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This was a hell of a year, leaving many of us scrambling to unwind in one of the country’s treasured natural places. If you’re looking to get outside without dropping cash at the entrance station (which can cost as much as $35 per car, depending on the park), you’re in luck. We’ve compiled a list of all the days the national parks are free in 2021, with tips on how you can get involved and celebrate during these park-centric holidays.
January 18: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday
Dr. King’s legacy in the parks system was cemented when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, flanked by rangers and throngs of supporters. These days his birth home and childhood neighborhood in Atlanta are a designated national historical park, and the 45-mile-long path of the voting rights march of 1965 was appointed as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Celebrated on the third Monday in January, this National Park Service holiday is also designated as a day of service, with abundant parks-related volunteer opportunities.
April 17: The First Day of National Park Week
National Park Week first started in 1991 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the NPS. Since then it has grown into a full-blown extravaganza of special events, digital programs, and family-friendly ranger talks designed to inspire stewardship and encourage more people to go outside and #FindYourPark. Celebrate by exploring a new location, donating to the National Park Foundation (a nonprofit that cohosts the week), or staying home, kicking up your feet, and enjoying one of these virtual Park Week experiences.
August 4: The Anniversary of the Signing of the Great American Outdoors Act
Though the last four years were often tumultuous and destructive to our nation’s public lands, there was one piece of bipartisan legislation that stood out among the fray. Aimed at tackling the $12 billion dollar park-maintenance backlog, the Great American Outdoors Act was signed on August 4, 2020, fully financing the Land and Water Conservation Fund and pledging $9.5 billion dollars over five years to address infrastructure needs. This new, fee-free day is being permanently introduced for the first time in 2021.
August 25: The National Park Service’s Birthday
When many of the national parks were first founded, they struggled to secure the funding and protection they desperately needed to ensure that future generations could enjoy them. Shepherds set their sheep loose to graze in Yosemite’s meadows, and vandals ravaged Yellowstone. Often it fell to the U.S. cavalry and its buffalo soldiers to police the parks. Eventually, it was determined that a central government agency was needed to finance and manage them effectively. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation that would establish the National Park Service. This year marks the 105th birthday of the institution, with virtual and in-person celebrations taking place across the country.
September 25: National Public Lands Day
Organized annually by the National Environmental Education Foundation, National Public Lands Day is held on the fourth Saturday of September and is the largest single-day volunteer event for the country’s public lands. This date is intended to inspire environmental stewardship, utilizing the hashtag #RecreateResponsibly, and most visitors who choose to volunteer within a park will receive a free one-day national park pass to come back and recreate in nature on their own time. Last year over 77,000 people participated in the organization’s 296 virtual and in-person events.
November 11: Veterans Day
The military has always played an integral role in maintaining and upholding our national parks. From mounted soldiers guarding giant sequoias to reserve officers of the U.S. Army leading Civilian Conservation Corps camps during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, many of the natural wonders we’re privileged to visit today exist in their pristine state because of military involvement. The Park Service also protects a large number of historic battlefields, historic sites, and military parks, leaving no shortage of places where you can explore and pay tribute on this day. In October, the Department of the Interior announced that all U.S. veterans and Gold Star families shall also receive free year-round access to the parks, encouraging them to decompress in more than 2,000 federal recreation areas.