Everything You Need to Know About Annual Passes for National Parks in the USA

Planning a trip to the United States to discover the local national parks? To simplify your visits, the country has put in place a number of formulas to keep costs down and time to the fore. And among these, the annual pass known locally as America the Beautiful (or Interagency Annual Pass), is particularly interesting if you plan to discover different sites.

National parks in the USA

Once you’ve set foot on American soil, you can explore no fewer than 61 national parks. These parks are managed by the NPS (National Park Service), part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. They are spread across 29 states, and 14 of them are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. So much for the general presentation.

Of course, these natural areas offer spectacular scenery, but you can also try your hand at outdoor activities such as camping or rafting, or discover the history of the area.

Visit America’s national parks

There are two ways to visit these major tourist attractions. The first is to buy your entrance ticket directly from the ticket office at the entrance to the chosen park. This ticket is valid for 7 days and must be purchased for each vehicle entering the park. The cost varies between 30 and 35 dollars, depending on the park selected (it should be noted that prices have been rising steeply and regularly of late).

The other option, the one we’re interested in, is the annual pass which, as the name suggests, is valid for one year. If you buy your pass at the beginning of the month, it will be valid until the end of the same month the following year.

You’ll need to spend $80 per vehicle. So yes, it’s expensive if you only want to visit one park during your stay. And, let’s face it, you won’t need to. But if you have several sites in your program, the pass becomes a very good idea. You don’t have to use your pass for consecutive visits. So you can explore one park in May, another in July, and so on for a whole year.

If you want to visit several parks or one of the federal forests, not forgetting the reserves, historic sites or Indian reserves, the pass can be very useful. But before you invest, be sure to check your program. Some places are not covered by this pass. You’ll have to pay to visit them.

This pass includes entry to the chosen location and standard convenience fees. You can visit as many parks as you like, and even return to the same area several times. This pass does not give you access to state parks. You should also be wary, as many Indian reserves are not included in the program (Antelope Canyon or Monument Valley, among others).

To purchase this pass, you can either go to one of the ticket offices at the park entrance or to the Visitor Center. You can also buy it online at UsParkPass.com. However, this solution is both expensive (an additional 25 euros) and impractical. You’ll need to fax in a form (so you’ll need to add this expense).

The Beautiful America pass in detail

If you plan to buy the pass to camp in several national parks, you should know that camping fees are not included. The same applies to visits to specific sites or canoe rentals (these are just a few examples). These facilities can be managed by external private companies. To avoid any unpleasant surprises, be sure to ask beforehand.

Also, this pass is not accepted everywhere. To take a concrete example, areas managed by the U.S. military are not included in this program.

Whether you’re a student, senior citizen or disabled, you won’t get any discount on the price of the pass if you’re not an American citizen.

If the pass is accepted in a park, you may still have to pay extra to obtain a permit, for example. This will be the case if you wish to explore a specific area of Zion Park (such as the Subway or the Wave).

The pass is paid per vehicle. Whether you’re alone or 5 people in the car, the price is the same. Unrelated people are also welcome. When you pass through the park entrances, one of the pass signatories must be present. If you’re in a group divided between several vehicles, you’ll need one pass per vehicle.

If you are on a motorcycle, the pass gives access to two vehicles. You can be two people per motorcycle.

If you choose to visit a park by person rather than by vehicle, the pass will cover 4 people over the age of 16. People under the age of 16 do not pay admission to national parks.

How to use your pass ?

When you buy your pass at the entrance to the site or in the Visitor Center, usually located right next to the main entrance, you’ll be given not only the document, but also a label enabling you to place your pass in plain view in the vehicle, as well as documentation to help you prepare for your visits.

Don’t hesitate to find out exactly where these entrances are located before you go. There may be many of them, and some may not sell passes. Choose those with a visitor center, where you’ll be sure to be able to buy your pass. The pass will be signed by the person in charge of your small group or family.

When you enter a site, you’ll need to present it to the ranger, along with your passport.

In some places, you won’t see anyone checking your pass at the entrance. Be aware that it will still be checked. This may happen, for example, when your vehicle is parked in a parking area. In this case, don’t forget to display your document (the signature and validity date must be visible). You can hang it on the rear-view mirror (with the label) or place it on the dashboard. In all cases, it must be clearly visible. If you’re on a motorcycle, the pass needs to be just as visible, so you can attach it to your handlebars in a pouch, for example.

It’s best not to lose your pass. If you do, your pass will not be refunded. You’ll have to buy a new pass. If, by chance, you forget your pass in your hotel room and buy a new one to enter the desired national park, be aware that you will not be reimbursed. Pass order confirmations, credit card receipts and hangtags are not considered proof of possession.

If you were unable to purchase a pass when you first visited the park (e.g. because it was sold out), you can present proof of purchase when you buy your pass at a later date. The price will be reduced by the cost of the ticket.

If you wish to lend your pass to another person, remember to have them sign the back of the card (there’s space for a second signature). Otherwise, the pass will not be valid for that person, unless you are with them.

It is impossible to resell your pass to a third party.

Where can you go with the America the Beautiful pass?

We’re not going to list all the sites accessible via this pass, as there are far too many (over 2,000). But we can mention a few of the most famous.

You can explore the Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), Blue Mountain Lake (Arkansas), Death Valley, Sequoia Park (California), Grand Mesa (Colorado), the Canaveral site (Florida), Hawaii Volcano Park, Great Basin National Park (Nevada)…

One more thing you need to know: the money raised by the sale of this pass is used to maintain the parks and renovate existing infrastructures (or build new ones).

If you’re planning to explore different national parks (or other sights on American soil), the pass may be a good idea. But you’ll need to plan at least 3 or 4 visits to get the most out of it. There’s no need to go to the trouble of buying a pass in advance: simply pay for it on your first visit to a park. The great American parks are yours for the taking!