The US National Parks are one of the country’s biggest attractions, with 58 different sites featuring a 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, then 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 2-week Southwest USA road trip itinerary
What does the US National Parks Pass cover?
The America the Beautiful US 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 per person rather than a per vehicle fee it will cover up to four people. However it doesn’t include extras like tours or camping and RV pitches.
The pass is valid at over 2000 federally-owned recreation sites across the US which are maintained by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service and the US Army Corps of Engineers. 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 sites like Meteor Crater in Arizona and Navajo sites like Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon. It gets a bit 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.
What does the America the Beautiful pass cost?
The 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 (these cost $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 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 with another person, and the two people don’t have to be related. You will need to show photo ID though every time you want to use the pass.
What will it save you?
The pricing structure in the National Parks varies. Each one charges different rates and there’s a mixture of charging by person or by vehicle. Below are the basic 2018 entry charges for the southwest’s National Parks. The prices don’t include ranger-guided tours, which you need to take in some sites like Mesa Verde and Carlsbad Caverns. These cost from $5 to $20 per person.
- Arizona: Grand Canyon National Park ($35 per vehicle); Petrified Forest NP ($20 per vehicle); Saguaro NP ($15 per vehicle).
- California: Channel Islands NP (free entry); Death Valley NP ($30 per vehicle); Joshua Tree NP ($30 per vehicle); Kings Canyon/Sequoia NPs ($35 per vehicle); Lassen Volcanic NP ($25 per vehicle); Redwood NP (free entry); Yosemite NP ($35 per vehicle).
- Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP ($20 per vehicle); Great Sand Dunes NP ($20 per vehicle); Mesa Verde NP ($15 per vehicle or $20 in summer); Rocky Mountain NP ($25 per vehicle).
- Nevada: Death Valley NP ($30 per vehicle); Great Basin NP (free entry).
- New Mexico: Carlsbad Caverns NP ($12 per person).
- Utah: Arches NP ($30 per vehicle); Bryce Canyon NP ($35 per vehicle); Canyonlands NP ($30 per vehicle); Capitol Reef NP ($15 per vehicle); Zion NP ($35 per vehicle).
So is the US National Parks Pass worth buying?
Our southwest road trip route took in Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon National Parks. The total entry costs would have been $185 without using the pass, so having the pass saved us $105. If you add in the extra places we visited which were covered in the pass – like the Red Rocks area around Sedona ($7 per person) and Red Rock Canyon ($15 per vehicle) – then the saving is $134, so the pass was well worth buying.
It’s worth doing the maths though as the value you get will depend on which parks you are planning to visit. Our route covered a lot of the most famous and therefore most pricey National Parks, 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 cost 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 you want to save even more, then on certain dates all US National Parks are free to enter – though beware that they can get very crowded. The free entry dates for 2018 are January 15 (Martin Luther King Junior Day), 21 April (the first day of National Parks Week), 22 September (National Public Lands Day) and 11 November (Veterans’ Day).