Where to Stay for Free Near 9 U.S. National Parks
The 59 U.S. National Parks, treasures of natural beauty, unique geology, diverse flora and fauna, and incomparable recreational features, celebrate National Park Week starting April 15. As part of the recognition, admission will be free during two weekends (April 15-16 and 22-23) – a great incentive to visit a park near you – or to plan a last-minute trip.
If you enjoy taking advantage of free opportunities and you’re open to new adventures and experiences, you might consider some unique options for visiting a national park and staying for free. Many of the parks offer volunteer work such as visitor assistance, wilderness restoration, artist-in-residence, minor upkeep, or clerical work, and provide housing in an assortment of campgrounds, RV facilities, and even cabins. Check individual park websites for information on volunteering, or learn more through the V.I.P. (Volunteers in Parks) Program.
Another choice – a classic win-win situation – is offered by Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization that builds awareness of ecological farming practices by linking organic farmers with visitors who help out in exchange for room and board. Several WWOOF-USA hosts are located conveniently close to national parks, allowing time for park exploration after the work is done. A past participant called her time as a WWOOFer "life changing."
To become a WWOOFer, just sign up for a membership online ($40 a year) and search the destination you'd like to visit.
The work — and education — includes planting, harvesting, cheese making, livestock handling, milking, and a range of other farm chores. The result: a greater understanding of sustainable organic farming, an unforgettable learning experience, and maybe even some new friends.
Visit Grand Teton National Park
Linked to Yellowstone National Park by John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming includes the Teton Range and Jackson Hole, the valley 7,000 feet below. The varied terrain includes forests, lakes, streams, meadows, and rocky canyons.
Home to 61 mammal species, visitors might encounter moose, elk, deer, bison, bears, wolves, or mountain lions. Bird-watching is popular with many species throughout the park, from the tiny calliope hummingbird (less than one-half ounce) to the trumpeter swan (the largest waterfowl in North America) as well as osprey, bald eagles, and the colorful tanager.
Hiking, backpacking, camping, climbing, boating, canoeing, and horseback riding are popular in summer, and in winter, visitors enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
This year’s solar eclipse on August 21 can be viewed in its totality from Grand Teton, with its center crossing through the park. Lodging is already booked, and rangers are making special arrangements to accommodate the anticipated influx of guests.
Stay at Generation Farms
Generation Farms, in Victor, Idaho in the Teton Valley, raises organic, soy-free poultry for eggs and meat, goats for organic farm-fresh cheese and yogurt, grass-fed pork, and crops that include soy, corn, strawberries, raspberries, pears, apples, cherries, plums, peas, beans, lettuce, sprouts, and root vegetables.
As a host for WWOOF-USA, the farm welcomes volunteers to help with chores in exchange for room, board, and an education in ecological agriculture.
Visit Rocky Mountain National Park
One of the highest national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park is located in northern Colorado. The park’s 48-mile Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in the United States, crosses the Continental Divide, traveling through the center of the park from lowland alpine meadows to its high point at 12,183 feet. The road, open in summer, offers many vista overlook points for admiring the scenery, observing wildlife, or taking photos.
With over 350 miles of trails, visitors can opt for a flat lakeside stroll or a challenging mountain climb. In addition, off-trail routes are available for back country hikes.
In summer, ranger programs, camping, fishing, horseback riding, and picnicking are popular. Winter sports include cross-country skiing, sledding, and snowshoeing. Elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, bears, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes can be spotted by visitors to the park.
Stay at Raisin’ Roots Farm
Less than an hour away in Fort Collins is Raisin’ Roots Farm, raising (hence, the name) a variety of 40 pesticide-free crops. Farmer Ben, the owner, says he currently has two WWOOFers helping with their chickens and pigs as well as with planting, harvesting, soil amendment, and other chores.
The volunteers have been “tremendous,” he says, and after three weeks of building, seeding, and crop bed preparation, WWOOFer Zoe calls her experience “awesome."
She especially appreciates the hands-on opportunity to learn about construction and irrigation from Ben, who studied vegetable farming through the University of Oregon and apprenticed with skilled farmers in Southern Oregon and Fort Collins.
Visit Denali National Park
Six-million-acre Denali National Park in Alaska is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2017. Its landscape ranges from low-level forest to high alpine tundra, with the tallest peak in North America, Denali (formerly called Mt. McKinley), at 20,310 feet high.
The park is popular with mountaineers, hikers, climbers, skiers, dog mushers, and visitors attracted by its rugged beauty and unique wildlife.
Moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, and red fox roam the park, and over 160 species of birds make it home during summer. Ranger programs include sled dog demonstrations, guided hikes, and informative talks, and bus trips carry sightseers along 91-mile Denali Park Road, the park’s only road.
Stay at Denali Organic Growers
Denali Organic Growers, in the foothills of the Alaska Range, won a 2014 WWOOF-USA small farm grant for their project to construct a WWOOFer education and community cabin.
Laura and Jimmie Hendricks have worked closely with WWOOF-USA for over 10 years, hosting interns in their summer apprentice program May to September and working with the volunteers on planting, harvesting, smoking food, curing meat, clearing brush, preserving vegetables, and caring for chickens. They focus on life skills, sharing their commitment to protect and preserve the planet, and teaching WWOOFers to live off the land for a sustainable lifestyle.
Visit North Cascade National Park
Washington’s North Cascades National Park spans the Cascade Crest, creating two distinct environments — temperate rainforest in the west and dry ponderosa pine ecosystem in the east. The park is almost entirely wilderness, despite its location in northern Washington, just 120 miles from Seattle-Tacoma Airport.
The park boasts about 300 lakes and over 300 glaciers, the most of any national park in the lower 48 states. In addition to park-sponsored ranger programs, many private companies offer activities in the North Cascades, including rafting, climbing, hiking and backpacking, and horse or llama packing trips.
Three mammals listed as endangered, the gray wolf, Canada lynx, and grizzly bear, can be found in the park in addition to coyotes, bobcats, cougars, moose, elk, otter, golden eagles, and bald eagles, plus 12 species of bats.
Stay at Forest Farmstead
A few hours away in Rockport, Washington is Forest Farmstead, a 23-acre off-grid forest, farm, and homestead nestled in the foothills of the North Cascades mountains. Owners Erin and Terrance integrate forestry, animal husbandry, orcharding, and vegetable crops on the land.
They raise heritage pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, and goats. WWOOFers stay in a “great big yurt” and do everything from gardening and animal care to construction, getting exposure to the full homesteading experience through hands-on and formal training.
Erin and Terrance are building a diverse economy that includes forest products, grass-fed meat, woodland botanicals, and row crops while providing educational experiences for volunteers through WWOOF-USA.
Visit Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California straddles the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. Its striking rock formations, hills, and varying elevations attract hikers, rock climbers, mountain bikers, and campers, who can choose from nearly 300 campsites.
Cactus gardens, wildflowers, and the twisted Joshua trees (named by Mormon Pioneers who saw the trees' limbs as reaching up in prayer) add to the unique landscape.
Although mainly dry desert, the park includes five fan palm oases, where underground water rises, creating a habitat for bighorn sheep, coyotes, quail, and insects. Clean air and dark night skies make stargazing another popular activity, with views of the Milky Way that are seldom seen in most light-polluted areas.
Stay at a Coachella Valley Farm
The park is not far from the Coachella Valley town of Mecca, where organic farming opportunities are available through WWOOF and Workaway. Visitors can grow mangoes, dates, oranges, and guava, or help with weeding, irrigation, pollination, and other chores in exchange for room and board.
In summer, dates are harvested in the mornings. On days off, volunteers explore Joshua Tree National Park and other wilderness areas, keeping a “healthy balance of work and play," according to a local farmer. A bonus is seeing bighorn sheep, coyotes, tortoise, deer, and other animals.
Visit Everglades National Park
The diverse habitats are home to hundreds of animal species including manatees, deer, bobcats, American crocodiles, panthers, and the dangerous and elusive Florida alligators, as well as 350 species of birds and 300 species of fish. The largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere supports wildlife and prevents coastal erosion.
Visitors enjoy biking, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, hiking, and camping. Ever hear of “slough slogging?” It’s wet, off-trail hiking, another way to experience Everglades National Park. For those who want to stay (mostly) dry, there’s a tram ride through Shark Valley and boat tours of Florida Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands. Another favorite activity is geocaching, an outdoor treasure hunt using GPS devices as guides.
Stay at Blue Horizon
Blue Horizon, a vegan farm in the agricultural section of Miami, grows tropical fruit, vegetables, and herbs. Volunteers perform various farming tasks including weeding, sifting and applying compost, planting, watering, and making garden beds.
Volunteers even have a chance to learn building, with a house under construction at the farm. WWOOFers work about 25 hours weekly in exchange for three meals daily, a sleeping cabin or tent, and an education in growing food and living sustainably.
Weekends are free to explore the area, and Laura of Blue Horizon describes nearby Everglades National Park as a serene place where humans can release their stress, connect with nature, and just breathe.
Visit Yellowstone National Park
The first national park in the United States (1872), Yellowstone is located mostly in Wyoming, with small parts in Montana and Idaho. The park is a favorite of visitors who enjoy its abundant wildlife and its unique hydrothermal features, especially Old Faithful, the famous geyser that erupts approximately once every 90 minutes, with intervals ranging from 35 to 120 minutes.
Yellowstone has over 10,000 hydrothermal features including hot springs, mudpots, fumaroles (steam vents), and geysers.
Summer is popular with visitors for camping, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, bicycling, and boating on the park’s lakes and rivers. In winter, when most roads are covered with snow, visitors enjoy skiing, snowshoeing, or touring on snowmobiles or snowcoaches.
Wildlife abounds, with bighorn sheep, bison, elk, moose, deer, bears, coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, and 150 species of birds nesting in the park.
Stay at Snowbird Homes & Land
Just 30 miles from Yellowstone, Jim Kozlik operates Snowbird Homes & Land, a homestead dedicated to sustainability.
Past WWOOFers have constructed bee houses, painted a mural on the house, composted soil, planted, harvested, and pulled weeds. Future plans include tiny home building, permaculture design, and sandbag earth homes.
This program provides an opportunity for WWOOFers to experience the transition from a traditional lifestyle to an alternative lifestyle of sustainability, while combining work and vacation among the wonders of Yellowstone, the national forest, and other nearby wilderness areas.
Visit Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains is known for its granite cliffs and rock formations, giant sequoia trees, waterfalls, and gorgeous scenery. Half Dome, 5,000 feet above the valley floor, is one of the most recognizable granite rock formations, along with the 3,000-foot-high El Capitan, a favorite of rock climbers.
Artists and photographers have been inspired by its beauty, and a gallery at the park is named after one of its best known photographers, Ansel Adams. Hiking, fishing, horseback riding, bird-watching, and camping are popular activities in Yosemite.
Stay at Kern Farms
Nearby in North Fork, Kern Farms has hosted 500 young people through WWOOF over the last eight years, offering room, board, and unforgettable experiences while sharing chores such as weeding (a constant necessity at organic farms), planting, or harvesting.
At The Gnarly Carrot, their year-old organic market, the Kern family sells their products and other local goods. Hansel Kern is committed to his goal of exposing young folks to farming, not necessarily to create future farmers, but to develop a greater appreciation of the source of our food and the value of ecological agriculture.
Visit Shenandoah National Park
The Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley encompass Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, less than 100 miles away — but worlds apart — from Washington, D.C. One of the park’s most notable feature is the Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that runs along a ridge with spectacular scenery the entire way.
Forests, wetlands, rocky peaks, and wooded hollows comprise the diverse environment of the park, and waterfalls, from small cascades along streams to large thundering falls, are popular destinations for hikers.
A 100-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail is included in the 500 miles of hiking trails in the park. Hikers might spot deer, squirrels, black bears, coyotes, raccoons, beavers, woodchucks, owls, or falcons.
Stay at Brightwood Vineyard and Farm
Brightwood Vineyard and Farm, a 100-acre family farm in Madison County, central Virginia, produces wine, organic berries, grapes, vegetables, and herbs and raises meat goats, sheep, and laying hens with the goal of being sustainable both economically and ecologically.
Susan Vidal was enthusiastic about WWOOFers who have worked at the farm on planting, harvesting, and various farm chores depending on the needs of the season. The WWOOFers not only learn about agriculture, but they bring their own skills to the farm, making it a wonderful experience for everyone, according to Susan.
The national park entrance is a short drive away, and walking trails leading up to Skyline Drive are nearby.