Essential Guide to the 2023 National Parks Annual Pass
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast (or looking for a gift for one!), the National Parks Annual Pass, AKA the America the Beautiful Pass, is the holy grail. This guide breaks down everything you could possibly want to know about it, including where to get it and how much it costs.
Are you a National Parks Annual Pass holder?
If not, and you’re one of the 327.5 million people who visited a national park last year, you likely spent a substantial amount on admission fees alone.
The average cost to enter a U.S. national park is $30 per vehicle, but some parks charge more. Keep in mind, that’s just for a single park.
If you were, say, road-tripping through Alaska, working your way through the best hikes in Arches and Canyonlands, visiting the Great 8 South Dakota landmarks, or exploring Washington’s national parks, you could easily spend upwards of $100 — just to get inside the gates.
That’s where the National Parks Annual Pass, also known as the America the Beautiful pass, comes in.
In September 2021, I was fortunate enough to have won permits to hike the Half Dome Cables Route. When I say fortunate, I mean beyond fortunate — only a literal handful of people get these permits each year.
Anyhow, I digress. The Yosemite entrance fee is $35 and we were going to visit the park several times over the course of several days. We also planned to visit nearby Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks during our trip.
That list included a few favorites (Glacier and Bryce Canyon), as well as some ultra-remote parks: Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, and Alaska’s Denali and Kenai Fjords. I also had the tremendous honor of working with two tourism boards in Montana and visiting Yellowstone post-flood.
That doesn’t even account for the national forest campsites (typically, America the Beautiful pass holders get a 50% discount!), recreation areas, or national monuments. It’s money very well-spent.
If you’re a fellow national park geek or you’re looking for a gift for an outdoorsy person, purchasing the National Parks Annual Pass is a no-brainer. It’s also an excellent way to save money on family travel!
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What is the National Parks Annual Pass?
In addition to the 63 national parks, the National Park Annual Pass gets you entry into hundreds of national monuments, national recreation areas, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and more.
While there are some exceptions, a good rule of thumb is that if it has “national” in the name, the America the Beautiful pass will get you in. It even works at many state parks — if the park is in national forest land or part of a national preserve.
The annual parks pass costs $80 annually, although again, there are some exceptions to that. Let’s take a look at some of those exceptions.
America the Beautiful pass variations and costs
National Parks Annual Pass for U.S. Military: Free national park passes are available for all current U.S. military members, as well as their dependents. U.S. military Reserve and National Guard members and their dependents are also eligible.
America the Beautiful Pass for Seniors: U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents who are over the age of 62 qualify for a discounted national park pass. The NPS pass cost for seniors is $20 annually.
Seniors are also eligible for a Lifetime Senior Pass, which costs $80.
NPS Access Pass: U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have permanent disabilities are eligible for a free National Parks annual pass.
Note that you’ll be required to provide documentation of the disability when applying for the NPS Access Pass.
Free National Parks Pass for 4th Graders: For those who enjoy family hiking and exploring The Great Outdoors together, the wonderful Every Kid Outdoors program gives American fourth-graders a free NPS annual pass.
The free national park pass for 4th graders is valid for one school year, from September to August. Home-schooled children are also eligible. Families must first print a paper pass from the Every Kid Outdoors website, then exchange it in person at a national park.
Families should download and print their voucher for a free NPS annual pass, then exchange it in person at a participating national park.
Military Veterans and Gold Star Free Access Program
In 2020, the National Parks Service introduced a new program, the Military Veterans and Gold Star Family Free Access Program.
While it’s not technically a free national parks annual pass, this pseudo-America the Beautiful pass does permanently grant U.S. veterans and Gold Star Families waived entrance fees.
Prior to this program, there was only a free National Park Pass for active-duty military members.
In order to take advantage of this incredible (and much-deserved!) program for a free national parks pass, veterans must present an acceptable form of identification upon entering a participating national park. Those forms of identification include:
- Drivers’ license or identification card with a “Veteran” designation
- Veteran ID card
- Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC)
- Department of Defense Identification Card (CAC Card)
The process for getting a free national parks annual pass is slightly different for Gold Star families, who the USO defines as having “lost an immediate family member in the line of duty of military service.”
Before going to a national park, Gold Star family members must print and sign a special voucher, which must then be presented to a park ranger upon entry. In unstaffed parks, the Gold Star Family Voucher must be clearly displayed on your vehicle dashboard.
Where can you buy a National Parks Annual pass?
Please note that you are not given any temporary credentials; the physical pass comes in the mail. Take this into consideration if you want your new America the Beautiful pass for an upcoming trip.
Hundreds of federal recreation sites also issue annual passes in person.
The extensive list includes many — but not all — national parks and monuments, so be sure to check on your specific destination. We generally buy ours at an actual national park each year, because we like the experience attached to it (not to mention the fact that national parks passes make excellent travel souvenirs!).
- Note that NPS states all annual passes “are non-refundable, non-transferable, cannot be extended, and cannot be replaced if lost or stolen.” I keep mine in my wallet because you just never know when you may end up on a spontaneous road trip through Montana and Wyoming, visiting multiple national parks.
Looking for ways to use your National Park Annual Pass? Check out these awesome things to do near Zion National Park!
I hope this guide to the America the Beautiful pass is helpful!
Which national parks have you been to and which are your favorites? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to pin this guide on the annual national parks pass for later!