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9 National Park and Monument Hikes to Beat the Crowds on Fee-Free Day

On April 20, all national parks in the U.S. will offer free admission. Skip the lines with our guide

National parks are meant to preserve and protect America’s most remarkable places for generations to come, but at the 115 parks that charge a fee, the price of entry can make them feel inaccessible for many. On fee-free days, however, the NPS goes gratis, waiving admission across the country.

“Fee-free days are always incredibly popular,” says Will Shafroth, president of the National Park Foundation, the NPS’s affiliate charity. “They inspire people to not only visit parks in their own backyard, but also perhaps venture out a bit further to a park they’ve never been to before.”

The second of these free days falls on Saturday, April 20th, the first day of National Park Week. Skip the crowds and find your own little bit of solitude with the list below.

Pinnacles National Park: High Peaks Trail

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Spring is the perfect time to visit California’s newest national park: wildflowers are still blooming, the sun is shining, and the temperatures aren’t yet too hot. The park gets its name from jagged volcanic rock formations that scientists estimate first formed 22 to 23 million years ago near modern-day LA, then moved north with the slips of the San Andreas Fault. Get up close and personal with the ancient rocky spires on the High Peaks Trail, which ascends 1,300 feet from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. Walk southeast from the parking area, then follow the trail north up into the aptly-named Steep and Narrow section. Continue along the High Peaks Trail, descending to the intersection with the Bench Trail. Follow this south until you reach the Bear Gulch Trail, which will take you back to the starting point for a 6.7-mile loop.

Joe Parks

White Sands National Monument: Alkali Flat Trail

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As a push to designate the world’s largest gypsum dune field a National Park makes its way through Congress, head to south-central New Mexico to discover the alien beauty of these serene sands. Despite being the most visited NPS site in the state, White Sands has plenty of room to spread out over its more than 140,000 acres. Circle around an ancient lakebed on the Alkali Flat Trail, a well-marked 5-mile loop. Despite the trail’s name, the route takes you up and down slippery sand dunes, so come prepared with plenty of water, food, and sun protection

NPS Photo

Canyonlands National Park: Chesler Park Loop Trail

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Utah’s five national parks have seen record visitation numbers in recent years, meaning packed parking lots and crowded trails. For some fee-free solitude, head to Canyonlands, home to colorful cliffs carved by the Green and Colorado rivers. In the park’s Needles region, discover panoramic views and otherworldly geologic features on the Chesler Park Loop Trail. From the Elephant Hill trailhead, the hike takes you through sandstone spires, slot canyons, and slickrock along an 11-mile loop marked with cairns. 

Murray Foubister

Haleakalā National Park: Sliding Sands Trail to Halāli’i and Pu’u Naue

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The 10,023-foot shield volcano Haleakalā, one of the most prominent mountains in the U.S., forms more than 75 percent of the Hawaiian island of Maui. Take in the remarkable sights of volcanic sands, craters, and the surrounding ocean on the Halāli’i and Pu’u Naue Trail. From the park’s visitor center next to the summit, hike down more than 2,500 feet to make your way around two of the valley’s cinder cones, Halāli’i and Pu’u Naue, then complete the 12.5-mile lollipop-loop back up to the visitor’s center.

Niagara66

Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Guadalupe Peak

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Everything’s bigger in Texas— except the crowds at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Home to the highest peak in the Lone Star State, the park received only 172,000 visitors last year, making it one of the country’s least visited parks. Tackle the park’s namesake, 8,749-foot Guadalupe Peak, on the Guadalupe Peak Trail, a difficult 8-mile out-and-back. From the Pine Springs Trailhead, follow the well-marked trail up through the high desert and pinyon pines as you gain 2,900 feet in elevation over 4 miles. The hike is strenuous – be sure to pack sunscreen, snacks, and plenty of water – but the views of the surrounding Guadalupe Mountains and expansive desert are worth it.

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Assateague Island National Seashore: Life of the Dunes to Pine Trees Campsite

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April might not be the best time for sunbathing on Maryland’s Atlantic shore, but mild temps mean less crowds and comfortable hiking along Assateague Island National Seashore’s vast, undeveloped stretches of sand. Hike among the island’s well known wild horses along a 9.5-mile out-and-back from the Life of the Dunes trailhead to the Pine Trees Campsite. The waterfront hike gives you the best the island has to offer, but come prepared for sudden storms— the island, after all, was connected to Ocean City until a powerful storm created an inlet in August 1933.

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park: Lower Paddock Creek Trail

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When Theodore Roosevelt first arrived in the Dakota territory in 1883, bison had nearly been hunted to extinction. Thanks to conservation efforts and protection laws, the population has rebounded to about 500,000 in North America, including over 200 in the south unit of the park. The park’s Lower Paddock Creek Trail gives you a good shot at seeing some herds as you hike along the eponymous creek. From the trailhead just off of Scenic Loop Drive, make your way east through classic Badlands scenery, then once you hit the intersection with the Talkington Trail, head back the way you came to complete a 7.2-mile out-and-back. The well-marked trail involves multiple creek crossings, so come prepared with waterproof boots.

Janice Shanks/NPS

Great Sand Dunes National Park: Star Dune

Great Sand Dunes
National Park Service

While other Colorado parks are still covered in snow, make your way to the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to explore North America’s tallest dunes. Any hike along a dune ridge is sure to provide unforgettable views, but you’re not here for just any hike: tackle the tallest dune on the continent, Star Dune, on an out-and-back or a loop. From the Dunes Parking lot, hike along Medano Creek about 2 miles until the prominent dune comes into view. Make your way along the North-South ridgeline to the top, then either head back the same way to complete an approximately 7.5-mile out-and-back, or head southwest from the top of Star Dune to reach the park’s most popular peak, High Dune. Once you’re thoroughly exhausted from hiking up and down the sand, follow the path back to the parking lot to complete the loop.

Patrick Myers/NPS

Saguaro National Park: King Canyon Trail to Wasson Peak

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April is wildflower season in Tucson, meaning colorful marigolds, paperflowers, and flowering cacti brighten up the desert landscapes of Saguaro National Park. Get an early start to avoid midday heat on the King Canyon Trail to Wasson Peak. Beginning at the trailhead on Kinney Road, hike 2.3 miles on the King Canyon Trail, then take a left to complete the 1.2-mile push to the summit. Descend along the same route to finish the 7.1-mile out-and-back. Bring plenty of water, as afternoon temps creep into the 90’s.

Burley Packwood