Follow the Golden Eagle: National-Parking Your Way Across the Country

by Anne Clay Cernyar

"Yellowstone Park?" I asked, looking at our atlas. "Can't we see the whole thing in just one day?"

"No," my husband, wiser than I, replied. "We can't." He was right. Let's just say that I was a little overly optimistic! As I soon discovered, even three days was not enough time . . .

It wasn't until my husband and I toured across the nation one summer that we realized the sheer multitude of offerings available through the National Park Service. We discovered guided tours of historical cities and enjoyed demonstrations of American industry. We marveled at rainforests and redwoods, explored lava tubes and incredible caverns, hiked rugged coastlines, photographed lighthouses, and peered into ancient cave dwellings. As a matter of fact, once we discovered the National Park system, many of our travel plans revolved around the NPS sites available in each region of the country.

The Pocketbook

The best part of all this? Some of these activities are free, thanks to your tax dollars. For example, take ranger-guided tours of Boston's "Freedom Trail" or New Orleans's "French Quarter." (Compare that to a privately guided tour costing $15 or more!) Other sites have minimal entrance fees, ranging from $5 to $20 per vehicle. Some sites offer yearly passes for that location only - a great deal if you plan to visit frequently.

If you plan to explore several parks in a year, the "Golden Eagle Passport" costs $50. This pass allows entry to most National Park sites and is valid for one year. When you travel by a private vehicle, the passport admits the passholder and passengers. It is valid only for entry fees, and does not cover special use fees for camping, swimming, etc. (Note, not all park sites charge extra for these services, anyway.)

Discounted passes are also available for U.S. residents age 62+ and for travelers who are permanently disabled or blind.


Many NPS facilities have rental cabins or campgrounds. While some tent sites are free, it is more likely that you'll pay for the privilege of staying in the park. Depending on the availability of other nearby campgrounds (private campgrounds, state parks, or the National Forest), you may want to explore the park during the day and spend the night elsewhere.

Some National Park campgrounds take reservations, while others are first-come, first-served. Check before you go! More popular campgrounds fill up rapidly, some as early as 9:00 a.m. during peak season. Facilities (hot water, dumping stations, etc.) vary, and may be primitive.

On a Serious Note

If you plan to camp or explore in a National Park, be sure to take the precautions advised by the Park Service - and then some! For example, the grizzlies in Glacier National Park are nothing to tangle with. Unfortunately, many tourists are unaware of just how fast an angry mama bear can move. Some fatalities could have been prevented with proper precautions.

Other parks have other dangers - unpredictable surf, stinging jellyfish, boiling-hot springs, avalanches, labyrinths of twisted rock, or unexplored caverns. A little common sense will go a long way!

Junior Rangers

If you have children along, another helpful service offered by many sites is the Junior Ranger Program. The cost varies from park to park, but is not usually more than a few dollars. Youngsters join the program by going to the visitor center and obtaining a worksheet or workbook that lists the requirements usually a selection of activities that help children explore the wonders of the park. Activities may include identifying natural features or attending free ranger programs. Upon completion, the children are awarded a pin or badge. (If your children will complete programs in a lot of different parks, why not sew the collected badges onto a baseball cap or vest?)

For the truly creative parent with time to spare, save a few dollars by designing your own program. Look over the free park brochures ahead of time and plan a "treasure hunt" with a list of creatures/plants for your children to identify. A more elaborate version would encourage the children to photograph important features and collect their memories in a scrapbook. Keep in mind that they may not be able to collect plants or rocks inside the park, as this is sometimes illegal.

More Information

Want to know more? Check out the National Park Service website at Then pack up and head out-from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from Alaska to the Rio Grande, the National Park Service may have just the vacation to suit your family without breaking the budget. I hope you'll have just as much fun as we've had, following the "Golden Eagle."

Anne Clay Cernyar writes from Alabama where she enjoys planning budget trips with her husband. Comments? Drop Anne a note at

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