Updated for 2021 – 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? Well, let me tell you about it.
The America the Beautiful Pass
The America the Beautiful pass is a pass that you can purchase for $80 USD. The park pass covers your entrance fee and the entrance fee of whoever is in the vehicle with you, when you visit a National Park site. But, not only can the America the Beautiful pass be used at national parks – it can also be used at more than 2,000 other federal recreation sites across the country – for one year. That means in a year’s time, you can access any participating federal land 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/
Southerner Says: if you purchase towards the first of the month, you actually have to the end of that month of the next year to use your pass. So you actually can get a little more than a year’s use out of an America the Beautiful pass.
How to Purchase the America the Beautiful Pass
There are several ways to purchase a pass:
- in person at participating parks that sell the passes (Covid-19 restrictions may affect this)
- by phone 1-888-ASK USGS, extension 3
- online at the USGS store
- at Recreation.gov
- from REI and they make a 10% donation 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 cost more and others cost less. There are also parks that charge per person but we’ll talk about that in a minute.
If you plan to purchase the pass at a park unit that sells them in person, simply tell the ranger you would like to purchase the park pass when you get to the entrance station. Present your identification and your method of payment and voila, you are an America the Beautiful pass holder. Most parks accept credit cards and cash. If you are paying with cash, small bills are appreciated.
Using the Pass
When you get to an entrance station at a park unit, if you already have purchased the pass, just present your America the Beautiful pass with your identification to the ranger. That’s it. Some parks, like Yellowstone, even have dedicated lanes for pass holders. That’s a huge bonus because the lines can get long at busy times. Having a dedicated lane means getting into the park in less time.
Some parks or sites collect a per person fee. If this is the case at the park site you are visiting, 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. Simply present your America the Beautiful pass with your identification and you’re off.
When you visit a park that doesn’t have an entrance station or where the entrance station is closed for low season, you might be asked to present your park pass if you visit the visitor’s center or book camping. So it’s a good idea to always have your park pass with you just in case.
More Details About This 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 America the Beautiful pass comes with a plastic holder/hanger for you rearview mirror. You can insert your pass into the holder and hang it on your mirror, signature side out. Not all parks require this but it’s a good idea to ask.
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.
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.
Ready to plan a national park trip? Here’s some ideas to get you started:
Other Types of the America the Beautiful Pass
There are also free or discount passes available for those that qualify, Here’s a list and how to obtain those passes.
Veterans + Gold Star Families
In 2020, a new program was introduced for veterans and gold star families. This program gives veterans free access to parks, wildlife refuges and other sites governed by the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service. The pass covers entrance fees but does not cover camping, special tours or permits. See the National Park Service website to see who qualifies and what you need to get the pass.
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. Purchase Passes 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. You can then exchange the paper copy for a hard copy at the sites that issue passes. No Digital passes will be allowed.
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. Purchase this pass in person at sites that issue passes or by mail using this form. There is a $10 fee for mail processing applications. 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.
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! Pass holders with the senior pass are eligible for discounts on camping, tours, transportation, concessionaires, and special use permit fees. For more info see this website.
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 2021 are:
- January 18: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- April 17: First day of National Park Week
- August 4th: 1st anniversary of the Great Outdoors Act
- August 25: National Park Service Birthday
- September 25: 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 principles when visiting a park or recreation area and don’t feed or pet any wildlife. With the useful passes and free days, you can bring home your story. Click the logo below to get started.