Traveling in the United States is notoriously NOT cheap. We’ve got limited public transport. High food prices. And the super expensive accommodation certainly doesn’t make the US the best country for budget travel. But if you don’t mind sleeping under the stars (sounds ideal, really) and cooking for yourself, US National Park Road Trip costs might be a lot less than you think.
We spent two months in the summer of 2019 traveling between some of the most awesome National Parks in the US. While we spitballed how much we thought it would cost, we would have loved to have a more complete picture of what we’d actually spend during our two-month road trip.
You may have considered things like park entrance, gas, food and drink, campsites and motels, but what about getting your vehicle up to snuff? Or investing in the right gear? How about permits and entertainment?
So it’s clearer for you, here’s a complete overview of how much a US National Park road trip costs, what you can expect to spend money on, and a breakdown of the daily costs on our own road trip.
Our US National Park road trip was spread across two months in 2019. We traveled through the Southwest (Arizona, Utah, Colorado) and Northwest (California, Oregon, Washington, Montana), and our average cost per person per day was $30-$50. There are tons of variables that went into this, so take a look below for a more detailed analysis of how I came to this figure.
National Park Entrance Fees
National Park entrance fees at the US National Parks range from free-$35 per vehicle. But if you’re visiting more than three National Parks, it’s almost always a better investment to get an America the Beautiful Pass ($80) upfront.
I wrote a whole article about why you should buy an America the Beautiful pass, but the short answer is that it affordably grants you admissions to more than 2,000 US National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands across the United States for one year. It covers your National Park entrance fee, standard amenity fees, and day-use fees for your car (with up to four adult passengers) but excludes things such as parking, RV hookups, camping, shuttles, boat launches, and guided tours.
It’s good at a TON of places, but keep in mind that all non-federal lands (like State Parks and Forests!) are excluded. It’s also worth noting that some regions have their own Regional Park passes that can help you save on entrance fees.
Total Cost: $80 with an America the Beautiful Pass, plus admission to any excluded parks.
Vehicle & Gas Expenses
The cheapest option for National Park travel is to use your own car or borrow a vehicle. This implies you already have a car big enough for your gear and reliable enough to travel into remote areas with… would be nice, right? But if you don’t, rental cars and camper vans are a similarly good option and a lot more affordable than you might think.
If you own a car…
You have the benefit of traveling with a car that you know and trust. It’s generally cheaper to travel in your own vehicle, too. The main drawback is that you’ll be putting a lot of miles on your car.
Before leaving on your trip, schedule to have it fully serviced (varies). Get the tires rotated, the oil changed, the fluids topped, the break pads tested, and everything else you can reasonably afford to do. A US Parks Road Trip will add up to a lot of miles and a lot of wear and tear on your vehicle, so you’ll want to be in a good spot going into it.
You also ought to check the terms of your current auto insurance plan to ensure you have the right kind of coverage. Call your provider to make sure your minimum coverage levels are set for the states you’re visiting and that you have liability protection for your passengers. Comprehensive coverage might also be worth considering while you’re on the road, and otherwise leaving your car on its own and exposed to the elements. A AAA membership can also be a worthy investment! Roadside Assistance for a lockout or flat tire can be a total lifesaver, and it’s well worth the membership fee (starts from $59).
Finally, you’ll want to make sure your car is equipped with emergency supplies like jumper cables and stuff for a flat tire.
Total Cost: Varies
If you’re renting…
The big benefit of renting is that most rental companies take care of the pre-trip maintenance and insurance stuff for you. The drawback is that car rental tends to be more expensive and a little less relaxed than traveling in your own vehicle.
You can definitely do a US Parks road trip in a standard car. Just be sure to choose a car with enough space for your stuff (and perhaps one with 4WD). And since you’re going to be driving it hard, be sure to review the included insurance policy thoroughly to make sure you’re covered.
Hertz has car rental pickup locations across the country and their car rentals are competitively priced. They also have a program for drivers aged 20-25 who are unable to rent a car from other major agencies (starting from about $50 per day including tax).
If you’re interested in traveling by campervan, you’ll get a bit of extra room and so much road trip steez. Escape offers fully-equipped campervans which you’ll see everywhere in the parks. While they don’t have 4WD or get as good of gas mileage as a regular car, you might be able to save by having an indoor spot to sleep on the nights you would otherwise splurge on a hotel room (starting from around $90 per day before mileage and insurance)
Total Cost: About $50 per day for a rental car and $100 per day for a camper van
Gas is a tough road trip cost to estimate since prices fluctuate all the time and from one region to the next.
Between parks, you’ll be traveling on the open road and can expect to get good gas mileage. The less you move around, the less you can expect your road trip gas costs to be. Some of the major parks like Zion and Glacier have an incredible shuttle network, so you might be able to leave your car at camp and get around without getting behind the wheel. Other parks are entirely reliant on having your own vehicle. And if they’re big enough, this could mean a lot of driving.
Depending on your vehicle’s fuel efficiency and tank size, let’s say you’ll spend $30-$70 per tank. We were getting just under 500 miles per tank of gas in our Subaru, so you can calculate your gas costs depending on how much ground you’re planning to cover.
Total Cost: $30-$70 per tank
There is some gear that is really worth investing in and lots of other stuff that’s less important (ie. you’ll still need it, but you can make do with anything).
In my opinion, you should really love your tent since it will be your home for the foreseeable future. A good tent will be lightweight enough for backpacking trips and sturdy enough to withstand the elements (starting from $100-$200). Along with that, you should choose a mid-range sleeping bag ($200-$300) and a sleeping pad ($50) that is comfortable enough and warm enough for the season you’re traveling.
Other essential gear that you should spend money on is your camp kitchen (about $100) and cooler (from $50) since you’ll be depending on those for most of your meals. You can buy this stuff new or get it used. It works perfectly fine either way.
Bottom line is that outdoor gear is a really easy money pit to fall into. Stuff to outfit your car, technical clothes, camp “essentials”. If you’re trying to get by with low road trip costs, don’t get caught in all the things that you could buy and take a more practical look at what you need, what you already have, and what you can improvise.
If you’re going for a shorter trip, many outdoor stores will let you rent their gear for a low price per day. This can be cheaper for the short term, but it might outweigh the savings if you use it as a longterm plan. Secondhand gear is another great way to stock up on things you need while keeping your gear costs low.
Total cost: Varies
Food & Drink
Since you’ll sometimes be miles from the nearest town, you’ll be doing a ton of grocery shopping and camp cooking. Hope you like eating all your food in BOWLS!
Every town where people live will have shops to stock up on essentials, but these small stores can be expensive for your big shops. I’d especially recommend avoiding the markets within the National Park villages as you’ll pay at least 3x more. The most affordable way to grocery shop is to do a big shop in supermarkets in between parks. Even if you have to drive a bit out of your way, using a supermarket where normal people shop (rather than ones set up for tourists) will save you a lot in the long run.
This is a tough category to estimate, but we usually shopped for 3-5 days of food at a time with limited meat and luxury items. Our grocery budget (without alcohol) came out around $100 per shopping trip, or roughly $10 per person per day or $3-4 per person per meal.
Where it is possible to go out to eat, prices are hugely regional. Some towns exist solely to serve the National Parks. In those, you should expect to pay upwards of $20 if you go out to dinner. If you go to local spots, this gets down to around $12-15 per meal. Fast food meals will cost you anywhere from $5-$10, but while you can count on these establishments in the rest of the country, they aren’t always between parks.
Total Cost: $10 per day with cooking or $50 per day with dining out.
Camping, Hotel & Lodge Costs
Pretty much anywhere near the National Parks, you’ll find inexpensive and fantastic campsites.
Typically the cheapest place to camp is on BLM land. You’ll find both dispersed and developed campgrounds all across the country ($0-$10 per night).
The next most affordable camping is in the National Parks ($14-$25 per night, plus a service fee) but these sites are hugely competitive. Be sure to book early if you’re banking on staying here. For whatever reason, State Park campgrounds tended to be the most expensive on our trip ($30 per night). But they’re oftentimes really nice and available when National Parks are overbooked. Most campsite reservations are handled through recreation.gov.
Other Accommodation Costs
If you’re not big on camping, there are also all kinds of indoor accommodation both within and between parks. The cheapest road trip accommodation is motels, which are almost as affordable as camping if you stay in non-destination places ($40-$70). If you’re not overly concerned with cost, bed & breakfasts and hotels tend to be cleaner and consistently nicer ($70+). We used booking.com and made most of our reservations the same-day.
Another splurge is the National Park lodges or hotels ($100+). You can get out all day and still have the comfort of sleeping indoors without ever leaving the park. Like campsites, these usually book up months in advance so you’ll need to plan ahead. You can find these on the nps.gov site for the respective parks.
Total Cost: Average $20 per night for camping or $70 per night for other accommodation.
Permits, Tours, & Activities
Once you have the gear, doing stuff outdoors on your National Park road trip costs absolutely nothing. The National Parks are full of opportunities for hiking, running, sightseeing, and scenic driving. You can check out free park films at the visitor center or listen to their lecture series. Hang out at camp and just enjoy where you are. You really don’t need to budget much for activities in the parks, with a few exceptions.
First of all, getting the equipment for activities like snowshoeing, biking, or kayaking is an expensive undertaking. You don’t necessarily need technical fabric and polarized sunglasses to do them, but the equipment isn’t so easily improvised. If there’s a big draw to a certain activity, but you don’t want to own it forever, look online. Sometimes the parks will rent them, or you can find it cheaper from local operators near the park.
Other exceptions to the free for all are if you hire a guide, book a tour, arrange for transport to a trailhead, or reserve backpacking permits. The good news is that most of these still aren’t wildly expensive. Tours offered by the National Park are inexpensive (from $5) and backpacking permits are affordable too (from $10-20). Boat tours or canyoneering, on the other hand, get much more expensive. It’s a cost-benefit analysis here!
Total Cost: Varies
Maps, Apps, & Entertainment
A final thing to account for on your US National Park road trip costs are the maps, apps, and entertainment. They might not sound necessary, but you’ll definitely need them along the way.
Google Maps is the best resource for driving directions, and its totally free. Make your maps available offline for when you inevitably lose service.
At the entrance of most parks, you’ll get a free park map that covers the layout and hiking trails. That said, if you plan on any backcountry travel, you should invest in a detailed topographical map of the park. My favorites are the National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps (starting from $15).
Apps & Entertainment
You’ll have lots of time on the road, sometimes without service for streaming. We used the hell out of our offline playlists on Spotify ($10 per month). We also downloaded tons of podcasts (free) to get us through.
Another app we found useful was Libby (free). It grants you digital access to all the eBooks and audio books from your local libarary. All you need is an active library card to use it.
Before you go, stock up on crossword puzzles, books, and other activities to pass the time at camp.
Cost: Free to as much as you want to spend.
How Much Our National Park Road Trip Cost
Our US National Park road trip was spread across two months in 2019. We traveled through the Southwest (Arizona, Utah, Colorado) and Northwest (California, Oregon, Washington, Montana). Based on the categories outlined above, we spent…
National Park Entry Fees: $80 on an America the Beautiful Pass. About $100 on other park entrance fees.
Vehicle & Gas Costs: We traveled with our own vehicle. On average, we spent $15 per day in gas. The actual daily costs were lower for driving within the park and a bit higher for driving between parks.
Gear Costs: We already owned a lot of things, but both spent at least $300 on supplementary gear and equipment.
Food & Drink Costs: Our food costs averaged $10 per person per day when we cooked for ourselves. When we splurged on dining out, this was closer to $30 per person. We stocked up on beer or wine about once a week, so I’d estimate our weekly cost for alcohol was $30.
Campsite, Hotel, & Lodge Costs: We camped, almost exclusively, in National Park campsites, averaging $20 per site. When we did go for a motel (appx weekly), we stayed in ones that were under $70 per night.
Permits, Tours, and Activities Costs: Most days of our trip, our activities costs came in at $0. Our only real expenses were backcountry permits and transport to a trailhead, bringing this to about $2.50 per day.