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Veterans weekend: National parks are free

Beth Harpaz / AP

This towering sandstone formation in Arches National Park is called Park Avenue because it resembles a city skyline.

This weekend, America’s best idea — the national parks — will do you one better. In honor of Veterans Day, parks that usually charge admission will waive those fees Nov. 11–13.

“In 2007, the government decided to waive fees for veterans, members of the military and their families,” said National Park Service spokesperson Kathy Kupper. “Over the next two years, it evolved with the idea that everyone should come out and celebrate what veterans have done.”

As the last of this year’s 17 fee-free days, this weekend offers a great opportunity to save some money while soaking up the scenery, history or culture at the 100-plus parks, monuments and historic sites that typically charge admission fees.

“It’s a great excuse if you want to get out into the parks before winter sets in,” said Kurt Repanshek, editor in chief of the online magazine National Parks Traveler. Depending on the park, smaller crowds and cooler temperatures can provide the perfect setting for a great day trip or weekend getaway.

Slideshow: America's lesser-known national parks

Among the options:

Arches National Park
The 2,000-plus sandstone arches that define this park in southeast Utah are spectacular any time of year but, according to Repanshek, fall is especially ideal.

“You escape the heat, the crowds are non-existent and you get that great fall sunlight that lights up all that red rock,” he said.

For a good scenic tour, Assistant Superintendent Paul Henderson suggests hiking to several of the park’s iconic features, including Balanced Rock (a 0.3-mile loop), The Windows area (1 mile) and Delicate Arch (3 miles roundtrip).

Everglades National Park
Lower temperatures, fewer bugs and huge flocks of migrating birds make November prime time for visiting this watery park in South Florida.

For day-trippers, Public Information Officer Linda Friar recommends heading to Shark Valley, where you can take a tram tour (fee) or ride a bike along a 15-mile paved loop road. If you have more time, make the 38-mile drive to Flamingo, where you can rent canoes, kayaks and motorized skiffs for more in-depth explorations of Florida Bay.

And for history buffs, this weekend offers the chance to tour the park’s Nike Hercules Missile Base, a historic site where armed nuclear missiles were installed in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On Saturday, park personnel and veterans of the Nike program will lead tours, show historic video footage and answer questions

Joshua Tree National Park
Most visitors to this park in Southern California focus their attention on its western end, where the Mojave Desert supports stands of its eponymous tree.

For something different, consider visiting the park’s eastern half where the Colorado Desert can offer some pleasant surprises. In September, for example, this area of the park experienced heavy rains that are expected to lead to a spring-like explosion of wildflowers this month.

“You’re in the desert but some of the biological processes can happen any time of the year,” said Chief Naturalist Joe Zarki. “Some years, you can go on a hike in November and see 75 different species of flowers.”

Mammoth Cave National Park
The weather outside may be frightful but at this underground park in Kentucky, that’s hardly a problem. And this weekend, the park is waiving the standard $5 fee for its guided Mammoth Passage tours, which offer an excellent introduction to the park’s geology, history and wildlife.

For those who want to know more — and don’t mind paying for the privilege — the park is also sponsoring a special program called “Roots in the Cave – Pioneers of Discovery.” Held in conjunction with the Mammoth Cave Hotel, the program ($25) includes a special tour of the cave’s Gothic Avenue area and a panel discussion on early cave explorer Warner P. “Pete” Hanson.

Big national parks aside, this weekend also offers an excellent opportunity to explore some of the monuments, memorials and other NPS units dedicated to the nation’s military history. In addition to waiving admission fees, several are putting on living-history re-enactments that provide insights into battles gone by.

Interested in the Civil War? Head to Fort Pulaski National Monument in Georgia, where re-enactors will recreate the daily life of soldiers in 1862–1863. Prefer to go back further? Consider Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in Florida, where staffers will demonstrate the weapons used by colonial Spanish soldiers of the 1740s.

And if it’s the big picture you seek, head to Fort Moultrie National Monument, in South Carolina, where living-history programs on Friday and Saturday will showcase uniforms, weapons and procedures from the Revolutionary War to World War II.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.