What Does The U.S. National Park Pass Offer and Is it Worth It?

August 25, 2020

by Hillary Anne

the mesa arch trail at Canyonlands National Park
A photo by Septumia Jacobson from Unsplash

Growing up in a bustling city where buildings are taller than trees. We tend to forget that more than three percent of the entire land of the U.S. are national parks that are free from skyscrapers. Over the years, visiting the U.S. National Parks has become so attractive to many travelers. Especially the budget travelers because with only around US$5 per person they will be able to access these parks!

 

You may think US$5 is a nickel on a dime, but what if there’s a pass that allows you to access more than 100 national sites across the U.S. for free? Well, this is not a drill! There is a pass called America The Beautiful Pass or even US National Pass for seniors for you to enjoy these natural sights for less. 

 

These annual passes are so worth the money for many reasons. Not only you can save hundreds of dollars on a seven-day excursion to three different U.S. National Parks, these passes are perfect for those who frequent outdoor adventures. Sounds good? Here’s what you need to choose your correct annual national park passes.

 

General buying guide of U.S. National Park passes

 

What Is the U.S. National Park Pass?

The U.S. boasts a rich ecological community of national parks that allow the people to explore open spaces through hiking forests, mountains, and canyons. Or, snorkeling and scuba diving in more than 67,000 acres of vast marine life. You can take a step back from the daily hustles by simply enjoying a picnic in any of the more than 100 national sites across the U.S. That includes the best national parks in California like the Joshua Tree and Yosemite National Park.

 

With the U.S National Park Pass also called America The Beautiful Pass, you will be able to enjoy special perks that will let you reorganize your priorities in your travel expenses. This pass is especially cost-saving when you’re traveling in a family. Beyond the perks that come along with this pass, you are exempted from paying the entrance fees and standard amenity fees. Imagine how much they can save!

 

What Does It Cover?

With the U.S. National Park Pass or America The Beautiful Pass, you will be able to enjoy the following perks:

 

1. Enter National Parks and National Wildlife Refuge for free.
2. Be exempted in paying the Standard Amenity fees or Day Use fees at the National forests and grasslands, as well as the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, and the US Army Corps of Engineers.
3. Get a 50% discount on some U.S. national sites when you avail of their expanded amenities and services like campground rentals, water activities, and guided tours.

 

Some National Parks require entrance fees either per vehicle or per person. But you don’t have to worry because the US National Park Pass covers a single, private, and non-commercial vehicle if the park requires entrance fees per vehicle. Or, four adults ages 16 and up if the park requires entrance fees per person. Children below 16 are free of charge.

 

Moreover, it also covers the Standard Amenity Fees or Day Fees such as the use of picnic tables, waste bins, toilets, developed parking, interpretive signages, and security.

 

As for the 50% discount on the expanded amenities such as renting a campground per night. Although some parks entitle this perk to U.S. National Park Pass holders, it doesn’t happen all the time. The policies of the parks may vary, so make sure to check on the park first to avoid any inconvenience.

 

What Are the Different Kinds of U.S. National Park Pass?

the annual america the beautiful pass

Photo from National Park Service’s official website

 

1. Annual Pass

The Annual Pass is for all U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents who want to save more when they bring their family to almost 100 U.S. national sites. Some parks require visitors to pay per person or vehicle. When you have the Annual Pass, you and your three companions ages 16 and up or the vehicle you are driving will be covered by the pass. This means that you don’t have to pay for the entrance fees and standard amenity fees in the U.S. national sites.

 

Moreover, if the park offers water activities or campground rentals, you can also avail them with a 50% discount. Just remember that not all national sites entitle this perk to U.S. National Park Pass holder. So make sure to check if the national park is entitled to this exemption first

 

When you receive the pass, there are two blanks at the back for your signature. These blanks mean that you can share ownership of the Annual Pass with someone else. Also, the co-holder of the pass doesn’t have to be your family member or legal partner.

 

the lifetime senior national park pass

A photo from National Pass Service’s website

 

2. Senior Pass

Before the RV lifestyle became this accessible to everyone, retirees were usually the ones who are enticed with these luxuries. Maybe it’s because they want to make up for the years where they only focused on securing their family, and their vacations are always limited to everyone’s schedule. Now that they are retired, it’s finally time to traverse from one national park to another, and honestly, this can be expensive. Good thing there is a U.S. National Park Senior Pass for U.S Citizens and Permanent Residents aged 62 and up to enjoy and save at the same time.

 

Works just like any other annual passes, pass holders are exempted from paying the entrance fee and standard amenities for their vehicles or the three adults you are with. You will also be entitled to a 50% discount on the expanded amenities and services in some parks.

 

It’s so easy to avail of the annual or lifetime Senior Pass. You just need to provide proof of your residency and citizenship and a supporting document indicating your age. This could be a birth certificate or a passport. Learn more about the requirements and who is entitled to the Senior US National Park Pass.

 

How much does America The Beautiful Pass Cost?

  • Annual Pass: $80 per person
  • Annual Senior Pass: $20 per person
  • Lifetime Senior Pass: $80 per person

The regular Annual Pass costs US$80 and is valid from the month you purchased it until the last day of that month in the following year.

 

As for the Senior Pass, you can either avail of the Annual Senior Pass or the Lifetime Senior Pass. The Annual Senior Pass costs US$20 while the Lifetime Senior Pass costs US$80.

 

You can purchase the passes in person through the federal recreation sites and just pay for the actual pass. But if you want a more convenient option you can order them online, by phone (for Annual Pass only) or by mail (for Senior Pass only). You just have to pay an additional US$5 for the processing and handling fee for the Annual Pass and US$10 for the Senior Pass.

 

a woman purchasing her america the beautiful pass online

A photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

 

Where to Buy the National Park Pass?

There are many ways you can get theses National Park passes. Here are some preferred ways:

 

  • Issuing Office

If you want to go in person, you can check on the federal recreation sites to check the nearest issuing office near you. In this list, you can see the offices grouped by state, their contact details, and what kinds of passes do they issue. Make sure to contact them first before heading to their office, to check on their current office hours and if they have available passes on hand.

 

  • Online Purchase

The quickest option to get the US National Park Pass is by creating an account on the USGS store website, where you can buy the passes online. You can also pay through a credit card. Then, in one to two days, you will receive the Annual Pass together with a brochure and kit for your references.

 

  • Phone Calling

But if you’re not in good terms with all these online shopping. The easiest option for you is by calling them at 888-ASK USGS (1-888-275-8747) extension 2. They are ready to assist you on your pass application from 8 AM to 4 PM (mountain time). But this is only applicable for Annual Pass applicants.

 

  • Through Mails

For Senior applicants who are having trouble with purchasing the passes online or through phone, you may also submit your application form through the mail. Together with the required documents and the fees.

 

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Did you know that you can also get the U.S. National Park Pass for free? Well, let’s talk about it!

 

What Are the Free U.S. National Park Pass?

the annual military pass

A photo from USDA Forest Service’s website

 

1. Annual Military Pass

The military has been sacrificing their lives in protecting America, its territories, and its allies. Whenever they are given the chance to have a breather and have some time off their active duties, they can also enjoy this U.S. National Park Pass to spend time with their family and friends or roam around open spaces that are not barracks.

 

Those who are currently part of the U.S. Military, a dependant in either Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, or a Reserved and National Guard members, are eligible to avail the pass free of charge.

 

You can avail the U.S. National Park Pass by presenting your:

  • Common Access Card (CAC)
  • Military ID (Form 1173)

You may submit them in any of the federal recreation sites issuing a pass. Here is the list of federal recreation sites, where you can find their contact details, the city where they are located, and if they issue a Military Pass. Make sure to contact the nearest site to you first to find out their current office hours and the availability of the pass.

 

the america the beautiful pass for 4th graders

A photo from the USDA Forest Service’s website

 

2. Annual 4th Grade Pass

Many educators can attest that students learn more when they get first-hand experiences. Especially fourth graders are in that stage of development wherein they want to be actively learning through school trips, instead of just learning lessons within the four corners of their classroom.

 

The good thing is that the fourth graders in any of the U.S. Schools, home-school equivalent, or ten-year-old free-choice learners can also avail the pass free of charge! They can use this to visit sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, and the US Army Corps of Engineers, together with up to three adults ages 16 and up.

 

Simply print out the paper voucher that you can get from Every Kid Outdoor. Then, present them at the federal recreation site to get the Annual 4th Grade Pass. The pass is valid from the start of the school year from September to the summer in August. Make sure to check with the federal recreation site their current office hours and if they issue a 4th Grade Pass to avoid any inconvenience.

 

Sometimes, when students are coming to visit a certain site for their school trip, the school is the one who obtains the paper vouchers for all the students joining the school trip. Make sure to check the Every Kid Outdoor for Educators for more information.

 

the america the beautiful access pass

A photo from National Park Service’s website

 

3. Access Pass

This pass is for those with permanent disabilities, who are either U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents. To avail of the Access Pass, you are required to present proof of your citizenship or residency as well as the documents stating the nature of your permanent disability. You may refer to the application guide for more information.

 

Although the pass is free of charge, it is not entirely for free because you still have to pay US$10 for the processing and handling fee. If you will be purchasing it through the USGS website or mail the application form found on the second page of this file you have to pay for the processing and handling fee. Currently, with the increase in the application for Access Pass, the passes can be delivered to you in four to five weeks.

 

But, if you want to avail it for free and receive it right away, you may submit your requirements in the nearest federal recreation sites to you.

 

The US national park volunteer pass

Photo from the National Park Service’s official website

 

4. Volunteer Pass

If you don’t fall into any of the previous items, maybe this one will do. This Volunteer Pass is given by the Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture and Interior for those who were able to complete 250 hours of volunteer work in any of the sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, and the National Park Service. The volunteer work is recorded with an official tracking form given by the official Volunteer Coordinator in one of the Federal sites.

 

Then, this is verified quarterly or when the 250 hours of volunteer work is completed, whichever comes first. After verifying that you’re completed the 250 hours of volunteer work, they will issue your pass. Finally, you can enjoy its perks together with your three companions ages 16 and up or one vehicle for 12 months.

 

a family watching the sunset in a national park

A photo by Mike Scheid from Unsplash

 

How Much Can You Save with America the Beautiful Pass?

Let’s say you have a family of four in one RV, and you will be spending a seven-day national park hopping from California to Washington. You will be going to Yosemite National Park in California, Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, and Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

 

To illustrate how much you will be spending on the entrance fees and the campground rental per night:

 

Park

Without America The Beautiful U.S. National Park Pass

With America The Beautiful U.S. National Park Pass (US$80 per Annual Pass)

Yosemite National Park (September 1-3) at Pines Campgrounds

US$35 per vehicle

US$52 for two nights

US$0 per vehicle

US$26 for two nights

Crater Lake National Park (September 3-5) at Mazama Campgrounds

US$30 per vehicle

US$72 for two nights (with electricity hookups)

US$0 per vehicle

US$36 for two nights (with electricity hookups)

Mount Rainier National Park (September 5-7) at Ohanapecosh Campgrounds

US$30 per vehicle

US$40 for two nights 

US$0 per vehicle

US$20 for two nights 

TOTAL:

US$259 per vehicle

US$162 per vehicle

 

Based on the total, you will be able to save US$97 if you use a U.S. National Park Pass in your seven-day excursion. Aside from not paying for the entrance fee anymore, you also get a 50% discount on the campgrounds rental.

 

You may say that this difference is small. But, there are so many things you can do in the U.S. National Parks. To name a few, you can hike, bike, and swim. At this point, we will not be surprised if your family will always look forward to spending outdoor activities in any of the more than 400 national parks across the U.S.

 

Let’s look at a bigger picture:

Considering the work and school schedule of the family members. Let’s say that you will only be going on different national parks in the U.S. around three times a year. Then, the US$259 will become US$777. Whereas, if you have a U.S. National Park Pass you will only be spending US$326 annually.

 

Thus, getting the U.S. National Pass will let you save US$451 a year! That’s huge! Imagine using that US$451 for your meal, gas, or toll allowance instead. Or, maybe use them to maximize your stay in the U.S. National Park by getting guided tours or engaging in water activities. 

 

RV going to a national park

A photo by RVTalk from Unsplash

 

Why Should We Visit National Parks?

There are more than 400 parks all over America. Sixty of them are National Parks, while more than 100 of them can be accessed by the U.S. National Park Pass. These parks vary from National Historic Sites, National Monuments, National Museums, National Rivers, National Recreation Sites, and others. If you’re not yet sure which park to visit, we can suggest some camping spots in California.

 

Aside from the national parks being a venue to explore open spaces. It also allows visitors to be more adept in nature and American history. Moreover, it also gives an opportunity for children to explore and experience what they want to be when they grow up. Indeed visiting these parks will keep us grounded with the past, appreciate the present, and prepare for the future.

 

Final Thoughts

Every park is different. Each park you visit will give you a different ambiance, story, and memories. Whether you want to see the mountains with snow caps all year round at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, marvel on the unique hoodoos at the Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, or rush your adrenaline in a zip line in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

 

Wherever park you go, one thing is for sure. Once you embark on your first national park hopping, you will be more hungry for more. You may not visit the national parks every month, but you will think about it a lot and it will always be part of your long list of possible vacation getaways.

 

So make sure to get the U.S. National Park Pass or America The Beautiful Pass so that you can visit a lot of National Parks without hurting your pocket.