Does a US National Parks Pass save you money?

The US National Parks are one of the country’s biggest attractions, with 59 different sites featuring landscapes from deserts and glaciers to caves and coral reefs. And that’s before you get started on the hundreds of US state parks, national forests, monuments and recreation areas. If you’re planning on visiting a few different National Parks, then the National Parks Service offer an annual pass that can be used as often as you like all over the country. But is it worth the cost, or are you better off just paying for park entry as you go? I got my calculator out for my trip around the southwest and here’s what I found.

What does it cover?

The America the Beautiful Pass covers you for a year, and lets a vehicle and up to four adults over 16 into each park for free (children 15 and under are free anyway). Where the park charges a fee per person it covers up to four people. It doesn’t cover extra costs though, like guided tours, camping and RV pitches.

The pass is valid at over 2000 federally-owned recreation sites across the US. It’s hard to track down a full list, but it includes all National Parks plus National Monuments, National Forests and Wildlife Refuges. It doesn’t cover privately-owned sites, like Meteor Crater in Arizona, and Navajo sites like Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon. And it all gets a bit confusing when you come to state parks – some like Red Rock Canyon in Nevada are covered by the pass but most aren’t. In places where the pass isn’t accepted there’s usually a sign to say so, but if not it’s always worth asking.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park

What does it cost?

The America the Beautiful Pass costs $80 and is valid for one year. If you’re a US citizen you’re also eligible for a senior pass if you’re over 62 (this costs $10 for a lifetime pass), or a free pass for disabled people or the military. You can order the passes online or get them at any of the National Parks, plus a lot of National Monuments, National Forests and state visitors centres. There’s a full list of what can be bought where here. The pass has space for two signatures on the back, so you can share it, and the two people don’t have to be related. You will need to show photo ID every time you use the pass.

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park

What will it save you?

The pricing structure in the National Parks is very variable. Each one charges different rates and there’s a mixture of charging by person or by vehicle. Below are the basic entry charges for the National Parks in the southwest states in 2013. The prices don’t include ranger-guided tours, which you need to take to see some sites properly, like Mesa Verde and Carlsbad Caverns. These cost from $3 to $25 per person.

  • Arizona: Grand Canyon NP ($25 per vehicle); Petrified Forest NP ($10 per vehicle); Saguaro NP ($10 per vehicle).
  • California: Channel Islands NP (free entry); Death Valley NP ($20 per vehicle); Joshua Tree NP ($15 per vehicle); Kings Canyon/Sequoia NPs ($20 per vehicle); Lassen Volcanic NP ($10 per vehicle); Redwood NP (free entry); Yosemite NP ($20 per vehicle).
  • Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP ($15 per vehicle); Great Sand Dunes NP ($3 per person); Mesa Verde NP ($10 per vehicle, or $15 from 24 May–2 Sept); Rocky Mountain NP ($20 per vehicle).
  • Nevada: Death Valley NP ($20 per vehicle); Great Basin NP (free entry).
  • New Mexico: Carlsbad Caverns NP ($10 per person).
  • Utah: Arches NP ($10 per vehicle); Bryce Canyon NP ($25 per vehicle); Canyonlands NP ($10 per vehicle); Capitol Reef NP ($5 per vehicle); Zion NP ($25 per vehicle).
Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park

So is it worth it?

Our route took in Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon National Parks. The total entry costs would have been $105 without the pass, so it saved us $25. If you add in the extra places we visited that are also covered in the pass – like the Red Rocks area around Sedona ($5) and Red Rock Canyon ($7) – then the saving is almost $40, so the pass was well worth buying.

It’s worth doing the maths though as it’ll depend on which parks you are planning to visit. Our route covered a lot of the most famous and therefore most pricy ones, but if you’re concentrating on smaller parks or visiting more National Forests which are often free, it might not be worth it. Though if there’s not much difference then by buying the pass you are helping support a good cause. You can find details of all US National Parks, including their entry fees, on the NPS website.

But if that all still sounds too pricey, then there are also dates when the US’s National Parks are free to enter – though you might need to battle the crowds. Free entry dates for 2014 are Martin Luther King Jr Day on January 20, Presidents Day Weekend on February 15–17, the first weekend of National Parks Week on April 19–20, the National Park Service’s Birthday on August 25, National Public Lands Day on September 27, and Veterans Day November 11.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Canyonlands National Park

Comments

  1. says

    j adore votre site et je m y balade regulièrement vous me faites découvrir tant de belles choses que j aimerai beaucoup visiter à mon tour un grand merci pour votre partage
    un bonjour de Belgique

  2. says

    There is an added benefit if you are able to use your pass locally to gain admission to National Park Sites. In the Washington, DC area, Great Falls National Park is one of my favorite places to visit.

    • says

      If you’re in the US and live near a National Park then it’s an especially good deal – I’d be in there all the time! Hope to explore the other side of the country a bit more next year so will look out for Great Falls.

    • says

      If you’re visiting the bigger more expensive parks then definitely – it’s always worth checking though as if you’re mostly visiting the $10 entry ones you’ll need to be visiting a lot more.

  3. beyo1284 says

    There are so many amazing national parks in the US, I can see that pass being a great idea if you like to travel. Thanks for sharing. I’ll refer back to this post if I’m heading that way!

  4. says

    My husband and I bought the senior pass a few years ago and yes, it has been more than worth it. The problem is that I always feel guilty using it! Our parks need every dollar they can get. so when we hand over our pass for admission, we always make a donation at the same time that is equal to or more than the admission price. So for us….no, we don’t save any money at all :-)

    • says

      The senior pass is a really good deal, so that’s great that you make a donation when you visit too. We tried to buy things in the visitors centres too so money can go towards the parks, they’re such a great resource.

  5. says

    I’ve always viewed the National Parks Pass as one of the great travel bargains in the world. In India I paid $25 to see the Taj, in Zimbabwe $30 for Vic Falls, etc, etc. With the parks pass, especially if you are traveling in the west and seeing multiple parks like you did, it is a great deal.

    • says

      It’s a fantastic idea, especially like you say when you compare the prices to other areas (you’d pay almost £50 for a day ticket to Petra in Jordan) – don’t think I’ll have chance to see any more US National Parks this year but will try and get another pass for next year.

  6. Pete says

    Thanks so much Lucy. We are travelling through the SE in a few months and will take in some of the better known parks. The information is a great help. Take care. P.

  7. Natasha Perry says

    thank you so much for this, we have been researching park costs and getting very confused! your post was so clear. thank you for spending the time to share your experience. we hope to do a self drive tour of california and the surrounding parks this summer!! :)

  8. says

    we are off for five months in the US in an RV with my in-laws and I suspect they have this pass so we are covered. If they don’t I will definitely mention it to them.

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