A Pass to See America’s Greatest Natural Treasures
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service. America’s 59 National Parks (called America’s Best Idea by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns) are located in 27 different states. Some of the scenes in these parks are so iconic that they can be found on state license plates (for example, Delicate Arch in Arches National Park is on Utah’s). Chances are, you live near a National Park. You may even go frequently. While the parks themselves are an undoubtedly great value, the $20-25 entrance fees can really add up.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve had the great fortune of being able to visit many parks. Right before my first overseas deployment, I was fortunate enough to visit the Grand Canyon and Badlands National Parks. For a good friend’s bachelor party, we hiked Angel’s Landing in Zion. After my second deployment to Iraq, my wife and I went to Acadia. The landscapes in all of these places are just astounding. With so much noise intrusion and pollution in our everyday lives, the golden silence just a mile from the trailhead is priceless.
I had heard of a mythical thing called an annual pass that would allow you access to these parks a few years ago. I never had the presence of mind to buy one (our trips to the parks were intermittent and we would always forget about it until we got back) and so I made it a point to research the pass before our most recent vacation this year. I discovered that for just $80, you can get a pass that will allow you unlimited entrance into the whole range of National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges. Per the National Park Service:
“A pass is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Each pass covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day use fees) at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person). Children age 15 or under are admitted free.”
We were planning to visit several parks during our 2016 road trip and so I went online to the USGS website and purchased the pass. Five business days later I had it in my hands. So how did my trip go? And was the pass worth it?
Amazing Sights, Amazing Savings
Meredith and I spent about two weeks planning our sixteen day trip, which would take us through 23 states. We planned to stop at the following National Parks:
- Badlands NP: South Dakota
- Yellowstone NP: Wyoming
- Grand Teton NP: Wyoming
- Arches NP: Utah
- Canyonlands NP: Utah
- Hot Springs NP: Arkansas
- Smoky Mountains NP: Tennessee
- Shenandoah NP: Virginia
We also planned to stop at the following National Monuments
- Mount Rushmore
- Devil’s Tower
- Natural Bridges
- Chimney Rock
Now, if we hadn’t purchased the pass, we would have wound up paying a lot more than $80 to get into these parks and monuments. The only park we had to pay for was Mount Rushmore (technically the fee is for parking in the massive parking garage they’ve built there).
Breakdown of park fees
- Badlands NP: $15
- Yellowstone and Grand Teton: $50
- Arches NP: $25
- Canyonlands NP: $25
- Hot Springs NP: $0 (by law no one can charge a fee to this area in Arkansas, it has been set aside for the enjoyment of the public)
- Smoky Mountains NP: $0 (also by law, no one can put a toll over transit of this land, which was donated by John D. Rockefeller)
- Shenandoah NP: $20
Breakdown of monument fees
- Devil’s Tower: $10
- Natural Bridges: $10
Grand Total: $155, paid $80, savings of $75
We saved almost 50% of what we would have paid to get into these awesome parks. Not only that but our pass is valid for the rest of the year and since we live fairly close to several wildlife refuges in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, we plan to take full advantage of the unlimited nature of the pass. Now we did spend a bit on some souvenirs. Definitely recommend the National Parks passport to keep track of all the places you’ve been, the amazing vintage WPA postcards, and this great coffee table book that has the same vintage WPA design posters for each of the 59 parks.
Here’s just a few examples of the amazing things we saw on our trip:
There’s just so much to see in America that I can see us getting the annual parks pass every year. With 59 parks to visit (and we plan to go back to many of them) and hundreds of wildlife refuges and other protected lands, the parks pass just makes sense (and cents). Having a pass is also a reminder that you can just pick up and go to one of these places, probably increasing the probability of you going to a park which increases the value of the pass. One day we’ll get to all the parks and I know we’ll be carrying one of these passes while we’re doing it.
Do you have a annual national parks pass? Do you like it? Drop us a comment below and give us your thoughts. Also, happy 100th birthday to the National Parks Service!
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