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See a national park, save some cash during a fee-free weekend

Nearly 400 national parks can be found all across America, and feature breathtaking vistas, rock formations millions of years old, and more.

The National Park Service (NPS) is putting out the welcome mat. In an effort to introduce more people to America’s national parks — and to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. — NPS is waiving admission fees at parks that typically charge them Jan. 14–16.

“Obviously, we want people to go visit any national park but we thought this was a good time to honor Dr. King — or any other famous American,” said NPS spokesperson Kathy Kupper. “Around 250 of the national parks are historic sites that memorialize people or events so it’s a nice time to do that.”

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Under the fee-free program, the 147 park units that typically charge admission will waive such fees on 17 days this year, including National Park Week (April 21–29), Get Outdoors Day (June 9), National Public Lands Day (Sept. 29) and Veterans Day weekend (Nov. 10–12).

During non-fee-free periods, admission fees at many parks are as low as $4–$5 but they can range as high as $25 per vehicle at larger Western parks, such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

“At a place like Yosemite [$20 per vehicle], someone might otherwise think, gee, I can’t afford to go,” said John Poimiroo, CEO of the National Parks Promotion Council, a non-profit parks advocacy group. “This takes away that hesitancy.”

And winter is a great time to get into the parks, says Bryan Faehner, associate director of park use for the National Parks Conservation Association. “You get a fuller picture of why the parks are unique,” he said. “In the Everglades, you’ll see bird species you won’t see at other times of the year. On a freezing day at Valley Forge, you can really see what early American soldiers went through.”

This weekend also represents a good time to explore the legacy of Dr. King as some park units will be offering special commemorative programming:

  • On Jan 13, elementary school students will recite Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (which is always free).
  • Throughout the weekend, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (also free) will screen the six-part series “Eyes on the Prize,” which chronicles the Civil Rights movement from 1954 to 1965.
  • On Sunday, rangers at Morristown National Historical Park will lead “Bound to Serve” tours of the Ford Mansion, chronicling the lives of the slaves who served George Washington and his troops during the winter of 1779–1780. (The $4 admission will be waived all weekend.)

As for park system in general, Kupper offers another incentive to take advantage of this weekend’s no-cost promotion: “It’s a new year,” she told msnbc.com. “It’s a good time to keep that New Year’s resolution, whether you said you were going to spend more time with the family or get out in nature or learn some history.

“It’s all that, rolled into one.”

Each offers a unique take on the American landscape, the nation's history and our collective culture. Best of all, you won't have to fight the crowds along the way.

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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.