National Park Vacations for Retirees

Emily Brandon

Visiting a national park as a retiree is one of the most affordable and beautiful vacations you could take this summer. Here's how to make the most of your trip:

Purchase a senior pass. U.S. citizens age 62 and older can purchase a senior pass for just $10 that entitles them to lifetime free admission to over 2,000 federal recreation sites, national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees at national forests and grasslands. The pass also covers the entrance fee for other passengers in a personal vehicle at sites that charge by the vehicle, or it covers up to four adults at places that charge fees for each person. In some cases, the senior pass also provides a 50 percent discount on charges for facilities and services including camping, swimming, boat launch and guided tours.

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The most inexpensive way to buy a senior pass is in person at a federal recreation site for $10. "Many folks who turn age 62 will go to the closest national park area on their birthday to purchase the senior pass," says Joan Anzelmo, a retired National Park Service employee. The price doubles to $20 if you purchase a senior pass via mail from the United States Geological Survey, and it takes about 25 days to process. If you need your pass sooner, the USGS recommends purchasing it at the first site you visit or requesting expedited shipping on your order. The federal government sells between 550,000 and 600,000 senior passes each year. The most popular places to buy them include Grand Canyon National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. "An interesting case is Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida, which also sells more than 20,000 per year -- quite a bit for a smaller park," says NPS spokeswoman Kathy Kupper. You will need proper identification to buy a pass, such as a U.S. driver's license, green card or U.S. passport, and you may need to show photo identification to verify pass ownership on subsequent visits.

Choose nonpeak times to visit. If your schedule has some flexibility, try to visit popular sites at a time when they are not thronged with other tourists. "Spring and fall can be a time to visit popular areas of parks when they are not as crowded as they would be in the height of the summer," Anzelmo says. "Get up early when most people are taking their time to have breakfast, or go out when everybody else is eating dinner, and you may have an advantage of less busy times."

Pick appropriate trails. National parks tend to have trails that are accessible to people of all fitness levels. "If you are looking at a map or guidebook and you see anything that is named a 'nature trail' rather than a 'hiking trail,' those are the ones you want to head to first," says Michael Oswald, author of "Your Guide to the National Parks." "These are trails that are suited to people of all sorts of ability. They're usually flat, they're usually paved and they generally have signage telling you what you are looking at."

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Remain vigilant. In many parks, there is the possibility that you might come into contact with a bear, fox or mountain lion. There are urban dangers as well. "In general, the wildlife interactions are few and far between," Oswald says. "One thing to be cautions of is the traffic." A distracted driver trying to snap a picture of a deer on the side of the road can be more dangerous than a bear.

Book early. Lodging within the park can be difficult to come by at the height of summer. "You can't expect to book at the last minute and get lodging," Oswald says. "Probably the No. 1 thing people need to know is to book your trip early."

Consider volunteering. National parks have a variety of volunteer opportunities that are typically filled by retirees. "Most national parks have volunteer-in-the-park programs, and retirees perform a very large proportion of the volunteer workforce throughout the country," Anzelmo says. "Some volunteers will serve by staffing the visitor center, some will staff events and others will do trail maintenance, invasive weed projects or catalog photographs."

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Take your time. In some parks, the most famous sites are spread out, and it's easy to spend your trip driving from one must-see site to the next. But you might have a more enjoyable time if you pick one area and fully explore it. "Take a few moments and enjoy nature and experience the whole thing, instead of crossing off the checklist as quickly as you can," Oswald says. "I don't think people take enough time in these places, and they are incredibly special."

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