“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst”
If the parks are our best idea then the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Lands pass may just be the second best idea.
What is the America the Beautiful Pass?
The America the Beautiful pass or the US park pass is a card that you can purchase for $80 USD. The pass covers your entrance fee and the fee of whoever is in the vehicle with you when you visit a National Park site. Not only can the America the Beautiful pass be used at national parks; it can also be used at more than 2,000 federal recreation sites across the country for one year. That means in a year’s time, you can access any National Park, Monument, Battlefield, Refuge, Historic Site and so on, as many times as you like, for just $80.
In addition to the National Park Service, here’s a list of the other agencies that honor the pass:
U.S. Forest Service: https://www.fs.fed.us/
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: https://www.fws.gov/
Bureau of Land Management: https://www.blm.gov/
Bureau of Reclamation: https://www.usbr.gov/
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: https://www.usace.army.mil/
How to Purchase the America the Beautiful Pass
There are several ways to purchase a pass:
- in person at parks that sell the passes, listed here.
- by phone 1-888-ASK USGS, extension 3
- online at the USGS store
You can now purchase the basic America the Beautiful pass from REI and they donate ten percent to the National Parks Foundation.
How the America the Beautiful Pass Works
Typically, when you enter a national park unit, the park collects a per vehicle fee. The fee varies from park to park but it’s usually around $20. Some parks are more and some are less. There are parks that charge per person but we will talk about that in a minute.
When planning to purchase the pass at a park unit that sells them, when you get to the entrance station, simply tell the ranger you would like to purchase the pass, present your identification and pay for your purchase. Most parks accept credit cards and cash. If you are paying with cash, small bills are appreciated.
If you already have purchased the pass, when you get to the entrance station, instead of paying, simply present your pass and identification to the ranger and that’s it. Some parks, like Yellowstone, even have dedicated lanes for pass holders. That’s a huge plus because you can avoid the potentially long line waiting to enter the park.
Some parks or sites collect a per person fee. If so, then the pass covers the pass holder and three other adults with him/her, not to exceed four people. Children 16 and under are always free. It’s the same protocol. Simply present your pass with your identification and enter the park.
When you are visiting a park where they don’t have an entrance station or a park where the entrance station is closed in low season, you might be asked to present your pass when you visit a visitor’s center.
Here’s a couple other details about the pass:
- Vehicles covered by the pass are any non commercial vehicles including motorhomes, RV’s and motorcycles and rentals.
- The pass is non transferable but you can share ownership of it with family or friends. Up to two people are allowed to sign the card and use it.
- Two people with ownership of the card on two separate motorcycles are covered as one.
The pass comes with a plastic holder/hanger for you rearview mirror. You should insert your pass into the holder and hang it on your mirror, signature side out.
Southerner Says: Beware of opening both car doors at the same time if it’s windy. The winds could blow the holder off the mirror and out of the car. And you end up chasing it around in parking lot. Oops! This is important to note because if you lose your pass, it cannot be replaced. Even if you have your receipt, you will have to buy another one. Some desert parks, like Lake Mead, do not require the pass in a hanger. The heat may cause the card and/or the hanger to melt.
How Does the Pass Save Money?
The America the Beautiful pass can save you a lot of money on entrance fees and day use fees.
Let’s take a look at Utah for example. Utah has 13 National Park sites that include the Mighty 5 of Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Arches. Most people planning a park trip try to see at least those five, if not more, park units. So if you visited just the Mighty 5 and didn’t have the pass, it would cost $125 to enter those parks. But It you purchased the America the Beautiful pass, you would only be out the $80 you spent on the pass.
This fall, I visited 19 national parks sites and all I paid was the $80 for my America the Beautiful pass. It’s the best $80 you will ever spend.
Additionally the pass can save money at some state parks, BLM managed sites and on parking fees, just to mention a few of the other ways to save.
Other America the Beautiful Passes
There are also free or discounted passes available for those that qualify, Here’s a list and how to obtain those passes.
Military- For current members of the military and their dependents, the America the Beautiful pass is available for free. This includes members of the National Guard and Reserve. Passes can be obtained in person at a site that issues passes by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID (Form 1173)
Annual 4th Grade Pass- In an effort to get kids more involved in the parks, the NPS created this pass for 4th graders. The pass is free and is good for the entire 4th grade school year including the following summer. Home schooled and free schooled children are also eligible. You can get your paper pass at the Every Kid Outdoors website. It can then be exchanged for a hard copy at the sites that issue passes.
Access Pass- There is a free access pass available for U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Applicants are required to provide documentation of permanent disability and residency or citizenship. The Pass can be obtained in person at sites that issue passes or by mail using this form. There is a $10 fee for applications processed through the mail. The Access Pass also entitles the user to discounts on some amenities such as camping, swimming, boat launch and interpretive services that might other wise have a fee.
Senior Pass- This pass is available for U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over. Applicants must provide documentation of age and residency or citizenship. There are two types of this pass.
- Lifetime Senior Pass $80
- Annual Senior Pass $20
Yes that’s a lifetime pass for seniors and it follows the same rule as the basic pass. Time to road trip with the grandparents! Also with the Senior Pass, you are are eligible for discounts on camping, guided tours, transportation, concessionaires, and special use permit fees. For more info see this website.
Volunteer Pass- This pass is available for volunteers that have 250 service hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program. Obtain your pass where you volunteer or through your Volunteer Coordinator.
Find Your Park
Throughout the year, the National Park Service also offers free admission days. The days for 2020 are:
- January 20: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- April 18: First day of National Park Week
- August 25: National Park Service Birthday
- September 26: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
For more info or questions about the America the Beautiful passes, check out the National Park Service’s official website or the online USGS store where you can purchase some of the passes. Remember to always use Leave No Trace philosophy when visiting a park or recreation area and don’t feed or pet any wildlife. With the useful passes and free days, there’s no reason to not get out there and find your park.
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