10 Things to Know About a National Park Pass

America the beautiful can also be America the affordable with a National Park Pass—the secret to scenic savings.

If you’re thinking about visiting a national park this year, you’re not alone. According to TripAdvisor, more than half (52 percent) of recent survey participants say they are more likely to take an outdoor or nature trip than they were before the pandemic, with travelers heading to the U.S. national parks like never before. However, while the parks offer great opportunities for social distancing and communing with nature, they are not always the free vacation spots travelers expect. That’s where a National Park Pass comes in, turning what could be a costly trip into an affordable, and sometimes even free, getaway. If a national park is in your future vacation plan, it pays—literally—to find out all the details. While you’re at it, save even more by knowing how to find the best cheap places to stay.

What is a National Park Pass?

Instead of paying every time you visit a national park or historical site in the United States—a cost that can run anywhere from a few dollars to $35 at one of the most visited sites like the Grand Canyon—the annual America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass allows unlimited entrance to all 422 national parks and historical sites, as well as nearly 1,500 federal recreation areas, for a one-time-per-year cost. The annual fee covers entrance and standard day-use fees for not only the driver but also all passengers in a personal vehicle at drive-up sites or up to four adults at sites that charge per person. (An adult is anyone aged 16 and up; children ages 15 or under are admitted free.)

Delicate Arch at Arches National Park with sun shining in the sky near Moab, Utahmmac72/Getty Images

What does a National Park Pass cost?

An annual America the Beautiful Pass (the official name of the pass) costs $80 and grants unlimited access for a full calendar year from the date of purchase to all 2,000 federal recreation sites. Note that there are discounts for passes available for a number of special groups and free options for park entrance throughout the year. (More on that below.)

Where can I buy a National Park Pass?

Standard America the Beautiful passes can be purchased in person at hundreds of federal recreation areas across the country. Or, you can order one online from the U.S Department of the Interior’s USGS website for an additional cost of $5.

Does a National Park Pass include camping?

The Annual Pass only covers admission and does not include camping (even at these spectacular national park campgrounds) or anything considered “amenity” fees such as RV hookups, boat launching, backcountry permits, parking fees, or special fee-based guided tours. If you want to save more on this aspect of your trip, check out our guides to finding free camping and free overnight RV parking spots throughout the country.

National Park Senior Pass

There are a number of perks to getting older, not least of which is the America the Beautiful Senior Pass. Here’s the skinny: This one is just for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and you need to be 62 or over. Once you meet these requirements, you have a choice of either purchasing an annual pass for $20, with all the same access as a regular pass, or a national park lifetime pass for $80 that you never have to renew or pay an additional fee to use. (FYI, this is the only category that allows you to purchase a lifetime pass.) You can purchase a pass online at the USGS website or through the mail using this application, but note that there is an additional $10 processing fee for both of these options. You can also purchase the pass in person at hundreds of federal recreation areas with no additional fees.

Unlike the regular park pass, the Senior Pass can also provide a 50 percent discount on some fees charged for facilities such as camping, swimming, and boat launching, depending on the location. Note that you must show a U.S. passport, state-issued driver’s license or ID card, or a Green Card to qualify for this special pass.

Aerial view of Grand Prismatic Spring, Midway Geyser and viewing walkway at Yellowstone National Park, WyomingIgnacio Palacios/Getty Images

National Park U.S. Military Pass

Current U.S. military members (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force) and their dependents, as well as Reserve and National Guard members, are eligible for free American the Beautiful annual park passes. To obtain a free pass, you must go in person to a federal recreation site and show either a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID (Form 1173).

Recently, veterans and Gold Star families were also added to the groups that can gain free access to national parks. This is not part of the Military Pass; access is granted for veterans by showing ID at the park entrance. Gold Star families have access to a special voucher that they can print and display.

Acceptable ID for veterans:

  • Department of Defense Identification Card (CAC Card)
  • Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC)
  • Veteran ID Card
  • Veterans designation on a state-issued U.S. driver’s license or identification card

National Park Access Pass

This pass provides U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities free entrance in all of the participating America the Beautiful national parks. Applicants must provide documentation of permanent disability and proof of U.S. residency or citizenship. Like the Senior Pass, you can purchase a pass online at the USGS website or through the mail using a written application, but there is an additional $10 processing fee for both of these options. You can also purchase the pass in person at hundreds of federal recreation areas with no additional fee.

Also like the Senior Pass, the Access Pass can also provide a 50 percent discount on some fees charged for facilities such as camping, swimming, and boat launching. Note that you must show either a U.S. passport, state-issued driver’s license or ID card, or a green card to qualify for this special pass. Looking for travel inspiration? Check out this list of the most scenic campsites in every state.

Valley view in Yosemite National Park, CaliforniaAllard Schager/Getty Images

Annual Fourth Grade Pass

There’s one more designation to get a free pass for national parks, and that’s simply to have a current fourth grader as part of your immediate family! These free passes are valid for the entire fourth-grade school year plus the following summer (so, basically, September to August). While all kids under 15 are free—which obviously includes fourth graders—this pass is good for their entire family, so parents and guardians can visit for free and take their children with them. To get a pass, visit the Every Kid Outdoors website. That pass, in turn, needs to be exchanged for the Annual Fourth Grade Pass at a federal recreation site.

National park entry fees

To get an idea of what your savings would be with an annual pass, here’s a look at some national parks and what they charge.

10 most popular national parks

According to the National Park Service, these 10 parks had the highest attendance in 2019 (2020 numbers weren’t available at press time); all but one charge admission. Fees noted are per car.

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (free)
  • Grand Canyon National Park ($35)
  • Rocky Mountain National Park ($25)
  • Zion National Park ($30)
  • Yosemite National Park ($35)
  • Yellowstone National Park ($35)
  • Acadia National Park ($30)
  • Grand Teton National Park ($35)
  • Olympic National Park ($30)
  • Glacier National Park ($35)

You’ll find many of these national parks on our list of the 55 best road trips in America, which can help you figure out the best way to visit them.

Most popular free national park service sites

Only 108 of the 422 national park sites charge admission, and according to the Parks Service, the seven most-visited federally administered sites in 2019 are all free.

  • Golden Gate National Recreation Area
  • Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Great Smokey Mountains National Park
  • Gateway National Recreation Area
  • Lincoln Memorial
  • George Washington Memorial Parkway
  • Natchez Trace Parkway

For more on where to go and what to see around the country, check out our Ultimate American Road Trip Guide.

Sources: 

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Melissa Klurman
Melissa Klurman is a freelance travel writer and editor with more than 27 years experience who reports on travel trends around the planet for Reader's Digest. Winner of a Lowell Thomas Gold Award for excellence in travel writing, she started her career as an editor at both Frommer’s and Fodor’s travel guides, then went on to write about travel for many publications including Family Traveller, Parents, and Working Mother magazines. More recently she has been a contributing editor at Saveur, Islands, and Caribbean Travel and Life and a senior contributor at Travelocity. A New Jersey native, ice cream addict, and a lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan, Klurman lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, son, and rescue dog.