During my childhood, the floor of my family’s Toyota Sienna was always covered in a film of sand and dirt. My parents took every chance they could get to share the outdoors with my sister and me. They were more than happy to load up our minivan with camping gear and placate my sister and me with audiobooks and Cheez–Its during trips to national parks. My mom’s constant refrain was "nature is good for the soul,” and we lived by this mantra. My family battled mosquitoes, hiked around scorching hot battlefields, pored over interpretive signage about the flora and fauna—and I loved it. Many of the formative outdoor experiences I had as a child took place in America’s National Parks. As an adult, I yearn to experience these marvels again, and make new memories.

America has 63 national parks, which range from the vibrant canyons of Yellowstone to the lush forests of Great Smoky Mountains. Each park is invaluable. Not only do they preserve rare ecosystems, but they encourage visitors to engage with the outdoors, science, and history. While at Penn, I'm trying to visit as many as possible. But I find that as a college student, visiting national parks has its own unique considerations.

Why visit as a college student?

As I navigate through the demands of college, my mom’s mantra, “nature is good for the soul,” echoes in my mind. While walks along the Schuylkill and visits to the BioPond are pleasant, they aren’t exactly treks into the wilderness. It can be difficult to prioritize time in nature as a college student, but the mental health benefits of immersing oneself in the outdoors aren’t just old wives' tales; they’re backed by several scientific studies. National parks are a respite from the pressure cooker that is campus life. They offer the chance to challenge oneself to hike, bike, or paddle through some of the most stunning areas in the U.S. Not only does a national park visit have the chance to nurture your spirit, but they offer a chance to extend learning beyond the classroom. Parks such as Petrified Forest, Joshua Tree, and Capital Reef offer the chance to get close to untouched, ancient rock carvings and rock paintings. And yes, at Shenandoah National Park you can see what the heck your professor in Rocks for Jocks, aka GEOL 101, was talking about when he mentioned rock cleavage

Purchasing a pass

While national parks nourish a free spirit … they are not free. Entrance into parks is around $25–$35 per vehicle each day, but if you’re considering visiting multiple parks a year, the $70 annual pass is well worth the investment. Additionally, the National Parks Service does offer a free Interagency Access Pass for U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities and a free lifetime Military Pass is available for Gold Star Families and U.S. military veterans.

Several national parks offer shuttles. Not only can you pay a lower fee to enter the park, but supporting parks’ shuttle systems is a great way to limit traffic congestion, parking problems that national parks experience in peak season, and of course cut down on exhaust and noise pollution.

Try Camping (but think carefully about backpacking) 

Camping is a great lodging option when visiting a national park. Hotel stays are usually the largest expense when visiting a national park, especially in the summer. During peak season, expect to see modest motel rooms close to popular parks going for upwards of $200. Camping is a great way to avoid this expense and experience the great outdoors up close and personal. If you’re visiting a national park with friends, chances are your most cherished memories will be the goofy moments spent making s’mores and playing cards by flashlight against the backdrop of awe–inspiring views. 

That being said, think carefully about backpacking. It can be especially tempting to reserve a hike–in site in national parks when many drive–in campsites are snatched up within moments of going live on recreation.gov, but know what to expect. While schlepping a tent and food a mile or two into a site is not a huge deal, anything more will significantly cut into touring time, and you will likely need special equipment and research (like learning how to navigate with a compass, purify water, and make bear bags). My advice? Make sure you’re backpacking with someone with lots of experience, and save the multi–day backpacking trips for when you’ve gathered more experience.

The best solution to snatched up national park campsites? Look to camp sites just outside of the park. There are often state parks or national forests located within a reasonable drive of your national park that offer campsites. Privately run campgrounds, or sites like Tentrr (which provides a spacey “glamping” tent) and Hipcamp are also economical options.


National parks are experiencing a spike in visitors. While it's great that more people get to experience these vital landmarks, too many visitors can strain park infrastructure. Think campsites and nearby hotels booked months in advance, hour–long waits outside of park entrances, and parking lots with double parked cars. As most national parks experience the heaviest crowds during summer months, the simplest work around is to visit parks during the shoulder season, with fall and spring break offering great opportunities to see the parks. 

There are also fantastic national parks off the beaten path that make excellent alternatives to more well–known ones. If you want a Yellowstone experience without the hordes of visitors, try Lassen Volcanic National Park, which offers aquamarine hydrothermal ponds, steam vents, and forests of ponderosa pines. If you’re looking for snow capped peaks, glacial lakes, and chubby marmots, try North Cascades National Park instead of its much more visited neighbor, Mount Rainier National Park. 

National monuments also offer a great alternative to busy national parks. And don’t worry, they aren’t just historical sites. The designation also includes areas preserved for natural value. Typically less busy than national parks, and much cheaper to visit, national monuments include several hidden gems worth visiting. Just to name a few, there’s Dinosaur National Monument, an ancient canyon that rivals Zion National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, a cave system just as fascinating as Mammoth Cave National Park, and Giant Sequoia National Monument, which is as stunning as Redwood National and State Parks.

As a college student, embarking on a journey to explore the wonders of America's National Parks is not only a chance to reconnect with nature, but also an opportunity for personal growth and education beyond the classroom. So, fellow college students, heed the call of the wild, and embark on your own unforgettable journey through the nation's natural wonders. There you will find not only recreation, but re–creation.