With 2016 being the centennial of the National Park Service, we’re rolling into National Park Week: There’s free admission to all national parks Saturday through April 24.
What’s the big deal? Aren’t they all free all the time? Well, no.
More than 400 always have free admission, from St. Croix Island, Maine, to the Cliff House at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California.
But 127 parks normally charge an entrance fee. In the Carolinas, those properties are Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, and Fort Moultrie, the portion of Fort Sumter National Monument that’s on Sullivan’s Island, facing Charleston Harbor.
In Virginia, they include Appomattox Court House, Assateague Island, Colonial National Historic Park, Great Falls Park (on the George Washington Memorial Parkway), Manassas and Petersburg national battlefields, Prince William Forest and Shenandoah National Park.
Some states hold many more pay-to-see public properties. Utah alone contains 10 enormous paid-admission national parks, from Arches to Zion.
Locales with inherently higher costs tend to have fee-based admission: Larger properties require more basic maintenance; those with historical artifacts have items that require ongoing care.
Accessibility comes into play. Admission to Fort Sumter is free, but getting to the Charleston island where the Civil War began requires taking a ferry. The ferry is owned and operated by a concessionaire; even during National Park Week, you’ll still have to pay $12 to $19.50, depending on age, for transport to the no-charge site.
Admission to Fort Moultrie, though, is free next week. Admission is ordinarily $3 for 15 and older; $1 for 62 and older.
The attraction is historic: From 1776 to 1947, Moultrie was the main Army post defending the Charleston area. The brick fort built in 1809 was the third fortification on the site. In 1863, both Sumter and Moultrie were heavily pummeled by federal gunboats that tried to seize the harbor. Fort Sumter was reduced to rubble during the 20-month Civil War bombardment; Moultrie survived, its walls protected by sand.
At the start of the 20th century, low-slung concrete batteries were built at Moultrie. Today, exhibits and a 20-minute movie there explain the evolution of coastal defenses. You can tour the 1809 fort and one of the concrete batteries.
Wright Brothers National Memorial, on the Outer Banks, needs little introduction: It’s where Orville and Wilbur went to develop gliders and then the Wright Flyer which – Dec. 17, 1903 – became the first plane to successfully fly.
Gate admission is ordinarily is $7; 15 and younger, free. It’s free through April 24.
The grounds include the hill where the First Flight took place; the exact path and distance are marked off with stones. There’s a reconstructed shed, based on photos, of the Wrights’ glider hangar. Atop 90-foot Kill Devil Hill is a 60-foot tower built in the 1930s in honor of the brothers’ achievements.
Coolest of all is the museum in the visitor center, which has a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer and a small piece of the original Flyer, which astronaut Neil Armstrong took with him for humankind’s first landing on the moon in 1969 – just under a brief 66 years later.
Park ranger talks, given every two hours, lead you past portraits of the giants of aviation.
Wrap up your visit back outside, at the sturdy bronze replica of the Wright Flyer. It’s larger than the original so you can climb onto it and have your photo taken.
John Bordsen: 704-358-5251
Want to go?
Details on all National Park Service properties and National Park Week: www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/fee-free-parks.htm.