Updated on May 13, 2023 by Julie McCool
A US National Park Pass covers entrance fees to over 2000 parks and recreation sites across the United States, giving travelers budget access to some of America's most beautiful public lands. If you plan to visit many National Parks and Federal Recreation Sites during the next year, a US National Park Pass can save a lot of money.
For some lucky folks, the national park annual pass is heavily discounted or free. And if you're a member of one group, you should hurry and get that pass right away. Read on for details on who should get a US National Park Pass, the best time to get one, and why some of you should buy now.
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How a US National Park Pass Works
The US National Park Pass is also known as the America the Beautiful Pass. Purchase the pass for a one-time fee then use it to enter parks in the National Parks and Federal Recreation Land system until the pass expires. The annual park pass covers national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, BLM lands, and other federally managed lands.
Arrive at a site that charges an entrance fee, show your valid pass and ID, and your entry fee is waived. If you're traveling with a group, your pass covers everyone in your vehicle (up to four adults if the site fee is per person). There are Annual Passes, which expire one year from the month of purchase, and lifetime or discount passes available to specific groups.
You can purchase the pass at many of the parks and sites that charge fees. Instead of paying the normal entry fee, tell the ranger that you want to buy an annual pass. Pay for and sign the pass and the ranger will mark it to show the month of purchase. Your pass is now good until the end of the month one year from your purchase.
US National Park Pass Costs
The price of a US National Park Pass depends on whether you fall into any of the special categories that qualify for a discounted or free pass. Follow the links for details on eligibility and how to get your pass.
- Any US citizen or permanent resident can purchase an America the Beautiful Annual Pass for $80.
- Current US military members and their dependents can get a free Annual Pass for US Military.
- 4th Graders can get a free Annual 4th Grade Pass as part of the Every Kid Outdoors Program (formerly Every Kid in a Park).
- Seniors 62 and over can purchase a $20 annual, or $80 lifetime Senior Pass. The price used to be $10 but it increased to $80 in August 2017.
- Citizens with a permanent disability qualify for a free lifetime Access Pass. Physical, mental, and sensory impairments are qualifying disabilities.
When to Get Your US National Park Pass
Depending on the type of pass, you may be able to order your pass online or by mail. However, you can also pick it up in person at site locations that issue the pass. In Northern Virginia, for example, you can get your pass at Great Falls Park, Prince William Forest, or Shenandoah National Park, along with many other locations.
Senior National Park Pass Options
In 2017, the cost of the lifetime Senior Pass increased to $80. At that time, a $20 annual Senior Pass was introduced. The price of the annual pass can later be applied to the lifetime fee. If you are 62 or older purchase the Senior Pass online or in person. Even with the price increase, you're still getting a fantastic deal.
Families with 4th Graders: Get Your Pass in September
The 4th Grade Pass is good for one year—when your student enters 4th grade in September through August of the following summer. Your student has to pick up the pass in person, and there is a little online pre-work (4th Grade Pass details). If you live near a participating park, it makes sense to get your pass in September so you have a full year of use.
General Public: Buy Your Pass When You Visit a Park
You can buy your pass online or at many park sites. Unless you fall under one of the special categories, we suggest buying an annual pass in person. Since your pass is activated at the time of purchase, it makes sense to time that with your first visit to get maximum time before it expires. Order online if you will need the pass at a park that does not sell them. If you travel as a couple or family in the same vehicle, you generally only need to buy one pass.
No Pass Needed on Fee-Free Days
You won't need a US National Park Pass or cash to enter sites on annual Free Entrance Days. These fee-free days encourage visitors to head to a park on some holidays, National Park Week, Kids to Parks Day, and other times.
Even if you are paying the full $80 for your US National Park Pass you are getting a great deal as long as you plan to visit a few parks over the year. In Northern Virginia, we make regular visits to Great Falls Park ($20) and Shenandoah National Park ($25).
Read our complete guide: Shenandoah National Park Day Trip Planner: Things to Do in the Central District.
If you visit a few parks a year, it doesn't take long to recoup your $80 purchase. And you can feel good that your dollars contribute to our beautiful national parks, one of America's greatest assets.