This blog post was updated on November 2, 2018.
Purple mountain majesties surround me as I explore Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. It is remarkable that in just a short drive from Denver, I can be in protected lands, surrounded by scenes of America The Beautiful verses. Sadly, these views do come at a price. I just coughed up a $20 vehicle entrance fee, all while toying with the idea of splurging on a National Parks Annual Pass.
Just like city passes around the world, you have to weigh the pros and cons of purchasing a U.S. National Parks Annual Pass. As much of the United States features these spaces of wilderness, mountain majesties and their entrance fees, you can weigh your options and find out if the pass is a budget breaker or saver.
Does the cost add up?: The National Parks Annual Pass will set you back $80. This can seem like a large price for many trying to save a few while on vacation. However, the fee covers entrance for the driver and all passengers at per vehicle fee sites and up to four adults at per person fee sites. To visit many U.S. National Parks, you can spend upwards of $20 to enter with one car, for one week. The pass can pay for itself in just a few visits to a higher priced park. However, it isn’t worth the splurge if you only plan on visiting one or two parks a year. The pass also doesn’t cover amenities such as camping, parking and boat launching.
Where can I use the pass?: While I do a lot of traveling in the U.S., I am surprised at all of the places I could have used the annual pass to save on my travels. You can use the National Parks Annual Pass not just at sites under the National Park Service, but also the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation. If there is some sort of protected piece of the U.S. and it has an entrance fee, most likely your pass will get you through the gate without coughing up more money. A ticket is said to cover entrance to over 2,000 federal recreation sites. These are spaces like national wildlife refuges, national forests and grasslands.
How long is the pass valid?: If you plan on traveling the United States for an extended period of time, the National Parks Annual Pass is generally a good deal. The pass is valid for 12 months from the month after purchase. It expires on the last day of the month. If you are planning a cross-country road trip across the U.S. for three weeks to several months, you will no doubt encounter parks and other sites where the pass would be accepted.
Is it hard to pick a pass up?: Hundreds of locations throughout the U.S. offer the annual pass for purchase. It is always best to call ahead to make sure you can purchase at the site you will head to first. If you can’t purchase the pass on site, you can also call in an order or buy a pass online.
Is it worth it?: The universal question of the National Parks Annual Pass is plain and simple. Is it worth the price? The pass can be a good deal for families on a budget. National Parks present budget friendly vacations, but not if you are paying for five separate entrance fees every few long weekends or summer vacations. The National Parks Annual Pass is certainly not worth the price if you don’t visit these sites in a year’s time. Sometimes we can get gimmicked into the longevity and coverage of a pass when we won’t even use it. To make the pass worthwhile, you need to visit several sites where the entrance fees can be steep and do so in a year’s time. Also, campers and hikers will no doubt reap the benefits where as more city-break travelers might not ever have use for the pass.
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