passes for a lifetime pass with no extra fees. And anyone with permanent disabilities can have the pass fee waived by providing documentation when applying.

Aside from entrance to national parks, the senior annual pass also entitles the holder to discounts on amenities such as camping, lodging, boat launch, and a variety of other activities.

While you don’t have to purchase an annual pass—many national parks are free and others charge low entrance fees—the low cost and extra discounts make it an easily justified purchase for any retirees looking to visit multiple national parks throughout the year.

Lodging Options for Visiting National Parks

When you picture visiting national parks, you might think back to childhood family trips. Long drives in full cars, camping in the dirt, and long hikes up steep mountain trails might not sound as appealing as they did when you were 12.

Thankfully, you don’t need to rough it to enjoy national parks. Campsites are still a mainstay, but many parks offer other lodging options:

RV parking and hookups

RVs have always been a popular option, blending the portability of a car with some of the comforts of a home or hotel. Overnight spots generally cost less than $30 per night, but can book up months in advance at popular parks. If you’re looking to tour the country in an RV, make your plans well in advance.

On-site lodges

Some of the larger national parks have on-site lodges, with accommodations ranging from cabins to hotels. While the prices can be a bit higher than hotels outside the park, the convenience of staying on-site means you spend less time in the car and more time enjoying nature.

Accessibility in National Parks 

In addition to lodging, national parks have focused on providing a rich experience to people of all ages and abilities over the past few decades. Many visitor centers are fully accessible, and some parks feature scenic walks along flat and well-paved paths. If you’re planning a visit and have specific needs or concerns, the NPS website includes an accessibility tool to discover what each park offers.

Best Time to Visit National Parks

One of retirement's great benefits is setting your own schedule. Using that flexibility to plan your visits to national parks can help you maximize your trip by avoiding crowds and extreme weather.

While the “best time to visit national parks” is subjective, here are a few tips to help you decide when to visit:

  • Try to avoid booking trips around spring break, Memorial Day, and Labor Day when kids are out of school and parks see huge crowds
  • Conversely, early May and late September are ideal—kids are back in school but the weather is still mild
  • If you're looking to travel during the winter, contact the park first—many national parks use the off-season to repair roads, trails, and other facilities
  • Match your desired activities to the time you're visiting—seasonal events like flower blooms, waterfalls, and animal migrations can elevate a national park trip from great to amazing
  • Some of the more popular parks books up months in advance, so plan accordingly

From Vast Canyons to Towering Mountains: Best National Parks for Seniors 

We’re lucky to have several national parks in Colorado that showcase our state’s staggering wealth of natural beauty. Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the crown jewels of the NPS, and sites like Red Rocks and Summit Lake offer amazing recreation within an hour of Denver.

If you’re looking to venture out a bit further, here are five top-rated national parks within a day’s drive of Colorado:

Grand Canyon National Park

Spanning over 1900 square miles, the Grand Canyon has views, drives, hikes, and rafting for people of all ages and abilities. Enjoy a drive and flat walk around the rim, or descend into the canyon for trekking and kayaking trips on the Colorado River ranging from an afternoon to a few weeks.

Grand Teton National Park

The Teton Range (a section of the Rocky Mountains in western Wyoming) is home to majestic mountains, placid lakes, and a wealth of wildlife. Hike through the foothills, relax on a leisurely boat ride, or take a scenic drive into the mountains.

White Sands National Park

If you live in Colorado, you’ve probably seen sand dunes, but not like these. Here, gypsum sand covers hundreds of square miles of desert, creating startling views and a unique ecosystem for flora and fauna.

Yellowstone National Park

Famous for its geysers and massive herd of bison, Yellowstone remains one of the country’s most popular parks. The area offers hiking, fishing, horse riding, and on-site accommodations ranging from backcountry camping to hotel-style lodges.

Zion National Park

Nestled in the southwestern corner of Utah, Zion National Park is home to immense canyon networks, waterfalls, rivers, and startling views. Hike through the park by day and stargaze by night, taking in views nearly untouched by urban light pollution.

Do More Than Just Visit: Volunteering Opportunities in National Parks 

Retirement is the perfect time to follow your passion by volunteering. And the National Park System has a wide variety of opportunities. Through their Volunteers-In-Parks (VIP) Program, you can work with them for one day or on a year-round basis in several different roles:

  • Interact with the public in educational or hosting roles
  • Help maintain and rebuild facilities, trails, and campgrounds
  • Assist in wildlife and environmental research
  • Support libraries and museums located within parks

If you’re interested in contributing financially, the National Park Foundation is a fully accredited charitable organization that directly supports America’s national parks. They offer a variety of programs, including custom fundraising, partnering with foundations, and accepting qualified charitable distributions.

Exploring the Retirement of Your Dreams

Planning for retirement is more than dollars and cents. It’s also about mapping out your ideal retirement lifestyle, and matching your finances to your retirement goals. One of the wonderful aspects of America’s national parks is that they’re accessible for nearly any budget or lifestyle.

Whether you’re looking to take day trips to top-rated national parks or tour the country in an RV, the NPS provides an opportunity to spend your retirement exploring the outdoors, staying active, and taking in the diverse landscapes our country has to offer.

Want to learn how your travel goals fit into your retirement lifestyle? Download our Essential Retirement Guide today.

Disclosure: For informational and educational purposes only and should not be construed as specific investment, accounting, legal, or tax advice. Certain information is based upon third-party data which may become outdated or otherwise superseded without notice. Third-party information is deemed to be reliable, but its accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. Indices are unmanaged baskets of securities and are not available for direct investment. Their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio nor do indices represent results of actual trading. Information from sources deemed reliable, but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Performance is historical and does not guarantee future results. Total return includes reinvestment of dividends and capital gains. Neither the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) nor any other federal or state agency have approved, determined the accuracy, or confirmed the adequacy of this article. By clicking on any of the links above, you acknowledge that they are solely for your convenience, and do not necessarily imply any affiliations, sponsorships, endorsements, or representations whatsoever by us regarding third-party websites. Wealth Legacy Institute is not responsible for the content, availability, or privacy policies of these sites, and shall not be responsible or liable for any information, opinions, advice, products, or services available on or through these third-party websites. The opinions expressed by featured authors are their own and may not accurately reflect those of Wealth Legacy Institute®.

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