Saving Money with Park Passes in the USA

If you plan on visiting at least a few official USA national parks, national forests, national monuments and/or national historic sites within a 12-month period (your trip doesn't have to be for a full 12 months - it could be for just a few weeks), you might want to purchase an America the Beautiful: National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass, also known as the Inter-Agency Pass.

An Inter-Agency pass covers entrance fees for one or two co-owners at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. That includes Interpretive Sites and picnic sites within national forests - even if you are just passing through, you are expected to have paid for some kind of pass to park at these sites, even for just a moment. The Inter-Agency pass does NOT cover camping or special use fees. The pass can be co-owned by two people (married couple, unmarried couple, whatever). In 2011, the pass cost $80.

Every official national site charges differently: some charge by the car (up to four people), some charge by the individual, some give deep discounts for those traveling by motorcycle, bicycle or walking in, and some charge by the day. To determine if the Inter-Agency Pass is going to save you money, you have to find out the admission fees for the official national sites you might visit in a 12 month period (though, if you buy your pass early in a month, it's good through that month the following year, and that could actually be a 13-month period).

For instance, here's what my husband and I would have paid from September 2010 to September 2011 had we not bought an Inter-Agency Pass.

  • Glacier National Park

  • Yellowstone/Grand Tetons

  • Craters of the Moon

  • Crater Lake

  • Mt. Rainer

  • Mt. St. Helens National Monument (Western side)

  • Interpretive sites and picnic sites throughout
    various National Forests in Oregon (we lost count)

  • Mt. St. Helens (Eastern side), Mt. Adams &
    Mt. Hood 3-4-day ride, visiting Windy Ridge,
    the Ape Cave, various overlooks, etc.

  • $24 ($12 per person on motorcycle)

    $24 ($12 per person on motorcycle)

    $8 ($4 per person on a motorcycle)

    $10 (seven day pass, $5.00 person on motorcycle)

    $10 (seven day pass, $5.00 person on motorcycle)

    $16 ($8 per person, good for one day)

    $10+ ($5 National Forest Service Day Pass for each day)

    $15 ($5 Northwest Forest Day Pass - buying one for each day)

    We're not sure if those day passes are per person or per party. Either way, we would have paid more than $100 total. The Interagency pass is $80 (as of 2011), so that means we saved at least $35 (probably more, since we lost count of how many national forests we stopped at). HOWEVER had we not visited either Glacier or Yellowstone/Grand Tetons, or had we not traveled as a couple, the Inter-Agency Pass might not have been worth it.

    My guidance:

    Buy the pass as close as possible to your first visit to a national site; you can usually buy the annual pass at a major national park - but not always.

    Note: the Inter-Agency pass is NOT good at USA state parks (parks managed by individual states, like Kentucky or South Dakota.

    State Parks

    If you plan on visiting a few state parks in one USA state in a 12-month period, or one state park several times in a 12-month period, and you will be traveling by car or bicycle, you might want to purchase a year-long state park pass - if the state offers such (not all do). For instance, a Washington State Discover pass is $30, as of 2011. It covers all Washington state parks and state recreation areas. The pass is for one vehicle, not per person - and I'm not sure what that means for motorcyclists. Oregon offers something similar. Such state park passes are usually transferable among vehicles, HOWEVER, state park passes are not worth it if your traveling party is on motorcycles rather than a car, since most state parks, including Washington's and Oregon's, charge by vehicle rather than person - that means a van full of 10 people gets charged less than two people on two motorcycles. If you are camping at a state park, you don't need a day-use parking pass - display your current state park camping receipt on your dashboard - but check first with the camp host if your traveling party is on more than one motorcycle, to make sure the state park isn't going to try to charge you an extra fee.

    And if you are a motorcycle rider, I encourage you to contact your own state park agency headquarters and see if they charge by vehicle, rather than by person - and if they do, COMPLAIN. The National Park Service does not discriminate against motorcycle riders regarding admission fees and annual passes - why do state parks do so?!



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