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Should You Fork Out the Money to Buy a National Parks Pass?

Should You Fork Out the Money to Buy a National Parks Pass?


avatar   Stacy
Trip Date 12/01/2020
Posted On 12/18/2020 09:09:09

Camping | Hiking | United States | National Parks | America the Beautiful Annual Pass | National Parks Pass | Annual Pass | Interagency Pass | Benefits | Cost Benefit Comparison | Saving Money | Discounts



Exploring National Parks is an excellent way to see some of the natural beauty within the United States. Having a pass included in The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass Series is the best way to get discounts at national parks, national forests and more. With November 30, 2020 marking the end of our third year as holders of the America the Beautiful Annual Pass, we've got some first hand experience to share with anyone questioning whether or not the purchase of an Annual Pass is a good decision. (Spoiler alert: An Annual Pass is not right for everyone!)

Saving over $100.00 and $150.00 respectively (even after accounting for the $80.00 purchase price) during our first two years, we were excited to see how we would benefit during our third year as Annual Pass holders. (Although we did get a little worried about breaking even on our purchase due to the many COVID-19 shutdowns, don't miss this article to see how we fared during our most recent year as pass holders!)

If you've visited (or even explored the possibility of visiting) any national parks, you've likely noticed that park entrance comes at a cost. If you have an interest in saving money on national park entrance fees, it's important to plan ahead. During the past three years, we've watched the entrance fees increase at many of the parks that we have visited.

If you are unfamiliar with the Interagency Pass and want to spend time camping, hiking and exploring within the United States, this article is perfect for helping you plan. Whether or not the benefits of the National Parks Pass 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 Interagency Pass. We'll also provide some examples that can help you decide if now is a good time for you to purchase an Annual Pass.

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Benefits of the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass

Having a valid America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass is the equivalent of having a ticket to enter more than 2,000 federal recreational 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 (national parks, monuments, seashores and more)
  • US Army Corps of Engineers
  • USDA Forest Service and
  • US Fish & Wildlife Service.


2020 America the Beautiful Annual Pass

2020 America the Beautiful Annual Pass

For purposes of the pass, "admission" is defined as either the entrance or day use fee charged for entering a participating site. Admission to most sites is charged on either a per adult or per vehicle basis. (Admission fees are almost always waived for anyone under the age of 16.) There are no discounts on backcountry permits, bookstore or gift shop purchases, camping, tours, etc. with the Annual Pass.

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When a signed pass along with acceptable photo identification of the pass holder 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).

Benefits of the Annual Pass are non-transferable, however a pass can be shared between two "owners". (A single card is issued to be shared by two owners who must both sign the pass. Co-owners need not be related, married or live together.)

For example, two neighbors or friends could split the cost of an Annual Pass. 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, both can benefit. (The two owners can arrive together on motorcycles, each with a passenger, and all 4 visitors will be admitted to a participating site. A week later, one of the pass owners can visit a national park with the maximum number of family or friends allowed. The other owner can use the pass on a subsequent day with his or her family. Using the pass can continue in this manner until the pass expires.)

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During a year filled with pandemic restrictions, we found that having an Annual Pass turned out to be an excellent way to get outside, get some exercise and see some of our amazing country. Most people that we encountered wore masks. It was refreshing to see that nearly all other park visitors that we passed in all parts of the country were respectful and moved aside to maintain (and usually exceed) the recommended six feet of social distance.

Additional Pass Offerings and Benefits

In addition to the Annual Pass, there are five other passes offering similar benefits (see the 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) and
  • Volunteer Pass (available for eligible federal agency volunteers) - free.

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Purchasing a National Parks Pass

The purchase price for the Annual Pass has held steady at $80.00 since 2007. Passes are valid until the last day of the twelfth month following the purchase date. For example, we purchased our third Annual Pass at Haleakala National Park on November 16, 2019. Our Annual Pass was valid through November 30, 2020. (By buying the pass near the beginning of a month, your pass will be valid for nearly 13 months!)


Haleakala National Park

Haleakala National Park

Passes can be purchased at the USGS online store at a cost of $80.00 plus fees. (In addition to the cost of postage which varies depending on the option chosen, a $5.00 fee is charged for processing and handling.). If planning to purchase a pass online, ensure that you have plenty of time to receive the pass in the mail before leaving home to visit a participating site.

Passes can also be purchased in-person at one of the locations where Interagency Passes are issued. Because of restrictions due to COVID-19, locations where passes can be purchased have become more limited. Many places that previously sold passes are only assisting customers remotely.

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It is highly advisable to contact the location where you might want to purchase a pass to determine availability. (We planned to make a return visit to Three Sisters Springs in December. Although this unit of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge does not issue passes, a $5.00 discount is available for pass holders and up to three guests. We had hoped to purchase a pass at the Ocala National Forest - Lake George District in early December. Upon contacting the office, we learned that they were operating virtually. No in person services were being offered for an undetermined period of time.)


Manatee Gazing at Three Sisters Springs

Manatee Gazing at Three Sisters Springs

Renewing a National Parks Pass

The America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass is not "renewable", per se. The pass expires on the last day of the twelfth month following the purchase date. A new Annual Pass can be purchased, at which time you will be issued a card with the new design and new expiration date!


2019 and 2020 Annual Passes

2019 and 2020 Annual Passes

In our case, the pass that we purchased in mid-November 2019 expired on November 30, 2020. We had three choices for purchasing a new pass:

  • Purchase a pass in November 2020 just before or on the day that our current pass was expiring (our new pass would expire at month-end November 2021);
  • Purchase a pass in December 2020 (our new pass would expire at month-end December 2021); or
  • Purchase a pass at the next federal recreational site that we visit. (This was the option that we chose, so our new pass will expire on the last day of the twelfth month following our next purchase date).

The cost of the pass is approximately $6.67 per month. If you plan to visit a location that does not sell passes, there might still be value in purchasing a pass early (or by mail) if you can save enough to make it worthwhile.

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

Here's a summary of the savings that we received from the Annual Pass that we purchased in November 2019:
  • November 16, 2019 at Haleakala National Park: $25.00;
  • November 17, 2019 at Pools of O'hoe: included with entry to Haleakala within 3 day time period;


    Pools of O'hoe

    Pools of O'hoe

  • January 31, 2020 at Three Sisters Springs: $10.00 ($5.00 per person discount);
  • August 5, 2020 at Devils Tower National Monument: $25.00;


    Devils Tower National Monument

    Devils Tower National Monument

  • August 6, 2020 at Badlands National Park: $30.00;
  • August 17, 2020 at Rocky Mountain National Park: $70.00 (Due to COVID-19, only daily passes at $25.00 or annual passes at $70.00 were offered; As we planned to explore for a minimum of 4 days, we would have needed to purchased the Rocky Mountain Annual Pass);


    Sunset at Rocky Mountain National Park

    Sunset at Rocky Mountain National Park

  • August 29, 2020 at Great Sand Dunes National Park: $25.00;


    Sandboarding at Great Sand Dunes National Park

    Sandboarding at Great Sand Dunes National Park

  • September 29, 2020 at Guadalupe Mountains National Park: $20.00;


    Hiking at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

    Hiking at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

  • October 7 and 9, 2020 at Saguaro del Norte National Recreation Area (Tonto National Forest); $16.00 ($8.00 per visit);
  • October 14, 2020 at Joshua Tree National Park: $30.00;


    Joshua Tree National Park

    Joshua Tree National Park

  • October 20, 2020 at Organ Pipes Cactus National Monument: $25.00;
  • October 23, 2020 at Saguaro National Park: $25.00; and
  • November 23, 2020 at Gulf Shores National Seashore: $25.00.

The grand total of savings for our visits to these 13 federal recreational sites based on the pricing at the time of our visit was $326.00. After deducting the $80.00 fee for the Annual Pass, our net savings equalled $246.00.

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We also made an unplanned visit to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on January 27, 2020. Because of our last minute decision, we did not have our pass with us so we had to pay the $5.00 entrance fee.

Lessons learned: Always keep your Annual Pass in your wallet as you never know when you will have an opportunity to use it!


St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

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 occurred only at those sites that we visited during the 2019 calendar year:

  • Point Park (Lookout Mountain Battlefield) increased from $7.00 to $10.00 per person;
  • The summer rates at Crater Lake National Park increased from $25.00 to $30.00 per standard vehicle for a 7 day permit;
  • Saguaro National Park increased the fee for a 7 day permit from $20.00 to $25.00 per standard vehicle; and


    Hiking in Saguaro National Park

    Hiking in Saguaro National Park

  • The 7 day permit fee at Haleakala National Park increased from $25.00 to $30.00 per vehicle.

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

The decision as to whether or not an Annual Pass is a good investment is a personal decision based on each pass owner(s) potential visits to federal recreational sites participating within the program. Here's three real life examples to help illustrate the potential value of an Annual Pass:

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  • Just like we did, many travelers combine visits to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Devils Tower National Monument and Badlands National Park into one vacation due to their close proximity to one another. If these national recreational sites are the only three that you visit during a 12-month period, paying the per vehicle fees at Badlands ($30.00) and Devils Tower ($25.00) would be less than the cost of an Annual Pass. (Except for parking, there are no fees to enter Mt. Rushmore.). In this case, purchasing an Annual Pass would not be beneficial, other than to show your support of national parks.


    Sunset at Badlands National Park

    Sunset at Badlands National Park

  • If you and one other person spend time traveling around the Florida coast, you may visit some of the state's federal recreational sites. The good news is that many of Florida's sites do not charge fees. (If you are looking for ways to get value out of a National Parks Pass, that could also be considered bad news!) Traveling south along the west coast, your trip could include Gulf Islands National Seashore ($25.00 per vehicle), Three Sisters Springs ($5.00 per person) and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge ($5.00 per vehicle). Returning north along the eastern coast, stops at Everglades National Park ($30.00 per vehicle), Canaveral National Seashore ($20.00 per vehicle) and Castillo de San Marcos ($15.00 per person), would give you a net savings of $40.00 by being holders of an Annual Pass. (If you are lucky enough to also get to Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West, you would save an additional $15.00 per person with an Annual Pass!)


    Gulf Islands National Seashore

    Gulf Islands National Seashore

  • If you were to take a two-week drive through southern California and Arizona, you could explore three national recreational sites during your road trip. By purchasing an Annual Pass, the entrance fees at Joshua Tree National Park ($30.00 per vehicle), Organ Pipes Cactus National Monument and Saguaro National Park (each $25.00 per vehicle) would be waived and you would break even.


    Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

    Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

    The standard fee at each additional national recreational site that you visit within the next 11 1/2 months with your Annual Pass would equal dollars that you saved by purchasing the pass. For example, if you decided to enjoy a picnic lunch at Saguaro del Norte National Recreation Area (Tonto National Forest) near Phoenix, the $8.00 entrance fee would instantly put your savings over the investment that you made in the pass!


Saguaro del Norte National Recreation Area

Saguaro del Norte National Recreation Area

The "WE Purchased It!" Verdict

During the first two years of the Wordy Explorers being Annual Pass holders, we saved over $150.00 per year. As we were considering whether or not we should purchase a 2020 pass, we had preliminary plans for possible visits to Organ Pipes Cactus National Monument and Gulf Islands National Seashore (each $25.00 per vehicle). With a full travel calendar planned for the year, our initial thought was to just pay the standard entrance fees at these two sites.

We were in Maui, Hawaii in November 2019, and decided to spend a day hiking at Haleakala National Park ($30.00 per vehicle). The total entrance fees to the three sites totaled $80.00, so at that point we knew that, at minimum, we would break even by purchasing an Annual Pass. With many of our travel plans being cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19, we ended up spending more time in national parks than we anticipated. We saved over $240.00 making our 2020 pass even more valuable than prior Annual Passes!


Hiking in Haleakala National Park

Hiking in Haleakala National Park

For 2021, we have plans to visit Castillo de San Marcos ($15.00 per person) and return to Gulf Islands National Seashore ($25,00 per vehicle) early in the year. We also have tentative plans to get to Dry Tortugas National Park in late 2021 ($15.00 per person). Assuming we only visit these three sites, we would still save $5.00 by being Annual Pass holders. With the over 2,000 federal recreational sites where we can make use of an Annual Pass, we'll likely hit another one, two or more during the remaining 10 months of the year!

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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 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 article 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 Passes

With 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?





Should You Fork Out the Money to Buy a National Parks Pass?





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