Does a US National Parks Pass save you money?

Does a US National Parks Pass save you money?

The US National Parks are one of the country’s biggest attractions, with 63 different sites stretching from Alaska to the South Pacific and featuring a wide range of 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 in the US, the National Parks Service offer an annual pass that can be used as often as you like all over the country. But is the US National Parks Pass worth the cost, or are you better off just paying as you go? I got my calculator out after my southwest USA road trip and here’s what I found.

Read more: A two-week southwest USA road trip itinerary

Canyonlands National Park in Utah
Canyonlands National Park

What does the US National Parks Pass cover?

The America the Beautiful US National Parks Pass is valid 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 an entry fee per person rather than per vehicle, the pass normally covers up to four people. However it doesn’t include extras like tours or camping or RV pitches.

The pass is valid at over 2000 federally-owned recreation sites across the US maintained by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service and US Army Corps of Engineers.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park

It’s hard to track down a full list of everywhere the pass is accepted, but that will include all National Parks in the US as well as National Monuments, National Forests and Wildlife Refuges. The pass doesn’t cover privately owned natural sites though such as Meteor Crater in Arizona and Navajo sites like Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon.

It gets confusing when you get to state parks – some parks 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.

Red Rock Canyon state park in Nevada
Red Rock Canyon State Park

What does the America the Beautiful pass cost?

The US National Parks Pass costs $80 and is valid for one year. US citizens are also eligible for a senior pass if you’re over 62 ($20 for an annual pass or $80 for a lifetime pass), or a free pass for disabled people or the military. You can order the passes online or buy them at any National Park, plus many National Monuments, National Forests and state visitors’ centres.

There’s a list of what can be bought where here. The pass has space for two signatures on the back, so you can share it with another person, and the two people don’t have to be related. You do need to show photo ID every time you want to use the pass though.

Arches National Park in Utah
Driving through Arches National Park

What does entry to US National Parks cost?

The pricing structure in the US National Parks varies. Each one charges a different rate and there’s a mixture of charging by person or by vehicle. Below are the 2020–2021 entry charges for each US National Park. These don’t include ranger-guided tours, which you need to take in some sites like Mesa Verde and Mammouth Cave. These cost $5 to $20 per person.

Parks with per vehicle charges

  • $35: Bryce Canyon (Utah); Glacier* (Montana); Grand Canyon (Arizona); Grand Teton (Wyoming); Kings Canyon & Sequoia (California); Yellowstone (Idaho/Montana/Wyoming); Yosemite (California); Zion (Utah).
  • $30: Acadia (Maine); Arches (Utah); Badlands (South Dakota); Big Bend (Texas); Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Colorado); Canyonlands (Utah); Crater Lake* (Oregon); Death Valley (California/Nevada); Everglades (Florida); Joshua Tree (California); Haleakalā (Hawaii); Hawaii Volcanoes (Hawaii); Lassen Volcanic (California); Mesa Verde* (Colorado); Mount Rainier (Washington); Olympic (Washington); Pinnacles (California); Shenandoah (Virginia); Theodore Roosevelt (North Dakota).
  • $25: Great Sand Dunes (Colorado); Petrified Forest (Arizona); Rocky Mountain (Colorado); Saguaro (Arizona).
  • $20: Capitol Reef (Utah).
  • $6: Indiana Dunes (Indiana).

* Fees are reduced by $10 in winter at these parks.

Zion National Park in Utah, covered by the US National Parks Pass
Zion National Park

Parks with per person charges

  • $15: Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico); Denali (Alaska); Dry Tortugas (Florida).
  • $10: Guadalupe Mountains (Texas).
  • $7: Isle Royale (Michigan).
  • $3: Gateway Arch (Missouri) – plus extra costs for attractions.

Parks with no entrance fee

American Samoa; Biscayne (Florida); Channel Islands (California); Congaree (South Carolina); Cuyahoga Valley (Ohio); Gates of the Arctic (Alaska); Glacier Bay (Alaska); Great Basin (Nevada); Great Smoky Mountains (North Carolina/Tennessee); Hot Springs (Arkansas); Katmai (Alaska); Kenai Fjords (Alaska); Kobuk Valley (Alaska); Lake Clark (Alaska); North Cascades (Washington); Redwood (California); Virgin Islands (Caribbean); Voyageurs (Minnesota); Wind Cave (South Dakota); Wrangell–St Elias (Alaska).

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA
Mesa Verde National Park

So is the US National Parks Pass worth buying?

My southwest road trip route took in six parks – Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon. The total entry costs would have been $195 without the US National Parks Pass, so buying the $80 pass saved $115.

If you add in the fees for the extra places we visited which were also covered by the pass – like the Red Rocks area around Sedona ($7 per person) and Red Rock Canyon ($15 per vehicle) – then we saved $144 in total, so the pass was well worth buying.

It’s worth doing the maths though as how much value you get will from the pass depends on which parks you are planning to visit. Our route took us through the southwest which has a lot of the most famous and therefore most expensive National Parks. But if you’re visiting an area like Alaska where most of the parks are free to enter, it might not be worth it.

Sedona’s Red Rock Loop
Sedona’s Red Rocks

Though if there’s not much cost difference, then by buying the pass you are helping support a good cause. And if you want to save even more, then on certain dates all US National Parks are free to enter – though beware they can get crowded.

The National Parks free entry dates for 2021 are 18 January (Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday), 17 April (the first day of National Parks Week), 4 August (the one year anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act), 25 August (the National Park Service’s birthday), 25 September (National Public Lands Day) and 11 November (Veterans’ Day).

The Grand Canyon in Arizona USA
Grand Canyon National Park

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  • Reply
    June 6, 2013 at 11:20 am

    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

  • Reply
    June 6, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    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.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 7, 2013 at 10:40 am

      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.

    • Reply
      Carlos Rafael Hernandez
      July 14, 2021 at 1:07 pm

      Good morning Lucy
      Tko for your complete and informative article about national Parks anual psss.
      Im a 64 USA citizen, who live in Panama and Im planning a trip to Yosemite and Sequoia Nationsl Parks, together with my wife snd 4 chileren, if I purcharse online the anual.pass ((I understand gor me is 20 usd. I will be able to enter those park with my van and the family?
      Or they need to pay separately.
      And if I need a fee to use the Parks roads in addition to the cost of the anual pass?

      • Lucy Dodsworth
        July 28, 2021 at 1:09 pm

        Hi, yes the senior annual pass is $20 and covers up to 4 adults (over 15) – there aren’t any extra fees for park roads etc other than tours at some sites.

  • Reply
    The Travelbunny
    June 7, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Like the European city passes it’s always worth checking out and comparing. Thank you for doing the maths for us on this occasion!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 8, 2013 at 9:53 am

      I haven’t used many of those city passes but will have to start checking them too as sometimes you can get some good savings.

  • Reply
    Umesh Sharma
    June 8, 2013 at 4:01 am

    Nice post!! the pass is well worth if planning to visit 4 or more NP in a year.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 8, 2013 at 9:51 am

      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.

  • Reply
    Bashar A.
    June 11, 2013 at 7:10 am

    Very informative… thanks for sharing the detailed info 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 11, 2013 at 4:52 pm

      I’m never sure whether these things are a good deal or not so thought I’d be a bit mathematical about it for once – hope it’ll be useful!

  • Reply
    June 19, 2013 at 12:34 am

    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!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 19, 2013 at 10:30 am

      There are so many parks out there we only just scratched the surface – enough to keep me going for about 20 more trips to the US I think!

  • Reply
    June 26, 2013 at 11:55 am

    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 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 26, 2013 at 2:36 pm

      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.

  • Reply
    Jeff | Planet Bell
    July 4, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    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.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 9, 2013 at 12:10 pm

      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.

  • Reply
    February 7, 2014 at 10:41 pm

    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.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      February 10, 2014 at 12:38 pm

      Thanks Pete, hope it comes in useful and have a fantastic trip!

  • Reply
    Natasha Perry
    February 23, 2014 at 10:12 pm

    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!! 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      February 24, 2014 at 10:55 pm

      Great to hear that it came in useful. Hope you have a fantastic trip in the summer, I loved my tour around the National Parks and sure you will too!

  • Reply
    May 29, 2014 at 7:41 am

    Planning to visit these spots. Found your tips so useful!!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 29, 2014 at 10:55 am

      Enjoy your trip – it’s such a fantastic part of the world!

  • Reply
    June 9, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    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.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 9, 2014 at 9:15 pm

      Wow five months would be an amazing trip – I will follow along to see how you get on! The pass will definitely be useful for that length of time.

    • Reply
      Steven Anderson
      February 28, 2020 at 1:07 am

      Good advantage to have ANY America the Beautiful National Pass, and RVing/Camping, especially for Senior, Access or Military is the Free Entry, but then the HALF PRICE site fees! Plus, discounts on other stuffs, where and when sold at some locations, i.e.: Souvenirs, etc.! Happy Camping or Going RVing!!!

    • Reply
      Carol Erlingheuser
      June 20, 2021 at 7:28 pm

      Since you are traveling in an RV, you will also be able to save 50% at eligible campgrounds! We have used our pass at Corps of Engineer parks , please research the eligible campgrounds for your trip to save lots of $$!

  • Reply
    June 14, 2015 at 7:46 am

    Thanks for this.

    I sure wish there was one site for a full list of all the places that does take pass. Are state beaches included in this pass?

    • Reply
      June 15, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      It’s not very clear is it – would be really useful to have a list. Generally state parks aren’t included (though there are some that are) or state beaches, but many federal parks are.

  • Reply
    June 16, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    Does the pass include the Grand Canyon National Park? There seems to be a Grand Canyon National Park Annual Pass – $60.00

    • Reply
      June 18, 2015 at 10:27 am

      Yes it does include the Grand Canyon – there is a Grand Canyon only pass too (the $60 one) but as the America the Beautiful Pass covers the other parks too, the extra $20 seems a good deal!

      • charltoncityumc
        June 18, 2015 at 1:24 pm

        Thanks, just what I needed to know.

  • Reply
    April 4, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Thanks for this. I’m intending to visit at least three so I guess I will save a bit of money.

    • Reply
      April 5, 2016 at 6:53 pm

      Yes it should do – hope you enjoy your trip too!

  • Reply
    James Henning
    April 5, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    Is there a list of all places that take the pass?

    • Reply
      April 5, 2016 at 7:30 pm

      It’s surprisingly hard to find a full list of all 2000+ sites but I’ve been going off this list of sites where they issue the passes as an indication of the main places that accept them:

      • Vlatka
        January 26, 2019 at 10:23 pm

        Hello Lucy, please help if you can, it seems that NPs are in kind of a strike at the moment. The page where all parks included in Beautiful America annual pass is shut off !! Any other link with listed NPs maybe you know? Vlatka from Zagreb, Croatia 🙂

      • Lucy
        January 29, 2019 at 9:20 am

        Hi it looks like the sites should be back up now.

  • Reply
    October 5, 2016 at 10:40 am

    Hello Lucy, I would like to ask if we can buy America the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass as we are non-citizens of US (we will come from Slovakia). We plan to visit several (more than 5) national parks during our 3 weeks stay in USA.
    We are group of 6 people and we would like to rent one big car for 6. Do we need to buy two passes?

    Many thanks,

    • Reply
      October 5, 2016 at 6:12 pm

      Hi Veronika, it’s no problem for overseas visitors to buy the pass (I’m from the UK). For the number of people it depends on the park – in most they change a fee per vehicle, so that would include all of you. A few have a charge per person though, and in that case four of you would get in for free and you’d just have to pay extra for the two other people. But you shouldn’t need two passes. Have a great trip!

  • Reply
    February 3, 2017 at 8:41 pm

    Very helpful information, THANK YOU!

    • Reply
      February 6, 2017 at 10:34 pm

      You’re very welcome, glad it was useful!

  • Reply
    Bhagya De Silva
    May 29, 2017 at 6:27 am

    Thank you Lucy, it was a very informative post.

    • Reply
      May 29, 2017 at 1:46 pm

      You’re very welcome, glad to hear it was useful!

  • Reply
    20/20 Motorcycle Tour
    August 8, 2017 at 5:30 pm

    I loved reading your notes about the park passes. We’re a group of Canadians off on a motorcycle tour through Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon and Washington.

    I thought I had everything planned and that the Annual Parks Pass would mostly cover our numerous destination places (except Goblin State Park and Antelope Canyon). But then I realized that there are also National Forests that charge a fee. I wasn’t sure if our Parks Pass would cover them – if not, it might add a lot on to our trip as we’re “just passing through” quite a few of them.

    After searching for an answer, your research was exactly what I needed and is put simply, and all in one place. Some sites are confusing when looking for a straight answer but I got my answer right away here.

    So… thank you!

    • Reply
      August 10, 2017 at 12:49 pm

      That’s great to hear, so glad it was useful! Sounds like you have an amazing trip planned too – hope you all have a great time.

  • Reply
    August 30, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    Thank you! You have helped to take much of the frustration out of this. It’s very hard to get collected information across a lot of independently managed sites, and having it put together in this way is great. I’m coming over from the UK next week to tour Sequoia, Yosemite, Death Valley and maybe the Grand Canyon too, time permitting…
    Thanks again!

  • Reply
    April 24, 2018 at 7:22 pm

    One thing I discovered after buying the annual pass is that some locations accept the pass or do not have entrance fees, but charge for parking. Mount Rushmore is one such park. Seems like a bit of a bait-and-switch. Something to be aware of.

    • Reply
      April 30, 2018 at 10:37 am

      Thanks I’ll check that out.

  • Reply
    Katie Christian
    March 29, 2019 at 8:01 pm

    Will the pass still cover 4 people even if you don’t drive a car into the park? For example Zion National Park gives you the option of parking in Springdale and taking a shuttle. Will the Annual Pass cover each person even if they don’t drive in via car?

    • Reply
      March 30, 2019 at 7:29 pm

      Hi, there is a per person entry fee to Zion too as well as the car one which is $20 per person but the pass covers the passholder and up to three adults so you should be fine.

  • Reply
    Don K
    June 12, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    I went to Mt. Vernon thinking I could use my recently purchased National Park Pass to get in. Nope. Apparently, Mt. Vernon is operated by some kind of ladies guild.

    • Reply
      June 14, 2019 at 10:28 am

      Oh no – there are a few places around where there’s a different kind of ownership and other fees are charged, wish it was a bit easier to find out a full list of where the pass is valid!

  • Reply
    July 29, 2019 at 1:55 am

    We purchased the pass for our Utah National Parks trip and it was well worth it. As an added benefit we used it when we visited the Cape Cod National Seashore later that summer. There are 5 or 6 beaches where the pass is accepted and they are stunning. Looking forward to 2020 when my husband turns 62!! Great article!

    • Reply
      July 30, 2019 at 1:15 pm

      Thanks – and good trip about the Cape Cod National Seashore too, I worked in Cape Cod for a summer years ago and would love to go back sometime!

  • Reply
    Don K
    July 30, 2019 at 4:23 pm

    I live in Cleveland, Ohio. I have recently used my pass at a couple sites nearby which are operated by the National Park Service – the Perry Victory & International Peace Memorial on South Bass Island and the James A. Garfield Home in Mentor.

    • Reply
      August 1, 2019 at 9:10 pm

      Good to know, thanks!

  • Reply
    Michael Rochester
    December 16, 2019 at 12:40 am

    We drove 10,000 miles coast to coast twice in 2018 in a huge figure-8 taking in every National Park we could, our $80 pass was an absolute bargain so we recommend it without reservation. We so much enjoyed the trip that we will be back in May 2020 to ‘do’ all the northern states … clutching our new NP pass. One point not mentioned so far in previous posts, while our trips are of the order of 2 months, the pass is for a year AND CAN BE SIGNED OVER to a second user if so desired … thereby doubling its value and benefit.

  • Reply
    Suzanne Miller
    July 14, 2020 at 9:28 pm

    We just visited Joshua Tree Nat park and paid the $30 fee and plan to visit other places that accept the Nat pass this year. Money is tight right now and I am wondering if we want to buy an annual pass and show our receipt for the $30 on our next visit somewhere, can we get that amount taken off the cost of the annual pass?

    • Reply
      Michael Rochester
      July 15, 2020 at 7:01 pm

      Suzanne… an afterthought. Different rules apply for US citizens versus foreign visitors versus Senior Citizens. It’s not clear to me into which category you fit. A US Senior can buy an $80 card that lasts (I think) for life. US Military personnel have their own special deal, foreigners (like us) can buy the $80 that lasts a year, transferrable to a second user. My answers to your queries apply to Senior foreigners. You need to research this properly yourself to see what applies to you.

    • Reply
      July 15, 2020 at 7:29 pm

      I am pretty sure they don’t do this. I was in the same situation in Utah back in 2015, and was even told by an attendant (Ranger?) at the kiosk when I was wavering on the $30 vs $80 that I could later apply the $30 entrance fee to the full pass, but later when I tried the next Ranger told me I was misinformed.

      Unless something has changed, I’d expect to have to pay full price for the annual pass.

      Make sure you check in detail where you plan to visit for fees. Not all parks have an entrance fee, and some have no entrance fee but a parking fee, and that is not covered by the pass. Same for some parks which have free entrance but paid tours (Mammoth Cave).

      And a surprising number of the smaller parks/monuments have no entrance fee at all. Or it’s super cheap ($5).

      Another thing to keep in mind, if you plan to do any camping on these trips or others, the Annual Pass gives you a serious discount on lots of camping areas, like National Forests, BLM land camping, and others. Some were like 50% off of a $20 camping fee (if I recall correctly). So that can add to the value significantly.

      I camped at like 3 or 4 places where I could have used it before figuring this out, and it would have offset a lot more of the cost of the pass.

      I ended up getting my money’s worth from the pass as a solo traveler, but I hit a LOT of the “destination” parks on that pass. And since I bought late summer, but then went on more trips in early summer the following year, it was kind of like I got an extra 6 months out of it. That helped make it a good deal.

      I was surprised by how many parks it didn’t work for (parking fees, tour fees), and how many didn’t even charge a fee (or it was super cheap, like $5). If you plan on hitting 3 or more big-name parks in 12 months, it will for sure be a good deal.

      And the camping discount is a surprisingly valuable added bonus if it applies to your travel plans.

  • Reply
    Mike R
    June 21, 2021 at 7:33 pm

    We bought our Lifetime Senior Pass in 2014. Is it still Good?

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 5, 2021 at 2:55 pm

      Yes there’s no expiry for the Lifetime Senior Passes.

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