The national parks are America’s wild playground. Some charge a nominal entry fee, but once you’re in, they’re full of fantastic free escapades. Go on a budget-friendly adventure with this extract from our money-saving guide, The Best Things in Life are Free.

A woman hikes along the cliff edge in Maine's Acadia National Park
Conquer your fear of heights at Acadia National Park

Vertical hiking at Acadia

The 1.8 mile/3.2km-long Precipice Trail at Acadia National Park dramatically ascends the east face of Champlain Mountain, along super-narrow ledges with vertical climbs up via ferrata-style rungs. Make it happen: Nps.gov/acad; opening hours vary; $15 individual 7-day pass.

Steam rises from a river as about 15 people sit in the swiftly moving river. National Parks: The best free things to do in the US parks
People soaking in Boiling River, Yellowstone National Park © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Wild hot-tubbing at Yellowstone

Park on the 45th parallel in Yellowstone National Park and follow the steam to Boiling River, a bathing spot where hot springs enter Gardner River to create perfect soaking conditions. Make it happen: Nps.gov/yell; 24hr; $20 individual 7-day pass.

White flowers bloom on a tree that hangs over a gently cascading waterfall. National Parks: The best free things to do in the US parks
Watch your step as you gaze at the wild flowers blooming in the Smoky Mountains © Betty4240 / Getty Images

Flower power in the Smokies

More than 1500 wildflowers explode into colour beneath the Appalachians at Great Smoky Mountains National Park during spring. Go backcountry hiking and wild camping ($14 to $23 per night) amid the blooming ephemerals. Watch out for black bears. Make it happen: Nps.gov/grsm; 24hr; free.

Brilliant blue seas surround a moat, which surrounds an old fort, with a sand bar in the foreground. National Parks: The best free things to do in the US parks
Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Snorkel around a fort at Dry Tortugas

Seventy miles (110km) from Key West, perched on a coral atoll, Fort Jefferson is the scene of much marine activity in Dry Tortugas National Park. Snorkel around the moat and sea wall, amid fish, coral and wrecks. Make it happen: Nps.gov/drto; 24hr; $5 7-day pass.

A beautiful waterfall flows over giant boulders with a mountain rising up behind. National Parks: The best free things to do in the US parks
Bask in the beauty of Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park © Bjorn Alberts / Getty Images

Waterfall walking at Yosemite

The best short hike in the epic Sierra Nevada nirvana of Yosemite National Park, this 6.5 mile/10.4km-long trail passes through the thundering mist created by two magnificent cascades: Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. Make it happen: Nps.gov/yose; 24hr; $20 individual 7-day pass.

Bears jump up against each other as two more watch from behind. National Parks: The best free things to do in the US parks
Coastal brown bears relax and play near a creek in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska © Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty Images

Go bear at Katmai

Few encounters are as exciting as running into a big brown bear in one of the US national parks. Fortunately, at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park in Alaska, the bears have tastier fish to fry than you. July-September is the best time to see them. Make it happen: Nps.gov/katm; 24hr; free.

The milky way is seen clearly rising above some trees; National Parks: The best free things to do in the US parks
Head to Great Basin National Park for some top-notch star gazing © Gromit702 / Getty Images

Moon-walking at Great Basin

Two hours’ drive from the neon glow of Vegas, the night sky at Great Basin National Park is so clear you can regularly see five planets. Rangers offer free lunar-lit night hikes in summer when there’s a full moon. Make it happen: Nps.gov/grba; 24hr; free.

A river flows through green hills and rocky bluffs; National Parks: The best free things to do in the US parks
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a beautiful example of badlands landscape © Comstock Images / Getty Images

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota © Comstock Images / Getty Images

‘Hunt’ bison at Theodore Roosevelt

Follow in the footsteps of the Conservationist President in the park named in his honor, by exploring the badland prairies and fixing a mighty bison in your camera’s crosshairs at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Make it happen: Nps.gov/thro; 24hr; $15 individual 7-day pass.

Chaco Culture National Monument © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet
Chaco Culture National Monument © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

Travel through space and time at Chaco

A dark-sky park, Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico has terrestrial wonders to complement its heavenly delights, with 1,000-year-old Puebloan ruins, built to align with the stars during the equinox. Rangers offer free tours. Make it happen: Nps.gov/chcu; 7am-sunset; $15 individual 7-day pass.

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