If the national 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 and how can it save you money? Keep reading for more details.
What is an America the Beautiful Pass?
The America the Beautiful pass is a card that once purchased, covers the entrance fee of the driver and the entrance fee of all the passengers in the vehicle for one year at all 63 national parks. But that’s not all. There are other public land sites that participate in the program. All together there are over 2,000 participating federal and state recreation sites across the U.S that can be visited for one low fee.
Note: some parks charge a per person fee instead of a per vehicle fee. In that case the American the Beautiful park pass covers up to four adults. And remember that children 15 and under are always free in national parks.
How Much Does an America the Beautiful Pass Cost?
An America the Beautiful pass costs $80 USD. That means in a year’s time, you can access any of the participating public land as many times as you like, for just $80.
A bonus perk of the America the Beautiful pass is that it can be shared with another person. This means a married couple, two people in a family or even two friends could share the pass. The back of the pass has room for two signatures and as long as the cardholder has the pass with them, they can use the pass when they are together OR if they are traveling without the other signature holder.
Southerner Says helpful tip: if you purchase your pass towards the first of the month, you have to the end of that month of the next year to use your pass. So, you actually get a little more than a year’s use out of your America the Beautiful pass.
Where Can You Use an America the Beautiful Pass?
In addition to sites overseen by the National Park Service, here’s a list of the other agencies that also 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/
What Does the America the Beautiful Pass Cover?
Frequent and even not so frequent park travelers that have an America the Beautiful pass can save a lot of money on park entrance fees.
For example, Utah has thirteen national park sites. That includes the “Mighty 5”, which is Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Arches. Most people on a Utah park road trip plan on including those five – if not more – park units when they visit.
If you entered the “Mighty 5” without an America the Beautify pass, it would cost $150 total to visit those parks. But if you purchase an America the Beautiful pass, you’ll only spend $80 on the pass. That’s a $70 savings!
Additionally, the pass saves you money at Bureau of Land Management sites, national forests, state parks and even on parking fees at many sites in the western United States.
Another example of what the America the Beautiful pass covers is I was recently at the Tonto National Forest to kayak the Salt River. If I had not had my pass it would have been necessary to purchase a Tonto Pass but since I had my America the Beautiful, I didn’t spend any additional money.
Where to Buy an America the Beautiful Pass
Buying a pass is super easy. There are several ways to do it:
- in person at participating parks that sell the passes
- online at the USGS store
- online at Recreation.gov
- from REI and they make a 10% donation to the National Parks Foundation
Buying a Pass in a Park
When purchasing a pass at a park, simply tell the ranger at the entrance station you’d like to purchase a pass. Present your identification and your method of payment, sign your pass and just like that, you’re an America the Beautiful pass holder. Most parks accept credit cards and cash. If you are paying with cash, small bills are appreciated.
If you have a favorite park and plan on visiting soon, the parks do receive a small commission off the sales of passes so you might want to hold off on purchasing your pass at the park of your choice. .
Southerner Says: be aware if you lose your pass, it cannot be replaced. Even if you have your receipt, it’s necessary to buy another one.
How to Use an America the Beautiful Pass at the Park
The next time you arrive at a park, just present your America the Beautiful pass with your identification at the entrance station of the park. That’s it. Some parks, like Yellowstone National Park, even have dedicated lanes for pass holders. That’s a huge bonus because the entrance lines can get long at busy times. Having a dedicated lane means getting into the park quicker.
When you visit a park that doesn’t have an entrance station or if the entrance station is closed for low season, you might be asked to display your America the Beautiful pass on your dash or present your park pass in the visitor center.
Other Types of America The Beautiful Passes
Besides the classic America the Beautiful pass that anyone can and should purchase, there are other free or discounted passes available for those that meet the requirements. Here’s a list of those additional passes, how to qualify, and how to obtain a pass.
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. Visit the National Park Service website to see who qualifies and what’s required for this type of America the Beautiful pass.
An America the Beautiful pass is available for current members of the military and their dependents. This includes members of the National Guard and Reserve. Passes can be purchased in person at national parks by by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID (Form 1173).
Annual 4th Grade Pass
In an effort to start early and get kids involved in our national parks, the National Park Service has created a special pass for 4th graders. The pass is free and is good for the child’s entire 4th grade school year including the following summer. Home schooled children are also eligible.
Parents – and educators – can sign up for a paper pass at the Every Kid Outdoors website. Then, the next time you visit a national park, simply exchange the paper copy for a hard copy at the sites that issue passes. Note: no digital passes will be allowed.
The America the Beautiful access pass is a free pass available for U.S. citizens or permanent residents, that have permanent disabilities. Applicants are required to provide documentation of permanent disability along with proof of residency or citizenship. The access pass entitles the user to discounts on some amenities such as camping, swimming, boat launch and interpretive services that might other wise have a fee.
An access pass can be purchased in person at sites that issue passes or by mail. There is a $10 fee for mail processing applications.
The National Park Service has a pass program 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
The biggest advantage the senior lifetime pass is that once purchased, it’s good for life. Additionally, senior pass holders are eligible for discounts on camping, tours, transportation, concessionaires, and special use permit fees. For more info see the USGS website.
For seniors on a fixed income, an annual senior pass is still available and four years of annual pass purchases can be traded in for a lifetime pass. For more info, visit the National Park Service’s FAQ page here.
A volunteer pass is available for volunteers that have 250 service hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program. Volunteers can ask for a pass at the park where they volunteer or through the Volunteer Coordinator at that park.
Ready to plan a national park trip? Here’s some ideas to get you started:
How to Visit a National Park for Free
If you don’t have an America the Beautiful pass, the National Park Service also offers free admission days throughout the year. The days for 2022 are:
- January 17: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- April 16: first day of National Park Week
- August 4th: 2nd anniversary of the Great Outdoors Act
- September 24: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
More Info About the America the Beautiful Park Pass
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 a classic pass. When you are out their exploring our national parks, remember to leave them better than you found them and implement Leave No Trace principles. That includes giving wildlife plenty of space and never giving them food. Hope to see you out there. Happy trails!