There are over 400 national parks in the United States and a variety of ways to enjoy them. Whether you plan to visit all of them or simply select a few bucket-list spots, a national park annual pass might be a valuable resource. We used an America the Beautiful pass for our travel this summer, and here are some things I learned that might be helpful when deciding whether it’s right for you.
- Check if you qualify for free entrance without a pass. There are several opportunities to visit national parks for free during the year and skip the pass altogether. More than half of the national parks and lands do not charge admission, so do your research before you plan your trip. Also, thanks to the Every Kid in the Park initiative, families with fourth-grade students will automatically have admittance to all national parks and government lands during their fourth-grade school year. For families with multiple children, that means multiple years of passes (or opportunities anyhow). Plus, the National Park Services offers free entrance days a few times each year. One is coming up next month on the National Park Services Day.
- Share the national park pass with a friend. The America the Beautiful pass can be shared by two separate people or households. As long as you are not planning to travel together in more than one car, you can split the cost and enjoy any park for almost the same cost as one of the more popular parks.
- Read the fine print. National Park passes cover entrance into the park for one vehicle carrying up to four adults and unlimited children. It does not cover amenities like camping, parking, permits, or special tours. If you’re planning to stay in the park, plan for extra uncovered expenses.
- Upgrade on the road. If you visit one park and decide to upgrade to an annual pass later, show your entrance receipt at an NPS fee site and they should credit it toward your annual pass.
- Purchase your pass online, but don’t lose it! If you know the parks you plan to visit, order your pass online ahead of time to save time in line at the visitor’s centers. This is particularly helpful if you are traveling in the summertime when national parks tend to be more crowded and lines can be longer. Keep in mind, online purchases through NPS may take upwards of 20 business days to arrive so allow plenty of time for it to arrive. You can also purchase passes online at LL Bean or REI locations around the country which may ship more quickly. Once you receive your pass, don’t lose it! They are not replaceable.