Although Death Valley is famous for being the hottest place on Earth, in January its temperatures average in the 60s in the daytime, making it the perfect time of year for cycling and mountain biking. There are more than 785 miles of paved and unpaved roads that allow two-wheeled access, according to the National Park Service, which means you’ll have plenty of options for exploring highlights like Badwater Basin—the lowest spot in North America—and Artist’s Drive, with its multi-hued rock formations. And, of course, you’ll save the $20-per-vehicle/$10-per-individual entrance fee.
January is spawning season for both coho and steelhead salmon in this old-growth redwood forest just half an hour north of San Francisco. While the salmon’s numbers aren't numerous—sightings in protected Redwood Creek are not always guaranteed—a visit to this unspoiled stand of coastal redwoods is a worthy day trip in its own right, especially minus the $7-per-person entrance price.
Virtually a secret compared to its neighbors to the west—Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks—this park straddles the Bighorn River as it passes through thousand-foot canyon walls and stunning Western landscapes, roamed by wild horses, bighorn sheep and mountain lions. The attraction this time of year, though, is ice fishing in Bighorn Lake, a world-class trout fishery. Entrance for vehicles is normally $5 a day.
On the same barrier island as Kennedy Space Center is what the NPS calls “longest expanse of pristine shore in Florida—the way it used to be.” This protected patch of sand dunes and wetlands on the Atlantic Flyway is a birder’s paradise. Not only is winter one of the best times to see migratory species here, it’s also one of the most pleasant times to camp and fish around aptly named Mosquito Lagoon—with fewer of its namesake mosquitoes. Usual vehicle entrance fee is $5.
This monument on Point Loma overlooking San Diego Bay commemorates the the first landing by a European on the West Coast. Besides its historic lighthouse and panoramic views, Point Loma is a compact slice of nature in an urban setting, with its rugged coastal landscape and surprising variety of wildlife, including coyotes, foxes and rabbits. Winter is the best time to explore its teeming tidepools, and is also peak season for spotting gray whales as they migrate south to Baja. Usually $5 per vehicle, $3 per person.
This desert national park, bisected by the city of Tucson, is named for the nation’s largest species of cactus, the giant saguaro. The temperature is right in February for exploring its miles of front- and backcountry trails, and—if you’re in luck—is the beginning of wildflower season as blooming poppies begin to paint the desert floor in golden-yellow hues. Normal entry is $10 per vehicle/$5 per person.
What better place to celebrate the beginning of National Park Week than in the landscape that inspired the man so instrumental in expanding the national park system? As the North Dakota badlands begin to thaw out from the winter, the three unconnected islands of nature that comprise T.R. National Park spring to life with the wobbly energy of newborn bison and wild horses, absent the $10-per-vehicle fee.
This protected stretch of the Blue Ridge is only 70 miles west of Washington, D.C., making it the perfect place for urbanized Beltway folk to knock out an Appalachian Trail section hike on a spring day—while skipping the $15/vehicle entrance fee.
New Englanders can wish the National Park Service a happy 98th birthday while cooling off at the beach along Cape Cod’s 40 miles of protected shores. Entrance fees are usually $15 per vehicle and $3 per pedestrian or cyclist.
Because of its high elevation in the Cascade Range and huge annual snowfall—about 44 feet on average, according to the NPS—it’s not uncommon to see patches of snow on the ground into August. This makes for a short, but sweet summer season at the deepest lake in the United States, a collapsed volcanic caldera ringed by cliffs up to 2,000 feet high. From July to September all the roads encircling the lake are open, giving access to hiking, biking, boating, swimming and camping. Normal entrance is $10 per car, $5 per pedestrian or cyclist.
As the air gets crisper in the Tetons, the aspen begin lighting up the landscape in fiery yellow. While it’s hard to predict peak foliage too far in advance, Grand Teton National Park is usually in its leaf-peeping prime right around National Public Lands Day, when the $25-per-vehicle, $12-per-person entrance fee is waived.
Temperatures are both hot enough—typically in the 80s—but still short enough of their scorching summer highs to make taking a dip in this enormous man-made lake near Las Vegas satisfying without the extreme risk of heat stroke once you leave the water. And it doesn’t hurt that the bass are typically still biting in September, according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife. A boating and outdoor recreation playground, Lake Mead normally charges $10 per vehicle and $5 per person on bike or foot. Vessel fees are still in effect on fee-free days, though.
Hurricane season will be nearly over when Veterans Day rolls around at Gulf Islands National Seashore. Barring a storm, this string of white-sand barrier islands in the Gulf, stretching from Pensacola, Fla. to Gulfport, Miss. (the park skips over Alabama), is a relaxing place to snorkel, cycle, hike or boat. Camping fees still apply, but you can beat the $8-per-vehicle/$3-per-person entry in the park’s Florida District.