You’ll never find a deal as good as this one. 84 million acres of some of the most stunning geography in America. 17,000 miles of trails to explore, 43,000 miles of shoreline and more than 68,000 archeological sites. And nearly 20,000 employees to help take care of it. Yours for only $80 a year.
The National Parks pass is one of the best deals out there for exploring America. Officially titled the rather clunky “America the Beautiful — National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass,” it gives you unlimited admission for a year into all federal fee areas. This includes all 58 National Parks, the 73 National Monuments, and the 28 National Memorials in addition to many other federally managed areas.
If you’re only visiting one or two parks a year it makes more financial sense to pay the normal entrance fee, but on a road trip (especially out west) the fees quickly rack up if you don’t have a pass . The “crown jewels” of the park system – the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Yellowstone and Yosemite, for example – have steeper entrance fees of $20 a week (per car). At $80 for the year a National Parks Pass can save you a whole lot of money.
How to get it
The Pass can be purchased ahead of time online or by mail, but it’s easiest to wait until you get to the first park you want to visit. It’s a good idea to bring cash, as some smaller locations don’t take credit cards or checks. When you buy a pass, one person will be the passholder, and that person will need to show their ID whenever they use the pass. You can also get a joint pass with a spouse, so either person can show their ID at the entrance. Entrance fees are by car, so the pass will also let in whoever else is in the car with you. (There are separate rules for bicyclists and hikers entering the parks.)
Get a little more for your money
Officially, the pass is good for one year from the date you get it, but the Park Service only keeps track of the month. For instance, whether you get your pass on July 1st or July 25th, it will be good until July 31st of the following year. Getting your pass at the beginning of the month and will give you a bit of extra time on it.
Additionally, if you’re 62 or older (and a US citizen), you can get a lifetime pass for a one-time processing fee of $10. Disabled individuals can get a pass for free. In addition to admission, these passes are good for other discounts at the national parks including camping fees.
What’s NOT included:
Some guided tours
Many of the ranger-led talks at the national parks are free once you’ve paid for admission, however some of the longer ones have an additional cost. At Gettysburg National Military Park, for instance, guided tours around the battlefield (at least a full-day experience), will cost extra. The cost for some tours is per group, and not per person so hooking up with other travelers can save you money.
Backcountry and Special Use Permits
The national parks are full of multi-day backpacking trails, but some charge for their backcountry permits. Rangers who catch you without a permit will require that you leave immediately. Even if you’re backpacking in an area that doesn’t charge, check in with the rangers and let them know when you expect to be back so they can send out a search party if something goes wrong.
State parks generally don’t receive federal funding and are separate from the National Parks System. Unfortunately their campgrounds are often more expensive as well. However many states (such as California, which has over 120 state parks and beaches), have their own annual pass program. Checking out the state parks (especially in Utah and Arizona which have stunning scenery) are a great way to discover little-known gems.
If you’re only in the US for a few weeks and are planning on staying in the cities the National Parks pass won’t do you much good. But if you’re planning on taking a road trip (especially in the west, where most of the National Parks are) then the “America the Beautiful Pass” can save you a great deal of money.
The federal government runs an amazing array of spectacular parks and historical monuments. Personally, my favorites are Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado. What are yours?