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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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Mike R

Monday 21st of June 2021

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

Lucy Dodsworth

Monday 5th of July 2021

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

Suzanne Miller

Tuesday 14th of July 2020

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?

George

Wednesday 15th of July 2020

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.

Michael Rochester

Wednesday 15th of July 2020

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.

Michael Rochester

Monday 16th of December 2019

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.

Don K

Tuesday 30th of July 2019

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.

Lucy

Thursday 1st of August 2019

Good to know, thanks!

J.M.

Monday 29th of July 2019

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!

Lucy

Tuesday 30th of July 2019

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!