It's always a pleasant surprise to visit a national park on a free day.
But there will be fewer of those surprises as the National Park System has reduced the number of free days to four for 2018, down from 10 in 2017.
Kathy Kupper, public affairs specialist for the National Park Service, said in a statement that the number of free days increased in recent years to encourage visitation during the economic recession.
From 2003 through 2008, the National Park Service had two free admission days a year.
In 2010, the number of free days was increased to six, then to 17 for 2011 and 2012. Free days dropped to 12 in 2013, nine in 2014 and eight in 2015. In 2016, to celebrate the 100th birthday of national parks, there were 16 free days, then 10 in 2017.
"Now that the nation is recovering from the recession and the centennial has passed, the NPS is returning to a lower number of fee-free days," Kupper said. "Fewer fee-free days means additional revenue to improve facilities, address deferred maintenance issues and enhance the overall park experience for visitors."
Cristy Brown, public information officer for Mesa Verde National Park, explained that the free-day schedule for national parks is determined by the Washington, D.C., office, not the individual parks.
"Fee-free days offer a wonderful time for new visitors to become familiar with the park and for return visitors to reacquaint themselves," Mesa Verde Superintendent Cliff Spencer said. "I urge everyone to take advantage of this opportunity."
The free days for 2018 will be: Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day; April 21, first day of National Park Week; Sept. 22, National Public Lands Day; and Nov. 11, Veterans Day. The entrance fee waiver does not cover camping or tours.
Mesa Verde's entrance fees were raised in 2017 to align with other parks of similar size and visitation, Brown said. The fee increase will help alleviate the park's $65 million in deferred maintenance projects.
From May 1 to Oct. 31, Mesa Verde's entrance fee is now $20 per vehicle, $15 per motorcycle and $10 per pedestrian and cyclist. The rest of the year, it is $15 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle and $7 per pedestrian or cyclist. The previous fee schedule was $15 per vehicle from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and $10 the rest of the year.
"We are committed to keeping the park affordable, but we also want to provide visitors with the best possible experience," Spencer said. "The money from entrance fees is used to improve visitor facilities and amenities."
In 2016, Mesa Verde had more than 580,000 visitors. Those visitors spent $60.6 million in local communities, which helped to support 883 jobs.
Entrance fees have allowed for water bottle filling stations and drinking fountains, additional educational opportunities at Wetherill Mesa, construction of new restrooms and stabilization work at Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace cliff dwellings. Upcoming projects include rehabilitation of the Morefield Amphitheater and additional stabilization work at archaeological sites throughout the park.
In October, the National Park Service announced a proposal to increase fees during the peak season at 17 national parks to $70 per vehicle, $50 for motorcycles and $30 for pedestrians or cyclists. Mesa Verde is not included in the price-hike proposal.
If approved, the new fees structure would be implemented in 2018 at Arches, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Canyonlands national parks in Utah, and also at the Rocky Mountain, Joshua Tree, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks.
"The proposed increases make the $80 National Parks Pass a really good deal," Brown said. "It accesses all national parks, Forest Service and BLM day-use areas, plus it's a really great stocking stuffer."
If the proposed new fees are implemented for the 17 most popular parks, it could increase national park revenue by $70 million per year, according to the National Park Service.
That is a 34 percent increase over the $200 million collected in fiscal year 2016. Under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, 80 percent of an entrance fee remains in the park where it is collected. The other 20 percent is spent on projects in other national parks.