With or Without a Stimulus Package, National Parks Can Be Economical Vacation Destinations

National parks offer great settings for grandchildren to spend time with their grandparents.

With all the economic doom and gloom of late, it'll be a miracle if anyone goes away for a vacation this year. At the very least, folks will be looking for bargains, and that's where the National Park System comes into play.

Along with offering bargains, national parks can provide settings for a melding of generations, for families separated by the professional demands to spend time together in beautiful settings, to reconnect, for grandparents to spend time with their grandchildren. That was the case about a decade ago when the accompanying photo was taken. Even though my father had worn out knees and a somewhat mild heart condition, he was determined to make the trek to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park with my sons. My dad passed nearly four years ago, and though my sons no doubt don't think often about this hike with him, the picture will bring it all back to them again and again as the years continue to pass.

The price of this memory? Relatively nothing. Driving to Moab from Salt Lake City was about three tanks' of gas roundtrip, the motel rooms were not much more than $100-$125 a night, and my National Parks Pass (this was before the America the Beautiful Pass came to be) got us all into Arches for no charge. Along with hiking to Delicate Arch, we also saw Wolfe Ranch, Landscape Arch, the Windows Section, Park Avenue, and spent a day next door at Canyonlands National Park where we visited Mesa Arch, Whale Rock, gazed into Upheaval Dome and gazed from the Green River Overlook.

Now, let's look at the competition. If you take a family of four (three members age 10 or more, one under 10), to Disney World for one day, you'll pay nearly $300 (you can do the calculations at this site) for the privilege of passing through the gate. The Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida? Buy online and one park for one day will only cost you $73 per ticket.

How much more you'll spend on hotels and meals, well, you can imagine.

Now, if you go to Yellowstone National Park, it'll cost that same family of four just $25 to pass through the gate -- and that entry pass is good for seven days. Go to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and it won't cost you anything, as there are no entry fees at that park.

How else are park vacations economical? Read on.

* Now, you can spend a small fortune eating out, whether you're at Universal Studios or Yosemite. But you can pare that cost by packing a cooler and bringing it to the park with you. There's no law against shopping at gateway town groceries and loading your car up before you enter the park of your choice. Of course, you have to be smart about what you leave in your car if you're in bear country, but with some careful planning you can save quite a bit of lunch money (and breakfast, and maybe dinner money, as well).

* A meal in a historic park hotel is a unique experience, and doesn't have to cost a kings ransom. Cost saving tips? Eat your main meal at lunch instead of in the evening. Example: the dining room in the Prince of Wales hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park (the Canadian companion park to Glacier National Park in Montana) has huge picture windows with a world class view of the Rockies ringing Waterton Lake. The noon meal is much more affordable than dinner and has a similar menu. Check other park dining rooms for early bird specials in late afternoon, and for kid's menus.

* You also can save on lodging in parks by reserving a spot in a campground and foregoing the lodge. Do that and not only will you shave a considerable amount off the cost of your vacation, but you'll also be closer to the nightly campfire program.

* Worried your kids will think national parks are boring? Take them on a hike -- or to climb a mountain! Teens looking for a challenge are perfect candidates for one or two days of climbing school at Grand Teton, Mount Rainier, or Yosemite national parks. Those who like to get wet will love any of the national seashores, and when was the last time your offspring saw a bull moose, bison, or bald eagle in the wild?

* Today's ranger programs are great ways to introduce your kids to nature and environmental consciousness, and the science-based talks might even teach them a little something about carbon footprints and carrying capacities. A few days spent in a national park can go a long, long way to getting your kids interested in conservation, environmentalism, even zoology.

* Water slides? Check out the stream tubing at Great Smoky, the body surfing at Cape Cod National Seashore, or the rafting at Olympic or Glacier. Kite flying? head to Cape Hatteras National Seashore and not only can you fly your kite, but you can learn how to hang glide! Snowball fights in July? Head for Paradise in Mount Rainier.

* Truly curious kids, kids who aren't afraid of tight spots or dark places, will get a kick out of the wild cave tours offered at Mammoth Cave National Park and Sequoia National Park.

* Most parks have a Junior Ranger Program that's either free or offered at a minimal cost; kids complete the activities and get a junior ranger badge or patch.

* Some parks -- such as Canyonlands -- will loan out a small backpack with items to help enjoy learning about the park (hand lens, binoculars, nature guides, etc.) Again, free of charge or a nominal deposit, returned when the kit is brought back to the visitor center.

* School schedules aren't consistent in all parts of the country, which means if you live in an area where summer vacation begins by the end of May, you can still take advantage of early season discounts at some park lodges.

And while theme parks have a nasty habit of washing out the night sky come sundown with their klieg lights, more than a few national parks offer some of the darkest skies in America, great places for learning a little astronomy and something about constellations.

As a parent, you'll appreciate a day spent in a place where vendors won't try to hawk candy or souvenirs to your or your kids, the visitor centers with their (mostly) impressive natural history displays, the museums that reside within some parks.

Chances are, both you and your kids will come away more than a little satisfied with your national park experience, and your budget will appreciate the trip as well.