National Parks have been called “America’s best idea,” and on several days in 2020, entrance to all National Park Service sites that normally charge an entrance fee will offer free admission. Mark your calendar for these entrance fee–free dates* in 2020:
- April 18: First day of National Park Week
- August 25: National Park Service Birthday
- September 26: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
In the Shenandoah Valley, the National Park system units that normally charge admission are Shenandoah National Park and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. (The Valley includes three other units in the NPS system: the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian Trail, and Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. All three have free admission.) Fees to enter Shenandoah National Park are normally $30 per vehicle, good for seven days. Other fees, for motorcycles and buses, for example, may be found here. (Click here for updates on how the coronavirus outbreak may affect facilities in the Park.)
Revenue from entrance fees remains in the National Park Service. In Shenandoah National Park for example, 80 percent of the fees stay in the park and may be used to rehabilitate historic structures, preserve the health of the forest, and to hire temporary staff who improve trails and lead ranger programs.
With more than 500 miles of hiking trails, towering waterfalls, and 75 scenic overlooks on Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park drew 1.26 million visitors in 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available. Shenandoah National Park is about 75 miles from Washington, DC. and is accessible by four entry points: through Front Royal on U.S. Route 340; near Luray at Thornton Gap on U.S. Route 211; via Swift Run Gap on U.S. Route 33; and through Rockfish Gap and I-64 and U.S. Route 250 — also the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. While the park is open year-round, campgrounds, concessions, visitor centers and lodging options are closed at the moment; see the schedule of opening dates here.
Located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, the park preserves, protects and interprets the nationally significant history of Harpers Ferry, which includes the natural heritage, industry, transportation, John Brown’s Raid, the Civil War and African American history. Set in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland, the park features over 20 miles of hiking trails.
The 3,500-acre park is open year-round, except for major holidays. The park includes the historic town of Harpers Ferry, notable as a center of 19th-century industry and as the scene of John Brown’s failed abolitionist uprising. Several historical museums may be found in the restored 19th century buildings in the Lower Town Historic District. Shuttle buses transport visitors from the Visitor Center to Lower Town where about four street blocks are lined with museums, exhibits and shops. Buses begin service at 9 a.m. and end between 5:45 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. depending on the season.
The whole Harpers Ferry area is very popular with outdoorsmen and women: fishermen, tubers, kayakers and rafters may be seen on the water almost anytime. Appalachian Trail hikers divert into town to re-supply, and stop in at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters. It’s not uncommon for “aqua-blazers,” (AT hikers who paddle instead of hike for a few days) to rent a canoe in Front Royal and float to Harpers Ferry.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is about 65 miles northwest of Washington, DC, via I-270 North to US 340 West.
*Editor’s Note: On March 18, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt directed the National Park Service to temporarily suspend collection of all park entrance fees until further notice. Please keep social distancing guidelines in mind if you choose to visit a park.
Banner photo: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, courtesy NPS / Mark Muse