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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.