Are you a National Parks Annual Pass holder? If not, and you’re one of the 327.5 million people who visited a national park last year, you likely spent a substantial amount on admission fees alone.
The average cost is $30 per vehicle, but some parks charge more. Keep in mind, that’s just for a single park. If you were, say, road-tripping through Utah and taking on the best hikes in Arches and Canyonlands, you could easily spend upwards of $100 — just to get inside the gates.
That’s where the National Parks Annual Pass, also called the America the Beautiful pass, comes in.
In January 2020, we were fortunate enough to have won the “lottery” to get sunrise reservations at Haleakalā National Park in Maui. When I say fortunate, I mean beyond fortunate — these tickets go in literal seconds and only a handful of people get them.
Anyhow, I digress. The Haleakalā entrance fee was $30 and we were going to pay again the following day to hike Pipiwai Trail, so purchasing the National Parks Annual Pass was a no-brainer for us. We went on to use it at nine other parks in 2020, including multiple times at Zion National Park, so it was money well-spent.
What is the National Parks Annual Pass?
The America the Beautiful pass, or the NPS annual pass, gives you access to over 2,000 recreation areas nationwide.
In addition to the 63 national parks, the NPS Annual Pass gets you entry into national monuments, national recreation areas, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and more.
While there are some exceptions, a good rule of thumb is that if it has “national” in the name, the America the Beautiful pass will get you in. It even works at many state parks — if the park is in national forest land or part of a national preserve.
The National Parks Annual Pass costs $80 annually, although again, there are some exceptions to that.
America the Beautiful pass variations and costs
NPS Annual Pass for U.S. Military: Free national park pass available for all current U.S. military members, as well as their dependents. U.S. military Reserve and National Guard members and their dependents are also eligible.
America the Beautiful Pass for Seniors: U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents who are over the age of 62 qualify for a discounted NPS annual pass. The national park pass cost for seniors is $20 annually. Seniors are also eligible for a Lifetime Senior Pass, which costs $80.
NPS Access Pass: U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have permanent disabilities are eligible for a free National Parks annual pass. Note that you’ll be required to provide documentation of the disability when applying for the Access Pass.
Free National Park Pass for 4th Graders: For those who enjoy family hiking and exploring The Great Outdoors together, the wonderful Every Kid Outdoors program gives American fourth-graders a free NPS annual pass.
The free national park pass for 4th graders is valid for one school year, from September to August. Home-schooled children are also eligible. Families must first print a paper pass from the Every Kid Outdoors website, then exchange it in person at a national park.
Special note: Many families missed taking advantage of the free national park pass for 4th graders in 2020 due to COVID-19. In light of this, the National Parks Service extended its free national park pass program to fifth-graders for the 2020-2021 school year.
Families can download and print their voucher for a free NPS annual pass, then exchange it in person at a participating national park.
Military Veterans and Gold Star Free Access Program
On November 11, 2020, the National Parks Service introduced a new program, the Military Veterans and Gold Star Family Free Access Program.
While it’s not technically a free national park pass, this pseudo-America the Beautiful pass does permanently grant U.S. veterans and Gold Star Families waived entrance fees. Prior to this program, there was only a free National Park Pass for active-duty military members.
In order to take advantage of this incredible (and much-deserved!) program, veterans must present an acceptable form of identification upon entering a participating national park. Those forms of identification include:
- Drivers’ license or identification card with a “Veteran” designation
- Veteran ID card
- Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC)
- Department of Defense Identification Card (CAC Card)
The process is slightly different for Gold Star families, who the USO defines as having “lost an immediate family member in the line of duty of military service.”
Before going to a national park, Gold Star family members must print and sign a special voucher, which must then be presented to a park ranger upon entry. In unstaffed parks, the Gold Star Family Voucher must be clearly displayed on your vehicle dashboard.
Where can you buy a National Parks Annual pass?
You can purchase an NPS annual pass online from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s website. Please note that you are not given any temporary credentials; the physical pass comes in the mail. Take this into consideration if you want an annual pass for an upcoming trip.
Hundreds of federal recreation sites also issue the National Parks annual pass in person. The extensive list includes many — but not all — national parks and monuments, so be sure to check on your specific destination.
- Note that NPS states all annual passes “are non-refundable, non-transferable, cannot be extended, and cannot be replaced if lost or stolen.” We keep ours in a wallet because you just never know when you may end up on a spontaneous road trip through Montana and Wyoming, visiting multiple national parks.
Thanks for reading, and be sure to pin this guide on the National Parks annual pass for later!