National Park Pass – The Ultimate Guide and How to Get It for Free

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2020 has been a crazy year and as the country slowly reopens, travel within the United States is becoming more and more the main destination for most Americans. People are going again on road trips to visit National Parks and other federal recreation sites. If this is you, you should continue to read. 

Most of these sites have entrance fees. These entrance fees could be per vehicle or per person. The usual fee for the bigger and more known National Parks like Yosemite or Yellow Stone is $35 per vehicle. Other national parks and federal sites could charge a rate as low as $20. Motorcycles are getting a $5 discount from whatever the per vehicle rate is. The National Park Service maintains a list with prices for the National Parks. These passes are usually valid for unlimited re-entry within 7 days of purchase. Not all National Parks charge entrance fees. One of the most visited Nationa Parks, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, does not charge entrance fees at all. Find out why! 

Park-Specific Annual Pass

Most of these National Parks and federal recreation sites offer a park-specific annual pass. This is great, especially if you have a site in your backyard which you can visit easily. These passes allow an unlimited entrance to these sites for one year from the date of purchase. The price for these passes is usually $5 less than two single entrance passes. Check the price list above with all the details. However, if you just remotely plan to travel or visit another National Park or federal recreation site, don’t buy one of them. Get the National Park Annual Pass, Officially known as America the Beautiful Passes. Especially when you live in Utah, where you have 5 National Parks within the state.

Zion National Park

National Park Passes aka America the Beautiful Passes

Officially these passes are called “America the Beautiful Passes” but I think pretty much everyone calls them National Park Passes and that’s what I will use going forward here as well. It’s absolutely worth it buying one of these passes because you don’t have to worry about the entrance fees anymore. Don’t let your decision about visiting a national park be judged by the entrance fees when you don’t have an annual pass. 

For 2.5 times the price of what you would usually pay to enter these sites, you can buy a National Park Pass with unlimited entrances to all of these sites. The pass easily pays for itself and National Parks are some of the most iconic and beautiful places in this country.

Remember also that these passes only cover the usual entrance fee and not any additional fees like camping, boat launch or in some parks, parking fees.

Buying a National Park Pass

National Park Passes can be bought at most entrance stations to National Parks or their visitor centers. Be aware that not all sites do sell this passes. Here is a list of all the Parks and what passes they are sell.

Alternatively, you can buy the pass online as well at the USGS store. It can take up to 10 business days for your pass to arrive if you ship wit USPS. The web store offers alternative shipping methods which are more expensive. Consider the shipping delays if you are planning a trip. If you can’t wait for it to ship, make sure the park you are trying to visit sells one, if not you end up buying a day pass.

Denali National Park and Preserve

If you bought your pass online and for some reason, it didn’t arrive in time, you can always buy an annual pass at the entrance station or visitor center and send the mail-ordered pass back to get a refund. You won’t get refunded for shipping costs. One last resort, if you are visiting a National Park and they don’t sell any annual passes, you can upgrade your standard pass to an annual pass within seven days of its purchase. This only works if you bought a standard entrance pass to a National Park and not any other site or a pass for another agency.

Last but not least, Seattleites and visitors in Seattle can buy the annual pass at the Outdoor Recreation Information Center inside the Seattle Flagship REI store. 

Types of Passes including FREE Passes

All of these passes are basically the same and offer the same benefits (see below). The price varies and senior and disabled passes might receive some extra discounts on camping, swimming, boat launching, and others. Check with your park.
Others. Check the website of the site you want to visit. To qualify for all of the passes below, except for the Annual Pass, you must prove eligibility depending on the requirement of the pass you are trying to obtain.

Paid Passes

  • Annual Pass ($80)
  • Senior Annual Pass ($20)
  • Senior Lifetime Pass ($80)

Free Passes

  • Annual Pass for Military
  • Annual 4th Grade Pass. Obtain a paper pass here to exchange it for an annual pass
  • Access Pass for U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities
  • Volunteer Pass for Volunteers with 250 service hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program

Prices are as of October 2020

Alternative ways for free Passes

There are a few other options you could consider to get your annual National Park Pass for free. The below-mentioned ways, are not necessarily the best value but might work best for some.

  • Use your Marriott Points to purchase the regular, undiscounted annual pass
  • Buy the pass with your credit card and use points to “eliminate” the charge on your bill. Some credit card companies (e.g. American Express) let you use your points to pay for charges on your card statement. This works with every pass, as you purchase the pass just like you would normally and later get credit for the charge from your credit card company.

Tips for buying an annual National Park Pass

  • Try to buy the pass at the beginning of the month as this gives you an “extra” month you can use the pass. Why? Every pass is valid for the end of the 12 months in which you bought it in. Some rangers might be courteous and give you that extra month even when you buy it on the last day of a month, but this is not guaranteed.
  • When buying any of the discounted passes (all passes other than the standard annual pass), consider buying it at a National Park itself. There is a $10 processing fee if you buy online or via mail-in forms. Please go to the National Park Service website and pick your desired pass to see what documents you have to bring to get your pass.
  • When you buy your pass at the entrance station or a visitor center, ask for a hanger. Some places don’t have an entrance station but you still have to show proof of eligibility. You can do this the easiest way by getting one of their hangers and put your pass in the hanger and then hang it from the rearview mirror. 
  • For open-top vehicles like some Jeeps or motorcycles, the national park also hands out decals. Therefore you don’t have to leave your annual pass unsecured in or on your vehicle. The decals are marked with the same expiration date as the annual pass and can only be obtained at entrance stations and some Federal agency offices. They are not available through the internet and won’t be mailed to you either. You can have up to two decals per annual pass ever year. Ask for them, as they make a nice souvenir for you or kids scrapbook.
  • If you arrive late at night at a National Park and don’t plan to enter until the next morning. Try to buy your pass during the evening hours. The lines in the morning can get very long. Most parks have a dedicated lane for pass holders which lets you skip the traffic nightmare at the entrance.

Pass Benefits

Each pass can be owned by two individuals. They don’t have to be related to be a pass owner. Each one of them has to sign the pass on the back and have to show ID at parks with entrance stations along with the National Park Pass.

Depending on the site, there are criteria of how many people you can bring. If the site charges a per vehicle rate you can bring a non-commercial car full of people. This includes compact cars, pick-up trucks, RVs, and vans. You cant bring any commercial operated tour van in the park with this pass. Some sites charge a per person rate to enter. In that case you, the pass holder, can bring up to 3 other persons of the age of 16 and older. Kids 15 and younger are always free.

As mentioned earlier, one of the best benefits of the pass is, too skip the long waiting lines at entrance stations. These lines can back up long ways at some parks and especially during holidays. Most parks have a dedicated pass holder lane during peak times. However, this lane is only if you are already a pass holder. Don’t be a douche and try to use the lane to buy your pass. In my opinion, they should refuse service to anyone who tries to pull that stunt, knowing or unknowing, and send them back at the very end of the line.

Entrance to Zion National Park

The National Park Annual Pass is not only valid at lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS) you can also use other national lands managed by one of these agencies.

Find your Park

Now you have an Annual Pass and I am sure you want to head out and use it. The National Park Service has a website dedicated to finding your next adventure outdoors. Use one of these resources below to find your next adventure.

Find your Park website

National Park Service Map

Free Entrance Days

Every year you can visit National Parks all across the country during one of five special days throughout the year. For 2020 the data were:

January 20: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 18: First day of National Park Week
August 5: Celebrating the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act
August 25: National Park Service Birthday
September 26: National Public Lands Day
November 11: Veterans Day

Be aware that these are probably the worst day to go to a National Park as even more people try to get a piece of the free pie. Try to avoid the National Parks these days or visit less known and famous parks.

 

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