US National Park Annual Pass – Is It Worth It?

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Do you live in the United States? Are you planning an extravagant road trip around USA as a visitor? Do you love to experience breathtaking scenery? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I would strongly encourage you to consider reading on as we are going to delve into the world of U.S National Parks and experience some of the awesome benefits of an annual pass that may interest you.

Specifically we are going to look at the US National Park annual pass known as a ‘America the Beautiful pass’ and after exploring some of the national parks scattered around USA, you will certainly understand why the term ‘beautiful’ is used to describe this country.

america the beautiful national park annual pass

National Park History

Let’s start by taking a look at a little history into USA’s national park system and also put into context exactly what we are referring to here when discussing the number of protected areas around the country. There are currently 60 of these protected areas located throughout the nation, and they are known as national parks.

National parks and reserves are an integral aspect of intelligent use of natural resources. (John F. Kennedy)

An act of Congress is required for a national park to be denoted in such a manner, and the history of national parks dates back to 1872 when President Ulysees Grant proclaimed Yellowstone as the first such park in the country.

national park annual pass

Heather and I have been very fortunate to explore several of these national parks but of course, there are many more we would like to visit, and this is where the National Park Annual Pass comes in very handy!

What is the National Park Annual Pass?

According to the National Park Series website, the annual pass is your ticket to over 2,000 federal recreation sites. Not only do you gain access to the 60 designated national parks, you are only presented with the opportunity to experience different sites and landmarks around the country.

For only $80, you can experience all of these attractions for a full year from the date of purchase. We will take a look later at the real benefits of this pass and how there are a potential huge cost-savings, but when considering whether this pass is for you, it’s important to understand exactly how this pass works.

arches national park utah

An annual pass covers unlimited entrances for one vehicle into all the designated national parks (and other attractions on the registry list), for a driver and all passengers in the vehicle.

Senior Passes, Military annual passes, and disability passes are also available, so if you fit the criteria of any of these, you should probably check these out before handing over $80.

Key Benefits

1. Cost Savings

Let’s take a look at the major benefit of purchasing a national park annual pass. The cost-savings are potentially astronomical, especially if you are planning on visiting many of the parks on the list within the same year. I can tell you that on our recent road trip to Utah and Arizona, we visited four national parks and immediately saw value for money in the annual pass.

arches national park utah

Many of the ‘famous’ national parks such as the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park are $25 for a vehicle entrance fee. That’s $75 just visiting these three which is feasible given their relatively close proximity to each other. We also added Arches National Park which was another $10 and immediately we had a good return on investment with our purchase.

yosemite national park

You have to figure out exactly how much you intend on using the pass. Do some research on the costs of each of the national parks you plan on visiting. Are you just passing through these national parks in one day? Are you going to stay for a longer period of time? Although many of these national parks are geographically close to each other, the vast area that these landscapes cover make it difficult to see everything you want to.

bryce canyon national park utah

Without a doubt, an America is Beautiful annual pass is a DEFINITE cost-savings if you plan on visiting multiple national parks within a year or purchase. Even if you are not intending on traveling to other parks, after purchasing this pass you will be encouraged to do so. It’s not a bad problem to have, trying to figure out how and when to explore these areas of stunning natural beauty!

2. Ease of Use and Flexibility

All passes can be purchased at the entrance to most national parks. We purchased ours at the Grand Canyon South Rim and it was a really seamless process. You can also find information on the National Park Service website for details about purchasing online or over the phone.

us national park annual pass bryce canyonAfter purchasing the ‘America the Beautiful – the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass’, visitors will be provided with a membership card, parking decal, and information regarding the annual pass.

One of the key benefits of this pass that is frequently missed is the ability to have two co-signers. This allows two different pass holders access and the co-owners do not have to be related. This flexibility can prove to be really beneficial if you have travelers within your family and perhaps one pass will be sufficient for two families if your timing is right.

yosemite national park annual pass

Each time you use this pass, ensure you have a valid photo ID such as your passport or drivers license because this will be required whenever you attempt to enter a national park. Simply hand over your annual pass with your ID to the park ranger and you should be on your way within a few seconds! Our experiences at the entrances were always excellent with the park rangers being extremely friendly and helpful.

3. Enhance Your Wanderlust

Why not take advantage of the national park annual pass to enhance your wanderlust? We have quickly become experts (or should I say seasoned pros!) in weekend travel, so what better way to spend your next weekend getaway than by exploring a national park that is close to you.

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. (Sir. John Lubbock)

National parks offer stunning scenery, gateways to breathtaking beauty and potential sightings of your favorite wildlife. All of this plus it’s an awesome way to get outdoors and away from that 8-5 lifestyle in front of a computer. Hiking some of the trails at the Grand Canyon or even taking a scenic drive through the Zion Canyon tunnel is enough to warrant spending $80.

zion national park utah

One thing is for sure…once you have seen some of the natural beauty offered around the national park system, you will want so much more! And with the national park annual pass, you have nothing to lose.

I don’t think Heather or I needed this extra incentive to travel and explore, but with such great value and such a myriad of parks yet to visit, this just adds to our wanderlust! Are you ready to head out and explore the national park system with us?

grand canyon national park

Map of US National Parks

I thought it may be beneficial to provide you with a full listing of the 59 US national parks, so that you can begin plotting your routes to explore all of these (plus it will prove to be a great reference point for us as we continue to reap the benefits of our national park annual pass).

This list is updated as of 2015, so will likely change in the future as more national parks are designated as such. This is a pretty handy guide to carry around with you to ensure you don’t miss any national parks on your travels around the USA.

us national parks by state

Here is also an interactive map of all the US national parks, those highlighted in blue are the national parks we have currently visited!

Summary

Let’s summarize by answering the question of the title…Is the $80 US national park annual pass worth it? OF COURSE, IT IS! There is no doubt in my mind that all of the positives far outweigh any drawbacks (I can’t think of any apart from possibly the initial outlay of $80) so you have to purchase this annual pass if you are considering visiting national parks.

Exploring USA would not be the same without taking a trip to see Bryce Canyon or the gorgeous Delicate Arch at Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. Whether you are a waterfall aficionado or love to hike the tallest mountains around the nation, ‘America the Beautiful’ is waiting for you, so don’t think twice about purchasing the annual pass that will give you access to all of this and more!

41 COMMENTS

  1. Definitely worth it! We purchased it in May for our trip to Bryce, Zion and The Grand Canyon. We had our son, who lives in Colorado, co-sign and he has already used it at Wind Cave, Badlands and Mt. Rushmore. And we still have 10 months left on it!

  2. Thank you SO much for this guys. I’ve been ogling over your national park posts and photos recently – so desperate to go! Hoping to take off on a huge Canadian/America road trip next year. We would have inevitably ended up paying for each National Park as and when we rocked up…. this will save us a fortune. Great post. Love your blog :).

    Gabby

  3. My hubby and I just did a big swing around the US (on a break from our expat lives in the UK). We only went to two National Parks this time around, but that pass is literally one of the best values in travel. One of the parks we went to was Grand Canyon National Park, and at $30 per car (prices jumped in May), visiting just a few parks would be totally worth it!

    • That’s technology for you 🙂 Apparently it didn’t interpret Yellowstone correctly but I have now updated this. If you spot any others that are way out of line, please let me know! Cheers Chris!

    • Sorry I did not read the threads. Chris I found one more for you….and it is in moderation. Redwood concerned me and yup it is in California but placed slightly above California considerably below the state of Oregon. I would definitely go through them all if it only took me less then 10 min. to find three. It’s a very good resource just needs rechecking. Thank you for your hard work. with much sincerity, Deb g.

      • Deb, thanks so much for the feedback. I have updated all based on your comments and hopefully they should all now be reflecting fairly accurately.

  4. Actually Michigan has four US National Parks, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks, Keweenaw National Historical Park, and Isle Royale.

    • There are technically no national parks in New Jersey as set forth by the National Park Service. There are only 59 protected areas around the United States that are classified as “National Parks” and that is what the map is focusing on. Of course, there are plenty of national park sites and monuments around New Jersey and that is a post for another day 🙂

  5. My family loves the national parks- how can we get an interactive map like you have so we can track our own progress?

    • Hi Sue,

      I am not sure if there is anything out there available but perhaps a quick Google search would find something! This map is actually a plugin that we are using that we embed directly into our website. However, I do have a spreadsheet that someone sent to me that has all national parks and monuments listed and you can keep track of which ones you have visited that way.

      Alternatively, I did find a pretty cool map online that you can print out and then mark on there which ones you have visited. I would love to hear more if you find something though 🙂

    • Agree Terry! The Great Smoky Mountains in both Tennessee and North Carolina are gorgeous and we included them on the interactive map for good reason 🙂 We love exploring this part of the country and can’t wait to go back!

  6. FYI, in case you didn’t know, the National Park Pass is good at all the National Monuments too. Places like Devils Tower, Pompeys Pillar, and many more all waive the entrance fee for the pass as well. The pass is well worth the fee!

    • Thanks Brandi! Yes, there are so many ‘added’ benefits to the Annual Pass. Unfortunately it didn’t work at Mount Rushmore but regardless, it’s still an awesome deal and we will be renewing our pass soon for the next 12 months.

  7. We all know that there are actually over 400 sites managed by the National Park Service, right? The 59 are just those with the designation of National Park.

  8. Great advice, certainly worth the investment as it provides an incentive to keep exploring. I have used it to explore from New Zealand 28 US national parks and hundreds of the other 2000 sites managed by the US National Parks Service. More expensive have been the 18 Canadian National Parks and dozens of provincial parks explored over the last 35 years. I do wish they would introduce some form of loyalty card!

  9. Nearby our home in Pennsylvania is Valley Forge National Park. You really should update your listing, as there are others in PA as well!

    • Laura, thanks for sharing Valley Forge and yes, you are correct there are a large number of “national historic parks” also around the United States that we haven’t included here. Our list is purely those parks classified as “National Parks” designated by the National Park Service. There are distinctive features that differentiate a ‘national park’ and ‘national historic park’ and I believe something as simple as size has an impact on whether an area can be classified as such. You may have just given us another idea though to create some additional lists of other national sites 🙂

  10. As an FYI, the designation of “national park” means absolutely nothing as to the administration and management of the site. All 417 of the “units” (as we call them) of the National Park Service are subject to many of the same rules and regulations. Some though may have different or additional legislated policies to fit the reason its protected, like national recreation areas. All of the different designations are equally important though! Those that are “national parks” must be created by an act of Congress and are usually nationally significant for both cultural and natural resources. A national heritage area, a type of community partnership site, also requires an act of Congress. Other types of sites, like national seashores, national historic parks, national battlefields, national monuments, and many others, may be designated by Congress, but also may be created by an executive order of the President. Hope that helps clarify some of the differences.

  11. Unfortunately your map is inaccurate. The National Parks include over 400 sites! There happens to be 59 that include “national park” in their name, BUT they are not the only national parks by any means. All of the national parks are recognized and part of the program, whether or not National Park is a part of the name.

    • Alicia, I completely agree with you but these are the ones that are designated with National Park status (those 59 that you referenced!) I know it’s a rather confusing area to determine the difference between the official 59 vs the other 400+ and I guess this was created just as a handy guide for the main national parks across the States! I will definitely look into considering putting together something for the 400+ parks.

  12. Does the Park Pass work for everyone in the vehicle. We have a family of six–two adults and four kiddos. Does everyone in the car need one/

    • The National Park pass is for one vehicle so everyone will be covered by one pass which is another great benefit. Let me know if you have any other questions regarding the pass. Thanks so much! Chris

  13. Great article.. just bought one for our trip ahead. What did you come up with as far as the 2000 federal land sites? I’m having a hard time finding examples or what they may include…
    Sean

  14. Thank you so much for all of this! We’re excited to start our trip and I’m glad we’ll save some money because of this pass. I ended up ordering the pass for our trip online (http://www.usparkpass.com/), which worked out well.
    Do you know if some parks have “express” lanes for visitors who already have a pass? I’ve heard the lines can get long in summer.
    Thanks again!

    • Hi Megan,

      This post is focusing on listing the official “national parks” as opposed to “national recreation areas” which I believe Sandy Hook is part of in the Gateway National Recreation Area in NJ.

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