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Does a US National Parks Pass save you money?

A guide to the US National Parks Service’s America the Beautiful annual US National Parks Pass – what is the pass, how much does it cost, and will it save you money on visiting parks in the USA?

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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.

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 a 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/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 more confusing when you get to state and other parks – some like Red Rock Canyon in Nevada are covered by the pass but many others 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 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 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 the 2022 entry fees for each US National Park are listed – these are the per vehicle charges but prices are reduced for motorcycles or if you’re visiting on foot or by bicycle.

The entry fees don’t include ranger-guided tours, which you need to take in some sites like Mesa Verde and Mammouth Cave and normally cost $5 to $20 per person.

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

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); Hawai’i 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).

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

Zion National Park, 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.
Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida USA
Dry Tortugas National Park

Parks with no entrance fee

  • American Samoa (South Pacific)
  • 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)
  • Indiana Dunes (Indiana)
  • 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).
The Hubbard Glacier in Alaska
Alaskan glaciers

So is the US National Parks Pass worth buying?

My two-week southwest road trip route took in six National 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 America the Beautiful Pass you are helping support a good cause. And if you want to save even more money, then all US National Parks are free to enter on certain dates throughout the year – though beware they do get crowded. The National Park free entry dates for 2022 are:

  • 17 January (Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday)
  • 16 April (the first day of National Parks Week)
  • 4 August (the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act)
  • 24 September (National Public Lands Day)
  • 11 November (Veterans’ Day).
The Grand Canyon in Arizona USA
Grand Canyon National Park

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Does buying an America the Beautiful annual US National Parks Pass save you money on visiting National Parks in the USA? A guide to using the US National Parks Pass | US National Parks Pass | America the Beautiful Pass | US National Parks guide A guide to the US National Parks Service's America the Beautiful annual US National Parks Pass – what is the pass, how much does it cost, and will it save you money on visiting parks in the USA? | US National Parks Pass | America the Beautiful Pass | US National Parks guide

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Laurie Guajardo

Tuesday 17th of May 2022

Once you get into the national park to park your vehicle is there any entry fee to enter exhibits or buildings or is the pass itself covered by that??

Lucy Dodsworth

Tuesday 17th of May 2022

The only thing the pass doesn't cover is ranger-guided tours, which you need to take in some sites like Mesa Verde and Mammouth Cave.

Pete Griffiths

Tuesday 10th of May 2022

If you plan to visit a particular park on successive days, does that mean two lots of entry fees?

Lucy Dodsworth

Friday 13th of May 2022

Park admission usually covers you for seven days so you'd only need to pay once.

Joe Ursich

Monday 18th of April 2022

So if a Park is closed to cars and you have to take a shuttle in the park , does your pass gain entry to the park and you just pay for the Shuttle.

Lucy Dodsworth

Friday 29th of April 2022

Hi, the park shuttles are free with park entry (whether you're paying or have a pass) for most parks.

KSM

Sunday 27th of February 2022

While the breakeven point is not very high (especially if you visit a major park with just a few people, we continued to purchase our pass even for years when we had no intention of visiting a park as a way of supporting our national treasures. There is no breakeven point for that other than knowing that you are helping in the operation and preservation of part of our heritage….and as the say, this is priceless.

Susan MiHalo

Thursday 17th of February 2022

Indiana Dunes National Park will start charging a fee in March 2022.

Lucy Dodsworth

Friday 18th of February 2022

Thanks for the update, I'll update the list