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Should You Purchase an America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass?

Should You Purchase an America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass?


By avatar  Stacy
Posted On 12/24/2018 17:28:50
Trip Date 10/01/2018  

Camping | Hiking | Benefits of America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass | Cost and Benefit Comparison of Interagency Pass | Saving Money on National Park Entrance Fees



There is so much to see in the United States and, like many others, we often make plans to visit other countries rather than seeing some of the natural beauty in our own "backyard". Depending on where you live or what plans you have for the coming year, the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass might offer some cost savings for visits to national parks, national forests and more.

If you are wondering whether or not the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass is worth the cost, this post will help you answer that question. If you are unfamiliar with the Annual Pass and plan to spend some time seeing some of the natural beauty in the United States, this post is also for you. We'll start with an overview of the benefits followed by some cost vs. benefit information that should help you answer the question of whether or not the pass is a good value for your personal situation.



Benefits of the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass

The primary benefit of the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass (also referred to as an Interagency Pass or Annual Pass) is admission to 2,000+ federal recreation sites including those managed by the:
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • National Park Service
  • US Army Corps of Engineers
  • USDA Forest Service and
  • US Fish & Wildlife Service.
"Admission" is defined as either the entrance fee or day use fee required as payment for an adult to enter one of the participating sites. (Admission fees are always waived for anyone under the age of 16.) When a pass along with acceptable photo identification are presented at sites where a "per person" fee is charged, admission generally includes the pass owner plus up to three additional adults. When a pass along with acceptable photo identification are presented at sites where a "per vehicle" fee is charged, admission generally includes:
  • the pass owner and up to 3 additional adult passengers arriving in one standard personal consumer vehicle; or
  • the pass owner and up to 3 additional adult bicyclists; or
  • the motorcyclist and passengers on up to two motorcycles (only if the motorcycles arrive simultaneously with one pass owner on each).



Although the Annual Pass is non-transferable, the benefits of the Annual Pass can be shared between two people. Upon purchase of the pass, two people can sign the pass making them each pass owners. While only one "card" is issued and must be shared by the two owners, they need not be related or married. For example, if you and a hiking friend make plans to visit a national park, you could together purchase an Annual Pass. On a subsequent day, one of the pass owners could visit a participating site with three other friends. Using the pass can continue in this manner until it expires - as long as the two owners coordinate the use of the pass so that it is never needed at two sites at the same time.


America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass

America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass

In addition to the Annual Pass, there are several additional passes available which offer similar benefits (see National Park Service website for more information including pricing, inclusions, exclusions, etc.):

  • Access Pass (available for U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities) - free
  • Annual Pass for U.S. Military (available for current military members and dependents) - free
  • Annual 4th Grade Pass - (available for U.S. 4th graders and valid for the September to August school year) - free
  • Senior Pass (available for U.S. citizens or permanent residents aged 62+) - $20 for annual pass or $80 for lifetime pass
  • Volunteer Pass (available for eligible federal agency volunteers) - free

Although there are some unique benefits to owners of these additional five passes, there are no discounts on backcountry permits, bookstore or gift shop purchases, camping, tours, etc. with the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass.



Example of Fee Calculation with America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass

Our first extended trip within sites managed by the National Parks Service was in June 2017. Todd and Julia, Scott's brother and sister-in-law, had actually planned the whole trip and invited us to join. The plan for their 9 day journey would take us through Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. At the time of our visit, the total cost of entrance fees to the three parks that we were planning to visit was $75.00 for our group of four:
  • $25.00 for 7 day vehicle permit at Glacier National Park plus
  • $50.00 for a combined 7 day vehicle permit valid at both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks (no longer offered).


Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park

As Scott and I began planning air travel, we decided to extend our trip to include visits to both Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. A little more research into entrance fees, plus the fact that we were hoping to purchase an RV later in the year, pointed us in the direction of purchasing an Annual Pass:

  • $30.00 for 7 day vehicle permit at Bryce Canyon National Park plus
  • $24.00 for 7 day entrance fee for 2 pedestrians at Zion National Park.


Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

As the original plan was to split the $75.00 in entrance fees, we approached Todd and Julia with our idea of purchasing an Annual Pass. We offered to pay over half of the cost so that we would all benefit. Todd and Julia would save a little money and, although we would pay more than we would have paid to enter the first three parks, we'd be able to use the pass for the coming twelve months. (Purchasing an Annual Pass was really a no-brainer for us as the cost of the pass was less than the entrance fee to the five parks that we planned to visit.)



Cost vs. Benefit Comparison of the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass

The cost of the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass is currently $80.00 and the pass is valid until the last day of the twelfth month following the purchase date of the pass. For example, we purchased our original pass at Glacier National Park on June 18, 2017, so it was valid through June 30, 2018.

While the price of the Annual Pass has remained steady since the date of our purchase, the entrance fees have increased during the past 18 months almost across the board. Here's a summary of the benefits that we received from the pass that we purchased in June 2017 (updated to reflect the 2018 fee schedule):

  • June 19, 2017 at Glacier National Park: $35.00 (7 day vehicle permit)
  • June 22, 2017 at Yellowstone National Park: $35.00 (7 day vehicle permit)
  • June 23, 2017 at Grand Teton National Park: $35.00 (7 day vehicle permit)
  • June 27, 2017 at Bryce Canyon National Park: $35.00 (7 day vehicle permit)
  • June 28, 2017 at Zion National Park: $40.00 (7 day entrance for 2 hikers)
  • June 30, 2017 at Lake Mead National Recreation Area: $25.00 (7 day vehicle permit)
  • September 12, 2017 at Fort Davis National Historic Site: $20.00 (7 day vehicle permit)
  • September 15, 2017 at Big Bend National Park: $30.00 (7 day vehicle permit)
  • November 20, 2017 at Everglades National Park: $16.00 (7 day entrance for 2 hikers)
  • March 31, 2018 at Hot Springs National Park Tower: $6.00 (discounted admission for 2 individuals)


Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

The grand total of savings for visits to ten federal recreation sites based on the 2018 fee schedule would be $277.00. After deducting the $80.00 fee for the pass, the actual savings equals $197.00, again based on today's fee schedule. (Our actual savings based on prices in effect at the time of our visits was $160.00 - still a very worthwhile investment!)



Is the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass Worth the $80.00 Annual Fee?

The decision as to whether or not the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass is a good investment is a personal decision based on each pass owner(s) potential visits to federal recreation sites participating within the program. Here's a few examples to help you make your decision:
  • If you and at least one other person plan to travel in one vehicle to visit the "Mighty Five" National Parks in Utah (Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zions) within a 12 month period, the pass would pay for itself (with an additional $65.00 in savings).
  • If you and at least one other person plan to travel in one vehicle to only visit the 35 recreation areas in the Washington DC area one time each, you would avoid paying $50.00 in entrance fees. As only Antietam National Battlefield, Fort Washington Park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Chesapeake and Ohio Canals and Great Falls Park charge fees, your pass would not pay for itself.
  • If you plan to visit three or more of the national parks where the per vehicle admission fee is $30.00 or more, the pass would pay for itself (with, at minimum, an additional $10.00 in savings).
At the conclusion of our first year with the Annual Pass, it was time for us to decide whether we should purchase a pass upon our next national park visit. While it definitely made sense for the previous year, we needed to put some thought into our upcoming travel plans and research the entrance fees. Our preliminary plan for our westbound fall road trip has us visiting:
  • Mesa Verde National Park: $20.00 for 7 day vehicle permit during high season
  • Canyonlands National Park: $30.00 for 7 day vehicle permit
  • Arches National Park: $30.00 for 7 day vehicle permit
  • Petrified Forest National Park: $20.00 for 7 day vehicle permit
  • White Sands National Monument: $10.00 for 7 day vehicle permit
As you can guess, we again purchased the Annual Pass and if all goes according to plan, we will save a minimum of $30.00 by the end of our fall road trip!


Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park

With over 2,000 federal recreation sites, there are plenty of opportunities to make use of the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass. If you own an RV or a tent or if you want to introduce your kids or grandkids to nature at its best, now is a great time to review the list of sites where the Annual Pass can be purchased. Then, start making your plans to get out and explore the United States - one state at a time



Texas State Parks Pass

When comparing the cost of camping in Texas State Parks to camping in state parks in many other states, the nightly camping fee in Texas is often lower. Once the per person daily use fee is added however, the total camping cost in Texas is often higher than in the state parks of other states. If you plan to visit any of the state parks in Texas, take a look at our post titled Should You Purchase a Texas State Parks Pass? for a similar analysis to help you decide whether a Texas State Parks Pass is right for you. Because of the unique daily use fee, purchasing a Texas State Parks Pass is often beneficial even to those living outside of the state - and even if only visiting for a short time.

Best Membership Clubs or Passes

With both national and state park passes plus a variety of camping clubs (Passport America, Good Sam, Escapees, etc.), which do you find to be the most beneficial and why?





Should You Purchase an America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass?











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