If you love national parks, we’re kindred spirits. After growing up in Alaska and now living in California, I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to explore many of the amazing natural wonders protected here in the American West as part of the National Park System.
While I completely support our national parks and the admission fees that help pay for them, I also don’t have endless funds. That’s why I was blown away when I finally discovered the way to save money when visiting national parks. While there’s no U.S. national park “membership” that gets you into the parks for life, for free, there is another way: the America the Beautiful Pass.
If you want to know all about this pass to get into all the national parks – the America the Beautiful Pass – you’ve come to the right place! In this post, I’ll cover what the America the Beautiful pass is, and why the national park pass is totally worth it and will save you money if you love visiting national parks.
What does the America the Beautiful Pass Cover?
Here’s the official definition of the America the Beautiful Pass, according to the National Park Service:
An America the Beautiful pass is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Each pass covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. (Source)
2,000 is a pretty big number, so that’s definitely a selling point, right? Well, also according to the NPS, there are only 108 fee-charging locations in the National Park System as of November 2020, so these are the primary places most people want to know about on the National Park annual pass list. I condensed them all into a spreadsheet here if you want to browse them easily.
How Much Does it Cost to Visit National Parks (Without a Parks Pass)?
What convinced me to finally purchase a national park pass was when I did the math based on how much each park costs. So what do the national parks cost to visit?
The majority of fee-charging national parks charge a fee on a per-vehicle basis, which gets you access for 7 days. Here are the per-vehicle fees for 2021:
- $20: Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)
- $25: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve (Colorado), Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona), Saguaro National Park (Arizona), White Sands National Park (New Mexico)
- $30: Acadia National Park (Maine), Arches National Park (Utah), Badlands National Park (South Dakota), Big Bend National Park (Texas), Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado), Canyonlands National Park (Utah), Crater Lake National Park (Oregon), Death Valley National Park (California), Everglades National Park (Florida), Haleakalā National Park (Hawaii), Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii), Joshua Tree National Park (California), Lassen Volcanic National Park (California), Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado), Mount Rainier National Park (Washington), Olympic National Park (Washington), Shenandoah National Park (Virginia), Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota)
- $35: Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah), Glacier National Park (Montana), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming), Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado), Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks (California), Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming), Yosemite National Park (California), Zion National Park (Utah)
There are also some parks that don’t have vehicle passes; they only have their own annual permits or per-person entry fees. Here are the per-person fees for 2021:
- $7 per person: Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)
- $10 per person: Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas)
- $15 per person: Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico), Denali National Park & Preserve (Alaska), Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)
In short, how much you pay to access national parks each year depends on how many parks you visit.
How Much is the America the Beautiful Park Pass?
So how much is a National Parks pass, if it can save you much money?
The cost of the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass is $80 for a one-year pass.
This might not seem like a lot, but as I mentioned, the National Park annual pass cost will save you money if you plan to visit more than 1-2 parks or other fee units of the National Park service. If you visit 3 or more national parks in the next year, you’ll probably pay more to access each individually than you would pay if you bought the America the Beautiful pass!
Additionally, you always get 12 months of access to parks with the national park pass. Rather than being based on the calendar year, the America the Beautiful pass is good for 12 months following the month you purchase it. For example, if you purchase it in May of this year, the national parks pass will be good until May 31st of next year.
Where to Buy the America the Beautiful National Park Pass
If you’re sold on buying the America the Beautiful pass and just wonder where to buy a national park pass, there are three ways:
- You can purchase an annual national park pass in-person. There are 44 pages of National Park Service units where you can buy the pass – so pretty much everywhere!
- You can buy one over the phone. Call 888-ASK-USGS (1-888-275-8747) to place your order.
- You can purchase the America the Beautiful pass online. There are two retailers that sell the national park pass: the USGS and REI. This is the easiest way to purchase if you want to receive it in advance of a trip or give a national park pass as a gift.
These are the only three ways how to buy a national park pass, so you can choose the one that makes sense for you and your travel plans (or gift-giving plans).
Other FAQ about the America the Beautiful Pass
Does the National Park Pass Cover (Insert Your Favorite Park Here)?
You have a favorite national park and you’re curious if the America the Beautiful pass covers it? The short answer is yes. Since the national park pass covers 2,000 sites across the country, it’s pretty much guaranteed that wherever you want to go, the pass will get you in.
So whether you want to visit Yosemite or Yellowstone, the giant Grand Canyon or funky Joshua Trees, the America the Beautiful pass will cover your admission to all of them.
Does the National Park Pass Cover National Monuments?
Another short answer: yes, the national park pass covers national monuments. These fee-charging sites are on the list of National Park Service units covered by the America the Beautiful Pass.
Does the America the Beautiful Pass Work at State Parks?
Unfortunately, no, the America the Beautiful Pass does not cover access or admission to state parks. State parks are not administered by the National Park Service, so they aren’t covered by the national parks pass.
Can I Use Someone Else’s National Park Pass?
No, you can’t use someone else’s America the Beautiful Pass. When you receive your pass, you are expected to sign the back. You may be expected to show identification on arrival at any National Park Service unit, so the signature needs to match your photo ID.
The only exception to this is that there’s room for two signatures on the back of the America the Beautiful Pass, one for you and one for another person. You could choose to split the fee with someone else and both sign it – but again you’ll need to show ID when you arrive so be ready for that!
(This is not meant to encourage breaking the rules, but during the pandemic, I’ve never had to show my ID because park rangers have been trying to limit interactions at each entrance station. Just sayin’.)
Will the National Parks Pass Save Me Money?
I hope I’ve convinced you already, but yes, the national parks pass will save you money. Here are a few examples to make my point:
- Say you go on a Southwest road trip, like we did last summer. You visit Canyonlands ($30), Arches ($30), Mesa Verde ($30), Grand Canyon ($35), and Zion ($35). You would have paid $160 at each park individually; you’ll save 50% by using the America the Beautiful pass!
- Want to do a road trip to Colorado’s four national parks? You’ll visit Rocky Mountain ($35), Great Sand Dunes ($25), Mesa Verde ($30), and Black Canyon of the Gunnison ($30). That would cost you $120, instead of $80 for the national parks pass.
- With more time, you could do a 10-day California national parks road trip, which visits Yosemite ($35), Sequoia & Kings Canyon ($35), Death Valley ($30), Joshua Tree ($30), and you could even add on Pinnacles ($30). Again, you’ll save half ($80) by using the park pass instead of paying for each park.
- My epic West Coast National Parks Road Trip saves you even more – if you pay for each park on that itinerary, you’ll pay $250 total compared to the $80 for the America the Beautiful Pass.
Heck – even if you just want to visit Arches and Canyonlands in one day, you’ll pay almost as much ($60) for that one day as for the pass you can use for the whole year!
How can I get a Free National Park Pass?
There are two ways to get a free America the Beautiful Pass:
- If you are active member (or dependent of a service person) in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Reserve and National Guard, you are eligible for the U.S. Military pass. You have to show a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID to apply for this type of pass.
- There is also a lifetime access pass for U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. To apply for this pass, you’ll need to show documentation of permanent disability and residency or citizenship.
Those are the only two options for getting a free America the Beautiful pass as of 2021.
I can’t afford the national parks pass – How Can I Visit the Parks for Free?
If you can’t afford an America the Beautiful Pass, there is still a budget-friendly way to visit the national parks: free days!
In 2021, there are six free days:
- January 18: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- April 17: First day of National Park Week
- August 4: One year anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
- August 25: National Park Service Birthday
- September 25: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
On these days, anyone can access the national parks for free. Be prepared though – these are always the most crowded days to visit any national park unit because they’re free!
Now you’re in the know about why the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it – and will save you money. Have other questions about the national park pass everyone’s talking about? Let me know in the comments!