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For many people, including me, the best part of a vacation to Montana and Wyoming is exploring the state's three national parks: Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton (www.nps.gov). Unfortunately, these beautiful national treasures have become so popular that they're being overrun by visitors when the federal government is cutting budgets, making it difficult for the parks to cope with their own success.

To get the most out of your national park visit, try to go in the off season. The parks are busiest in summer, when most children are out of school, so try to visit at almost any other time. Fall is usually best. Spring is okay, but it can be windy and there may be snow at higher elevations. Winter can be delightful if you don't mind snow and cold. If you have to travel in summer, be patient. Allow extra time for traffic jams and lines, and try to hike some of the longer and lesser-used trails. Rangers will be able to tell you which trails are best for getting away from the crowds.

Passes Offer Free Admission on Most Federal Lands

Those who enjoy vacationing at national parks, national forests, and other federal lands have opportunities to save quite a bit of money by using the federal government's annual passes. The America the Beautiful -- National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass costs $80 for 1 year from the date of purchase for the general public. It provides free admission for the pass holder and those in his or her vehicle to recreation sites that charge vehicle entrance fees on lands administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Reclamation. At areas that charge per-person fees, the passes are good for the pass holder plus three additional adults. Children 15 and under are admitted free.

The passes are also available for U.S. citizens and permanent residents 62 and older for a lifetime fee of $10 (Senior Pass), and are free for U.S. residents and permanent residents with disabilities (Access Pass). The Senior and Access passes also provide 50% discounts on some fees, such as camping.

The Senior and Access passes must be obtained in person at national parks, U.S. Forest Service offices, and other federal recreation sites, but the general public version (the $80 one) can be purchased in person, by phone (tel. 888/275-8747, ext. 1), or online at http://store.usgs.gov/pass, a website that also provides complete information about the passes.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.