You could spend a lifetime trying to cover all of America’s remarkable national parks, and still not feel like you’ve made a dent. Whether you’re marveling at jagged desert spires, peeking inside ancient cave dwellings, or (safely) observing a grizzly bear in his or her natural habitat, you’ll find enough inspiration to fill up several weeks—or months—of vacationing.
Of the country’s 400-plus national parks, less than half charge an entrance fee. That’s a pretty good ratio, until you factor in that bigger, more legendary sites like Yellowstone, Arches, and Grand Canyon (i.e. where most of us want to visit)— those tend to be the ones that do cost money.
A park entrance fee can range from $3 to $30: not much in the grand scheme. But for bucket-listers, or anyone looking to cram their itinerary with every last volcanic crater, rock formation, and old-growth forest, those fees can add up quickly, hence the beauty of an annual pass. Like an unlimited metro card, it can mean the difference between a quick, painless, one-time fee, and shelling out hundreds over a longer period as you travel to multiple sites.
Here, you’ll learn the ins and outs of using a national parks pass, and how it could benefit your next trip.
1. Pick the right pass
The America the Beautiful (ATB) standard annual pass costs $80, and grants access to all 413 areas administered by the National Park Service.
2. Don’t pay if you don’t have to
The same pass is free to U.S. military (plus their families) and any permanently disabled U.S. citizen. And thanks to the fantastic Every Kid in a Park initiative, fourth-graders and their immediate families are eligible for a free pass, too. Seniors aged 62 and older pay just $10 for a lifetime pass.
3. Know what it does
Valid for 12 months from the month of purchase, an ATB annual pass gets you free admission, but it doesn’t cover extra amenities and services like camping, boat launching, parking, and special tours
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4. Get it online
You can always show up at the park entrance and purchase your ATB annual pass in-person (for an up-to-date list of sites that issue annual passes, click here). However, if you want to be extra prepared, you can also order your pass online.
5. Don’t lose it!
Think of your ATB annual pass as one-of-a-kind, because in a way, it is. Due to NPS policy, no annual pass can be replaced—if you lose it (or it gets stolen), you’ll have to buy a new one.
6. Share it with a friend
While the ATB annual pass is non-transferrable (you’ll need to show photo ID every time you use it), two names can be listed as owners of the pass—meaning you could share it with a friend or housemate for just $40 each. And you don’t even need to be married or related.
7. Know when to use it
Even if you only make it to three major parks in one year, the annual pass still saves you money. Consider: in twelve months, an ambitious traveler could knock out visits to biggies like Zion National Park ($30 fee), Arches National Park ($25), Bryce Canyon National Park ($30), Grand Canyon National Park ($30 fee), Joshua Tree National Park ($20 fee), and Yosemite ($30). In total, those separate visits would cost $155—almost double the cost of an $80 annual pass.
8. ...And when not to use it
Of the 413 recognized national park units in the United States, only 124 charge a fee. So, if you have your sights set on places like Redwood National Park, or Ohio’s enchanting Cuyahoga Valley National Park—where admission is already free—then an annual pass might not be for you.
9. You can upgrade as you go
Undecided about how many parks you’ll be visiting? It’s always possible to upgrade your single-pass ticket while you’re on the road. Simply present your individual at any NPS fee site, and the agent will apply that money towards an annual pass.
10. Don’t forget free days!
Ten days of the year are set aside by the NPS as “free days,” meaning national parks and monuments that normally collect an entrance fee offer free admission. Check out the list of free days for 2017 here.
Of course, tackling multiple big parks in the same year takes careful planning and foresight. To get a sense of hiking routes, what to pack, lodging options, and ideas for things to do when you get there, use Travel + Leisure’s handy national park guides and start mapping out your trip today!