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. Just 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 covers the entrance fee of the driver and the entrance fee of all the passengers in the vehicle – at 63 national parks and other participating sites. That includes visits to more than 2,000 participating federal and state recreation sites across the country – for one year.
Note: some parks charge a per person fee instead of a per vehicle fee. In that case the US park pass covers up to four adults. And remember that children 15 and under are always free.
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 participating public land as many times as you like, for just $80.
Southerner Says: if you purchase your pass 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 get a little more than a year’s use out of your America the Beautiful pass.
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.
Where Can You Use an America the Beautiful Pass?
In addition to sites that fall under 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/
Where to Buy an America the Beautiful Pass
There are several ways to buy a pass:
- in person at participating parks that sell the passes – note that if you have a favorite park and plan on visiting, the parks do receive a small commission off the sales of passes so you might want to purchase your pass at the park
- online at the USGS store
- online at Recreation.gov
- from REI and they make a 10% donation to the National Parks Foundation
Buying a National Park 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.
Some parks also give you a plastic holder for your America the Beautiful pass to hang on the rearview mirror. It’s not always required but just ask a ranger if you aren’t sure.
Southerner Says: If you hang your park pass, beware of opening both car doors at the same time if it’s windy. This is important to note because if you lose your pass, it cannot be replaced. Even if you have your receipt, you’ll have to buy another one. Some desert parks, like Lake Mead National Recreation Area, don’t require the pass to be in a hanger. The heat can cause the card and/or the hanger to melt.
Does the America the Beautiful Pass Save Money?
Park travelers that own an America the Beautiful pass can save a lot of money on park entrance fees.
Let’s look at an example of the parks in Utah and how the pass can save you money there. Utah has a total of thirteen National Park sites. That includes the “Mighty 5”, which is Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Arches. Most people planning a national park road trip to Utah try to visit at least those five parks – if not more – park units.
If you visit the “Mighty 5” in a car 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 only spend the $80 on the pass. That’s a $70 savings!
Additionally, the pass can save you money at BLM managed sites, national forests, state parks and even on parking fees at many sites in the western United States.
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 where 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.
What’s Not Covered by an America the Beautiful Pass
There are a few disclaimers and things the pass doesn’t cover. Here’s what’s not covered and what you can’t do with it.
- 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.
Ready to plan a national park trip? Here’s some ideas to get you started:
Other Types of Passes
In addition to the America the Beautiful pass, there are other free or discounted passes available for specific people that qualify, Here’s a list of those passes and how to obtain them.
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.
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 some of the passes. Remember to always use Leave No Trace principles when visiting a park or recreation area and that includes not feeding or trying to pet wildlife. Happy trails!