Trip Date 11/07/2019
Posted On 11/09/2019 15:17:21
Camping | Hiking | United States | National Parks Pass Benefits | Cost Benefit Comparison | Interagency Pass | Saving Money on National Park Fees | National Park Discounts
Hiking and camping in National Parks is a great way to explore the United States. In addition to National Park discounts, the America the Beautiful Pass offers discounts for entering national forests and more. Two years ago, we bought our first Annual Pass and saved over $100.00 in 12 months (even after accounting for the $80.00 purchase price).
If you've planned any national park visits, you likely noticed that entrance to the parks comes at a cost. If you are interested in saving money on national park fees, it's important to plan ahead. During the past two years, we've seen those entrance fees increase at almost all of the parks that we have visited.
For those who plan to spend some time seeing some of the natural beauty in the United States yet are unfamiliar with the Annual Pass, this post is for you. Whether or not the National Parks Pass benefits are worth the upfront expense depends on your travel plans. After an overview of the benefits of being a pass holder, we'll provide readers with a cost benefit comparison of the pass (which is also known as the Interagency Pass). Finally, we'll provide some examples that can help you decide if now is a good time for you to purchase an America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass.
Benefits of the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual PassThe America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass provides admission to 2,000+ federal recreation sites. The "Annual Pass" (also referred to as an Interagency Pass) includes admission to sites 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.
Although the Annual Pass is non-transferable, pass benefits 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 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. During a subsequent month, one pass owner could visit a participating site with up to three other friends if entering on foot. Using the pass could continue in this manner until its expiration - 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.
When a pass plus 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 photo ID are presented at sites where a "per vehicle" fee is charged, admission generally includes:
- the pass owner and up to 14 additional adult passengers arriving in one standard personal vehicle; or
- the pass owner and up to 3 additional adult bicyclists; or
- the motorcyclist and passengers on either 1 or 2 motorcycles (provided that both motorcycles arrive simultaneously with one pass owner on each).
Additional Pass Offerings and BenefitsIn addition to the Annual Pass, there are several 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 (some sites offer discounted boat launching, camping, guided tours and swimming to holders of the Senior 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.
Cost vs. Benefit Comparison of the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual PassThe purchase price for the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass has held steady at $80.00 since 2007. The pass is valid until the last day of the twelfth month following the purchase date. For example, we purchased our second Annual Pass at Carlsbad Caverns National Park on October 8, 2018 making our pass valid through October 31, 2019. (By buying the pass near the beginning of a month, your pass will be valid for nearly 13 months!)
Here's a summary of the savings that we received from the pass that we purchased in October 2018:
- October 8, 2018 at Carlsbad Caverns National Park: $24.00
- October 16, 2018 at Mesa Verde National Park: $20.00
- October 21, 2018 at Natural Bridges National Monument; October 23, 2018 at Canyonlands National
Park and October 24, 2018 at Arches National Park: $50.00
Arches National Park
- October 27, 2018 at Petrified Forest National Park which includes a small section of the Painted Desert: $20.00
- November 7, 2018 at White Sands National Monument: $10.00
- April 11, 2019 at Melrose Cotton Kingdom Estate: $10.00
- April 13, 2019 at Vicksburg National Military Park: $20.00
- April 17, 2019 at Point Park: $14.00
- June 14, 2019 at Salt Creek Falls National Recreation Area: $5.00
- June 15, 2019 at Crater Lake National Park: $25.00
Crater Lake National Park
- September 21, 2019 at Acadia National Park: $30.00
- October 17, 2019 at Saguaro National Park: $20.00
The grand total of savings for our visits to these 14 federal recreation sites (based on prices in effect at the time) was $248.00. After deducting the $80.00 fee for the Annual Pass, our actual savings equaled $168.00.
While the price of the Annual Pass has remained steady for over ten years, the entrance fees to many individual parks have increased during the past year. For example, here's a summary of the price increases that have occurred since our 2018 visits:
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park increased from $12.00 to $15.00 per person;
- Mesa Verde National Park increased the fee for its 7 day permit from $20.00 to $25.00 per vehicle;
- The fee for the Southeast Utah Parks Annual Pass (which includes Arches & Canyonlands National Parks and Hovenweep & Natural Bridges National Monuments) has increased from $50.00 to $55.00; and
- The $5.00 per person entrance fee to White Sands National Monument has been replaced with a $10.00 per person or $20.00 per vehicle fee.
Is the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass Worth the $80.00 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 three examples which help to illustrate the value of an Annual Pass:
- Just like we did in 2017, many people combine visits to Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
into one vacation due to their proximity to one another. As of the date of this posting, the seven day entrance fee to each
park stands at $35.00 per vehicle. If you plan to hit all three either on a single trip or within a twelve month period, you
would save $25.00 by purchasing an Annual Pass.
Glacier National Park
- Known as the "Mighty Five", Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zions National Parks are all located
within the boundaries of the state of Utah. With per vehicle seven day passes ranging from $20.00 to $35.00 per
park, those paying the standard fee upon entrance to each park would be forking over $150.00. Purchasing the
Southeast Utah Parks Annual Pass for visiting Arches and Canyonlands would save $5.00 off of the total. The best
bargain, however, would be to purchase the America the Beautiful Pass which would save $70.00 when compared
with paying each park's entrance fee.
Bryce Canyon National Park
- If you and and one other person plan to spend time traveling around Florida, you may want to visit some of the federal recreation sites within the state. The good news is that most of the sites do not charge fees. (If you are looking for ways to get value out of your National Parks Pass, that could also be considered bad news!) The per vehicle fees at Canaveral National Seashore and Everglades National Park are $15.00 and $30.00, respectively. Exploring Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine comes at a cost of $15.00 per person. Assuming you are in one vehicle, the combined fees for all three fee collecting sites would total $75.00 - not enough for the pass to pay for itself. If, however, you included stops at one or more of the fee collecting areas along the Gulf Islands National Seashore on your way to or from Florida, you would save some money by purchasing an Annual Pass.
Our VerdictAfter saving almost $300.00 over the course of the last two years by having National Parks Passes, I never thought I would say this. While it definitely made sense for us to purchase an Annual Pass in the past, we need to do some forward thinking and additional research before purchasing our next pass. Our preliminary plans for the upcoming year include possible visits to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument ($25.00 per vehicle) and possibly one or more of the five fee collecting areas within the Gulf Islands National Seashore ($25.00 per vehicle at each, effective January 1, 2020).
As there are over 2,000 federal recreation sites where we can make use of a National Parks Annual Pass, I'm sure that there will be a time when being a pass holder will make sense again. Based on our current travel plans for the coming year, however, it may not be right away. The good news is that future passes don't have to be purchased immediately upon the expiration of your current pass. We can, therefore, buy a pass at any point in time when we believe we will see benefit over the upcoming twelve month period. (We'll just keep this list of sites where the Annual Pass can be purchased handy so that we can determine our best option before we head to our next federal recreation site!)
Texas State Parks PassWhen comparing the cost of camping in Texas State Parks to camping in state parks in many other states, the nightly camping fee is often lower. Once the per person daily use fee is added, however, the total camping cost in Texas can often be higher than in other states. If you plan to visit any Texas State Parks, don't miss our post titled Is the Texas State Parks Pass Worth the Annual Fee? for a similar analysis to help you decide whether the 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 PassesWith the wide variety of membership clubs (AARP, Passport America, AAA, Good Sam, Escapees, etc.) and the available national or state park passes, which do you find to be the most beneficial and why?
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