This is a question that I am frequently asked by full-time RVers and those that travel part-time or just a couple of times a year. And the answer can really be summed up by asking yourself how many times a year you’ll be using the pass.

National park passes have various prices depending upon certain criteria. For example, there are annual, or lifetime passes available at discounted rates for senior citizens, and free annual passes can be issued for those with disabilities or active duty military personnel.

What are my options when purchasing national park passes?

The National Park Service currently has six different options available when purchasing or obtaining an annual pass or for that qualify a lifetime access pass. These would include the annual pass (free for military personnel), senior pass, access pass, volunteer pass and the lesser known annual 4th grade pass available for those 10 years of age or enrolled in the fourth grade of school.

The Annual Pass

This pass costs $80 annually and is available to all U.S. citizens and those with legal resident alien status, it also allows you to access any national park or property such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Corp of Engineers land, federally owned national forestland or seashores and land operated by the United States Bureau of Reclamation. For the most part, many of these properties can be enjoyed without the burden of paying additional access fees.

With that said, while this pass will cover an access fee to these parks or locations, it’s unlikely that it will cover the cost of camp sites, amenities such as gray or black water tank disposal stations and fresh water. And it certainly won’t supply you with electric or online communications.

The Annual Pass can be obtained one of three ways:

According the USGS these are the guidelines for using your Annual Pass:

  • Annual Passes are not valid without passholder signature.
  • Annual Passes purchased as gifts have two blank signature lines for use by gift recipient.
  • $80 Annual pass plus a $10 handling fee.
  • Valid for one full year from month of purchase (through last day of that month).
  • Allows pass owner and accompanying passengers in a single, private, non-commercial vehicle to enter Federally operated recreation sites across the country.
  • Covers the pass owner and three (3) accompanying adults age 16 and older at sites where per person entrance fees are charged. No entry fee charged for children 15 and under.
  • Photo identification will be required to verify ownership.
  • Passes are non-refundable, non-transferable and cannot be replaced if lost or stolen.

The Annual Pass is free for active duty military U.S. military members and dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard as well as Reserve and National Guard members. However, it can only be obtained in person at a federal recreation site and you must present either Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID (Form 1173).

The Access Pass

This pass is free, but it is only available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Applicants must provide documentation of permanent disability and residency or citizenship. While this pass is free to those who qualify when you visit a location that sells passes, it can also be obtained through the mail using this application form (PDF) though a $10 processing fee will be incurred if you use this method.

This pass generally will not cover or reduce special recreation permit fees or fees charged by concessionaires. However, in some cases Access Pass holders may receive a 50 percent discount on some amenity fees charged for facilities and services such as camping, swimming, boat launching, and specialized interpretive services.

The Volunteer Pass

The pass is available for volunteers with 250 service hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program and anyone interested in obtaining this pass should contact your local federal recreation site for more information about volunteer opportunities or visit Volunteer.gov.

The Senior Pass

The cost of this pass is $80 for lifetime access or $20 annually and is available to any U.S. citizen or person with permanent residency status aged 62 or older. Applicants must provide documentation of age and residency or citizenship.

This pass can be purchased online, in-person or by mail by following the same links listed above for the Annual Pass. However, if you purchase by mail or online an additional processing fee of $10 will be applied.

Just like the Access Pass, the Senior Pass generally will not cover or reduce special recreation permit fees or fees charged by concessioners. However, in some cases Senior Pass holders may receive the same 50 percent discount on some amenity fees charged for facilities and services.

The Annual 4th Grade Pass

This pass is issued free to any U.S. 4th graders (including home-schooled and free-choice learners 10 years of age) with a valid Every Kid Outdoors paper pass. This pass will be valid for the duration of the 4th grade school year though the following summer (September-August).

For more information contact the Every Kid Outdoors website that will issue paper passes. Those passes can be exchanged Annual 4th Grade Pass at federal recreation sites that charge Entrance or Standard Amenity fees (Day Use Fees). However, digital version of the paper pass (such as on smart phones or tablets) will not be accepted to exchange for an Annual 4th Grade Pass.

So, is buying an annual pass worth the money?

In my opinion yes, especially if you are over 62 years of age and are a full-time RVer. Lifetime senior passes are only $80 and a visit to three parks will have made that purchase worth the cost and you’ll never have to pay entrance fees again. Consider the current park fees to the top 13 national parks in the United States:

  • Arches National Park: $30
  • Bryce Canyon National Park: $35
  • Glacier National Park: $35
  • Grand Canyon National Park: $35
  • Grand Teton National Park: $35
  • Joshua Tree National Park: $30
  • Mount Rainier National Park: $30
  • Olympic National Park: $30
  • Rocky Mountain National Park: $35
  • Shenandoah National Park: $30
  • Yellowstone National Park: $35
  • Yosemite National Park: $35
  • Zion National Park: $35

Even if you’re a part-time traveler, depending upon how many parks you plan to visit annually and their cost, it won’t take much time to pay for your annual pass from the savings you’ll gain by not having to pay the fees at the point of entry. Even if you access the same park 3-4 time a year, you’re going to have to pay fees each time you visit so it makes good financial sense to buy an Annual Pass.

Another good option too, is to check with states you may be staying in frequently while you travel or for those of you that may be camping close to home. My home state of Michigan allows people to purchase annual passes to their parks and if you frequent them it’s well worth the cost of an annual pass.

A great way to enjoy this beautiful country of ours is to visit and enjoy our many national and state parks. Some will charge fees, and some won’t, but you won’t be disappointed if you visit some of the treasures. As always folks, thanks for following along and safe travels to you.

You should read a recent article from our friend Lindsey if you’re interested in some free campsites near National Parks.