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 national parks 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, but doesn’t cover extra costs 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.
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.
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).
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 2015 are Martin Luther King Jr Day on January 19, Washington’s Birthday weekend on February 14–16, the first weekend of National Parks Week on April 18–19, the National Park Service’s 99th Birthday on August 25, National Public Lands Day on September 26, and Veterans Day November 11.