From the Florida Everglades to Mount Rainier in Washington, there are hundreds of protected parklands to explore in the United States. While there are plenty of places where you can enjoy the great outdoors for free, you will have to pay a fee to enter some of the best national parks. Fortunately, you can reduce those costs and take full advantage of the country's natural beauty by using the America the Beautiful Pass.
Related: More National Park trip ideas
National Park Entry Fees
If you’ve been to a national park or two recently, you might have experienced a bit of sticker stock. National park entrance fees can be a little steep these days. While some parks, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, don’t charge you to get in (due to a deed restriction), this is far from the norm. The iconic Grand Canyon, for example, charges a 35-dollar fee per vehicle. Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion all charge a 35-dollar fee, as well. As travelers often visit multiple parks in a single trip, these fees can really add up. A number of parks are scheduled to have a fee increase in 2020, just as many saw an increase for 2019.
Using the America the Beautiful Pass
With this is mind, the National Park Service offers the America the Beautiful pass, good for 12 months from the date of purchase. For only 80 dollars, you can gain access to a dizzying array of federal recreation sites. If you’re a senior, the annual pass is just 20 dollars (with a lifetime pass available at the 80-dollar price point). The national park annual pass is completely free for current military and their dependents. The pass is also free for those with a documented, permanent disability. Just pick one up in person as you enter the park or buy one in advance online. And, yes, up to 100 percent of the proceeds from pass sales go to park maintenance and enhancement.
If the site you’re visiting charges by vehicle, then everyone in your personal vehicle is covered by the pass. If the site charges per person, then you and three other adults are covered. Note that guests under 16 are always free at federal recreation areas. It’s important to keep your pass secure as lost or stolen passes can’t be replaced. Ticket booth personnel are vigilant about checking photo ID against the owner name(s) on the back of the card.
America the Beautiful Pass Benefits
If you already have an America the Beautiful pass, make sure you’re taking full advantage of its benefits. For instance, did you know that your pass can have two owners? The two owners don’t have to be married or even related. Prefer to bike your way through the park? You and three of your friends can enter with a single pass. A single pass will also grant access to two motorcycles entering together. Whatever your preference, national park entrance fees don’t have to be a deterrent. Remember that the standard pass does not cover additional fees that might be part of your visit, like a campground reservation fee.
Where to Use Your National Park Annual Pass
National park annual passes are not accepted at state parks, and not every federal site honors the annual pass. However, you’ll definitely have plenty of opportunity to use your pass across the 419 locations that make up the National Park System. In addition to the 61 national parks (welcome to the family, Indiana Dunes National Park!), there are 87 national monuments. Hoping to visit the nation’s first national monument, Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming? The 25-dollar entrance fee is covered by the America the Beautiful pass. What about southern California’s Cabrillo National Monument, commemorating the first European arrival on the West Coast? Experience the popular tide pools there without worrying about the 20-dollar entrance fee.
And you definitely don’t want to forget the many stunning National Recreation Areas. Take Glen Canyon in Arizona and Utah for example — there’s a charge of 30 dollars per vehicle, but Lake Powell and over a million acres of surrounding land in Glen Canyon can be accessed for free with your new pass. Finally, there are many National Historic Landmarks where the pass will come in handy, like Theodore Roosevelt’s home on Sagamore Hill in Long Island, New York. The fee for a tour of the house is waived for pass holders. Need a little more inspiration? We've rounded up our picks for the best national parks in each state so you can easily plan your next trip.
As you see, the pass can be a very worthwhile investment. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast or even just a history buff, you don’t want to miss out. So, get out there and experience America the beautiful — at a beautiful price.